Messhall Kitchen

IMG_0025Before I start, a prefatory remark. I apologize for the long delay between posts. I have been busy being an enormous catch. File this under not-so-humble humblebrag. Point is, I’ve been too occupied reading internet comments about myself and looking longingly at my own picture to eat or write about burgers. Sorry not sorry. In related news: my being featured in that campaign hasn’t made women more attracted to me. At all.

ANYWAY. Let’s talk about Messhall.

For most people, Los Feliz triggers one of three thoughts:

Los Feliz Boulevard at rush hour is one of the most compelling pieces of proof of a malevolent God;

or

Do I pronounce it like the Spanish (Los “Fe-LEES”) or do I pronounce it like the transplants who live here say it (Los “FEE-liz”)?;

or

Oh, that’s a nice place to, like, raise a young family.

If you’re me, you also think of late nights with friends at House of Pies and the 101 Café after concerts at the Wiltern, but that’s because I’m a fat kid with a nostalgic streak. You might also think of Mexico City. Or Little Dom’s (whose burger this Project imminently will tackle). What you probably don’t think of is the flourishing restaurant scene. And why would you? Sure, Los Feliz is a cool part of Los Angeles, but it really hasn’t managed to produce a real blockbuster restaurant like Downtown, mid-city, or Silver Lake have. Unless you count Sqirl. Sqirl is good. Plus, saying you got brunch there makes you hip, plugged-in, and trendy. And you can sit with people who are too cool to go to Alcove (because, like, who even does that anymore?), but who want to wear their sunglasses while they take down their frittata, or seared polenta, or whatever.

(I actually like Sqirl, but targets don’t come much easier than their clientele.)

Listen, the point is the culinary pickings in Los Feliz are pretty slim. It’s not clear that Messhall Kitchen is aiming to change the culinary reputation of Los Feliz all by itself. But it’s safe to say that this place might augur a tectonic shift in the food scene here. Their menu offers quietly multicultural and just-inventive-enough takes on comfort foods. The sweet potato tamale weds sweet corn with slow-braised, drippy pork chile verde. The poutine features fries soggy after being slathered in short-rib and cheese curds. With time, places like Messhall could well change the culinary complexion of Los Feliz (interesting, because the co-owner, Bill Chait, owns Louise’s Trattoria, one of the most aggressively uninteresting culinary experiences you can have in Los Angeles County).

But Kevin, McAdoo, and I didn’t go to taste the ground floor of a sea change in the culinary profile of Los Feliz. We went to try Messhall’s vaunted burger. Well, and McAdoo was there to help defray the simmering perception that Kevin and I have a weird relationship (we aren’t dating).

The Place
Messhall Kitchen
4500 Los Feliz Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027

The Order: Mess Burger

The Price: $16 (before tax, includes fries)

The Burger
So okay, here’s a brief anatomical rundown of the burger. There’s a bun the size of North Dakota. Then, a substantial – say between one-third and one-half pound – patty drenched in what Messhall mysteriously dubs their “smokey sauce” (I’m resisting the impulse to make a crass joke about the forest fire safety bear), a sweet, runny, terra cotta condiment in which tangy belts of slow onion swim about. Crunchy discs of bread and butter pickles are also bathed in the sauce, but not enough to hide their charming, sweet and briny bite. A leathery sheet of nutty white cheddar is melted over the patty, almost to the point of liquidity.

If that sounds like a wonderful mix of flavors to you, I agree. Unfortunately, I can’t really report to you how they interact. The bun in this burger is so structurally dominant that it actually becomes physically intrusive. It is so enormous that, with every bite, it folds over and envelops the rest of the ingredients, masking their respective flavors and their interactions with one another. Whatever subtlety there is in this burger is completely obliterated by an overmassive bun that is kind of like a pushy salesman; it just won’t let anyone else get a word in.

In one sense, I get it: the patty is juicy and there is a lot of sauce on this burger. This bun avoids the problem of over-absorption and sogginess to which a less substantial bun might have been susceptible. But for God’s sake, there’s a happy medium in there somewhere. This was way over the top. Ultimately, I had to physically deconstruct this burger to actually taste the other ingredients. I removed the top bun and put it aside, and ate the burger open-faced with a fork and knife. Which made me look, well, not great.  And was pretty ridiculous. But I do what I have to do, damn it.

Anyway, the patty was very high quality. Our server confidently recommended that we order it rare, and the meat’s natural flavor could support that preparation. The sauce tasted fine but was poorly portioned; it crowded out the other flavors, such that everything else was muddied in a smokey-sweet haze. The pickles were present, but too inextricably linked to the sauce for their flavor to shine on its own. The onions were effectively lost in the soupy swirl of the sauce. The cheese complemented the rare beef well, providing a mellow counterpart to the assertive savor of the patty.

No one should be heard to criticize this burger for the quality of its ingredients. Even the fundamental ideas informing the assembly are sound. The problem is one of proportion. The burger is oversauced, but more importantly, features a bun that literally swallows the rest of the dish. The result is a dry, spongy front end to every bite that gives way to a muddle of ingredients too chewed-up to appreciate its individual components.

