The much-anticipated second location of Riders Club Café has finally opened its doors in a San Juan Capistrano strip mall--but does it live up to its burger-slinging legacy? Yes and no. The menu, apart from the addition of (slightly too salty) fries, is identical in offerings and prices to its tiny shack predecessor--and that's fine.
There's no need to expand on the limited selection of burgers, sandwiches and the lone yet bountiful chicken club salad. To do so would dishonor the joint's simple but "damn fine" approach to food.
A solid selection of beers on tap, cut down to a measly $3 during happy hour, still stands up to ridiculously juicy and cheese-oozing burgers. Old timey sodas like Faygo and bottled coke still sell for $2-ish a pop. Marinated beets, in all their lightly spiced and palate cleansing glory, are still free side orders. The service is friendly, perhaps even friendlier than in San Clemente. Patrons still cram the still small (though not shack-small) dining room. The parking is still inadequate for the restaurant's draw.
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In a sense, San Juan Capistrano-ans are lucky. Their commute to a beautifully seared, salt-and-peppered beef burger has been greatly reduced. They don't have to brave the traffic of the 5 or PCH to order a beef burger that recalls the flavors of French onion soup with its grilled onions and Muenster cheese topping--a wad of which comes so thick and melty it thoroughly blankets the patty. They can experience the piquant snap of the burger's spread, complemented by fresh mixed greens and tangy, lightly-pickled cucumbers, and steer clear of San Clemente's beach crowds. They can guzzle a $5 (or $3 during happy hour) nut brown ale alongside an obscenely satisfying burger and still get home to tuck their kids into bed--okay, maybe the drive wasn't that bad.
And yet, there's a tradeoff: The second location has lost some of the original Riders Club Café's charm. No longer does it occupy a tiny, griddle-smelling shack and hold the distinction of a well-kept South County secret. Where the original location offered just as much outdoor seating as indoor (which isn't much either way), the new location limits seating to a drab, sports bar-like interior. While the original location calls neighbors the beach town buildings that dot San Clemente's El Camino Real, the second location shares a wall with a nail salon called Bella Nails. You can't enjoy your burger in the salty, sea air-filled sunshine with palm trees lining your view. In short, you're deprived of the romantic California experience.
All this is inevitable, really. You can't replicate a true burger shack without it coming off as contrived, so why try? It's likely the shack was only the humble beginnings of what will hopefully--for the sake of burger eaters everywhere and the restaurant's owner--grow into a chain of Riders Club Cafés. All that really matters is that they keep their focus on the damn fine simplicity of a well-made burger--or medium well, if that's your thing.
27221 Ortega Hwy. San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675. (949) 429-1533. http://www.ridersclubcafe.com/