Belcampo Meat Co. II

The Place
Belcampo Meat Co. at Grand Central Market
317 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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On some day during your life in Los Angeles, you will experience a moment of being utterly overwhelmed by Grand Central Market.  In that ever-trendier, neon-lit, culinary sprawl you will find yourself staring off into space.  Your eyes will start to glaze over as you bathe in the crowded fluorescence and the pan-ethnic gamut of scents and the heat of stove and sun.  You will equivocate, vacillate, hesitate, and calculate.  You will consider – and this time, really consider – whether braving the line at Eggslut is worth it.  (Hint: It’s never worth it.)  You will think, “If only DTLA Cheese wasn’t out of that burrata toast.”  (Hint: They’re always out of the burrata toast).  You will quietly entertain the notion that today is the day you put aside your existential objection to vegan ramen (Hint: You’ll never put aside your existential objection to vegan ramen – and that’s okay; Vegan Ramenism is the lone form of bigotry that is socially desirable).

I’ve had a few days like that.  On those days, I usually wind up at Belcampo.  In the midst of that kind of uncertainty, I take comfort in the fact that even the worst case scenario includes me eating very, very high quality meat.  Now, admittedly, I didn’t find myself particularly overwhelmed by Grand Central Market today.  I just found myself in the mood for a burger.  So I stopped in at Belcampo and ordered the Double Fast Burger.

The Order: Double Fast burger

The Price: $9.00

The Burger
The nice thing about Belcampo, which has shown up on the Project before, is that you can always count on extremely high quality meat.  When they tell you that the Fast Burger is their homage to the drive-thru burger, you should only believe them so far.  In the main, I can think of no drive-thru slinging burgers made from beef this luxe.  More subtly, this burger is not an homage to the drive-thru writ large; it’s an homage to In-N-Out.

Both of my regular readers will know that I am not opposed to doling out high praise to Double-Double rip-offs.  But imitating the greatest burger chain on the planet is a high-risk, unforgiving enterprise.  And Belcampo’s attempt, while estimable, falls noticeably short in several respects.

In the first place, the patties, while certainly flavorful and of the utmost quality, are not well packed, and too flimsy.  They never quite fell apart while I was eating, but threatened to on several occasions.  And while it’s admirable to use such excellent meat, Belcampo’s purism means the beef is barely seasoned at all.  That, coupled with the fact that this beef actually is just the trimmings of the beef from everything else they use, means you won’t be able to pin down precisely what you’re eating, and it may even vary from bite to bite.  One bite may ring out with marbled echoes of Porterhouse, while in the next, gritty chuck will elbow its way to the forefront.  The quality of the meat is there, but the initial momentary thrill of variety quickly gives way to frustration at a patty that is unfocused and incoherent.

The toppings, in the aggregate, are fine.  Like its cousin the Belcampo Burger, the double fast burger features lettuce that is a bit too wilted and sad not to notice.  The tomato does not offend, despite being a bit slippery and lacking in that sunny juiciness that you hope for.  The cheese is a standout – housemade American that is creamy and unfussy.  It oozes about the patty like sap on a tree stump.

It’s hard to argue this is a better buy than In-N-Out.  The beef is the centerpiece of the burger, but the patties are not as carefully composed, and the toppings are nowhere near as fresh-tasting.  The bun, too, is a pale imitation of a pale imitation of In-N-Out’s standard setter.  The lack of sauce is the final insult: an incomprehensible choice that seriously undermines the balance of the burger (you’ll appreciate In-N-Out’s dressing that much more after eating this).*  And at $9.00, while it’s still quite a bargain, it’s vastly more expensive than In-N-Out (or Burgerlords).

It occurs to me that this review reads pretty negatively up to this point.  Belcampo does a lot of things right.  They offer ingredients-first burgers that don’t attempt to hide behind gimmicky ingredients or high-cuisine shenanigans.  To the extent this offering falls flat, it does so relative to its industry-topping comparables, In-N-Out and Burgerlords.  In its own right, it’s a good burger.  Inconveniently, though, it has some stiff competition, and that’s hard to forget.

