California Burgers are bringing the American burger tradition to Australia

“I’ll sit down and close my eyes and take a bite, and if it takes me back to California …we’re on the right track.” 

It’s a pretty simple idea. Bread, spreads, pickles, two slices of tomato, lettuce, an onion ring, smashed patty, cheese. Melburnians are going crazy for American-style burger joints, and Greek-Australian Theo Tzavaras, founder of California Burgers in Windsor, is the craziest of them all.
If you walked into Tzavaras’ take-away souvlaki shop back in 2009 – when he and his wife Rosemary had just started their business – you could be forgiven for thinking it was your average, humble, late-night joint. But for those in the know, there were six mouth-watering, In-N-Out-style Californian burgers available from a secret menu.
“It was an ‘If you didn’t ask, we didn’t offer’, kind of deal. It started off very word-of-mouth, friends telling friends, only our regulars knew. I’m not a guy who likes to jump into things, I like to build up slowly”.
And build slowly he has, because almost ten years on Tzavaras’ enigmatic burger-selling style has created a cult following online, and the five-star reviews are coming in thick and fast.
“People expect a late-night food place to mean bad food. That’s not what we’re doing. In California, most burger places are open all day and all night,” he says.
Despite what you may think their long opening hours imply, fresh is a keyword for Tzavaras and his chefs. All ingredients are cut fresh every hour, and the six to nine thousand thin, 100g, Cali-style burger patties they make per-week are all hand-smashed by Tzavaras himself, from a recipe he will – almost – take to the grave.
“My patty mix is a secret, I haven’t even told my wife. I wrote it down on a piece of paper once in case anything happens to me, but it’s a secret. I make every patty myself.” Same goes for his signature house-made pink mayo.
Tzavaras transcends the word passionate. Even the lettuce in his burgers must only be hand-ripped right before burger assembly. Everything is made-to-order, and his new chefs are given a two-week trial run to make sure they’re cooking the burgers exactly the same as California Burgers has done since the beginning.
For those who have seen the 2016 Michael Keaton film The Founder, Tzavaras’ enthusiasm is reminiscent of the McDonald brothers and their revolutionary burger-making system.
And just like the original McDonald brothers, consistency is key to Tzavaras, who hasn’t changed his menu, suppliers or burger ingredients since he decided to make the full transition from souvlaki shop to burger joint in 2012.
“Out of nowhere, twice a month, I will ask my chefs to make me a burger. I could eat my burgers every day, but I don’t want to lose the taste for them. It makes my chefs a bit nervous but I’ll sit down and close my eyes and take a bite, and if it takes me back to California I’ll say one word, ‘perfect,’ and my chefs will know we’re on the right track.”
The name of the shop starts to make more sense the longer you spend talking to Tzavaras. He’s crazy about California. Since 2002, he and Rosemary have made more trips to LAX than they can count. Their first stop, every single time, is a burger shop called Astro Burgers.
“People don’t know this but Astro Burgers, which has been around since the ‘50s, is the place where people go after the Oscars… they bring their Oscar and they sit there and have a burger. It was the first burger I ever had in America. Now it’s my little tradition, whenever I go to LA, the first place I have to visit is Astro Burgers.”
Perhaps the best story of all is one Tzavaras tells of the regulars who know to order his one burger still only available via secret menu: The Carnivore. It’s basically every meat available in the shop – patties, plus souvlaki rotisserie meat, still operating as a nod to the shop’s souvlaki selling days.
“Do you know who orders The Carnivore the most? Victoria Police. I once asked them, how they eat two burgers when you’ve still got eight hours of your shift left? And they said to me, your burgers are so good, without that greasy after-taste you get from some other burgers we can still chase someone down afterwards.”

Find California Burgers at 42 Chapel St, Windsor.