Bennett: New Los Alamitos eatery is family-friendly like Hof's but mightier

Small but mighty. That's the premise of Los Alamitos' best new eatery, which at its most basic can be said to serve pint-sized burgers and hot dogs through mix-and-match style combo plates.

But Mighty Kitchen is anything but basic, its sliders and "rollers" not your everyday burger-shack variety. Its fries are not typical potato cuts either, smothered in everything from pizza sauce to pastrami sandwich fixings. A fried-chicken macaroni and cheese is topped with Cheez-It crumbles.

In fact, between the variety of internationally influenced comfort food, the bar fully stocked with small-batch spirits and sassy menu copy that constantly reminds you that "runts rule," Mighty Kitchen is one of the best original family-friendly restaurant concepts that O.C. has seen in years.

That it comes from the same family that started Hof's Hut as a beachside burger stand more than 80 years ago is just a bonus.

Hofman Hospitality Group was born out of Hof's Hut, the local diner chain, which after moving from the sand in Long Beach to an actual restaurant in Belmont Shore in 1951 eventually expanded its Dutch American vision for all-day breakfasts, home-cooked dinners and fresh-baked pies to 18 locations across Los Angeles and Orange counties.

In the 1990s, with Craig Hofman, Hof's Hut's founder's grandson, at the helm, Hofman Hospitality Group launched its first new brand since the diner days: Lucille's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que. Southern-style barbecue in an upscale table-service roadhouse proved to be a much greater lure than burgers and fries; there are now 20 Lucille's locations across three states, compared with just three Hof's Huts.

Mighty Kitchen sits in the shadow of one of these last remaining Hof's, just a few blocks from its Los Alamitos location, which still resembles a quaint European country home (Saint & Second, another original HHG concept sits on the site of the original Hof's in Long Beach). Perhaps you remember the Mighty Kitchen building from when it was SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza, a short-lived (and usually empty) franchise owned by Hofman Hospitality Group that closed abruptly last May.

By August, the façade had been reconfigured, the patio expanded to include more tables and fire pits, and the interior entirely flipped around to reveal a bright, open kitchen and a dining area loaded with wide booths anchored by a welcoming three-sided bar. Mighty Kitchen opened at the end of summer and has not sat empty since.

"Have you dined with us before?" is a common question to be asked at new restaurants with unfamiliar menus, but rarely do you actually need a spiel to know that all sauces are made in-house or to appropriately navigate a menu of chef-driven share plates.

At Mighty Kitchen, though, you should probably take the first-timer introduction, if not to get to know your affable server (on one visit, mine ended the talk by warning that he'll probably make a fool of himself before the end of the meal; later, I caught him singing to himself), then to familiarize yourself with the restaurant's various "powerhouse bites" and begin mapping a plan of attack.

Whether there are children in your group or not, starting with an order of Squeaky Cheese is never a bad idea. It's an appetizer of deep-fried cheese curds (with a Sriracha garlic mayo for dipping) that, yes, squeak across your tooth enamel when you bite into them. Smothered fries (like the Boom Boom Pig Fries) and wings (spicy garlic is the eatery's version of traditional buffalo) are also options, just make sure to save room for a combo. The combos are as amusing to customize as they are to eat.

Mighty Kitchen's entire premise is built around these combos, letting you get a side of fries when you choose two or three items from the laundry list of half-pint burgers and hot dogs, which reads like a futuristic version of the menu at Hof's original burger stand.

The classic all-beef cheeseburger with special sauce that first made Hof's famous still sits proudly atop the list of sliders. But then, an additional dozen or so bun-hugged burgies are stacked with Mighty Kitchen's versions of fried chicken waffle sandwiches, turkey banh mis, grilled cheeses and a spicy beef-and-chorizo burger topped with roasted pasilla peppers and a dash of Cholula. The seven-deep "rollers" menu (a roller is half the size of a regular hot dog) includes a Chicago-style bratwurst, a bacon-wrapped L.A. dog, an Italian sausage with peppers and a basic mustard-and-relish Ballpark Dog.

If combos aren't your thing, the simple flatbreads (meatless margherita), the not-so-simple macaroni and cheese (a breakfast mac includes hash browns and a fried egg) and the clever salads (soba noodles made in house!) let you build a meal unlike anywhere else. And since this is a Hofman Hospitality Group restaurant, there's also a steak dinner (as one of only three Mighty Plates), which for the casual setting will set you back less than $20.

To drink, the kids get ice cream shakes, floats or a glass of Puck's real sugar sodas. Adults can sip on a rotation of local craft beer or one of the affordable creative house cocktails, like a rum and cola made with house-spiced Stark Spirts rum, distilled in nearby Pasadena.

All this is a reflection of the four generations of ownership at Hofman Hospitality Group. Craig Hofman's four children now work for the family business, taking on tasks like marketing and operations (Brad Hofman), design and branding (Ashley Pedersen), construction and facilities (Ryan Hofman) and bar management (Dirk Hofman). In the last few years, they have brought contemporary sensibilities in food, drink and design to the company's newest ventures, attracting — unlike the undeniably senior-leaning Hof's Hut customers — younger crowds, from couples to families.

While Saint & Second is the most upscale concept yet from Hofman Hospitality Group — its sleek design and gastropub-Italian menu lives for the date night crowd — Mighty Kitchen is its most fun. It builds on top of the all-American burgers and dogs that Hof's has always been known for while making something entirely ideal for the Los Alamitos of today, proving that sometimes the smallest ideas can turn out to be the mightiest.

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SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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