One more thing: this burger is very, very expensive. For sixteen bucks, I expect something truly memorable. In one sense, Messhall gave me that. I remember this burger, just not for the right reasons. I remember this burger because it’s bun got all up in my grill (literally), and didn’t let me taste anything else. I remember it because it tasted way too much like I was eating two uncharacteristically filling pieces of bread. I remember it because I actually thought, “Man, if I want a bunch of meat and shit wrapped in bread, I’ll eat a Hot Pocket. That takes three minutes, costs a few bucks, and I can do it in my sweats.” Not the right kind of memorable.

For now, I’ll reserve judgment as to whether Messhall portends a change in the culinary scene in Los Feliz. That’s a bigger question, one more effectively addressed by someone with a deeper knowledge than I. What I can tell you is this: this burger gets a lot of good ingredients together. The sauce is distinctive but also somehow familiar. There is real potential for something special here. But the experiment is botched due to its imbalance. So if Messhall does want to spearhead a change in the food future of Los Feliz, it probably won’t do it on the back of this burger, which is good – maybe even great – in concept, but just about average in execution.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.40 / 10.00
Value: 5.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.60 / 10.00
Bun: 4.10 / 10.00
Patty: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 4.00 / 10.00

Total: 75.90 / 100.00

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The Top Ten (So Far)

One of my readers asked me to post occasionally about the top ten best places I’ve been to thus far. That struck me as a good idea, so now I’m doing it.

How’s that for a snappy introduction?

Anyway, here it is. For the record, I’m not including my mother’s burger, which undoubtedly is the best burger – in Los Angeles or in this circumstellar habitable zone. I’m not including it because you can’t just show up at my mom’s house and order a burger. Or like, you could, but she’d probably call the cops.

  1. In-N-Out Burger (93.00 / 100.00)
  2. Super Burger (90.00 / 100.00)
  3. The Flintridge Proper (88.70 / 100.00)
  4. Badmaash (88.10 / 100.00)
  5. Pie ‘N Burger (87.10 / 100.00)
  6. Cassell’s Hamburgers (84.80 / 100.00)
  7. Ashland Hill (83.60 / 100.00)
  8. The Escondite – the “Fat Albert” (83.40 / 100.00)
  9. Original Tommy’s (82.60 / 100.00)
  10. Meat District Co. (82.40 / 100.00)

Obviously, the composition of this list will change a lot over time. There’s something for which you can wait expectantly.

So that’s it for now, then. Okay.

Bye.

The L.A. Weekly Burger Battles

I owe Shannon for the tip on this one. She managed to reach me through the thick, noxious, mind-altering fog of bar exam preparation (which is also what I’m offering by way of an excuse for the lack of reviews lately), and apprise me of something of which I was shamefully unaware.

So apparently, LA Weekly is running a burger bracket. They’ve put sixteen burgers in Los Angeles into categories (“divisions”), and they’re putting them up in a head-to-head, winner-advances tournament. It’s not clear how they chose these sixteen burgers. There were some on the list that really didn’t belong, and others that were undoubtedly snubbed. The first round is over, and here are a few quick thoughts heading into Round Two (the “elite eight”):

  • Ledlow beating out Belcampo Meat Co. is the most ridiculous miscarriage of justice since, well, this. Or this. Or this. Or this. God, that last one really hurt.
  • Actually, the whole “Fancy” bracket kind of sucks. Not only were both matchups incorrectly decided, those burgers decidedly, well, just aren’t that fancy. Though I suppose fancy is relative.
  • It’s not clear what the “New School” Bracket actually is, considering some of those places have been around longer than, say, Ledlow, and are decidedly classic burgers (I’m thinking the Oinkster).
  • I don’t know how these sixteen burgers got their feet in the door. This is arbitrary as shit.
  • If the final is anything besides In-N-Out v. Plan Check, this bracket is a crime on par with…well, this. Which isn’t to say that Plan Check should even be in the final, because…ugh, where do I even start?

Now, your humble correspondent was snubbed for an invitation to judge the competition. I’m as perplexed as you are. However, I’ve decided to do the next best thing and offer you my suggested votes for the next round. Do with this information what you will.

Fancy Division: Pick Petit Trois (because you can’t pick Belcampo (because Gillian Ferguson’s tastebuds apparently are less functional than the cuff buttons on an rented tuxedo)).

New School Division: Go with Plan Check. Neither of these places really represent the best of what I think of as “New School” burgers in Los Angeles, but it’s the better of the two.

L.A. Originals Division: Close, but it’s got to be Father’s Office. But the even closer call would be “Which of these places offers a more unpleasant dining experience?” That’s a genuine toss-up.

Fast Food Division: If you have to ask, we’re obviously not in one another’s lives. It’s In-N-Out. By a marathon of country miles, it’s In-N-Out.

This is one to watch closely. In the meantime, you definitely should go do your civic duty.

Meat District Co.

