In Lake Forest, one the leafiest suburbs in Orange County, there’s a strip mall that looks as if it belongs in LA’s inner city. A seedy liquor store sits in one corner, with an auto-body shop in the other. Wedged between them in this low-rent piece of parking lot is a hole-in-the-wall burger joint actually called Hole In the Wall Burger. And it isn’t kidding: The restaurant is barely a restaurant. It has one trash can and no public restrooms, and instead of a self-serve soft-drink fountain, there’s a small fridge filled with cans of soda shoved in a corner.
If you decide to eat in, you can take a seat at one of a few tables. But if more than 10 people decide to show up at the same time, you’ll have to settle for takeout. There’s a tiny TV that displays the menu, but the list is so brief a small chalkboard would’ve been enough. In total, there are five things you can order: three kinds of burgers and two kinds of taco plates. Opt for any of the burgers for the price advertised, and you get a can of soda and an order of criss-cut fries for no additional charge.
At less than $10 before tax, these combos are a tremendous deal. By comparison, you’d already hit that mark by ordering a basic burger at any of the recently overhyped burger vendors located inside any number of food halls. But Hole In the Wall Burger is not competing with those, nor does it seem interested in attracting the same kind of customer. It will remind you instead of Huntington Beach’s TK Burgers and San Clemente’s Riders Club. Like them, it’s old-school—a no-frills burger stand that sells food at a fair price and without any social-media help or hoopla. In fact, Hole In the Wall Burger is currently invisible to Instagram’s so-called “influencers.”
Unlike Vaka Burger in Tustin, which opened at about the same time earlier this summer and has more than 17,000 followers, Hole In the Wall Burger has about 90. Perhaps it’s the sketchy-looking location, or maybe it’s because the humble proprietor, who with his apron and unkempt hair, resembles the human embodiment of Bob Belcher from Bob’s Burgers. More likely it’s because there’s nothing overtly gourmet here. Unlike at Vaka, there is no duck confit, no arugula, no white truffle oil. The most complicated topping is avocado and a fried egg, which only costs $1 extra to add on. And when you decide to have both on a burger called “The California,” you realize they highlight the beef patty rather than distract from it.
It will remind you of the lessons learned from that Parks and Recreation episode in which Ron Swanson’s rudimentary beef burger triumphs over Chris Traeger’s froufrou ground-turkey sandwich. This burger, like that episode, proves that when it comes to hamburgers, it’s the basics that count. Ground from chuck and never frozen, Hole In the Wall’s beef patty is formless and has more in common with French steak tartare than a Big Mac. Its texture is as soft as the bun. And when you come face-to-face with it, you don’t eat it; rather, you embark on a torrid love affair. Things quickly get hot, steamy, messy and juicy. Once you finish and bask in the afterglow, you need a few napkins to wipe yourself off.
Unless you request otherwise, all three burgers are cheeseburgers, two of them served with a slice of American cheese. (The aforementioned “California” uses Swiss.) Stuffed in between the buns, the lettuce is hand-torn green leaf, while the tomatoes and onions are cut thick. The fries are essential, even when dabbed into the generic, no-name-brand ketchup that’s supplied in too tiny a packet. The same ketchup and mustard is used in one of the burgers, but the kitchen smears a “signature” sauce that’s essentially a house-made Thousand Island on the other two. The house sauce also smothers the “brick-style fries,” which is Hole In the Wall’s homage to In-N-Out’s animal-style fries.
In-N-Out is also Hole In the Wall’s closest peer. It shares its “never frozen” beef philosophy, as well as its back-to-basics approach. After you recognize this, it’s easy to imagine Harry and Esther Snyder’s empire starting out the same way back in 1948. Hole In the Wall Burger also reinforces a universal truth: The best food almost never comes from anywhere hyped up on Instagram or involves the word aioli; it’s most often found in dives where the guy in the grease-spattered apron resembles Bob Belcher.
Hole In the Wall Burger, 25262 Jeronimo Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 328-9049. Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Burger combos, $8.99-$9.99. 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.