3/29/2007

The Hat - Lake Forest, CA


(A nutritionist's nightmare.)


"Oh my God... We're all going to die young," Nahoko said as Mr. Big plunked down a cardboard container holding the largest portion of Chili Fries we'd ever seen. Cat and I could only nod in agreement as we stared in horror at the shoebox-sized block of fried potatoes, generously slathered with a lurid chili and shredded cheese topping. Cat had to look away as I gingerly took a piece from the rapidly-congealing mess and popped it in my mouth.


(Nahoko and Mr. Big.)


Cat, Nahoko, Mr. Big and I met over nine years ago in the UCI dorms. In a way, we grew up together as we made the painful transition from teenagers to adults. The close relationships we have with one another, and with the other members of our non-nucleic family, have given us strength and support over the years. So when Nahoko and Mr. Big decided to move to Lake Forest, Cat and I knew we'd be spending a lot more time there.


(Heart attack central.)


The Hat has been offering its "World Famous Pastrami" to Southern California residents for over 60 years. Starting with the original in Alhambra, this Southern California chain is as much a local icon as Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles. I'd been hearing rumors about this restaurant through the college grapevine for years. Tales of a late-night sandwich spot to the south where the portions of pastrami were huge and the horseradish sauce never stopped flowing. Once Nahoko told me that their new home was right down the street from the Hat's Lake Forest branch, I told her I'd be by for dinner that Sunday.


(Napkins are a necessity.)


My first thought when I stepped into the Hat was, "Hey, I'm in pretty good shape." I'm a big guy, but most of the clientele in the restaurant made me feel small. It was a warning of the onslaught that was about to ensue.

My second thought was, "Huh... Brown..." Not wholesome shades of brown, either. Tacky, eighties, yellow-toned browns that tell you you're about to engage in some seriously unhealthy eating. They were the colors I remembered from the McDonalds of my youth, before the big push to make fast food eateries more stylish.

My third thought was, "Who needs this many napkins?" Once I'd ordered from the large menu on the wall, I found out. As each item was prepared, a short, Mexican gentleman with a big moustache called out its name in a remarkably audible voice, sending us scurrying to pick up his grease-soaked payloads. Cat called him the "hamburger foghorn".


(Golden, brown, and delicious...)


In addition to our chili cheese monstrosity, we made the mistake of ordering the Wet Fries (with gravy). To avoid the specter of soggy fries, I asked for the gravy on the side.

The fries pleased me; hot and crispy on the outside, soft and mealy on the inside. Ramona Quimby would have been proud. There were just so many of them. So many fries. Enough to feed a small family, or to build an armada for the Liliputian navy.

The Hat's gravy, on the other hand, was a waste of calories. It was thick and mostly flavorless, with a strong, burnt-grease flavor. Completely not worth the extra dollar.


(Blefuscu life preservers)


To compound error upon error, we also got the Onion Rings. A hard shell of crunchy bread crumbs enclosed a molten interior of sweet onion that begged to be dipped in a little ketchup. The problem, once again, was the amount. I'm normally not in the habit of wasting perfectly good food, but we threw away over two-thirds of the "side dishes". There was just no way we were going to finish it all. It's not healthy for people to eat that much grease.


(Meh.)


The sandwiches were a little more reasonable. Cat's Cheeseburger, although uninspired and not particularly good, was at least normal-sized. It was also bit burnt.


(Meat ok.)


Mr. Big's Hot Roast Beef Sandwich was around eight inches long and filled with thin slices of the Hat's slow-cooked beef. He liked it, although I tasted a piece of the meat and didn't find it remarkable, one way or another.


(Worth it?)


In this case, I was actually disappointed by the size. This is one of the most expensive sandwiches on the menu. Look at the meat to bread ratio and use my pinky to judge the thickness of each layer. The sandwich would have filled me up, but I don't think it was worth the price.


(Double-fister.)


Nahoko and I decided to put the Hat's "World Famous Pastrami" to the test by ordering their Pastrami Dip. Each sandwich-half was larger than one of my fists and stuffed to the gills with their signature meat; no fillers. It was a daunting sight.


(Too much fat.)


The soft rolls and their waxed paper wrappers barely held back the tide of cured beef. The first bite was a salty burst of spiced ecstasy. But, as I continued to eat, I found myself increasingly bothered by the number of pallid fat nodules mixed in with the pastrami. Even using mustard and horseradish sauce to cut the richness, the cloying taste of the grease coated my mouth. Partway through the first half of the sandwich, I started to feel sick. By the time I finished, I was nauseous. I left the second half uneaten.

