This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Native foods. Photo by Amy Theilig

Laguna Beach's Endless Summer is almost done. The Boom Boom Room—soon to be gone, just like the Pottery Shack. Steamrollers and tractors cut through the meadows to expand Laguna Canyon Road. The Irvine Company grades more hills around Crystal Cove and Newport Coast Drive, even as a sign near the city's entrance thanks the corporation for keeping the city's hills pristine "forever." Ruby's now runs the Crystal Cove Shake Shack. The Laguna Beach Greeter smiles from behind a fence. New mansions go up, and the artists and crazies that made Laguna Beach an anomaly along the county's coast leave for cheaper grounds.

Safe—for now—is Penguin Cafe, the type of diner only a native could love. Penguin everything decorates the restaurant—clocks, statues, paintings, pictures, a snapshot of a penguin statue. Penguin Cafe is tiny—a couple of tables and a vintage 1950s-style counter upon which mini-jukeboxes pulsate with Elvis tunes—and always crowded with longtime Lagunans. They chow down on home-style cuisine, meals frowned upon in this city of hippie-friendly eateries and high-priced buzz spots. Omelets and burritos; biscuits and gravy; sandwiches, shakes, vanilla Coke; even a couple of Mexican dishes—everything at Penguin Cafe is unpretentious, unhealthy, but so comforting.

Whenever I visit Penguin Cafe, though, I always order the same item: the Penguin Burger combo, a half-pound burger sparsely decorated with lettuce, pickles, a tomato and a glorious patty. A side of Thousand Island dressing is on the side; thin, crispy fries come as well. The Penguin Burger seems unremarkable, something you can grill in your back yard, but this is the sweetest burger around: a luscious, massive pillow of juice. The half-pound burger tastes as if a slight wisp of cinnamon or sugar—can't decide which—tops the fatty, glistening slab of beef. A squeeze of the house salsa—more relish than fire—adds another layer of sweetness, along with a dab of Thousand Island dressing and the glowing sesame seed bun. The pickle slices lend tartness to create Man's perfect burger—you don't even need to squirt ketchup or mustard on the Penguin Burger. Simple, retrograde, cheap, fulfilling—The Penguin Burger sums up its 30-year home, an oasis from the barbarians at the gate.

PENGUIN CAFE, 981 S. COAST HWY., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 494-1353.

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Penguin Cafe

981 S. Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651


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