In terms of mankind’s greatest achievements, the invention of burgers is easily in the top 10. This post takes a look at some of the glorious fast food and fast casual burgers in South California, specifically in Orange County, an area known for its fondness of this most noble achievement.
While these aren’t necessarily the top 5 burgers in SoCal (further research, including substantial testing and retesting, will be necessary to determine that), they are all quite excellent.
If biting into a juicy, freshly made burger doesn’t put a smile on your face, I don’t know what will. If you’re anything like me, the “explicit” photos below will be enough to make your mouth water, and immediately hop into the car for a pilgrimage to your nearest burger joint to get your Recommended Dietary Allowance of burger for the day.
I thus strongly discourage reading and viewing this post on an empty stomach: it’s simply unsafe and (probably) hazardous to yourself. Alright, here we go…
Located in an unassuming strip mall in Mission Viejo (they’ve recently opened a second location in Santa Ana for you Disneyland fans!), this burger joint is truly a mom and pop operation, with the husband & wife owners typically the ones serving you, and treating you like their family.
It’s also the most ambitious and inventive fast food burger joint I’ve visited. Not only are the delicious burgers served on a flatbread (excellent, and not gimmicky as could be the case), but they make their own sauces on-site, and these sauces are spectacular. The garlic aioli is to die for, and perfect for dipping in fries or on top of the burger. The value here is really exceptional, as all of the ingredients are high-quality.
The Shwack Beach Grill
Located a short walk from Dana West Marina, this surf-inspired spot is the perfect place for burgers after a morning of whale watching in Dana Point. It’s definitely a popular spot, and cool decor makes it feel both intimate and distinctly local. They also have some interesting offers (like the $600 meal that includes a surf board) that you can check out on their website.
There are a ton of different menu options, and they are all reasonably priced (although prices can quickly shoot up with add-ons) making this a solid place to eat in Dana Point. The burgers are sizable, and are reminiscent of the type of burger you’d grill for yourself at home (assuming you are awesome at preparing burgers), rather than being ‘fast food style.’ This ranks as my second favorite restaurant in Dana Point, which is saying a lot, as there are some excellent places to eat all along the coast.
A’s Burgers, located in Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano, is on the other end of the spectrum from Rockfire Grill, but still a solid burger. This is more a hole-in-the-wall type of place, the kind of building that probably looks the same today as it did in 1985. You can visit their official website here (not to be confused with the throngs of completely unauthorized, unofficial A’s Burger fan sites out there???)
The burgers here are very much high end fast food burgers, but with their own homegrown flare. Tasty, cheap, and no-frills, this is the type of place where you go with friends after a long day at the beach and order a few of everything (they also serve Mexican food and some excellent breakfast burritos). It’s one of those dives that has a locals-only vibe (most tourists would likely overlook it due to the building) that serves consistently good and cheap eats.
The Habit Burger Grill
With multiple locations in California, The Habit Burger Grill is an up-and-coming (nevermind that its first location opened in 1969) fast-casual burger joint that is a chain much like In-N-Out Burger, but with a more ambitious and diverse menu, and higher price points. While most of its locations are in California, and has expanded beyond to other states on the West Coast, plus Florida and New Jersey(???). Presumably, there are plans to expand farther east as Habit Burger’s popularity has exploded in recent years.
I’m partial to the Santa Barbara burger (pictured above) which is served on sourdough and topped with avocado. All of the burgers here are fresh, made to order, and have a unique flavor that is like the perfect intersection of fast food and homemade. On a Consumer Reports survey, it ranked as the best fast food burger in America, although I’d personally give the edge to East Coast favorite, Five Guys.
Ahhh, In-N-Out Burger. What can I say that hasn’t already been said in my love letter to my favorite place to eat in the world? If you visit California, you must visit In-N-Out Burger. Seriously, it’s the law here.If you ever read a list of the best California burgers that doesn’t mention In-N-Out, disregard it immediately, as its author is clearly a closet vegetarian.
With locations all over the place, you really have no excuse in not having an Animal Style Double Double…or two…or seventeen…during your visit to California. In-N-Out is as much a California institution as Disneyland, the Cabazon Dinosaurs, and the California Raisins. As Nicolas Cage would say, “that’s high praise.” In-N-Out is most definitely a fast food burger, but of the absolute best kind, and with a flavor and quality unlike any other fast food burger you’ve ever tasted. Some might say your first visit to In-N-Out Burger is a life-changing experience. Those are wise words, indeed.
Hope this post proved helpful for those of you planning a “Burgers of California Road Trip” (Ron Swanson would be proud of you). Aside from the obvious mandate that you eat at In-N-Out, there are tons of other options to explore, and these just happen to be five of my favorites at the moment. Don’t worry, I plan on doing even more research on this ever-important topic, and presenting my scientific analysis to you in future posts.
Have you been to any of these restaurants? What did you think of them? Any other California burger joints you recommend? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!