It may be that the Fast Burger is the “worst case scenario” for Belcampo to which I alluded above.  Indeed, the very concept of a drive-thru inspired burger seems anathema to the Belcampo’s whole schtick.  And that’s really the big problem here: Belcampo isn’t a burger stand.  It’s not a fast food restaurant.  It shouldn’t pretend to be one.

*Because this burger did not have sauce, I haven’t included sauce in my ten-point scale.  However, the lack of sauce affects the quality of the burger, which I’ve reflected in a lower score in the Balance rating.  The overall score – without the sauce category – is out of 90.00, which I then normalized to 100.00 by doing cross-multiplication.  Be impressed.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 7.20 / 10.00
Patty: 8.10 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.80 / 10.00
Sauce: N/A
Balance: 7.40 / 10.00

Total: 73.00 / 90.00 = 81.11 / 100.00

Redbird

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I think about judgment day a lot.  Call it the end of the world, or the apocalypse, or whatever you want.  I think about it.  I think about when fire and brimstone rain down heavy and hot from skies that split like the seam of a too-small blazer.  When it turns out the Old Testament was right.  When God gets sick of all our shit and exacts vengeance on us for our innumerable sins.  When we all find out that we were fools to be cynical and supercilious.  When the joke, as it happens, was on us all along.  When it doesn’t matter whether we’ve found God, because he finds us.  When it doesn’t matter what we believe.  When nothing matters but the lives we’ve led.

When that day of reckoning comes, I hope I’m sitting at Redbird with the tar-black summer sky above me, a meal settling, the cold sting of a scotch and sherry cocktail lingering on my lips, waiting for my pavlova to arrive.  That’s not because Redbird is the best restaurant in this city, or even the fanciest.  It’s not because Neal Fraser is the best chef in the city (though he must be in any conversation on the topic).  But I can’t think of a better place to face the apocalypse (leaving aside the delicious irony of being condemned to an eternity alongside Dante’s most wanted while sitting in a repurposed rectory).

See, when it all ends, I want to be somewhere beautiful, and I want to be doing something delightful.  Redbird is the most beautiful place to eat in Los Angeles.  Bar none.  It also is one of the ten best restaurants in this city.  Its décor is as eclectic as its menu, which in turn is as eclectic as Los Angeles.  Fraser presents crudo with bright wedges of citrus and an adobe-red dusting of peppery togarashi; delicate, crisped slabs of Wyoming trout; a symphonic barbecued tofu (which, by the way, is dream-hauntingly good – better even than Sang Yoon’s resplendent chicory-coffee barbecue sauce-bathed Kurobuta pork ribs at Lukshon – whether or not you like tofu).  And he presents them all with such easy familiarity that you’ll forget how weird it is to find them all on the same menu.  Just like Los Angeles, in which so many different cultures and kinds live side by side.  It’s curated chaos, but to those of us who have been fortunate enough to really come to know it, its splendor is difficult to match.  The perfect place to watch it all end.

Wednesday was not the apocalypse, so Bret and I settled for lunch at Redbird.  It’s a perfect option for those who ache for a longer intermissio from the raw grind of the work day.  Fraser offers a slightly abbreviated version of his menu, including a prix fixe for the indecisive and slightly profligate, and a burger for … well, not least for the man who writes about burgers.

The Order: Prime Burger

The Price: $18

The Burger
This might be the burger for the end times.  See, if you happen to be jonesing for a burger when the fabric of the earth falls away and reveals the roiling inferno that lies behind it all, you won’t have time to let the marrow melt, or caramelize the onions, or pull any other high-cuisine moves.  You’ll have time to throw together a few ingredients – whatever is at hand – into the last burger you’ll ever eat.  Now, having said that, it’s the last burger you’ll ever eat.  And you’ll be damned if you’ll let it be pedestrian.  Even at the end of the world, you’ll have to compromise, to balance countervailing interests.

The Prime Burger at Redbird manages that. It is spartan in an indulgent kind of way, deceptively complex, intensely flavorful but stripped of pretense and unnecessary ornamentation.  This feels like the burger chefs will make when there is no one left to cook for.  If Howard Roark spent his life behind a grill instead of a drafting table, he would have aspired to create this burger.  It is the product of passion and craft.  Every ingredient serves a purpose.  Nothing is out of place.  The fact that it’s a crowd-pleaser?  That’s merely an externality.

