By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2004 Gourmet Magazine
Surfing rules in Ocean Beach, California. And there isn’t a restaurant more perfectly suited to the wave-rider mindset than Hodad’s, an open-front eatery on Newport Avenue where a sign notifies patrons: “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem!” The walls are plastered with hundreds of decommissioned vanity plates, their meanings ranging from silly (Texas: “OI VEY”) to provocative (California: “I LUV SX”). Many of the staff are bedecked with full-sleeve tattoos and modern primitive piercings, and customers include gaggles of sun-and-sea denizens still euphoric from shredding such Sunset Cliffs wave breaks as South Garbage, North Garbage, Newbreak, Abs, Subs, and Avalanche.
Hodad’s offers no silverware and no written menus, and the only hot meal that matters is a hamburger. But oh, what a hamburger: an awe-inspiring paragon of SoCal burger culture, a joy to behold, and an adventure to eat. There’s nothing casual or slapdash about it. Proprietor Mike Hardin, whose parents paid $600 for Hodad’s in 1973, when it was a snack shack on the beach, explained to us precisely how one is constructed. Mayonnaise and mustard are spread on the bun bottom. Several crunchy hoops of raw onion follow, onto which is piped ketchup, whose fruitiness deactivates the sting of the onion. The ketchup is covered with a sheaf of pickle slices; their puckery tang balances the sweetness below. Next come thick slices of beefsteak tomato, echoing the ketchup, then a large mound of shredded lettuce. The grilled hamburger patty is set on top of the tower of garnishes and condiments so its juices seep down through them. (Cheese and bacon are popular options above the beef.) Finally, the bun top is applied, making a sandwich so strapping that no human jaw could possibly embrace it from top to bottom. It is enclosed in yellow wax paper in such a way that approximately one third is exposed and the rest is snugly wrapped.
“That paper is your burger trough,” Hardin says. “We tell people not to take the paper off—it’s there for a purpose.” And that is to keep the immense thing from falling apart. Hardin points around the dining room at veteran customers, each one eating the burger the same way. Grasping the paper-covered part, they gingerly rotate the burger within the wrapper; most important of all, they never let go of it once they’ve hoisted it from the plastic basket in which it is served.
The momentous condiments complement a burger patty with a big beef taste. “We have so little refrigerator space that I need to have fresh meat delivered every day,” Hardin says. Hodad’s hamburgers have a crust from the grill and are thick enough to ooze juice at first squeeze. For meat-frowners, the menu does list one “unburger,” which has everything that goes into a normal sandwich (including cheese) except the meat patty.
Beautiful hamburgers aside, we love Hodad’s for its infectious joie de vivre. Seating includes not only booths and one long communal table where stoked bros congregate and swap great-wave stories but also an entire front section of a VW Microbus with seating for two and a table where the dashboard used to be, plus a counter up front where the stools offer an alfresco view of Newport Avenue. A latter-day Haight-Ashbury, this amped Ocean Beach artery includes surf shops, head shops, bead shops, and juice bars.
You probably won’t peg Hardin as the boss if you see him jawboning with people in the dining room. With a fantastic shoulder-to-wrist Japanese tattoo on his left arm, a large image of a starfish on his right forearm, and a miniature motorcycle gear in one earlobe, he looks like a dedicated surf dude. (His left calf does hint at his profession. It sports a hyper realistic tattoo of a Hodad’s hamburger, complete with salt shaker and ketchup bottle in the background.) As Hardin sees it, the surfing life and hamburgers are a perfect fit. “Now, my surfing isn’t as radical as some of the guys. I’m more old school. I Cadillac cruise; I like the nice, six-foot waves. But when I was a kid, in the ’70s, I ripped the tubes. I surfed all day and my parents ran a burger stand: I thought I was king of the beach.” Today, he may not wear a crown, but he has found the holy grill.