Some local dishes, as fanatical a cult as they might inspire, simply never travel. For every Kogi Korean taco knockoff, there is a Mexican-style teriyaki bowl washed down with horchata that's the obsession of every second-generation Mexican in Santa Ana and Anaheim and nowhere else. Balut will never appear outside Little Saigon or Filipino markets, just like the date shake never really travels from the coast and rhubarb pie remains the domain of restaurants at which the median age is 55.
And then we get to the strips and cheese at Sammy's Burgers, perhaps the grossest intentional meal offered in Orange County. But before I knock down that monstrosity, let me emphasize that this Huntington Beach dive is a keeper. Its fat burgers automatically come with grilled onions, which sink into a sea of Thousand Island dressing held together by a firm patty. Pastrami is finely shaved and crisp; breakfast burritos actually go down well; the hot dogs remain as delicious as when Sammy's was on Beach back in the 1990s. It's Huntington Beach at its most idealistic—vague surfer theme jumping between American and Mexican classics, with K-Earth on the radio and energy drinks sold by the case.
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The one anomaly, however, is the aforementioned strips and cheese—tortilla chips bathed in enchilada sauce, then topped with shredded Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses. Did I mention the latter two ingredients are cold, the sauce is canned and the chips just out of a bag? There is nothing redeeming about this dish, not even in an ironic way, in an appreciative vein that allows history-minded eaters to enjoy Cal-Mex combo plates as artifacts of a bygone era instead of cheese-baked cholesterol bombs. Even asking for the strips and cheese (long served by the late, great Jose McCoy's) heated, so the cheese melts and releases flavors only minimally improves the meal. Burying it under mounds of pickled jalapeños? Another negligible uptick. The chips are stale, the canned salsa downright disgusting (couldn't they at least use El Pato salsa instead of something that tastes as if it were produced during the era of canned tortillas?), the cheese uninspiring.
Yet when you visit Sammy's, all the tables have them. The ones with high schoolers and retirees, the tables of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, adults and children, all proud Surf City residents who consider strips and cheese as essential to their civic identity as the Pier and the Fourth of July parade. So, have the strips and cheese once to better understand the HB mentality, the culinary psychosis we'll tolerate for nostalgia and hometown pride.
This column appeared in print as "The Vilest, Most Loved Dish In OC."