IMG_3286
Pasadena is blooming. During my lifetime, Colorado Boulevard has morphed from a “hide yo kids, hide yo wife” zone into a charming little hipster-free facsimile of Silver Lake. A sprawling Intelligentsia Coffee anchors it, abutted by Indiana Colony, home to Cool Haus, Pressed Juicery, the Pie Hole, this one place that sells tea and spices and shit, and this one place that sells flowers and shit. One of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles (seriously, it’s world-rockingly good), Union, just opened up on – you guessed it – Union Street. Oh, and there’s an Umami Burger too. And while those spots do attract their share of carefully (almost convincingly) disheveled beautiful people, it’s nothing like, say, Venice.

Umami Burger, however, isn’t the only burger place that’s made its way into Old Town. Meat District Co. came all the way from Sydney to open up a location just down the block from Slater’s 50/50 (another burger spot). Intrigued by the carnivorous focus and urban-chic décor, Kevin and I went on a romantic little lunch date there. Kevin ordered for me, we split a garden salad…it was kind of adorable. Don’t hate us ’cause you ain’t us.

Anyway, our server was quick to a) conclude that Kevin and I were the cutest couple in the place, and b) tell us that this burger had been named the second best burger in Pasadena this year. And while Pasadena is a fine city with many a fine burger, bragging about that accolade (totally sua sponte, by the way) just felt a little pathetic. It’s kind of like the girl who tells you on the second date how into sports she is. It’s like, I get it. Just watch a Laker game with me, and I think you’ll prove the point. And plus, when a girl talks about being “into sports,” she really means she’s into posting Instagram photos of herself wearing child size jerseys and impossibly short shorts. The point is this: girls who are really into sports don’t talk about it.

Besides, who brags about second place, right? Anyway.

The Place
Meat District Co.
69 N Raymond Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91103

The Order: Cheese Burger and fries

The Price: $9.95 for the burger (lunch special) and $2.00 extra for the fries (yeah, I know – stupid)

The Burger
While I maintain it is still thoroughly lame for our server to have bragged about their micro-regional silver medal, I’ll happily concede (and report) that Meat District Co. makes a good burger. The patty is a half pound of Harris Ranch chuck and short rib. The chuck gives it a grill-ravaged hardiness, while the short rib keeps things tender and subtle. The bun is a well-toasted brioche with a honeyed roundness to it. It holds up well to all the toppings, which cling to it without soaking in. The aged cheddar is nutty, mellow, and substantial. The little gem and the tomato add a breezy freshness. The pickles, however, are insipid, and the house sauce – whatever it is – is overused and too heavy on mayonnaise. Worse still, the caramelized onions get lost in the monsoon of sauce, so their sassy sweetness – of which I caught just glimpses – is muted.

That last criticism is a little misleading, though. While the sauce is a bit overdone, this burger actually is quite well-balanced. In fact, the loss of the caramelized onions might actually have been a good thing, because they might have seemed a little out of their element here. See, this is fundamentally a traditional burger (raw onions would have worked well, adding the sharpness that the pickles didn’t quite bring). Caramelized onions would have stood out for the wrong reasons. So sure, the balance of this burger probably is accidental, but it makes for a happy accident.

At $9.95, Meat District Co. is a pretty good lunch option. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable paying $13 for it (which is the dinner rate), and the $2.00 extra for fries is un peu ridiculous (parenthetically, the fries were excellent). But coming out with a burger of this size and caliber for less than ten bucks is an unequivocal win. The lunch special is great value for money. The fries aren’t, but that’s a conversation they can have on the Los Angeles French Fry Project.

(On that note, a brief aside: some readers have pointed out that I don’t write about French fries enough. Leaving aside the fact that you should know by now that I respond horribly to criticism of any variety, I feel like only people from Idaho really care about potatoes enough to wax poetic about them and last I checked, I’m not Jack O’Connor.)

Anyway, where was I?

Whatever. Here’s the bottom line. This burger gets a lot of the big things right: the patty and cheese interface well together. The garnishes are thoroughly serviceable. The sauce is overbearing, but luckily ends up masking what otherwise might have been an unpleasant oddity. Things sort of fall into place and work themselves out, in spite of the apparent lack of much intentionality. That may not inspire confidence in the creative or culinary chops on display here, but the end product tasted good enough that I don’t care too much.

There are a lot of great places to get a meal in Old Town. There are a few places to get a burger, including the now national titan Umami Burger (when did that happen, by the way?). In spite of the abundance of options,  though, I’ll consider going to Meat District Co. for lunch again. But I’ll skip the fries. They just dampened the mood.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.90 / 10.00
Balance: 8.60 / 10.00

Total: 82.40 / 100.00

Ox & Son

IMG_3290Admittedly, I’ve been pretty tough on Santa Monica. But dammit, when this many places are ripping off Father’s Office, it’s kind of hard not to talk a little shit. Anyway, Ox & Son is another Bradley Miller spot. The name is a sentimental tip of the cap to his dad Gary (a butcher nicknamed “Ox”) who taught young Brad to dismember animals before the lad was old enough to drive. Which is, well, you know.

