Pink Bellies takes crack at burger greatness

Pink Bellies' burger, inspired by In-N-Out's double-double animal style. (Hanna Raskin)

For many faithful fans of Two Boroughs Larder, the restaurant’s closing this weekend means the loss of their favorite burger. But the good news is it’s been a banner year for red meat patties in Charleston, from the tavern burger at Little Jack’s to the fantastic In-N-Out homage that Pink Bellies is currently serving.

Pink Bellies is a Vietnamese-themed food truck, so it’s not an obvious venue for a cheeseburger slathered with tangy sauce and crowned with pickle chips. But Vietnamese food in the U.S. and In-N-Out both have west coast roots, as does Pink Bellies’ owner Thai Phi.

“Every time I go back to San Francisco, the first and last stop from and to (the airport) is always the In-N-Out in Daly City,” Phi says. “I just wanted to share something else that I loved with Charleston: Growing up in San Francisco has had a huge influence on my cooking.”

Despite Phi’s adoration for In-N-Out’s animal-style burgers (the not-so-secret code for extra sauce, grilled onions and a patty griddled with mustard), its menu placement was a result of happenstance. The bakery from which Phi purchased baguettes for his banh mis closed for renovations, so he had to come up with an alternative sandwich to supplement the rice and noodle-based dishes.

“We experimented with banh mi tacos; open-faced pate scallion pancakes and banh mi pizzas to no avail,” Phi says. “They were either too hard to execute on the food truck or didn’t taste right to us.”

The burger tastes exactly right: it’s a brilliant mess of melty cheese, salty meat and sweetish pickles. But Phi is careful to distinguish what he makes from its iconic inspiration: “Their grilled onions are more finely cut and grilled much darker; the secret sauce is thinner and runnier; everything is cooked on a flattop grill and they don’t use sesame seeds.”

It’s a sign of how much Phi respects the original that he won’t even entertain the notion that he might have in some way improved upon it.

“Their animal-style double-double definitely reigns supreme,” he says. “In my eyes, their burger is Michael Jordan. But I hope to give a taste of In-N-Out’s animal-style double-double to Charlestonians who have never had it before, and fill the void for anyone who misses it.”

Pink Bellies sets up at the corner of Calhoun and St. Philip streets from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekdays, in addition to working special events. As always with mobile operations, best to check its social media feeds for precise hours and locations.