The patty is pure Fraser: massive, marbled, loosely packed, pink and bloody.  It might be overwhelming, I guess, were it executed with anything less than perfect mastery.  But this is Neal Fraser, so it’s executed with nothing less than perfect mastery.  The remoulade is piquant, tart, and generously portioned (and why not?  You’ll want an extra scoop of sauce when the apocalypse is impending).  This sauce is a beautiful, rich, indulgent complement to the sumptuous, almost buttery, beef.  Aged cheddar drips like sap, so slowly that it forms an amorphous tendon that seems to connect patty to plate.  It’s creamy and thick, with a distant whispering sharpness.  There is a chile relish that adds a smoky sweetness (but almost no heat), and extra pickles to add more zip if you want them.

The bun is the burger’s weakest part.  A too-dry, too-thick brioche, it tasted a day old and was a bit too imposing for this burger.  The dryness of the thing wasn’t helped by the fact that it was flaked with sea salt.  It’s a noticeable imperfection, but the rest of the flavors are bold enough to compensate for it.  In the end, the burger hangs together impressively well in spite of a disappointing bun.  Besides, when judgment day comes, you probably won’t be too picky about the bun on your burger.

In case it isn’t abundantly clear, I liked this burger very much.  It’s big and brash, but is ultimately memorable for its relative simplicity.  It’s a really well-prepared, thoughtful offering.  It manages to achieve simultaneously simplicity and complexity, boldness and subtlety, immediacy and depth.  It’s a great burger.  Don’t wait until the end of the world to try it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 7.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.30 / 10.00
Bun: 6.80 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Balance: 9.30 / 10.00

Total: 88.20 / 100.00

Tyler’s Burgers

The Place

Tyler’s Burgers
149 South Indian Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA 92262

No reservations
Bar: Beer and wine
Cash only

You’re eight years old, maybe nine.  It’s the height of summer—say, early July?  You’ve settled comfortably into your vacation, and your dreaded return to school is not yet on the radar.  You can’t really tell the days apart; they blend together into an undifferentiated mass of weekdays and weekends and friends and sunburns and beach days and day trips and sun-warmed pools.  You bask in the delicious swelter of the long summer days.  You feel invincible, ageless.

On one of those days, a day quite literally like every other early July day, your parents take you to a cookout at a friend’s house.  You walk into your friend’s backyard, grass brushing against the sides of your feet left bare by your sandals.  You hear laughter and beer cans opening.  You smell freshly-cut grass soaked in lemonade spills and sprinkler spray, the delicate cloud of sweet summer sweat, chlorinated water, and—above all—the smell of smoke, charcoal, and crackling grilled meat.

Hold that picture for a moment.

Diana Diamico started a restaurant based on that kind of picture.  Two decades ago, she set up shop in a sixty year-old building on the main drag in Palm Springs.  It used to be a Greyhound Bus depot.  Her goal was to recreate a burger that her mother used to sling way back when at a burger stand on the boardwalk in Venice Beach.  That burger, so firmly rooted in Diamico’s memories of childhood, “became the foundation of knowing the difference between mediocrity and the best.”  It also became the foundation stone of her business.

Diamico’s burger, then, is a nod to the past, to a time when things felt—were?—simpler.  Maybe that’s an excessively romantic way to think about a burger (especially if you’re one of those cynical millennial types), but nostalgia is a powerful emotion.  It affects not only what we like, but also—not least in the case of Diamico—what we do.  Tyler’s is a business built on memories.  It’s also been held that you can’t get a better burger in Palm Springs.  Well, Kelsey and I were out there for the long weekend, so we went to give it a try.

The Order: Cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger

The Price: $8 (cheeseburger), $9.50 (bacon cheeseburger)

The Burgers
It might seem odd that I’m reviewing two burgers at once—and it’s true; usually I don’t do that.  But these two offerings weren’t different enough to merit separate reviews.  If you’re like me, your instincts would guide you towards ordering the bacon cheeseburger, because bacon.  Now, while it’s hard to say that ordering the bacon cheeseburger is flat out misguided (especially if you’re into that sort of thing), I can’t endorse it.  To my mind, the bacon is more of a distraction than a complement here—albeit a delicious, delicious distraction (especially if you’re into that sort of thing).  But that isn’t an indictment of the bacon cheeseburger so much as it is a veneration of the standard cheeseburger.  I think the order is the regular cheeseburger with American cheese and grilled onions.  Hold the tomato for bonus points (I had it on the bacon cheeseburger, and it didn’t add much).