Anyway, Ox & Son is one of an ever-swelling multitude of farm-to-table spots in Santa Monica (and Los Angeles more generally, actually). The menu is adventurous but hit or miss. The yellowtail crudo is worth a second look. The sticky pig cheeks are insipid. But the burger gets a fair amount of love from the locals.

I feel like I say that – “the locals love it!” – every time I write about a burger I eat in Santa Monica. And I think part of that has to do with the love affair that people who live in Santa Monica have with Santa Monica. While I appreciate how lovely it is to love where you live, there’s a whole city out there, y’all. And I promise you, it’s awesome. You should, like, go to Hollywood sometime. They have burgers there too. Some of them don’t mismanage arugula.

But anyway. I’ll spare you another trip down that particular rabbit hole – nobody needs me getting all self-righteously analytical about Santa Monica again. Let’s talk about this burger. We celebrated twenty-some years of Tessa with Scott, Kevin, Deb, Silva, Shant, and (eventually) Greg. I took the opportunity to try out a new burger.

The Place
Ox & Son
1534 Montana Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90403

The Order: O&S Burger

The Price: $20 (before tax)

The Burger
I don’t know, y’all. Part of me feels like a hater. But this is another Santa Monica burger at a new-ish Santa Monica restaurant that presents as original a burger with fancy cheese (raclette here, which is a smooth, creamy number you might have encountered if you’ve ever eaten fondue), arugula, and caramelized onions. Like, honestly, we’ve all been to Father’s Office. We get it. That burger is popular. Now make something of your own.

The O&S Burger, then, is ultimately little more than an overpriced facsimile of what they make at Father’s Office. The patty is a chuck/short rib mix made with beef from the Central Coast (they wouldn’t get more specific than that). It’s tender and reasonably flavorful, but at $20, it damn well better be. The raclette is a distraction. It’s like someone spilled fondue on your burger. The result is a messy, overpowering cheese presence. Raclette is a weird choice, honestly. It’s melty but doesn’t give much in the way of distinctive flavor. It doesn’t meld well with the beef, which means the gooey shitshow decidedly is not worth it.

The arugula is there. And it’s arugula. And it’s on a burger. And given that Ox & Son is like the fourth restaurant in its zip code to put arugula on a burger and then drop the mic, it’s no longer surprising or praiseworthy; it’s now a meme. It’s got a bitter, peppery snap to it. It was fresh enough not to bother, but wilted a little in the pit of hot raclette quicksand in which it was embedded. The onions were zeroes on the palate. I couldn’t tell you anything about them. The truffle aioli sounds way better than it is – gasping notes of truffle submerged beneath a tsunami of mayonnaise. It’s the best, most original idea on the burger, but the execution honestly is kind of ham-fisted.

Most people can’t really articulate what makes Father’s Office so good. They like it because it’s the best burger many people know about in Santa Monica. Because overzealous and pretentious foodies gushed about it on Yelp. But the reason Father’s Office is good is because they took risks with skill. They were the first to incorporate arugula in a serious way. They took a different approach to patty construction. They use rolls instead of buns.

But all that stuff is kind of beside the point. The reason Father’s Office is good is because their risks are all calculated. They are purposeful in their deviations. I got the impression that the folks at Ox & Son realized, “Oh shit, this burger might be too similar to the Father’s Office burger, mightn’t it?” In response, they used a meltier cheese and tweaked the aioli a bit. In the main, that’s not enough of a change to fool anyone who’s paying a scintilla of attention. But more to the point, it compromised the burger. The raclette masked the flavor of the beef. The aioli went to war with the arugula, and in that fog of war, the onions got lost.

Ox & Son undoubtedly is vying for the crown of Best Burger in Santa Monica. Unfortunately, they aren’t even really presenting serious competition for the crown of Best Burger on Montana Avenue.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.40 / 10.00
Value: 5.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 5.90 / 10.00
Bun: 7.50 / 10.00
Patty: 8.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.90 / 10.00
Balance: 6.20 / 10.00

Total: 69.90 / 100.00

Super Burger

IMG_3289To our wild and crazy generation, Hidden in Plain View describes a (very intense, vaguely scary, definitely bad) post-hardcore band from New Jersey. But in the age of Yelp and Urbanspoon and countless food blogs purveyed by narcissistic, self-obsessed foodies screaming ignored into the aether of the interwebs (WHO NEEDS THEM, AM I RIGHT), the phrase has kind of lost its currency in the culinary world.

One thing that kind of sucks about the electronic age is that the thrill of discovery is blunted by its inevitability. It’s refreshing, then, when a truly magnificent place slips through the e-cracks and manages to escape your attention. Then, you hear about it from an actual human being, you go there and discover a place to which you know you will return countless times in the future, and it feels pretty remarkable. It’s nice to actually find something, rather than just passively accumulating and half-processing information.

My friend Andy told me about Super Burger. His experience there left him pleasantly shocked. Because here’s the thing: This place has been around forever – like, seriously, decades – but has managed to escape the detection of anyone in our social circle (and my friends and I are not disinterested in burgers, in case you’d not noticed). I was skeptical going in; between the internet grapevine and my own deep roots in Pasadena, it was nothing short of inconceivable that I would have failed to hear about a place this good.

