1 Balboa Pier, Newport Beach, CA 92661 (map); 949-675-7829; rubys.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A mid-sized chain that hearkens back to a simpler time that (apparently) had very mediocre burgers
Want Fries with That? Yes. These fast food-style little guys are actually worth the calories (and are advertised as zero transfat!)
Prices: Rubyburger, $8.49; American Kobe Sliders, $8.99
Notes: Sun. to Fri., 7 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Fri. Sat. and Sun., 7 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Important note: There is no bathroom in the restaurant so you are in for a long walk down the pier if you don't plan ahead.
When I first moved to Los Angeles over a decade ago, I would draft long emails to my friends in New York City about my experiences in The Southland. In large measure, it was all very knowable, if punctuated with the absurdities attendant to growing up in a new context. In Los Angeles I still found myself fighting through the young man's desire to own the night, but it wasn't three months before I was paddling out into the Pacific underneath a half-lit, dawn sky to catch a wave. I'd narrate my life's transformation as an act of remembrance, or perhaps defiance, as my new city seemed to encourage forgetting one's past in favor of a new self, fashioned from whole cloth, who might have a future here.
The one portion of the vast Southern California landscape that I've always struggled to properly narrate is Orange County. It sits directly between Los Angeles and San Diego—that's about as defined as it gets. It lacks any meaningful center and sometimes I think it may lack meaning altogether. It's grown with the pace and aesthetic bankruptcy that can only mean two things: edge cities and planned communities. It's a vast interconnected series of strip malls and gated neighborhoods that share a commitment to resisting any narrative other than the ones approved by their developers. This is, after all, the home of Disneyland.
It's no surprise then that this landscape has given rise to a number of chain restaurants. Recently I pulled back The Orange Curtain and headed down to Newport Beach to suss out one of the burger chains that seems particularly committed to its fiction. Ruby's Diner was founded over twenty-five years ago by a guy who longed for the simple, beachcombing days of his youth and...blah, blah. You can read the official story, if you are interested. I'll get to the burger.
The original location sits at the end of Balboa Pier in the beachside community of New Port. It's a bland, half-asleep place during the week that wakes up on the weekends to become a bland, crowded beachfront. I walk along the creaking and aging wood planks, past the creaking and aging locals, to find my spot at pier's end: the original Ruby's Diner. The inside is pure, mid-century simulacrum. Red vinyl booths and stainless trim signify what has come to be understood as a simpler time. Although I've never understood the desire for that water-colored, remembrance of the American experience, I imagine this plays into that forgetting that is so popular in Southern California. Forgetting and narrating anew, I should say. This is exactly what Ruby's has done: It's all scrubbed Americana, bustle, and hamburgers.
I head to the outdoor seating area on the roof. Once I take in the vast oceanscape and breathe the salty air, I begin to understand the value of selective memory. It's ridiculously pleasant to sit under a sunny, California day while looking at the ocean and having a burger.
I opt for the Rubyburger—a third-pound of beef with lettuce, tomato, and Rubysauce—along with the new menu item, American Kobe Sliders. Both come with fries and I make sure I have a Black Forest (like the cake) shake to go along with my light lunch.
The burgers arrive in somewhat slow order. They lack any of that accidental beauty that a mess of burger and fries in a basket can offer. Still, all the pieces are in place, so it's time for their undoing. I take on the Rubyburger first. The meat is overcooked despite my having harped on my desire for medium rare to the waiter. It also lacks any flavor. I had imagined it would be under-seasoned, but perhaps not to this degree. Whatever good fat this patty initially contained has long since been cooked out of it. The bun is commercial, but a little too dense and mealy. The rest of the condiments actually help the cause as the sauce and crunch of the vegetables make this burger akin to its properly executed, California-style cousins. That said, this sandwich is, at best, ordinary.
I take a break with the fries before heading on to the sliders and find myself pleasantly surprised. They are crunchy, salty, and flavorful. All of this despite (so is claimed on the menu) any transfat. They are a really nice example of the fast food variety.
I dive into the sliders. Dubbed "American Kobe," I assume they get a deal on all that beef that American ranchers can't sell to Japan. Served on King's Hawaiian rolls and topped with caramelized onions and Rubysauce, I'm peeved that these little guys are more mini-burgers than sliders (see Adam's post for more on that). When I bite into the first one, much of my distress melts away. This little burger is really flavorful and juicy. There's even a lovely and noticeable crust from the griddle. I'm even able to overlook that it's overcooked, which is saying something. The mayonnaise-based sauce delivers a nice hit of fat and tang. If I could change anything, I'd say that the onions needn't have been caramelized, as there is plenty of sweetness baked into the bun, and a little pickle would help the cause. That said, if I were to come back to Ruby's, I'd go for the sliders again.
I finish up and meander back down the pier taking in the slow pace of the midweek anglers. One of them has hooked a giant crab. He looks at me as I notice his catch, smiles, and chimes, "Soup!" I smile back and nod. My shake, which has exited the restaurant with me, is satisfyingly creamy and cool against the midday sun. It's hard to argue with certain parts of the Southern California story.
Nowadays all of my semiotic wonder about Orange County seems quaint. We've heard its story, or versions of it, over and over. We've watched The O.C. imitate life's melodrama with Sirkian excess and The Real Housewives of Orange County abandon self-consciousness in favor of a self-tanner. We've all been to Disneyland (at least in spirit) and—in weak moments—felt that the world really is small after all. I'm hard-pressed to defend all of the contrivance and commercial excess behind these narratives, but I imagine they're part of my America. That doesn't make them great, nor something I want kids to grow up trying to recapture—then again, I don't want us to stop telling each other stories either. I don't see much of a future in that.
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