The big culinary story in Orange County the past couple of weeks has been the debut of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, an East Coast favorite frequently compared to In-N-Out. But it’s not even close: While the chain makes a good burger, it’s not a great one. It doesn’t compare to In-N-Out, TK’s, Memphis, or even Carl’s Jr. in its heyday. Give me our local renditions over the invaders. Give me the creations of local burger dives. Give me places decades old, with booths dating back to the Carter administration and faded Little League commemorative plaques in favor of foreign franchises. Give me Apollo Burger in Garden Grove.
Here are authentic, non-buzz crowds, composed of the curious demographic mix that inhabits northeastern Garden Grove: white retirees and cholos, Vietnamese and Mexican teens coming back from an afternoon at the basketball courts, Filipino families, burly Samoans ready for dinner before heading off to church, stragglers from the nearby Anaheim Convention Center, and the occasional bewildered tourist. The menu is like any other old-time burger stand, featuring the ancient (steak sandwiches, gyros), the modern (tacos, burritos) and the eternal (Orange Bang! on tap, French fries as thick as an index finger and more golden than a Twinkie). Everyone orders hamburgers, usually the double cheeseburger: sesame bun crispy on the inside, soft on the outside, a condition made possible by keeping the buns on the edges of the griddle until someone orders. And the meat—charbroiled, juicy, recipient of more smoke than a brush fire, always hanging about half-an-inch off the bread—is the type of patty upon which previous generations of burger barons created empires.
But let us now praise the chili cheeseburger, a study in what austerity can accomplish. It consists of the bun, the patty, shredded Cheddar cheese and a massive glop of chili. Four levels of sweetness—the grilled bun, the charred beef, the melted cheese and the sugary chili—blend into one another, along with an avalanche of umami. It’s a big burger—and a relatively cheap one. Ask for a double bacon cheeseburger, get the chili on the side, and dunk it as you would a French dip—working-class haute cuisine.
No matter what else you select, ask for fried mushrooms or onion rings. Top the massive orders with the condiment of your tribe—Sriracha, ketchup, A.1. Sauce, Tapatio, Tabasco, even pickled Italian peppers are all available. Better yet, mix them all up and enjoy the true OC, not some Back East pretender.
Apollo Burgers, 12012 W. Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 971-0825.
This column appeared in print as “The Real Double-Double Deal.”