So we went. I got an avocado bacon cheeseburger. We agreed that Serena Williams is a) the finest individual athlete in America who isn’t named Michael Phelps, b) that she makes it nearly impossible to like her in spite of that fact, and c) lots of people who don’t like her are probably just uncomfortable seeing a minority succeed at what has so traditionally been a “white sport.” And we also agreed that the writing about her heading into the U.S. Open is going to be insufferable. Because ESPN. And we also agreed that Bill Simmons seems dangerously close to becoming a citizen (or at least a permanent resident) of Whiny Bitch Victim Complex Town.

What can I say? It was a productive lunch.

The Place
Super Burger
458 N Altadena Drive
Pasadena, CA 91107

The Order: Avocado Bacon Cheeseburger, Coke.

The Price: $8.95 (approximately)

The Burger
After my first bite, the thought that occurred to me was, “How the hell did I miss this?”

There are lots of different ways to categorize burgers, but patty size is a useful way. Some places – In-N-Out pops to mind – feature thin patties. They maximize surface area and season their meat really well. Then, there are what I think of as pub-style burgers, with thicker patties that depend more heavily on the flavor of the meat and the grill.

In-N-Out sets the bar for the thin patty burger. It’s a benchmark. Now, I haven’t eaten at Super Burger enough to be conclusive about this, but let me tell you one thing. This is the best short-order burger I have eaten at any place not called In-N-Out. I think the most telling thing here is that I would frame this review by comparing this place to In-N-Out.

The patty is a roughshod, hand-packed monster, probably weighing in at no less than a half-pound. There’s no short rib or brisket anywhere near this thing – it’s a budget burger – but somehow, it manages to be juicy, intensely flavorful, and delicious. The bun is wholesale. The lettuce and tomato are throwaways, the Thousand Island adds a necessary tangy punch but is otherwise unremarkable. The onions are just fine but should probably have been grilled (I’d imagine they’d have done this had I asked). The cheese is firmly B-plus stuff. The action happens with the four massive wedges of astonishingly fresh, firm, flavorful avocado and the perfectly crisp, sumptuously undulating strips of bacon. The interplay between this and the ever surprising beef is nothing short of astounding. Seriously.

Another point: Conventional wisdom will direct you to get the teriyaki burger. I have it on good authority that you should ignore the conventional wisdom. I can tell you that the avocado bacon cheeseburger is, by fast food standards, revelatory. Sure, it’s not a gourmet, grass-fed, organic, dry-aged situation. But over the decades that Super Burger has sat on that corner, leaning into a residential neighborhood, they apparently have perfected their craft. If In-N-Out sets the bar for the thin patty burger, Super Burger may well set the bar for the pub style burger.

I could wax superlative about this place for a while. I could tell you how you have to haul ass to Pasadena (and then keep driving east once you get to the cool part). I could Come Full Circle and tell you how this burger reminded me how good it feels to really discover a new place without the crutch of the Internet, or how this burger is like the Serena Williams of pub-style burgers, only without the shitty attitude (or reactionary racist blowback). And all that is true. But in all honesty, this is just a completely delicious burger that you should eat whenever you have a chance but are short on time.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.50 / 10.00
Value: 9.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 9.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.80 / 10.00

Total: 90.00 / 100.00

Where it all started

The Chandrasoma Burger
The Chandrasoma Burger

Let’s be perfectly frank. It’s a little weird for one guy to be this obsessed with hamburgers. When I tell people about this site, many of them immediately want to know how I came to fall for burgers.

Like so many other obsessions, this one traces back to my childhood. My mother always has been the most gifted chef I know. She has an unparalleled culinary instinct. Her dishes, while consistently executed with surgical precision, have not lost their unstudied charm. She understands how flavors and textures interact, and this familiarity with food and spice has matured over years of cooking.

When I was a young pup, before my (now hard-charging) taste for Sri Lankan food had fully developed, my mother’s hamburgers were the ne plus ultra of culinary indulgence. I used to anticipate them with drooling eagerness. They were my first request whenever I was given the chance to choose what we ate for dinner. I would scarf them down as if I hadn’t seen food for weeks.

As time wore on, my appreciation for my mother’s Sri Lankan food deepened. I loved her complex biriyani. I could subsist for days on her simple, sweet-and-fiery pork curry, plated with creamy parippu (lentils) and potato curry. Her cashew curry remains the finest dish I have ever eaten. Between that and her decision to stop eating beef, we ate burgers less frequently.

Recently, however, my mother discovered ground bison, and returned to making burgers. And as I ate one last week, I realized that her burgers, in my mind, are the benchmark against which I judge all others. My mother’s burgers were the sparkplug for my love affair with the burger, and they’re still my favorite burger in Los Angeles (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Am I biased? Shit yes.

