When I re-evaluate the best burgers I've eaten in my life, the most memorable are usually from dives, greasy spoons, places where I can see, smell and hear beef patties sizzle on a grill, and the griddle is just a French fry toss away. It was like that the first time I had a TK Burger at its original location on PCH, in a shack not much bigger than a garden shed. The few tables it had surrounded the kitchen in a room so small it would probably have to be evacuated if the ventilation system ever crapped out. TK Burger has since grown and expanded to bigger and some would say better stores elsewhere. But I still trek to that seminal location to sit elbow-to-elbow with surfers, all of us inhaling the atomized beef fumes and rubbing our hands until our oh-so-fresh burgers are delivered hot.
The Riders Club reminds me of the first TK Burger and joints just like it. It's tiny and modest not because it necessarily wants to be, but because it has to start somewhere. You walk into this roughly stuccoed, one-roomed hut and immediately see, smell and hear the burgers sputtering on a griddle. Your mouth waters at all that it promises. The place used to be a taquería and can fit snugly into one corner of a modern In-N-Out restaurant with space to spare, but everything about it—from the dead-simple layout of the kitchen to the tight cluster of beer taps next to the cashier to the hanging key for the outdoor restrooms—are reassuring reminders the place was conceived with a singular purpose in mind: to cook you a damn-fine burger. Distractions here are few. The menu is scribbled in chalk on a diminutive blackboard and not visible until you get to the front of the line.
The most basic burger comes with onions either fresh or grilled, some pickles, a smear of house spread, and loose mixed greens also used for the club salad. But no one gets a burger without one or more of the extras, be it cheese, bacon, avocado, an egg fried to any degree of runniness, sautéed mushrooms or roasted pasilla peppers. American cheese isn't an option, but it isn't missed given the United Nations-worthy offerings of goat, blue, Havarti, Cheddar, Swiss and Muenster. They gild your meat, whether it's beef, chicken or not meat at all, if you opt for a quinoa patty or the grilled portobello. Ask for a slice of Swiss, as I did, and your still-hissing burger gets whisked onto a pie tin and slid into a salamander broiler for the cheese to melt and drape the sides, resembling slow-moving lava.
The Riders Club Cafe, www.ridersclubcafe.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $16-$24, food only. Beer and wine.
Ridge-covered chips are complimentary and are the crunch contrast to a burger gushing juice and sauce. It's wise the place doesn't bother with fries; instead, all effort is focused on making the burgers hot, messy, greasy and dripping, everything you want and expect from a joint such as this. The bun is a dark-hued mahogany, its dome shape softly pliant, but with just enough integrity to not succumb to the hot, steamy excesses of its cargo. And there's the burger patty itself, seared so crisp where protein met hot steel that it crunches between your teeth while the core is still cooked exactly to medium.
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Endearing you to the place even more are the thimbles of house-made, diced pickled beets, a palate-cleansing antidote that works just as well or better than any schooner of beer poured from the taps. Even the carnitas sandwich comes with a sampler of beets, but it doesn't need it. The second-best sandwich at Riders Club is grand and epic on its own scale, with fistfuls of roasted pork fallen into shreds both crispy and moist; it's so good it's worthy of a lonchera. And because of the fresh jalapeños, cilantro and shredded carrots, it also proves the Mexican torta and the Vietnamese bánh mì can sire an offspring with all of its flavors living harmoniously under a bun.
If the carnitas sandwich can inspire a spin-off someday, so can the hot dogs that come two to an order, spackled with an onion relish so fruity, tart and sugary you could almost do without the wiener. I've not yet tried the single offering of salad, but I think I might next time. I saw our cashier have one for dinner with her date, who waited patiently in a corner after the line died down. If there's something more convincing than seeing your burgers cooked in front of you, it's seeing a staff member ordering a dish you'd never order on your own.
This review appeared in print as "Back to Basics: The Riders Club Cafe in San Clemente makes a damn-fine burger."