The Habit Burger Grill
You may remember The Habit made waves a couple years back. Playing the role of dark horse to perfection, the Santa Barbara-based West Coast mainstay placed first in Consumer Reports’ fast-food survey, beating out other local heroes like In-N-Out (spoiler alert: that’s unvarnished sacrilege), and larger outlets like Steak ‘n Shake and Smashburger.
Now obviously, it’s far from clear that you, I, or anyone else should trust or defer to the culinary preferences of people who only got a say because they subscribe to Consumer Reports (like, consider how many people you know who subscribe to Consumer Reports). Having said that, the people surveyed ate almost 100,000 meals between them. So if nothing else, there’s a good amount of data behind this survey.
For a burger chain you’ve probably never heard of, the Habit is quite an old mainstay. It was founded in 1969, and has since steadily expanded throughout California, creeping into Arizona and Utah as well. It migrated east into New Jersey recently too, but it’s still definitely a child of the West. With thanks to Juno for making it possible, Bret and I took five from work to grab this old standard for lunch.
The Order: Double Charburger with Cheese
The Price: $4.95
For such a well-established outfit, The Habit certainly has escaped widespread attention or acclaim. That might have something to do with its sort of silly branding (their truck invites you to “Get up in [their] grill” – see what they did there?), or the fact that it just sort of feels like a shoddy fast casual restaurant.
Far from the heaven-white, spit-shined gleam of an In-N-Out burger, the hidden gem illicitness of a Burgerlords, or even the ruddy and unvarnished appeal of the Oinkster, The Habit’s brick and mortar spots have all the charm of, like, a T.G.I. Friday’s. You’ll find them nestled in shopping blocks, flanked by, say, a Nordstrom Rack and HomeGoods. It’s almost impossible to take seriously, especially for a well-heeled foodie type. One expects servers with pique polos covered in buttons, fried onions fashioned into crisp flowers, seafood from oceans unknown, and steaks whose origin is impossible to discern.
At first blush, you might be struck by what feels like a too-expansive menu, replete with salads nobody ought ever order, an odd albacore sandwich that is just strange enough to intrigue (but not intriguing enough to order), and some curious sides (tempura green beans, anyone?). While it’s probably true that the menu would benefit from a good editorial trim, there is enough weirdness on this menu to suggest an undercurrent of sophisticated curiosity that might make this burger worth trying.
Readily, I will admit my anticipatory scorn was building heavily as I approached this burger. In a swell of self-congratulatory elitism, I prepared to dismiss the Consumer Reports survey result as just some sampling tomfoolery, reflecting the unsophisticated preferences of some culinary neophytes who lack the time, mind, or means to frequent the truly good restaurants.
Sadly, this is not (entirely) a redemption narrative. I was undoubtedly being unfair (and a big jerk) in my preconceptions about The Habit. That survey was, after all, just a survey about fast food. But in aid of crystalline clarity, let me state this unequivocally: this is not the best burger – fast food or otherwise – in this city, let alone the country. It is, however, a well (not perfectly) executed Californian classic, certainly much better than you might expect from the kitschy look of the place.
Envision a slightly heftier, meatier iteration of the (still comfortably superior) Double-Double with a worse bun, and you’re in the Habit’s airspace. The bun is a simple white bread bun with the lightest kiss of sweetness. It was slightly dry but adsorbent enough to keep things from getting messy. The lettuce was shredded, flirting with the mayonnaise and the pickles hidden below, creating a piquant and crisp cushion to anchor the whole flavor profile of the burger. The tomato wasn’t exactly market-fresh, but gave a juicy enough punch. The caramelized onions were a nice touch, sweet and sharp on the tongue without being too soupy (though they were a bit stringy and hard to eat).
The Habit distinguishes itself – for better or worse – in the size of the patties. They are massive crisped discs of beef, with slabs of melted cheese draped over them like fire blankets. They are big enough to decisively take center stage in the flavor profile of this burger without completely drowning out the other ingredients. True to the burger’s name, they have a solid char, which gives a distant savory bitterness to the front-end of every bite. Sadly, they’re also a bit overcooked, which dries them out a fair amount. What the patties bring to the table in flavor, then, is sort of ruined by their textural deficiencies. And given their sheer size, these faults are tough to ignore, and aren’t really balanced by the burger’s other virtues.
Having said all that, I can understand why the Habit would have gotten itself something of a following. It’s an undeniably excellent deal at the price point – value-wise, it definitely falls in the same category as In-N-Out. And it probably deserves to be slotted in with that class of burgers that are “slightly better than fast food” but “not really gourmet.” And it handily beat out my elitist preconceptions. But you should quickly disabuse yourself of the notion that the Habit can lay a finger to In-N-Out. I have mulled over that result for a good long time, and have come no closer to a colorable explanation for it. But the fact remains that while I may never understand how the Habit beats out In-N-Out in the minds of the Consumer Reports readership, it isn’t difficult to understand the restaurant’s appeal. It may be overblown, but it isn’t undeserved.
Flavor: 8.40 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 7.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.50 / 10.00
Balance: 8.40 / 10.00
Total: 83.00 / 100.00