Don't let the goofy, bright-orange T-shirt emblazoned with “I'm Juicy” deceive you. The man who wears it while serving your burgers at Burger Parlor in Fullerton isn't some hipster pendejo, but rather Joseph Mahon, a CIA-trained cook who has worked with Daniel Boulud in New York and David Myers in LA and was previously the chef at Bastide. But most important: Burger Parlor is Mahon's OC homecoming. An alumnus of La Habra's Sonora High, he knew he wanted to cook since the age of 16 but had to flee our then-bland terrain.
Why Fullerton? And why burgers? For Mahon, cooking is an itch. The idea of a restaurant seems just a means to an end. He used to host dinner parties, clearing out space in his living room to make way for 35 guests. A previous project was Magnum, a pop-up restaurant that allowed him to make food from borrowed kitchens throughout LA. And now, for four nights a week in this rented space at Rialto Café, Mahon is doing to burgers what Ludo Lefebvre, another itinerant LA chef, has done with fried chicken—transforming the ordinary into fabulousness.
One night, several LA food bloggers toting expensive cameras mobbed the place as though they owned it. Clearly, they knew what Mahon can do with ground beef and a bun. During his Bastide stint, he did Burger Mondays; now, he does burgers exclusively. These are the kind whose effects stay with you for days; you can tell they're good and greasy even before you touch them. Despite a long list of toppings, Mahon constructs all his burgers to fit snugly inside your grip and serves them on paper-lined pie tins with a thick pickle cut crosswise. His aren't the type to reach dizzying altitudes like those found at the Counter; Mahon's restraint is his burgers' virtue. The sweet, griddle-toasted buns are lacquered by that which spatters from his sizzling patties.
For a burger he named after himself, Mahon slices pastrami into thin matchsticks as a flavor component for the burger, rather than a competing protein. Pickles are diced into micro-cubes and blend seamlessly into the grain-mustard sauce slathered onto the bottom bun. In a—Simpsons alert!—steamed ham he calls the Chip Shot, he sprinkles what appear to be Lay's potato chips over the top of a loosely packed patty already embellished with cheese, arugula, tomato confit and mushrooms. That's right: potato chips.
Every Burger Parlor offering is different, with one constant: the prodigious use of cheese. Each offering here is automatically a cheeseburger, but Mahon seems to not use the same cheese twice. Fontina drips off the sides in lava-lamp globules of one sandwich; from another, mozzarella stretches in webs after you bite into a breaded square that looks like a Filet-O-Fish. That sandwich, called the Lasorda, is a fried-cheese-and-pork-sausage-patty homage to the Dodgers icon and Fullerton resident whose 1996 heart attack might discourage him from ever coming near it.
If you plan to share that sandwich, let the other person order something other than the Sloppy Joe. It, too, features a deep-fried square of cheese, this time Cheddar. Side-by-side, the two sandwiches start tasting the same. Technically, though, the latter isn't a burger. Instead of a patty, Mahon drenches it with short-rib chili, a mildly seasoned, chipped-meat stew with no resemblance to the spice-heavy balm greasy spoons use to drown inedible burgers and dogs. Good as it is, skip the option of dousing the Belgian fries with this chili or the cheese sauce. The skin-on potato wedges are best approached on their own—crisp, firm and fluffy, with a full-bodied potato-ness. It's a shame few burger stands make fries like these or Mahon's beer-battered onion rings, which must be eaten within seconds of service or the porous crust turns limp.
There are other, non-burger options. Though it should've been chilled a few more degrees, a Mediterranean chopped salad with olives, raw white corn, chickpeas, cucumber and pieces of grilled chicken is light and refreshing. A fried-chicken salad is less successful, the watermelon and arugula never quite coalescing beyond the menu page. The best alternative to Mahon's gut bombs is actually another burger. To accompany the white-meat turkey patty for his OC sandwich, Mahon adds bean sprouts, avocado and marinated carrot coins that taste exactly like taquera pickles. If it deftly blends the Asian, Mexican and Pilates cultures of the county in one bite, it's no accident: It's the least we can expect from a local boy who grew up in Guadalahabra. Welcome home, wayward son!
This review appeared in print as “Burger Parlor Games: Local-born chef Joseph Mahon returns.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.