Politically, I'm an open-borders type of guy—but that only somewhat extends to my culinary side. I welcome immigrants and their various food traditions, but I remain a gastronomic Know Nothing when it comes to American food traditions migrating across the country. I like it that I can taste great shrimp and grits in South Carolina and only South Carolina. I don't want Five Guys coming to Southern California, just as I don't want In-N-Out in Dallas—that's Whataburger country, and it should stay that way.
Then again, I do admire the cojones of a restaurant such as Pee-Wee's Famous Hot Dogs and Hamburgers, which offers versions of two of my all-time regional specialties: the bacon-wrapped hot dog of the Arizona borderlands and New Mexico's green-chile cheeseburger. It's a great place even without those experiments—it has to be great in order to survive in Huntington Beach, which stubbornly, beautifully remains a burger-pizza-and-hot-dog type of town. And Pee-Wee's is probably the best of them all, a true neighborhood stop, the kind of place where children's drawings of anthropomorphic franks decorate the parts of the walls not filled with miniature woodies, classic posters and massive pictures of the food.
Its standard burger and dog represent plainness at its finest: thumb-thick patty, nicely toasted bun, wiener so juicy it's downright pornographic. Pee-Wee's slops various toppings on the burgers—grilled pineapple, crunchy onion rings, pungent blue cheese—to craft specials, and the same is true with the dogs: a tried-and-true Chicago dog (down to the sport peppers and sickly-sweet relish), a fine island take that puts the sausage on King's Hawaiian bread and decorates it with a refreshing island relish, and a chili dog straight out of a Little League double-header.
On to my bailiwick: Sonoran dogs and green-chile hamburgers. The latter uses honest-to-goodness peppers from Hatch, the mecca of New Mexico's chile cult, and Pee-Wee's serves them just as they are at Albuquerque's legendary Blake's Lotaburger: diced, sautéed, thrown onto the burger—and that's it. No other condiments are necessary: The Hatch's tang, its eventual burn and its impressive messiness make it a worthwhile alien in our land. The eatery's take on the Sonoran dog is almost as grand—although I loved the use of a bratwurst on the El Patrón, that sausage's assertive flavor drowned out the subtlety of the crema, the refried beans, even the grilled jalapeños. Then again, I scarfed down the giant in about five minutes, my regional-food restrictionism be damned.
This column appeared in print as “Beach Burger Bingo.”