TK Burgers refuses to conform to the numbing sameness of a fast-food chain
No one forced me to visit every outlet of TK Burgers, but I did it anyway. And despite bearing a passing resemblance to Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me endeavor, this was purely for pleasure. I didn’t go to write a social commentary or expect some profound revelation about the state of our food culture—and I haven’t. Really, this was just an excuse to eat some good burgers and explore OC’s beloved local hamburger chain beyond its now-iconic Huntington Beach location.
From that post-card-perfect beach scene to the genteel, leafy suburbs of Mission Viejo—where, coincidentally, TK Burgers’ newest branch just opened—my week-long foray took me to all five restaurants. I discovered each to be unique and happily assimilated into the neighborhood in which it resides.
But throughout the chain, unshakeable constants exist. Surf stickers and vinyl album covers will always plaster the ceiling. Framed surf photos of local beaches will always line the walls. Modern rock will blare from stereo speakers. And there is an unwritten TK Burger company rule that dictates that all cashiers must be cute females.
Above all, the owner, Jim Kalatschan, is keen on keeping the food at his slowly growing burger empire consistent. His buns are always sourced from Carson bakery Giuliano’s because the bread there holds its integrity best against moisture. It has a texture that is neither too porous nor too dense. His beef patties, the same thickness as a Quarter Pounder, are never frozen. And the toppings never waver from the time-tested and traditional: house-made Thousand Island, thin-sliced red onion, tomato, pickles and iceberg lettuce.
Even so, slight variations in execution occur among branches, which is to be expected whenever food is prepared to order in the un-regimented, un-assembly-line way that TK’s cooks do. But this proves to be endearing. Conforming to the numbing McSameness of a fast-food chain is not a part of TK Burgers’ soul or fiber.
The Costa Mesa store on Bristol—housed in an A-frame structure and attracting hipsters from the Lab anti-mall nearby—served my patty well-done. The new Mission Viejo branch—shacked up in an old KFC and already frequented by residents of Republican-rich suburbia—cooked it on the pinkish side. Both were full-fisted, juicy sandwiches—burger brothers that weren’t identical twins but shared the same genetic predisposition and hugged, of course, by that milky pillow of the mother bun.
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If you want a great rib-eye sandwich, one of the more premium items, the Newport Beach branch grills the best. Tender and fatty, the steak will make you wonder why we even bother chopping up and reconstituting what is already great sandwich fodder. You do, however, pay a price for the pleasure of eating here. Parking spots are as rare as free seats in the closet-sized dining room. Both are usually claimed by tourists who are mostly unaware that TK Burgers doesn’t offer relish on its burgers (though they ask anyway).
The oddest outpost of the bunch is the second Costa Mesa restaurant, located on 19th Street: It is actually a full-on diner. It’s also the only one that cooks more than burgers. Its breakfast plates put the IHOPs of the world on notice, just as the sandwiches shame McDonalds. French toast comes dusted in cinnamon and is made from eggy bread as thick as an airport paperback. And the huevos rancheros—two eggs on a platform of corn tortilla—is doused with melting cheese and a piquant salsa good enough for the Mexican cooks’ mothers to call their own. The side of Spanish rice and beans is further testament that “buenos días” is the customary way to say “good morning” in this neighborhood lined with Mexican shops and taquerías.
But if you ask me which one I liked best, it’s always going to be the TK in Huntington Beach, and not just because the scenes depicted in those surfing photos unfold in living color just outside the window. This TK Burgers takes command of the deep fryer better than the others, producing crisply browned fries with a perfect 50-50 ratio of exterior crunch and interior fluff. And yes, the crashing waves, squawking sea gulls and the occasional sight of bikini-clad bodies ain’t bad either. Like I said, no one had to put me up to this.
TK Burgers, 110 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 960-3238; 2966 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 662-2572; 615 W 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 548-2858; 24902 Chrisanta Dr., Mission Viejo, (949) 588-7200; 2119 W Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 673-3438; www.tkburgers.com. Check website for hours. Sandwiches and burgers, $3.99-$5.99.