Go back to that picture in your head.  You’re at the barbecue and you’re handed a hastily arranged burger.  The garnishes are simple: an oozing sheet of American cheeese, crisp lettuce, bright pickles, succulent tomato, maybe some sweet, charmingly flaccid rings of grilled onion.  The sauces are conventional, unfussy: ketchup, yellow mustard, and a thin glaze of mayonnaise mixing into some unnamed but familiar metacondiment the color of a sunset.

Tyler’s has done a pretty good job of recreating that burger.  It’s not necessarily this burger that’s memorable.  It’s that it evokes really fond memories.  If you’re like me, this burger will around feelings of nostalgia in you. It’s the taste of a summer barbecue.  It’s the taste of being told to wait a half hour before swimming.  The patty is substantial – seven ounces at least.  Were I to complain that it was a touch overcooked, that would only be a matter of taste.  The outside of the patty is deliciously crackled by the flat top, the inside juicy and savory enough.  The sponge bun is the stuff of In-N-Out dreams, but slightly thicker.  That’s okay, given the thickness and heft of the patty.

The toppings are all solid, but the cheese is the standout.  It completely covers the patty in a thick, dripping sheet.  Swiss is an option, but I can’t imagine it topping the American I chose.  I’ll readily stipulate that American is perhaps the most sophomoric of all the cheeses, but my gracious, it was indulgent, rich, and creamy.  And for as unfussy an expression as this burger is, it was the ideal complement.  The grilled onions were a fabulous addition too, sweet and grill-burnt.  They sank into the quicksand-like cheese until the two almost infused one another.  Stellar stuff.

As I ate the cheeseburger (which, to bring it full circle, probably deserves the mantle of best burger in Palm Springs), I glanced over to the bar and saw a family sitting together, presumably on a Memorial Day vacation.  Their young son couldn’t have been older than ten.  He was holding his cheeseburger aloft when I looked, to eat a hanging disc of pickle.  He had ketchup on his face.  His hands were a mess.  His too-big blue t-shirt had escaped stains for the moment, but I found myself doubting that would last as I watched him attack his burger with the gleeful abandon that summer engenders in everyone of that age.  And as I bit back into my own burger with the neat and proper sobriety of adulthood, that age felt a little closer.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.60 / 10.00
Value: 9.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.50 / 10.00 

Total: 86.70 / 100.00

Plan Check Kitchen + Bar II

The Placeimage

Plan Check Kitchen + Bar
1111 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90017

Reservations: 213.403.1616
Bar: Full bar

If you’re a regular reader of this blog or a person, you know about Plan Check.  It’s the apple of Ernesto Uchimura’s culinary eye.  Plan Check operates at the nexus of comfort food shop, chef’s vanity project, and experimental gastropub.  Ignore the whiff of snide opprobrium you may think you detected in that description; I offer this characterization without the slightest pejorative intent.  Plan Check’s eponymous burger – upon which I have conferred high honors – is positively white-hot.

Uchimura has more on tap than just a single burger, though.  Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that I couldn’t stay away.  Accordingly, I went back with Kelsey, her brother, and her future sister-in-law to try out another offering.

The Order: The Bleuprint Burger

The Price: $13

The Burger
In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I love blue cheese.  The creamy complexity of the stuff, the funk that masks without totally hiding a nutty finish, the streaks of mold that cut through the pure white like veins…it all revs my engine.  I’ve tried to control for my bias here, but let it be known that if you absolutely hate blue cheese, this burger will not change your mind.  Stay away.

Now for the rest of us.  There’s a science to making blue cheese.  It’s all a little complicated, but it involves adding two different kinds of mold (Penicillium roqueforti and Pencillium glaucum) to the milk during the cheesemaking process, then basically poking holes into the finished product to let the mold grow.  Those two bacteria are responsible for the blue streaks you see in the cheese.  They’re the reason we call blue cheese, well, “blue.”

See?  Science is delicious!