But make no mistake, this is a face-meltingly delicious burger. The bison patty is thick and pan-grilled, with chopped Serrano chiles packed into the meat like flavorful little land mines. Left to ruminate in its own juices as it cooks, the patty absorbs them and spits them back out to sizzle and surge back in. The meat takes on a powerful and crackling flavor that is enchanting and complex, but anchored by the tender sweetness of the bison. Atop the patty is crumbled pungent blue cheese hidden beneath a blanket of smooth melted cheddar.

Blades of incendiary red onion come next, just a few, just to add a little sharpness into the mix. On top of that is a massive solitary disc of green tomato that is alive with calm, sunny sweetness. Then there is avocado, perfectly fried bacon, hot pickles, a solitary pickled red chile, and – her signature – a copse of cilantro. All the vegetables are drizzled in salt, pepper, and sugar that has been suspended in a tart matrix of lemon juice. Oh, and house-made apple chutney. Yeah, I know. That’s a lot of delicious shit sandwiched between two jalapeño buns that she barely glazes with honey dijon mustard. And it works beautifully.

C’est ci bon.

The fact that I was raised on burgers like this should shed some light onto a) my abiding love of burgers, and b) my nefariously exacting standards regarding the same. I have my mother to thank for introducing me to this remarkable food, and for teaching me what it should taste like. You have her to thank for being subjected to the meandering and incoherent ramblings of the man she turned into an astonishingly narcissistic culinary sociopath.

My mother asked me not to rate this burger. But how could I not?

The Ratings
Flavor: 10.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 10.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 10.00 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 10.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 10.00 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 100.00 / 100.00

Yeah, I love the shit out of my mom. Get over it.

Black Hogg

IMG_3248Eric Park doesn’t care what kind of food you like. He doesn’t care what you’re in the mood for. He doesn’t care whether that basmati rice is too fragrant. He doesn’t care if the red sauce is too spicy. He doesn’t care if you don’t know how to approach his offering of charred street corn with a salty dusting of crumbly cotija cheese and rich marrow (though, admittedly, his wait staff does). He lives in a world without borders, a world where wagyu makes brilliant asada, where tacos totally can sit on the table right next to fragrant cauliflower chana masala, where he makes weird bacon popcorn with silky maple crema and serves it like it’s as normal as bread and butter (it’s not – it’s also way more delicious).

Eric Park, as it happens, doesn’t really give a shit about you. He gives a shit about food. Black Hogg, an innocuous hole in the wall on Sunset in Silver Lake, is that rare place where the idiosyncratic feels natural and unforced, where all the food’s quirky personality emanates from the honest joy the chef takes in experimenting, not from some gross culinary exhibitionism.

Eric Park, incidentally, is also pretty into bone marrow. At least, it’s a centerpiece of two of the most popular dishes on the menu – the aforementioned street corn and the so-called marrow burger. I went with Kevin, my impossibly cool parents, my cousin, and her husband to give this burger a whirl. We walked in after a day at the beach, sunstroked and languid, withstood an avalanche of leering judgment from the assembled hipsters, and ordered up.

The Place
Black Hogg
2852 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026

The Order: Marrow burger, medium rare

The Price: $18 (before tax)

The Burger
This is a cool burger. It’s not conventional. The flavor profile is unbalanced and it hits hard on the palate. There are two different kinds of onions – a bundle of pink-pickled scythes and a tangle of stewy caramelized strips, the latter of which evokes French onion. Underneath it all, there is a bosk of bitter watercress.

Let’s talk about the marrow first, because you’re probably wondering. The burger comes out brash: there’s a fat bone right next to it, full of gelatinous marrow. It’s not immediately obvious how the two go together, so the best thing you can do is wing it. Scoop out the marrow with a spoon, and sort of smear it on the inside of the top bun. I thought of the marrow the sauce, rather than a topping. This is primarily because there is no other sauce, but also because the marrow really just forms a thin film on the bun. It’s not present enough to think of it as a topping.

The patty is Black Hogg’s “secret house burger blend” (whatever that means). The chef recommends medium rare, which comes out stoutly charred and dark pink on the inside. While I don’t know what the secret blend is, I can report that it’s a solid slab of meat, flavorful, juicy, and full of personality. The bitterness of the charred exterior gives way to a rich interior, but it all kind of tussles with the onions and the watercress. Then the brioche steps in, sweet and wonderful, to soak everything up.

Ultimately, the problem is one of balance. There’s a little too much sharpness and bitterness in this burger, without enough offsetting mellowness. Bitterness (watercress) follows sharpness (onions) follows bitterness (the patty). There is no calming cheese, there is no sauce to soothe the cut of the char or the onions or the watercress. There are only traces of the fatty marrow on the burger, which is about the closest thing this burger has to “sauce.” Nor is there any cheese to blunt the harsher elements of the flavor profile.

It’s a funny thing: while there is a lot going on in this burger, there’s also a lot missing. What is there truly is fascinating, complex, and compelling. But the burger could stand to be rounded out by some other flavors. Cheese and a creamy sauce would do a lot to counteract the otherwise predominantly bitter toppings, and would amplify the presence of the marrow a bit. As it is, this burger is an interesting experiment, but sort of self-defeating. It overshadows its strengths with a unidimensional collection of toppings. Rather than offsetting the toppings, the patty contributes still more to the bitter dimension.

