Game of Burgers: Dominion of Diners, First Round!

Let's get down to it shall we? My first round has four battles between eight contenders in the division we're calling the Dominion of Diners. We have Pee Wee's versus Red Robin; Memphis versus The Catch; Mick's Karma Bar versus The Rider's Club; Yellow Basket versus A's Burgers.

So without further ado, Pee Wee's and Red Robin: come to the arena!

Pee Wee's vs. Red Robin

As many of you readers know, I actually like the Red Robin chain and hold one of those loyalty cards that entitles me to a free burger on my birthday. So when the preliminary list was floated around and I didn't see Red Robin on the roster, I begged, pleaded, and cajoled.

Gustavo finally relented. “Okay! Wow, you really love Red Robin!” he said. Yes, I did. And it's because of one burger in particular: the Royal Red Robin Burger, which is, in my opinion, the greatest application of a fried egg and bacon to a sandwich since the Egg McMuffin. But for this tourney, I would have to leave my beloved egg, bacon and beef burger unordered. I needed to be fair about what I chose to pit against Pee Wee's.

It was already a bizarre the match-up anyway: a mom-n-pop hole-in-the-wall against a national chain with a loyalty program. So I had to make it even; I would order the most standard model of burger at Red Robin.

In ordering this basic cheeseburger, I discovered that the egg and bacon in my beloved Royal Red Robin Burger really amounted to a lot. What's more, I found out that, on its own, the cheeseburger was too overladen with too much mayo, too much ketchup, too much mustard. All that superfluous moisture invaded the bread, threatening to disintegrate it between my fingers before the burger was even half done.

The meat, tomato, red onion and lettuce, are proportioned well, but were all drowning in all that wet stuff. Though still bigger and thicker than most, the patty was somehow thinner than I remember. I began to wonder whether the egg and bacon in the Royal Red Robin Burger was so distracting that it blinded me to the sauce excesses and the ordinariness of their standard burgers. The fries, it must be said, are still great–so hot and freshly fried it never fails to singe my palate, and of course, it's bottomless even though I've really never needed more than the first serving.

It goes without saying that Pee Wee's is the polar opposite of Red Robin. It looks like what Wahoo's Fish Taco might have looked like back in the day–a scruffy little room with not much to look at save for a smattering of haphazardly arranged surf posters and two mounted surf boards that's actually for sale. If the place didn't already suggest a hang-loose attitude, the dudes behind the counter making your dogs and burgers look like surfers who seem more interested on making the food than trying to dress up Pee Wee's to be more than it is. Their focus is evidenced on their menu. Though its mostly just dogs and burgers, the list is surprising worldly. They offer burgers with the beloved New Mexican hatch chile, a Little Saigon-inspired banh mi burger, and a hot dog wrapped in bacon tucked into a bollilo roll.

Again, I asked for their no-frills, basic model. Here it's called the “Signature burger.” It turned out to be the closest facsimile to In-N-Out's burger than anything I've ever seen. The bun is the same, if just a degree bigger in diameter and toasted on grates rather than a griddle. And though the sauce is slathered on the top half of the burger between the meat and the bun rather than on the bottom half with the lettuce and tomato, it's got almost the same flavor, almost the same feel of an In-N-Out burger. What this is was a typical California-style burger. If there was one glaring difference it's that the beef patty is thicker, easily three times as meaty as In-N-Out's, and able to be cooked to any temperature you want. But key to this burger is balance. The sauce isn't over-applied; the tomatoes, lettuce and onion complement, not overpowering. And there's a certain integrity that the burger maintains, bite after bite. Compared to Red Robin's oversauced and ultimately soggy sandwich, Pee Wee's triumphs.

WINNER: Pee Wee's.  Next up: Memphis vs. The Catch!


