At first, Rockfire Grill is discombobulating. The music is reggae; the food is American; and the owner is originally from Mumbai and also owns the Tangy Tomato, a Chinese Indian restaurant in Artesia's Little India. That Raj Syal now makes burgers tucked into flatbreads he bakes to order in a leafy Mission Viejo strip mall frequented by suburban soccer moms can be explained in one word: “freshness.”
It seems to be his axiom, his mission statement, the one idea that drives him and his business forward, as well as why he left the day-to-day operations of Tangy Tomato to a partner and is refocusing his efforts on this concept he built from scratch. It's simple, he says to me: Bake the bread to order and serve everything fresh, and they will come.
Syal is on to something. Seats are hard to snag on weekend nights. And the woman who was in line in front of me one evening was obviously a repeat customer who'd now brought two friends along. “Try any of the burgers,” she tells them. “They're great!”
She's right. They are great. Sink your teeth into the base-model cheeseburger Syal sells for $5, and it bursts juice and sauce. The beef is twice as thick as In-N-Out's, charred in the right places, and also wonderfully misshapen, as though someone in the back formed the patties by hand just moments earlier. Fancy salad greens, tomatoes, grilled onions, mayo, mustard and ketchup are embraced along with the meat by the clamshell of a two-fisted flatbread with the same profile as those pork belly buns New York's Momofuku made famous. And it turns out this shape is actually perfectly suited to catch all the escaping burger juices.
But it's the flavor, texture and immediacy of the baked-to-order bread that makes Rockfire Grill's burgers so compelling. The outer surface is crusty, browned and still hot to the touch. When you bite into it, the crunch reminds you of a fresh-out-of-the-oven ciabatta. Beneath the crust, it's pillowy and soft. Because Syal is Indian, most people assume the bread is naan. “It's not naan; it's focaccia,” he says–but I'm not sure it's quite that either.
There is, however, a slightly leavened quality and airiness here–something that's more pronounced in the discs he calls “Stuffed Focaccias,” which he bakes to puffiness with chicken and mozzarella sandwiched in between two layers of dough. The most popular of these has barbecue sauce swirled in spirals over the top (along with a mess of greens and red onions it doesn't need), the whole thing already cut into wedges. When I ate one, it was as though I was biting into a helium-puffed quasi-quesadilla–or perhaps a lighter version of Costco's Chicken Bakes. Whatever it was, I found it best treated as though it were a table-passed appetizer, especially because it comes with a side of Syal's shareable homemade potato chips, which are so thick, greaseless and golden they're reason enough to come to Rockfire.
Another reason: the pizzas. Oblong and using the same mother dough as the rest of his creations, Syal makes pies with a soft-crispy crust that rivals the Mozzas of the world without even really trying. “The New Yorker” is essentially for meat lovers, chock-full of pepperoni, salami and sausage. But what makes it easily one of the best pizzas in South County is that it's served so hot the cheese and sauce scalds if you don't blow on it for the better part of a minute.
The rest of the menu plays to what people who go for pizzas and burgers want in a restaurant that serves pizzas and burgers. He offers very serviceable Buffalo wings, fried in a light batter, then brought out in an edible bowl made of wonton skin with a few celery and carrot sticks, plus a thimble of ranch to dip it all in. If you're an observant Hindu, there's a pizza with just roasted veggies, a veggie burger made with the same bread, and thick fries covered in some sort of spicy coating served with squirt bottles of homemade aioli. No one, however, should order Rockfire Grill's kebabs, which are not only out-of-place, but also more expensive than they should be.
Rockfire Grill's typical customer probably hasn't been to Little India, but the excellent mango panna cotta is actually a transplant from Tango Tomato, where it's called a “soufflé.” In fact, it's more likely customers would recognize Rockfire Grill from its original location in San Diego. Syal moved it from there to Mission Viejo last fall and now plans to open another Rockfire in the Tustin/Santa Ana area. And I know that when he does build it, they will come.
Rockfire Grill, 28251 Marguerite Pkwy., Mission Viejo, (949) 364-3473; www.rockfire-grill.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Meal for two, $10-$30, food only. No alcohol.
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.