My passion for In-n-Out Burger is well-known to my Huffington readers. I have been writing about them since moving to L.A. in the early Seventies, and my Huffington blog about their Secret Menu is, I am told, one of the most popular stories every published on the website. So imagine my surprise when I read a recent issue of the much-respected Consumer Reports in their first fast-food study since 2011 and discovered that they rated the HABIT BURGER GRILL as 'the best-tasting burger in America,' slightly over In-n-Out Burger, after testing 65 chains. (MacDonald's came in dead last.) Wow, what was happening here? I had never been to a Habit but immediately made plans to visit one. Since I was scheduled for a meeting at Warner Bros., which meant a trip to the Valley, I could make a stop at Habit's outlet in Burbank at 103 E. Alameda Avenue (818) 260-0083). (They have another outlet in Encino at 17132 Ventura Blvd, just west of Balboa and east of Louise.)
I made arrangements to meet Exec Chef Adam Baird, the Habit's V.P. of Food & Beverage, who turned out to be a terrific guy. An Aussie, he graduated from the Culinary Institute and lives in Old Towne Santa Ana. My first question, of course, was "What makes you different from In-n-Out?" I was startled by his reply: "We are not competitive with them. We have a different operation...with us, everything is fresh, everything is cooked to order, and we have a much wider menu." He then illustrated this by noting; "We cut our avocados twice a day...we grind fresh Parmesan cheese twice a day from a large wheel for our Caesar salads...we have a veggie burger, which is really popular." He told me that the veggie burger was not made with nuts, as were many others, but with carrots, water chestnuts, mushrooms and other vegetables, served on a grilled wheat bun with a honey Dijon sauce. I asked him if they had a "secret menu" like that other place and he laughingly admitted to one: Cheese fries with caramelized onions - and that you can get ½ orders of onion rings and fries, either regular or sweet potato fries."
At which point my first of several burgers arrived, and I was floored. I had ordered the Double Charburger with fries and a drink ($7.50, $3.50 without the sides.) The burger was a huge double patty with crisp lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, mayo and pickle on a toasted bun. Adam pointed out that each meat patty was 3 .2 oz., twice the size of the patties at the other place. I asked him where the meat is from and he told me it was L.A.'s Sterling Meats. "We have a custom grind of bull meat, chuck and trim, prepared fresh 3 times a week and delivered to our central kitchens. Of course the meat is all-natural.." At which point I had eaten a huge bite of the charred burger and was astonished by the deeply-beefy grilled flavor. "Can I get a rare or medium rare burger," I asked, and Adam explained that it was not possible. "All of our burgers are cooked to medium well. They are still juicy." By then I had finished the Double Charburger and was ready for one of their sandwiches. Several readers had recommended the Albacore Tuna Filet Sandwich ($6.75), an awesome work. I dissected the sandwich before eating it, and saw a thick slice of albacore tuna on a toasted sourdough bun. "That tuna steak is line-caught by hand in Fiji waters, frozen on the boat and shipped overnight to our fish supplier. It is sushi quality... you could eat it raw. We coat it in a teriyaki glaze, grill it to medium rare and serve it with a fresh tomato, crispy lettuce and our special tartar sauce." As I said, an awesome, delicious and healthful sandwich.
Time for one of their half-dozen fresh salads, and I selected a Grilled Chicken Caesar ($6.95). Chopped romaine leaves tossed with their Caesar dressing, croutons, freshly-grated Parmesan, and then topped with a grilled butterflied chicken breast. I asked Adam about their chickens and he said they were 'natural.' At which point my friend Sonata arrived, who said she eats here regularly. Since she has been gluten-free for more than a dozen years. she ordered the Lettuce Wrap, a hefty portion of lettuce leaves surrounding slices of crisp bacon, cheddar cheese, a beef patty, and a tomato slice. She was a happy camper as she dug in.
At this I called my office to cancel the rest of my appointments and dug in with Adam for more tastings. He recommended that I order a Santa Barbara-style Charburger ($5.75) and again, I was floored by what emerged from the busy kitchen. This was a Double Char with cheese, grilled onions and avocado on toasted sourdough bread. Oh, my, I thought I was in heaven. I managed to finish half and took other half home for dinner. Our table by then was covered with side dishes....fries, onion rings, sweet potato fries, and a new one which he said was very popular, Tempura Green Beans ($2.95). I was curious about two of their sandwiches and ordered both 'for exploratory purposes, of course.' The Tri Tip Steak Sandwich ($6.75) was a hefty one of hand-cut tri tip steak with the usual lettuce and tomato, and I asked for it with the BBQ sauce on a toasted French roll. Amazing, the meat was tender and juicy, certified Angus choice or prime cuts. Fast food indeed? The Pastrami Sandwich ($6.25) was lean pastrami which had been grilled, then served up with grilled onions, melted cheese, mayo and mustard, and I had it on a wheat bun. While it was not Langers-quality pastrami, it was actually close, really good deli-quality meat..a sensational surprise.
They have a children's menu and I told Adam that I am constitutionally opposed to such idiocies. Kids should eat the same food as adults, only in smaller portions. A neighbor at the next table told me that I should try one of the shakes and malts, and I ordered a Mocha Shake ($3.25), It was made tø order with vanilla ice cream and I managed a few sips. Sweet and rich. They also have a $1 Vanilla Soft Serve Cone and a Sundae ($2.25). Did I note that they give customers a small vibrating disk, so when their order is ready, it shakes and you can pick up your order, Like I said, it's all made-to-order.
Adam told me that he had been with Habit for three years, following their CEO Russ Bendel here after working with him for several years before. I read on their website that the chain had been founded in 1969 in Santa Barbara by two brothers. They now have almost a hundred outlets in California, six in Arizona and five in Utah, with 3,000 employees. Go to their website to find locations near to you. Adam laughed as he explained that they just opened their first East Coast outlet in Bergen County, New Jersey. Why New Jersey? He could not answer. He told me that his wife is a noted pastry chef who helped Thomas Keller open Bouchon in St. Helena. At their headquarters in Irvine, he operates a test kitchen constantly exploring new menu options. In October they are trying out a new burger, the French Onion Char ($4.50), with mushrooms and a home-made sweet onion sauce.
I commented on the cheerful nature of every employee I encountered here, all trying to be helpful. (There is no tipping apart from the jar at the counter.) He told me that they have a policy of promoting from within, and many of the store and kitchen managers have begun as grill tenders and order takers. "We have a fine bonus system, so many of the managers make a really good living. Ordering on-line (www.habitburger.com) is really catching on, and we are seeing this as a future winner."
I am not foregoing my devotion to In-n-Out Burger since I am not one of those guys who kisses and runs. But I do have a new perspective, and will go out of my way to visit a HABIT BURGER GRILL. Their food is fast, fresh, delicious and inexpensive. Fast food, indeed!
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