Memphis vs. The Catch

Memphis is a favorite of this infernal rag. Heck, it's also a personal favorite of mine, though not for the burger. Until now, I've never had the burger. Ask me what to get a Memphis and I'll steer you to the fried chicken with the collard greens, the Indian fry bread, and the fried okra, but never the burger. That changes today. Their “soul burger” is a very good one–an estimable ground beef sandwich that deserves respect even if it is a little hipster. How can a burger can be hipster? I don't know. But if it could, it'd look like this. It would have the pickles cut from cucumbers sliced lengthwise along its axis. And the bun wouldn't be grilled on just one side, but on all sides. Even the top surface charred as if were trying to do what Umami does with its bun-branding across the street. And I swear there was a mint leaf in my burger. It was just one, so it could've been there by accident–maybe just salad shrapnel. But then again, it worked, so maybe they should put it on there on purpose from now on along with the other greens that looked like it might belong in a more frou-frou meal than this.

And though I asked for medium, the burger was well-done, not a trace of pink anywhere, but still juicy, thank goodness.

This might have to do with the fact that the patty is obviously hand-formed. It existed in an amoeba-like amorphousness, but there was an apparent lack of seasoning. But that's where the tomatoes, pickles, cheese, the thousand-island-like slather of sauce made up the difference. It even corrected another problem: the bun is too thick and perhaps too hearty for this burger. Like a pillow, it muffled and almost smothered the beef from breathing.

The Catch, it must be said, is not like Memphis. The hipsters are replaced with Angel fans, often rowdy ones, and drunk ones. You might ask why we put The Catch in the diner category. Well, because, it didn't fit anywhere else. But know this: The Catch is not a diner. It is a sprawling sports bar with enough room for five Memphises.

The waitresses here are buxom and wear uniforms that highlight their buxomness. The burger, as you can see by the picture, emulate that. It is a large burger. Very thick, very tall, very well-seasoned. The patty is the complete opposite of Memphis'. It was just one shake shy of being oversalted. Yet this one also suffered from a bun that was just a little too much. Though it is a very large burger, there's still an excess of bun. Somehow the bread seems to overcompensate and blots out the good graces of the seasoned patty. Can a bun be too resilient for a burger this size? I didn't think it could, but it was. And for once, there wasn't enough sauce or escaping juices to balance the Stay-Puft presence of the bun.

Because of the shared bun issues, this one is a close call; but ultimately the prize goes to the better overall burger.

WINNER: Memphis. Next up: Mick's Karma Bar vs. The Rider's Club!

Mick's Karma Bar vs. The Rider's Club 

What you see at Mick's Karma Bar is burger destiny fulfilled. The current owners of Kitima bought the Thai restaurant from a Thai family a few years ago, and then opened Mick's Karma Bar as a juice bar as an addendum. The burger was thrown into the menu as an afterthought. It would use the trimmings of sirloin they used for the beef panang, hand-formed of course. But then something happened. The burgers took on a life of its own. No one wanted the fruit smoothies. Everyone wanted the burgers. Pretty soon the juice bar idea was jettisoned because it took resources away from the production of the burgers. These days the lines form early, and the demand for the burgers has even eclipsed the Thai restaurant that birthed it.

As I said in an earlier post, if I made a burger, it might look like this, but that's kidding myself. My burgers could never taste this good. The patty is formed into loose, thick and generous portions–juicy but lean. It often extends past the perimeter of the bun, and is tender, falling apart and well-seared. The lettuce is leaf, not iceberg, and supplied in a generous wad that answers the richness of the meat and cheese bite-for-crispy-bite. The onion is red instead of brown; the tomatoes perky and sliced thick. And there's the brioche bun, which has some integrity to the crust. The surface shines and feels almost rigid and liquid-proof, like a bagel, yet the crumb is sweet and just yielding enough so that in every chomp, sauces and juices mingle, the bread soaking in it, but never turning soggy.

There's still some mystery to this burger. The “karma sauce” they've spread onto the bottom bun is not unlike the secret sauce other places safeguard as if we didn't know it's actually Thousand Island. But this one isn't Thousand Island. It aims for the same sweet spot, yet there's just a slight suggestion of spice. You see the red flecks of chili flakes, but it doesn't overpower. And there's a little bit of shredded cabbage involved, which is worked into the mix to contribute additional texture. And when you get the burger combo, which is very reasonably priced, you are entitled to any drink they produce, including a very good strawberry and basil lemonade, and a heap of steak fries served hot and crisp.