I want to stop for a second. This burger wasn’t transcendent, but it was just about the only thing on the menu that wasn’t. This restaurant is shit-kickingly good. Every single other thing we had was conceived and executed to perfection. You absolutely will not regret going to Black Hogg. Basically, this is an unforgettable restaurant that happens to serve a, well, not-unforgettable burger. But don’t let that deter you. You have to go check this place out, even if you don’t really have to try the burger.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.60 / 10.00
Value: 6.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.80 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.10 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 4.70 / 10.00
Balance: 7.80 / 10.00

Total: 81.10 / 100.00

The Flintridge Proper

IMG_3237When Courtney texted me today and asked me if I wanted to go to Flintridge Proper to help her put off packing for a bit (she’s moving to Pasadena, the genius), I thought it would just be a good opportunity to hang out with her, grab a drink, and unwind after a long (half) week of studying. Little did I know, it would bring out the most judgmental iterations of both of us. Out of consideration for her (and okay fine, myself), I’ll refrain from relating many of our reactions to the people around us at The Proper. Instead, I’ll limit my discussion to their excellent burger.

About an hour later, Courtney and I were sitting in the lounge area at Flintridge Proper, backs to the window on a long leather bench, looking across at chairs upholstered in some unidentifiable dusty tangerine colored fabric, and in the midst of a pretty interesting group of people.

To our left: the late-thirties couples clinging desperately to the gasping remnants of their social lives. One couple brought their kid, a blonde thing, creepier than he was cute. The men, clad in pre-torn jeans and sporting goatees that haven’t been okay since 1993, spoke far too loudly about nothing in particular. The women gulped sauvignon blanc with the obvious relish of the exhausted La Cañada working mom.

To our right, an Asian-American couple with their two children (whose penchant for straddling one another really creeped Courtney and me out). They were a pair of holy terrors, two boys who had brought half their toy box and all of their insane, high-volume energy. When they weren’t busy breaking glasses and crowing like roosters (I swear to you, none of that is lies), they were running barefoot back and forth on the seat of the booth, while their father straightened his fedora and drained his martini.

Faced with this scene, we ordered some stiff cocktails (who wouldn’t?), settled in for a long couple hours, and split a burger.

The Place
The Flintridge Proper
464 Foothill Boulevard
La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011

The Order: Proper Burger with added bacon and avocado

The Price: $20 (before tax)

The Burger
Given our surroundings, this burger must have been pretty damn good, because I left The Proper wondering when I could come back and eat it again.

Honestly, the burger is kind of a basic bitch, but it’s really emblematic of the modern trend: an upscaled (and yeah, absurdly expensive) iteration of a familiar classic. This is not a hamburger restaurant. It’s a bar that happens to serve a hamburger. And that’s important to bear in mind; this certainly is not a place that advertises itself as a hamburger place (like, say, Cassell’s, despite the fact that the culinary philosophy behind their respective burgers is similar in some ways).

By now, you’re almost certainly wondering what drove me to call a cheeseburger a “basic bitch.” Well, let’s just say this: it’s the perfect burger to eat the week of the Fourth of July. In a lot of ways, it’s a classic American burger: The patty is a monster – half a pound of sizzling beef blanketed with sweet, bubbly housemade American cheese (The Proper makes a lot of things in house: cheese, gin, bitters, ginger beer – it’s quite something, if you’re into that sort of thing, which, well yeah, I totally am). There’s cool shards of shredded lettuce and (utterly outstanding) Thousand Island. Then there’s succulent, curly bacon, crisp and crimson at the center, the edges fried to a peppery black, embedded in slender, silken half-moons of avocado. The bun was a golden brioche, rich but not heavy, sweet but not overpowering.

Give me a second here to gush about that thin, piquant glaze of Thousand Island on the top brioche bun. I’m not at all sure what went into this. It was present without being unobtrusive. Smooth but not runny. Tangy, but with enough creamy bitterness to give it some distinctive personality. Like I said, I don’t know what the hell went into this stuff, but I wanted more of it. As subtle as it was, it was a highlight of this already very excellent burger.

If I’m complaining about something, it’ll be price. This is a $20 burger. I don’t remember the last time I’ve spent that much on a burger. But, if I’m being frank, I honestly don’t much care. While I won’t say that it’s unequivocally worth $20, I can say that I don’t feel all that terrible about spending that money. Maybe the best way to put it is this: I will be back to The Proper for another burger. Hopefully without the side order of noisy toddlers.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.00 / 10.00
Value: 7.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.30 / 10.00
Balance: 9.40 / 10.00

Total: 88.70 / 100.00

Ashland Hill

IMG_3219Two things will occur to you immediately when you walk into Ashland Hill. First, you likely will think something to the effect of, “How am I going to get a seat at this place?” Seating at Ashland Hill approaches Father’s Official levels of maddening awkwardness. After hovering like a stalker for twenty to thirty minutes around a group of hipster-y, Venice-y surf nerds (who, parenthetically, are engaging in a troubling amount of PDA), you eventually notice another group of people get up, and you bolt over to grab their vacated table like it’s the golden snitch.

