Discussions about The Habit Burger Grill, the West Coast fast-patty chain spun out of a single Santa Barbara lunch shack in 1969, inevitably revolve around comparisons to other burger joints. The Habit is like In-N-Out. The Habit is like Fatburger. The Habit is like The Counter. Really. The Counter? The sleek burger bar from the not-to-distant future where you can compile your own humanely-raised Angus beef 2/3-pounder from a checklist of over 50 toppings and chase it with an Orval ale? The Habit is nothing like The Counter. The Habit ogles The Counter on its days off. There are no fat fries or patties the size of curling stones at The Habit--nix Fatburger too.
If you like, you can argue that The Habit is In-N-Out's shaggy, surfer brother. In-N-Out was born alongside the baby boomers in the hamlet of Baldwin Park, and has carefully safeguarded its neon-and-tile aesthetic and Biblical simplicity. The Habit came of age in the 60s next to the sea. Its earth tone interiors recall the paneling of counterculture-era Woodies and you're welcome to muck with your lunch however you like--bottles of A1, Cholula, Worchestershire and malt vinegar line a self-serve display at the pick-up counter.
Somewhere in a Habit burger is a thin puck of fire-grilled beef, but it can be tough to locate. The patty is perhaps 20 percent of the volume of the sandwich, lost among the overinflated bun, insipid slice of ethylene-gassed tomato and heaps of shredded lettuce like a missing Rolodex card. The characteristic char flavor that is The Habit's claim to fame is suspect. It has a distinct chemical tang akin to liquid smoke, almost as if it's been painted on the burgers before they meet the fire. If the crowds at the El Segundo Habit are any indication, such reservations are irrelevant. The staff likes to smile, the soda fountain flows with a satisfying quissssssssh and you can cajole the register girl into fixing you a Neapolitan ice cream shake--just like In-N-Out. Besides, if a quick-serve charburger is not your idea of lunch, The Habit offers grilled chicken, tuna sandwiches and Cobb salad, an item rarely, if ever, spotted on a Habit tray.
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The Habit Burger Grill: 311 N. Sepulveda Boulevard, El Segundo; (310) 524-9016. Several additional locations throughout Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura Counties.