By contrast, Rider's Club was conceived to serve burgers. As I wrote earlier, 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 has one purpose in mind: to cook you a damn-fine burger. No fries can be had here, just store bought chips that are included in every order.

The most basic burger comes with onions either fresh or grilled, some pickles, a smear of house spread, and loose mixed greens that's also used for the club salad. Opt for a slice of cheese and your still-hissing burger gets whisked from the griddle onto a pie tin and slid into a salamander broiler for the cheese to melt and drape the sides, resembling slow-moving lava. 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. As I mentioned, the salad greens substitute for lettuce and it's exactly the thing to complement the patty. Tomato is famously shunned here; The Rider's Club's owners refuse to put a tomato on their burger. It doesn't need it. More essential to the success of the burger is the flavor of a mustard-based spread.

This is a very good burger, gushing juice, satisfying in every way that a burger should be satisfying. If I had to pick two of the best burgers from my list of eight, The Rider's Club burger would float above all the others and join Mick's Karma Bar as co-victors. But alas, since I have to pick one to move on, the winner is Mick's.

WINNER: Mick's Karma Bar. Next up: Yellow Basket vs. A's Burgers


Yellow Basket vs. A's Burgers

At Yellow Basket, the burgers are as basic as the surroundings. Your fellow diners have the sweat of the workday on their foreheads and grime underneath their fingernails. Yellow Basket is sustenance, pure, cheap, and simple. The thin Quarter Pounder-like patty–probably sourced from the same supplier as any corner diner named Joe's or Bill's–is cooked to whatever the short-order cooks feels like that day, but most likely well-done.

The sesame-seeded bun seems the same as every other fast food joint, too; but the execution is better. They're toasted not in one of those conveyor belt contraptions, but buttered and laid cut-face down on the same griddle that sears the meat. Tomatoes are sliced thick, becoming the predominant flavor and the primary source of the dripping juices. Shredded iceberg lettuce and onions cut into thin segments are sprinkled not too judiciously. But an excess of Thousand Island threatens to upend the balance. Both the top and bottom bun are over-slathered with it. What drips off becomes fodder for the fries, which, by the way, are really, really good here, and included in the $4.99 burger combo along with a soft drink.

The potatoes possess the perfect ratio of crunch to fluff. That the crispiness endures from the moment you start on your burger until the last sip of soda is drunk confirms their greatness.

In a lot of ways, A's is very much like Yellow Basket. They're both, for a lack of a better term, closer to greasy spoon than a diner. There's burritos on the menu and the most popular item other than the burger combos is the fried zucchini sticks. In my opinion, if you don't order the fried zucchini, you're missing the point of visiting A's or Yellow Basket. Both serve it in amounts so unreasonably large it makes you wonder if they care about profit margins or have any clue what a normal-sized human can conceivably consume .

As the A's in San Juan Capistrano is closed due to a fire, the Dana Point is currently the only A's in operation, but oh what an operation. Benches, bonafide picnic ones that you would expect to see at your local beach park, function as seats. You feel as though you're eating a drive-in or some roadside shack that happens to be indoors with a roof and surrounding walls.

At A's there are more surfers than factory workers, and people generally seem more cheerful since they're more likely headed somewhere fun, not the night shift. The burgers at A's is work-a-day though, quite similar to Yellow Basket in execution. The patty is just as thin, but the bun is not sesame-seeded. It is however toasted so that the rim is crunchy, not unlike the way In-N-Out does it.

Mayo is the only semblance of sauce and it's applied on the side with the shredded lettuce and tomato. There's a few pickle coins and some thinly sliced white onions, and I liked it just slightly better than Yellow Basket's simply because it's not overwhelmed with sauce. You can taste the burger as a whole here; bread, meat and veg equally contributing its share of flavors. A's also has more rustic and better (if only just by a small margin) fried zucchini, which makes them the victor two times over.

WINNER: A's Burgers.

With that, Day Two of our Game of Burgers has concluded. Bracket is updated below. Tomorrow: Shuji and his Gastropub Gentry, Round One!

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