The next thing you note is a mural over the far end of the patio. It appears to be Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Next to Humphrey and Lauren is a Raymond Chandler quote: “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.” Egregious hanging prepositions aside (Shame on you, Ray; and shame on you, Ashland Hill, for memorializing such deviant grammatical practices on your walls), it isn’t immediately (or subsequently) clear whether that’s a tip of the cap to Santa Monica, or an oblique indication that going to Ashland Hill is the brand of bad habit to which Santa Monica is so happily conducive. But I guess that’s neither here nor there.

Otherwise, Bradley Miller’s spot is pretty much what you’d expect. It’s appropriately trendy for a beer garden located in that soft space where Santa Monica starts to melt into Venice. The hostess is sweet but superfluous (she doesn’t seat you; she merely explains the fact that sitting and eating at that restaurant is a logistical clustercuss). The service is competent and unobtrusive. The food comes out fast. The staff are friendly enough that you have a perfectly pleasant experience, but not so friendly as to allow you to forget that they’re way cooler than you. The clientele oozes practiced quirkiness.

Regardless of all that ballyhoo, this much is certain: There are many places in Santa Monica the Project is slated to try. Ashland Hill generated more excitement among the locals than most of them. So on Wolf’s last night in town, he, Alexandra, Rumi, Megan, and I went to see what all the fuss was about.

The Place
Ashland Hill
2807 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405

The Order: Ashland Hill Burger, medium rare (herb and parmesan fries included)

The Price: $17 (before tax)

The Burger
It seems pretty clear that Ashland Hill was looking to do something a bit different here. There are a lot of singular flavors here, and they interact in novel ways. The best way to understand it, I think, will be for me to describe the individual pieces, and then talk about one interaction that stuck with me.

First, there’s the meat. Ashland Hill employs a strange pressing technique. I don’t know what it is, but the patty is texturally and structurally distinct from any other burger I’ve ever had. In the first place, it’s coarse. But more notably (and kind of relatedly, actually), the patty seems to fall apart – not melt, but actually crumble – as you eat it. And that seems intentional.

It’s weird, but it works. You bite into the burger, and the patty kind of fragments in your mouth as you eat. It’s very strange, but it also exposes a larger surface area of meat to your mouth, which can never be a bad thing. The result? You really taste the beef, even through all the other ingredients. The patty is topped with a thick melted slab of what is advertised as sharp white cheddar cheese (but which is, in point of fact, quite mild-mannered indeed), and it sits atop a bed of cool watercress, leafy and distantly peppery.

Next, there is the paprika aioli. It is a bright, burnt orange, adding a nice burst of color. The sunny, dusty, spicy flavor of paprika is very present, even through the eggy base of the sauce. Though it isn’t half bad, the aioli is probably the most confusing part of the burger, if I’m being honest. But more on that in a hot minute.

I suspect Ashland Hill is proudest of the bacon and red onion jam that coats the patty (or they should be). It’s titanic. Chunks of bacon and onion hang suspended in a sweet, vaguely fruity matrix. Internally, this jam plays on the sweet-savory contrast, and serves a similar role within the context of the entire burger (on balance it’s sweet, so in its capacity as a topping, it complements the other savory components). It also adds an interesting textural subtlety to the burger.

Yeah, this is some rococo shit.

By far the most important interaction in the burger is that between the jam and the aioli. While I’m hesitant to call it a flaw, I conclusively can say the decision to include both didn’t make a ton of sense to me. The flavors butted heads, because the paprika couldn’t coexist peacefully with the sweet little ropes of onion or the bricks of bacon. It’s not entirely clear why the aioli needed to be a paprika aioli as opposed to…anything else.

Using multiple sauces – or sauce analogues, like jams or relishes – is a risky proposition. It demands careful balancing and perfect proportioning. While the sauces on this burger seem to have been conceived really carefully, it’s less clear that the decision to put them together was as well thought-out. Ultimately, they get in each others’ way. For my money, I’d ditch the aioli altogether. Luckily, that’s an option; modifications are welcome, and they’ll happily hold the aioli.

That minor balancing gripe aside, this is a good burger. The beef is good and well-assembled. The ingredients are fresh and well prepared. The bun is eggy, rich, and hardy. It holds up well to the substantial slab of meat it’s tasked to contain, and supplies its share of flavor without being too intrusive. The only other complaint, then, is that it’s really expensive. At seventeen bucks, it’ll put a dent in your wallet. That said, it’s a huge meal. I came hungry and ate half of mine (for reference, Wolf came feeling normal and demolished his inside of ten minutes. For further reference, he’s very manly and I am less manly). And it comes with (decent but thoroughly uninspiring) herb and parmesan fries. So it’s expensive, but not utterly unjustifiable.

All told, if you don’t mind braving the seating nightmare, taking the financial hit, and holding the aioli, Ashland Hill has a pretty good, if slightly baroque, burger for you.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 5.50 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 6.70 / 10.00

Total: 83.60 / 100.00