24902 Chrisanta Dr., Mission Viejo CA 92691 (map); 6 locations in southern California; tkburgers.com
Cooking method: Charbroiled
Short Order: Hawaii-themed, high-quality fast-food joint makes a simple burger that begs comparison to In-N-Out
Want Fries With That? Sure, and grab some extra secret sauce for dipping, if you swing that way
Price: Cheeseburger combo, $5.69, milkshake, $2.69
Among the AHT reader and writer-ship, I wonder how many people's first step when planning a day trip is to type the destination into Google, along with "burger." I'm guessing it's plenty, which makes me feel comfortable admitting that's what I always do. TK Burgers is exactly the type of place I hope to find: a local favorite that serves classic burgers and shakes at a more-than-reasonable price.
The original TK Burgers opened in 1986 in Huntington Beach, and is still going strong. I stopped by the Mission Viejo location, which manages to capture the Hawaiian surfer theme, despite being housed in a former KFC.
The first thing that struck me about TK Burgers is the completely open kitchen, where, just a few feet from the counter, you can watch flames from the grill lick the burgers, which are made from fresh, never frozen beef and topped with standard vegetable roughage and "secret sauce." This makes comparisons to that other beloved burger chain inevitable. The impulse is understandable, but when you get past the beef, these are two entirely different burgers.
The showpiece of the burger (quite rightfully) was the beef: a thin patty with crispy bits of char on the outside and the ideal amount of seasoning. The patty was juicy and tender, with a faint blush of pink. Toppings included the standard LTO, American cheese, and a house-made secret sauce that was like Thousand Island with extra mayo, which made it less sweet than most interpretations (including In-N-Out's).
Where this whole burger fell apart was the bun, which was just way too big and fluffy for the slim patty. A few bites in, I ripped off most of the top bun, which helped the bread-to-meat-ratio, but the best thing to do is make your burger a double.
The fries were pretty standard, but tasty nonetheless. Crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, they were good on their own and made the perfect vehicle for dipping in the secret sauce.
Whatever you do, don't skip the shakes. The chocolate shake was so thick and creamy that it was literally impossible to drink at first—try, and you might break some blood vessels in your cheeks. After letting it sit, it melted just enough to be slurped up a straw. If the prospect of waiting more than five minutes to dig in sounds like torture, grab a spoon, and eat it Frosty-style in the meantime.
To some degree, all chains in SoCal that serve better-quality classic burgers suffer from the curse of being compared to In-N-Out. Based on my visit, I wouldn't classify TK Burgers as better, just different—in a good way. It has more character, better shakes, and the food came out a lot faster (and right to our table).
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best cheap and tasty eats in San Diego, including all things sweet and sugary, for her dessert blog San Diego Sugar. She also blogs for San Diego Magazine.