Cruising down Huntington Beach's sandy oceanfront bike path should be relaxing , with onshore breezes and views of the surf. But each summer, I'm reminded that, instead, it's a constant flow of pure chaos.
Especially during peak weekend hours, the heavily trafficked pavement surrounding the city's bustling pier gets clogged with throngs of joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, bikini-clad teenagers and sometimes entire cooler-toting families, who meander unpredictably, blissfully unaware that they are now playing a game of real-life Frogger.
With sounds of crying children and the revving of gas-guzzling cars forever closer than the lapping of Pacific Ocean waves, the path is the antithesis of the serenity many might crave from beach days. And yet, short of battling for metered parking on PCH or paying $15 for a spot in the day-use lot, navigating the infernal crowds who congeal upon downtown Surf City U.S.A. is, for now, the only way to achieve Naugles nirvana.
Over Memorial Day weekend, the old-school Mexican American fast food chain — which was famously and triumphantly revived by intrepid Huntington Beach food blogger Christian Ziebarth — opened its first full-time public location in 21 years as a beach concession stand across from the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort.
Sure, there might be other places along The Strand to pull off and get grab-and-go Americanized Mexican food (can someone please explain to me the appeal of Dwight's "cheese strips"?), but this is currently the only place in Southern California serving combo cups (eaten with a spork!), orders of Hombre Nachos (real cheese!) and bun tacos (a Mexican sloppy Joe!) that taste pretty much the same as they did during Naugles' 1970s and '80s heyday.
As a bonus, you can eat it all from the chaos-free refuge of your beach towel, with a paperback in one hand and your toes digging into warm sand.
The story of Naugles' comeback is one of the most brilliant triumphs over corporate shenanigans the food world has ever seen. Ziebarth, a computer programmer by day, started blogging about Orange County Mexican restaurants in 2005. The next year, he penned a brief memorial on Naugles, the chain founded in 1970 by former Del Taco employee Dick Naugle, which was purchased by Del Taco in 1988 and slowly strangled to death over the next seven years.
At its height, Naugles served Americanized tacos and burritos alongside burgers and fries at over 200 locations across five states; the last Naugles closed in Nevada in 1995.
Ziebarth's post launched a frenzy of Naugles remembrances, fans who emerged with their own memories of the restaurant's custom not-so-hot sauce, reminiscences about refried beans and juicy ground beef in a flour tortilla and nostalgia for the nacho cheese, which was made from whole bricks of cheddar, not pulled out of a can.
The blogger met with the now Lake Forest-based Del Taco to let officials know of the responses to his piece and that the company was sitting on a brand that was sorely missed. But the company did nothing, eventually letting its claim on the trademark lapse back into public domain.
So Ziebarth took the Naugles name into his own hands — staking Twitter and Facebook accounts with a retooled version of the iconic brown, orange and goldenrod logo and launching a massive undertaking to reverse engineer recipes that he served at pop-up diners in preparation for a new Naugles, the first in 20 years.
Del Taco and its big-money lawyers fought back, with weak claims (and little proof) that the company intended to revive the brand itself. After four years in court, Ziebarth won the suit last March. Last summer, he opened what was dubbed the "Naugles Corporate Test Kitchen" in a Fountain Valley industrial park. The long lines on opening weekend caught Ziebarth and his crew by surprise, and the place was sadly forced to revert to weekend-only hours, leaving fans to brush their weekday cravings aside.
That is, until now.
Naugles by the beach is open seven days a week from dawn patrol through dinner rush. The menu also features an expanded lineup of burritos and cups, plus the debut of ice cream shakes and much-missed American food originals like the Ortega Burger, with diced ortega chiles, and the Naugleburger (nearly an In-N-Out double double, but with more char on the patty).
The test kitchen hasn't reopened since mid-May, but Ziebarth has said that its closure is temporary while he gets his sea legs with the new location.
On weekends, the rush of sun-seekers who clog the bike path can also clog Naugles' delicate start-up system, making the line to order and the wait for even a basic bean-and-cheese burrito extremely long.
For some superfans, the food might be worth the wait, but locals are probably better off trying to approach the new Naugles during the week, when the beachy bedlam recedes and the full expression of Dick Naugle's motto — "Prepare food fresh. Serve customer fast. Keep place clean." — once again has a proper home.
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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