Dining at the Hat was an interesting experience. While most of the food I tried was decent, the sheer amount of it all disturbed me. In an age where childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions, and where two out of three Americans are obese or overweight, the Hat epitomizes everything that's wrong with fast food and the American culture of consumption. There's a place for food like that Hat's, but in moderation, not the excess that their portion sizes promote.

As we leaned back on contemplated all of the food we were about to throw away, Nahoko turned to me as asked, "Think you'll want to come back?"

"Maybe next year," I replied, taking another chili-cheese coated French fry.


The Hat - Tasty food with way too much fat. Stay away from their gravy and au jus. If you decide to order the pastrami dip or any of the sides, split them with friends.


The Bill (for four):

Chili Fries - 4.19
Wet Fries (with gravy) - 3.69
Onion Rings - 3.19
Cheeseburger - 2.89
Hot Roast Beef Sandwich - 6.49
Pastrami Dip - 6.49
Drinks (4 @ 1.79/each) - 7.16

Tax - 2.64

Total - 36.74


Flavor: C+
Ambience: D+
Service: C-
ROI: A+

Overall: C+


The Hat
23641 Rockfield Blvd.
Lake Forest, CA 92630
http://www.thehat.com


Other Locations:
Alhambra, Brea, Glendora, Monterey Park, Pasadena, Rancho Cucamonga, Simi Valley, Temple City, Upland


Read Elmomonster's Monster Munching review of the Hat here.

Read Cathy's mmm-yoso!!! review of the Hat here.

11 comments:

Hi CP - I think you captured the Hat perfectly...I do, or did enjoy the two fisted Pastrami Dip a few times...but the guilt, and the instant hardening of my arteries never allowed me to finish a sandwich...and yet about every other year, The Hat would be calling to me....

I'm overdue for that pastrami sandwich, which means it's been a good year since I had it last. It's not a sandwich I ever eat alone. Half of a half is usually enough.

And you're right those chili fries are ridiculous. They should put a warning that it feeds 5 championship eaters or 10 regular people or 20 members of a midget troup.

You've got to admit those are some of the best dang onion rings on the planet! I agree with most of the rest of your assessment. But the chili burger is pretty good. Also, I can recommend the turkey avacado sandwich (which seems out of place on this menu board).

I've never been linked before, that I know of..thanks, CP! :D Now...I feel the need to go on a long drive north...

Once again...I'm so glad I read your review! I think there's a hat up by the Brea Mall as well and always meant to stop in. I was told to hit Katella Bakery/Deli in Los Alamitos for top notch deli food...Chili fries....is there anything better? (add a cold brew) and it's heaven on earth!

Hey CP,

I am disappointed in The Hat's performance. I had hoped they would be on par with Langer's and Katz's for high quality pastrami. At least you saved me from wasting my cholesterol allotment.

I am so envious of what you refer to as the most expensive item on the menu, what roughly translates in UK cash as about £3.70 does not even buy you a Big Mac Meal over here! Great review!

I feel ya on the pastrami fat. I haven't had the Hat, but did go to Langer's for the first time a few weeks ago. It was delicious, but I could feel my arteries harden with every bite. Kinda took away some of the enjoyment.

Kirk,

Let's be honest. Neither of us is the kind of man who can resist a Two-Fisted, Hot Pastrami Dip. =D

Elmo,

It really is one of those, "This could feed an entire village somewhere else," types of places. I don't think they've ever heard of portion control.

Babbydaddy,

I admit they're some of the best dang onion rings on the planet. Thanks for the recommendations. I'll be sure to try them out.

Cathy,

No problem! =)

Deb,

Weeeel... Adding Cat always makes my meals better. =D

Cap'n Jack,

Few places are on par with Langer's or Katz's. Plus, the selection of sides just isn't comparable.

Freya and Paul,

Oh, the Hat has a great ROI score. Even for Southern California, the food is amazingly cheap and plentiful. That's sort of the problem. It leads to undervaluing our food and overeating.

Erin,

Langer's delicious pastrami fat can be controlled with their pickles, mustard, and sides. There's no stopping the pastrami fat at the Hat. It's very in-your-face.

- Chubbypanda

Oh noes! You just killed The Hat! That's my guilty pleasure. I go there when I'm in the mood for artery-clogging chili cheese fries. Yum! And I like their burgers too. But I will stay away from the onion rings and pastrami (never tried them and don't plan on it).

i've totally heard about this place, but sounds like it's not all that after your review. you have to try Johnnie's Pastrami in Culver City (it's near Tito's Tacos). it is AWESOME!