Burger Safari

Photo by James BunoanIn 1999, Viliumas Malinauskas opened a Lithuanian theme park to honor the Baltic nation's Soviet past. Critics dubbed it Stalin World, and the unlikely idea proved popular—organizers estimate 200,000 tourists per year walk among bronzed statues of Communist leaders, climb into prison watchtowers and feel the prick of barbed wire. Malinauskas described his park as “combin[ing] the charms of a Disneyland with the worst of the Soviet gulag prison camp.”

I think of Stalin World whenever I visit Norman Rockwell-inspired burger joints. Like Lithuanians longing for the stability of the Soviets, we come to these culinary theme parks for the food and for their simulacrum—the ground beef well-done with a side of amnesia. The 1950s is the decade Republicans treasure most: they ruled Congress and the Oval Office; women and minorities had returned to their life stations after the teasing glimpse of freedom offered by the war against fascism. Ask a conservative for the ideal America, and he's likely to point to the 1950s.

AmericanGraffitiand its TV spinoff, HappyDays, replayed the 1950s for new generations, consciously eliding the civil rights movement, the beatniks, the Korean War and the McCarthyism that would yield a bumper crop of tumult in the 1960s. Restaurants popped up in homage to the film's legendary Mel's Drive-In, adding roller-skating waitresses, tabletop jukeboxes and Elvises and Marilyns at each booth. The result is a decade we all want to live in—or, at least, eat in. It's safe.

Orange County, where sanitizing and repackaging history for mass consumption is big business—Disneyland, Knott's, the Nixon Library—seems an ideal place for such edible kitsch. But we don't need it. County residents keep many bona fide burger stands hopping, grilling oases like Angelo's in Anaheim, Dairy Treet over in Orange or Volcano Burgers out in Los Alamitos.

But for folks who insist on a side of Bobby Vee with their onion rings, two great local eateries continue the carhop motif. The gaudier of these is BravoBurgers(19102 BeachBlvd.,HuntingtonBeach,714-968-9880). A life-size Elvis statue, legs akimbo, anchors the main dining room. Red-vinyl booths surround the King, and multiple portraits of the same tired rebel icons (Dean, Brando and Bogart) line the walls along with a gallery of photos of the folks who drive out here in their Bugs every Thursday for Volkswagen Night. The music is the K-Earth playlist.

This atmosphere annoys me, but I return for the grub. Bravo's burgers are sticky with Thousand Island dressing and buttressed by toasted buns that hold a sublime grilled patty. It's messier (and better) when topped off with Bravo's monumental chili: cheesy, meaty and smoky. Other sandwiches are available—mayo-heavy club sandwich this, greasy bacon burger that, even a game attempt at a chicken gyro—but in this county's proud melting pot, few things approach that icon of culinary fusion, Bravo's pastrami quesadilla. The tortillas are muchobig and thick with sour cream, guacamole, lettuce, gooey Jack and salty pastrami hunks. Don't eat more than one slice at a sitting. A friend ate just one and a half and then began whimpering—and maybe hallucinating: “Elvis is scary and might walk,” he yelled.

Elvis also stands sentry at BristolBurgers(2640 S.BristolSt.,SantaAna,714-241-7166). This restaurant isn't so laden with hot-rod artifacts as Bravo Burgers; the campiness is limited to two tables shaped like hot rods, leopard- and tiger-print cushions, and the glossies of stars, ranging from Dean Martin to Pierce Brosnan, that ring the room.

Bristol's to-go menu features a picture of classic cars parked outside, and indeed this was once the center of cruising culture—until a few years ago, when Santa Ana's finest began chaining off Bristol Street around Bristol Burgers at night to discourage Latino kids from emulating the 1950s.

Cops still crack down on cruisers, but why drive around slowly in circles? Inside is Bristol's Monster Burger: three patties topped with buttery avocado, fatty bacon, crunchy lettuce and onions, and two slices of Cheddar. Make sure to top off the burger with splashes of Tapatío and pickled jalapeño slices. A close rival is Bristol's pork tamale covered in sweet chili beans, a surprisingly appetizing combination of spice and sweetness and warmth.

Honorable mention goes out to RoadsideBurger(513 N.HarborBlvd.,Fullerton,714-871-0040). Though it bills itself as a tribute to Route 66, Roadside is just too good. Its burgers—well-wrapped and slightly bigger and tastier (and more expensive) than your typical burger dive—are a tad too gourmet for true shack consideration.

Still, the nostalgia at Roadside is all about the location: across the street is the historic Fox Theater. When that majestic building opens its doors anew, patrons will likely cross the street to share a malt with their beloved, and the curtain will rise on another scene in our American play. Onion rings are extra.

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