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September 04, 2012


Hodad's Dominic Armato

It is an observable phenomenon that during the summertime, Phoenix restaurants get quiet. Conventional wisdom is that we don't like to eat out during the summer months, but I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. We like to eat out. We just like to do it in other cities.

Social media during a Phoenix summer is a litany of photos of cooler locales, and having escaped to San Diego for Fourth of July week this year, I can now say that I fully endorse the practice (even if I'd urge folks to make a point of eating out while at home -- your local restaurants need you!). The heat has a way of slowly roasting you, and I'd prefer my sesos in a tortilla rather than in my skull, thank you very much. San Diego seems, to a visitor at least, like a laid-back beach kind of town, and in an effort to have a laid-back beach kind of vacation, one of the stops on our agenda was one of SoCal's burger temples, Hodad's.

Chocolate MilkshakeDominic Armato

Once you've heard about a place for the 173rd time, you start to wonder if there's really something to the reputation or if everybody goes there because that's where everybody goes. Whatever the reason, it's abundandly clear that everybody goes to Hodad's. Despite a gargantuan marquee, its most prominent exterior feature is arguably the line, at the head of which is a sign suggesting that you visit one of their other locations if it's too long. Few places can make that suggestion with any reasonable chance that it'll be heeded. But of course, it's vacation, so we were in for the experience as much as the food, and ditching the original seemed wrong somehow. Half an hour later, we were introduced to Hodad's most prominent interior feature... it's loud. Very, very loud. Which is not a value judgement so much as a statement of fact. It's also busy and kitschy and irreverent and all kinds of pseudo-rad, with servers who are just genuine enough to keep it from feeling like the heavy metal version of Ed Debevic's. Their flair may be lewd, but it's still flair. And who cares? It's loud and fun and at one point in time probably wasn't a caricature of itself. And the food's pretty good.

FringsDominic Armato

The chocolate shake is really good, though it barely qualifies as a shake. It's been thinned out juuuuuuust enough to meet the suckability requirement, and it's topped off with about half a pint of chocolate ice cream (no exaggeration) for good measure. It is intense and massive and, dare I say, extreme. If the name "frings" conjures up images of some kind of creative stoner fried food mashup, the reality is a letdown. It's a pile of onion rings on top of a pile of fries. And the fries are weak, cut into thick wedges and dredged with that ubiquitous odd textured coating that may be a good fried potato's worst enemy. Really, guys, it's way past time to kill that stuff dead. But the onion rings aren't bad, cut into massive wedges and done with a coarse breaded coating that's fried to a deep golden brown. Though they're unexceptional, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Double Bacon CheeseburgerDominic Armato

The cheeseburger, however, is... well... wow. And I don't necessarily mean that from a taste standpoint, though it's a tasty burger. I mean, look at that thing. I'd skipped lunch that day and ordering the bacon double STILL turned out to be a tactical error. If you can squish it down enough to get your mouth around it -- a hydraulic press might help -- it's a pretty damn tasty burger. It's big and greasy and dripping with all kinds of goo, and the vegetables are roughly hewn rather than carefully sliced, which only adds to the caveman quotient. If anybody ever decides it's time to rid the world of Guy Fieri (dare to dream) and is in need of bait, a trail of these on the sidewalk should do the trick nicely, I think. (His Dudeness, in point of fact, has already secured immortality on the Hodad's menu as the inspiration for a cameo burger, natch.) But while I'm skeptical/frustrated/annoyed by huge for huge's sake, this thing isn't without its touches of genius, and the bacon is chief among them. The flavor's unremarkable as bacon goes, but what's incredible is the texture. It's insanely crunchy and present in every bite. Apparently they roughly chop the bacon, form it into a patty, and then fry that. So to be clear, we're not talking about a couple of slices. It's effectively an entire bacon patty in addition to the two beef patties. And while I want to groan and roll my eyes at this kind of explicit junk food hedonism, I have to give credit where credit is due. This is a true quantum leap in bacon burger technology. Well done, Hodad's.

And yet, here's the thing. Take away the music, take away the obscene license plates, shrink everything down to a normal size and what you're left with is a good burger joint. Better than most, to be sure, but the fame is as much a function of the scene as it is the cuisine. Which isn't to take a shot at the cuisine. If that burger were in a quiet unassuming storefront, I'd go back with three friends and share one in a heartbeat, then start hollering about how you've got to try this place. But as is often the case, though grounded in substance, sometimes the rep eclipses the reality. And I think that if Hodad's can be approached in that context, and the legend set aside, what you've got is some good food bathed in a lot of character. Perfect for vacation, right?

5010 Newport Avenue
Ocean Beach, CA 92107
Mon - Sun11 AM - 10 PM


Sounds eerily like Mr. Bartly's Burgers in Harvard Square. I don't know if you tried it while you were in Boston, but it's the same basic deal. The burgers actually are good, the restaurant is goofily decorated, it's hyped all to hell and there is a line down half the block in the summer. And it aint that great. It's good, don't get me wrong, but if I skip a couple of years between visits, well, I don't miss it.

I'm a San Diego native/ex-pat in and I've eaten here fair bit. It's an institution. So, yes, it's just a decent burger joint, but that's besides the point. Think about it like you would a place like Superdawg. It's just a hot dog stand; but to you native Chicagoans, it's so much more.

Anon Man... It's true, I'm completely ignorant of the context. I know it's been around a long time, but I really don't know anything of the history, so that angle is completely lost on me.

It's interesting you bring up Superdawg. Foodwise, that's actually a great analogy. There are better hot dogs to be had in Chicago. But it's distinctive and it's been around forever. And part of the Superdawg charm is how *little* it's changed even with the renovations over the years. Is that the case with Hodad's, too?

Hodad's has certainly gotten bigger and more popular, but it is a kitschy surf-inspired place that makes decent burgers. There are better burger places, of course, but this one screams San Diego. (With the caveat that, unlike Chicago which has large and long traditions of food like the dog and deep dish and a few others), San Diego doesn't really have a "signature food" except maybe the fish taco. And that's still relatively recent.

Also, I should add that I believe they boil the bacon first and then chop it and then turn it into that crunchy patty. I don't know that for a fact, but on one of those idiotic "best thing I ever ate" shows on FN, Hodad's made the bacon episode and they made a point of talking about the boiling/pre-cooking, which was news to me as a native.

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