Game of Burgers: Dominion of Diners, First Round!
So without further ado, Pee Wee's and Red Robin: come to the arena!
Pee Wee's vs. Red Robin
As many of you readers know, I actually like the Red Robin chain and hold one of those loyalty cards that entitles me to a free burger on my birthday. So when the preliminary list was floated around and I didn't see Red Robin on the roster, I begged, pleaded, and cajoled.
Gustavo finally relented. "Okay! Wow, you really love Red Robin!" he said. Yes, I did. And it's because of one burger in particular: the Royal Red Robin Burger, which is, in my opinion, the greatest application of a fried egg and bacon to a sandwich since the Egg McMuffin. But for this tourney, I would have to leave my beloved egg, bacon and beef burger unordered. I needed to be fair about what I chose to pit against Pee Wee's.
It was already a bizarre the match-up anyway: a mom-n-pop hole-in-the-wall against a national chain with a loyalty program. So I had to make it even; I would order the most standard model of burger at Red Robin.
In ordering this basic cheeseburger, I discovered that the egg and bacon in my beloved Royal Red Robin Burger really amounted to a lot. What's more, I found out that, on its own, the cheeseburger was too overladen with too much mayo, too much ketchup, too much mustard. All that superfluous moisture invaded the bread, threatening to disintegrate it between my fingers before the burger was even half done.
The meat, tomato, red onion and lettuce, are proportioned well, but were all drowning in all that wet stuff. Though still bigger and thicker than most, the patty was somehow thinner than I remember. I began to wonder whether the egg and bacon in the Royal Red Robin Burger was so distracting that it blinded me to the sauce excesses and the ordinariness of their standard burgers. The fries, it must be said, are still great--so hot and freshly fried it never fails to singe my palate, and of course, it's bottomless even though I've really never needed more than the first serving.
It goes without saying that Pee Wee's is the polar opposite of Red Robin. It looks like what Wahoo's Fish Taco might have looked like back in the day--a scruffy little room with not much to look at save for a smattering of haphazardly arranged surf posters and two mounted surf boards that's actually for sale. If the place didn't already suggest a hang-loose attitude, the dudes behind the counter making your dogs and burgers look like surfers who seem more interested on making the food than trying to dress up Pee Wee's to be more than it is. Their focus is evidenced on their menu. Though its mostly just dogs and burgers, the list is surprising worldly. They offer burgers with the beloved New Mexican hatch chile, a Little Saigon-inspired banh mi burger, and a hot dog wrapped in bacon tucked into a bollilo roll.
Again, I asked for their no-frills, basic model. Here it's called the "Signature burger." It turned out to be the closest facsimile to In-N-Out's burger than anything I've ever seen. The bun is the same, if just a degree bigger in diameter and toasted on grates rather than a griddle. And though the sauce is slathered on the top half of the burger between the meat and the bun rather than on the bottom half with the lettuce and tomato, it's got almost the same flavor, almost the same feel of an In-N-Out burger. What this is was a typical California-style burger. If there was one glaring difference it's that the beef patty is thicker, easily three times as meaty as In-N-Out's, and able to be cooked to any temperature you want. But key to this burger is balance. The sauce isn't over-applied; the tomatoes, lettuce and onion complement, not overpowering. And there's a certain integrity that the burger maintains, bite after bite. Compared to Red Robin's oversauced and ultimately soggy sandwich, Pee Wee's triumphs.
WINNER: Pee Wee's. Next up: Memphis vs. The Catch!
2010 Main St., Irvine, CA