Mile for mile, the Garden Grove Freeway has more roadside attractions than any other major highway in Orange County. There’s the Crystal Cathedral, the massive inflatable gorilla that migrates from car dealer to car dealer as they close, those tacky bas-relief pillars lionizing our long-gone citrus industry. And there’s the plume of smoke that constantly billows from Harry’s Place—sometimes white, sometimes black, visible for miles, signifying not the election results of a papal conclave but another order of some greasy foodstuff.
Harry’s is one of those 1970s-era burger joints whose only attempt at evolution has been adding Americanized ethnic dishes (gyros, teriyaki, Mexican) to an already-encyclopedic menu; everything else is stubbornly retro, from the faux-wood paneling to the faded sign visible from the 22, with a font scheme straight from a Doobie Brothers album cover. It still whips up a fresh batch of chili every day, even though the Tex-Mex dish nowadays exists more on the festival circuit than as the daily foodstuff it was for generations. And a dinner plate still comes with fries, a rock-hard roll and a salad that seems created from whatever was left in the crisper—a combo that hasn’t changed since the Carter administration. But while so much is outdated, the place still offers skill and craft—and pastrami burgers.
A bit of food trivia: Did you know that Utah residents obsess over pastrami burgers? And that a family of Greeks originally from Anaheim introduced the combo to the Beehive State? Yet the pastrami burger never became part of the local culinary lingua franca; the dish is perhaps too heavy for our tastes. A bite into Harry’s rendition of it, however, will convince you burgers shouldn’t come any other way (except slathered in green chile, but that’s another review). Cooks take the basic Harry’s burger—slightly toasted sesame bun, with enough char on the seeds to draw out their smokiness; grilled patty; crunchy iceberg lettuce; and too much Thousand Island dressing—and slap on pastrami bits. They’re carefully shaved, each wispy, crunchy, salty. The interplay among the tartness of the dressing, the bun’s earthiness, the juicy patty and those multiple pastrami strips is a tango for which the burger exists: a different taste bud tickled with every bite.
The rest of Harry’s menu works if you want a big, cheap meal. The surf-and-turf dinner of rib-eye and shrimp clocks in at just above $10, and that same lean-steak option pops up for breakfast, served alongside three eggs. You can spend one day each week for a year and barely dent the menu. Gourmet? No—just beautiful, retro Orange County. Next time you’re on the 22, look for that plume of smoke and feel Pavlov’s experiment prove itself anew.
Harry’s Place, 7181 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 895-9745.
This column appeared in print as “Don’t be Wary of Harry’s.”