Thanks again for the well-wishes, private and otherwise. I'm all better and Cat is on the mend. Let's get back to the tasty foodings!)
Cat and I love a good burger. There's something about this all-American treat that, despite the depredations of major fast food chains, still appeals to my inner child. I don't know if it's the result of public school lunches or the McDonald's meals my parents used as the occasional reward, but I'm hard-wired to feel warm and fuzzy when biting into one of these classic bits of Americana.
Irvine, or "Stepford" as some of us like to call it, is replete with national fast food and restaurant chains serving burgers. However, Cat and I like our burgers to have a bit of bite, a bit of soul, and only a bit of grease. We're not fond of the dripping oil spills served up as burgers by many of the local eateries and, with the sole exception of In-N-Out, we avoid fast food like the plague. Fortunately for us, Irvine boasts its very own Knowlwood, where we can always get a great restaurant-style burger in a casual dining environment.
(Old blacksmith shop.)
Founded over fifty years ago by the Knowlton and Wood families, Knowlwood is an Orange County institution with five locations scattered behind the Orange Curtain. Although it qualifies as a chain, there's a certain quality to these short-order restaurants that sets them apart from the corporate theme eateries that infest the city. Step into one and it feels like you've stepped back in time to a simpler era.
(Irvine is historic?)
Part of Knowlwood's retro, American Gothic ambience comes from the chain's habit of purchasing and preserving interesting historic sites as locations for the restaurants. The Anaheim branch is located in an old barn. The Fullerton branch occupies an old train station. The Irvine branch, the most unique of the five, inhabits a former blacksmith and machine parts shop in Historic Old Town Irvine. Dating to the turn of the last century, the site includes buildings that were once a lima bean warehouse, granary, blacksmith shop, general store, and employee housing, The structures were renovated for use by a number of local businesses, and are the only remnants of Irvine's agricultural past as part of the Irvine Ranch.
(Pre-soccer moms, American trucks were smaller.)
The interior of the Knowlwood in Irvine incorporates many of the original artifacts into the decor, from this repainted truck to the blacksmith tools mounted in display cases on the walls.
(Cat getting our drinks.)
Large windows throughout the restaurant help light the dark, cavernous space. Signs and other fixtures hang from the heavy wood beams crisscrossing the high ceilings. The overall affect is early 1900s industrial. This was a place where men labored, bending steel to their wills and maintaining the machines that helped make Orange County the agricultural juggernaut it was during the days of John Steinbeck, Edgar Alwin Payne, and Granville Redmond. Despite the kitsch and sometimes garish additions used to make the restaurant more appealing to diners, you can feel the weight of the history in the building. If you have trouble visualizing, the La Quinta Inn next door houses an impressive collection of photographs from this time period.
The significance of the location aside, Knowlwood is a comfortable restaurant that evokes memories of 1950s era soda jerks, malt shops, and car hops without the contrived feel of corporate chains like Ruby's or Jonny Rocket's. It's simple American fare, prepared by short-order cooks and served in a casual environment. Cat and I find it very soothing.
Cat likes ordering the World's Best Cheeseburger. It doesn't quite live up to its name, but it's a good, filling burger that isn't greasy at all. The fries are great; nice and crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. They also avoid the feeling of having been cooked in too much oil.
When I'm feeling nostalgic, I order the Frisco Burger, which is served on grilled sourdough with caramelized onions and Thousand Island dressing. The meal hall at the UCI dorms used to cook up a rather decent rendition of this dish. It was one of the rare, palatable specials they served up during the ominously named, once a week "Premium Nights". We smuggled out plates of these when I was Freshman and stashed them in the dorm kitchen for late night study breaks.
(Ask for extra pickles.)
The Knowlwood rendition tastes surprisingly similar to the ones from my memories, although it's almost undoubtedly made with better quality ingredients. My only complaint is that it rarely has enough Thousand Island dressing, whose tangy flavor usually gets lost in the thick wedge of lettuce used to top the sandwich. I compensate by asking for extra dressing and pickles. They pick the Frisco Burger right up.
(It's healthy! Sorta...)
My favorite is the Grilled Mahi Mahi Sandwich, which features a hefty slab of mahi mahi fish and is served on a hamburger bun with lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce. The fish is always moist and when paired with a nice wedge of pickle, it's the type of sandwich that happy panda dreams are made of.
If I've got the hankering for something naughty, I add on an order of Fried Zucchini. Thick fingers of zucchini are breaded, deep-fried, and served with Ranch dressing. Probably the best and least healthy way in the world to enjoy squash.
Knowlwood - Classic American food in a great environment. The portions are large, the prices are low, and everything is freshly made on site. These are burgers the way they were meant to be enjoyed; fresh, flavorful, and grease-free.
The Bill (Multiple visits):
World's Best Cheeseburger (meal) - 6.69
Frisco Burger (meal) - 8.19
Grilled Mahi Mahi Sandwich (meal) - 7.59
Fried Zucchini - 3.09
Knowlwood in Old Town Irvine
14952 Sand Canyon Avenue (& the I-5 freeway)
Irvine, CA 92618
Anaheim, Fullerton, Laguna Niguel, and Santa Ana.
Read ChristianZ's review in Orange County Mexican Restaurants!