Seriously, though, blue cheese is a complex ingredient, and if leveraged incorrectly, can really mar a dish.  On a burger, it can be downright offensive.  But there are two things that are clear about Plan Check: first, they don’t shy away from that kind of challenge; and second, they’ll find a way to make it look easy.

In this case, they make it look easy by making it harder.  That is, they take blue cheese and adding another layer of complexity to the flavor profile by smoking it.  It’s hard really to describe smoked blue cheese, but gracious.  It marries the intimacy and familiarity of gouda with the phased, intense, complex nuance of Roquefort.  It blunts the severity of the blue, which makes it a more amicable companion to the other ingredients.  The genius of this preparation of blue cheese is that it creates a foundational complexity to each bite, but you’ll still taste everything else.

And everything else is really worth tasting.  You may not know what pig candy is, but I suspect you won’t much care; it is sweet and umami, thick-enough strips, succulent, juicy, and with a just-so kiss of caramelization.  The peppercress, though slightly wilted, is nonetheless spicy and bright, freshening things a bit.  The fried onions are like reimagined onion rings that one normally would expect to find alongside the burger.  Instead, an abbreviated version tops this presentation, offering a crunch and sweetness.  Even the steak sauce, infused with roasted garlic, is grand stuff, emblematic the kind of masterful playfulness that makes Plan Check so good – though I must confess, I would have liked a touch more of it.  All of this anchored by the signature patty and crunch bun that put this place on the map.

This burger is a textural and gustatory symphony.  It’s about as baroque a burger as I’ve had that I would still characterize as worthwhile.  It’s complex but not cluttered.  It will seize your interest without being precious or novel.  Of course, just as some people don’t like the symphony, this burger is not for everyone.  If you don’t love blue cheese, this burger leans far too heavily on it to appeal to you.  But more than the featured ingredient, the operatic nature of the flavor profile, the boldness of it all, will rankle some who have no axe to grind with blue cheese.  This is a niche product.  If it’s your niche, you’ll love it.  If not, look elsewhere.  There isn’t much in the way of middle ground with this one.  But then, Plan Check never was much for the middle ground.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.20 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.30 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.80 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.40 / 10.00

Total: 90.70 / 100.00

 

Miro

The Place
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Miro

888 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90017

Reservations: 213.988.8880
Bar: Full bar (plus this…gracious)

The weird thing about modern urban renaissances – well, one of the weird things – is that they all have an inflection point.  Before that point, things are cheap, and gems are hard to find.  And while it’s never entirely clear precisely when a given neighborhood reaches that point, after it is reached it matters less how good your chilaquiles or fatty tuna or octopus salad or burger or whatever is, and more how good your relationship with your investors is.  Take Ari Taymor’s iconic and beloved Alma: shuttered in spite of fawning praise from critics and customers alike.

I don’t mean to hate on rich folks funding restaurants (to the contrary – keep them coming), but even the most successful restaurateurs have their ups and downs.  What’s more, when investors define a restaurant’s identity, sometimes the focus can shift from the meat to marketing.  When image starts to trump the product on the plate, places run into trouble.  This tends to happen more as neighborhoods gentrify and it becomes harder for people to open restaurants without investor backing.  Tricky business.

Which brings us to Miro, an aggressively trendy new restaurant, which seems to cater to downtown power brokers who yearn to be farm-to-table foodies.  Reclaimed wood abounds, the servers have hair and vests pulled straight from the roaring 20s, and the menu is a sprawling exploration of current food scene obsessions.  Don’t have time to get the crudo at Wolf and the house-cured charcuterie at Chi Spacca?  Can’t pencil in time for craft cocktails at The Fiscal Agent and garganelli at Union?  Not a moment to spare for biscuits at the Hart and the Hunter and the pork chop at Salt’s Cure?  No problem – come to Miro and get it all.  To call it the refuge of the dilettante might be a little harsh (especially in light of the fact that it has the best whiskey bar in California, which is a connoisseur’s paradise), but it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either.

Anyway, one entry on Miro’s – ahem – *diverse* menu was a burger.  Johnny and I took some summer associates for lunch, and I tried it on the firm’s dime.  Is Miro the first sign that Downtown Los Angeles has passed its inflection point?

The Order: Grass-fed burger

The Price: $15

The Burger
The burger really embodies what Miro is trying to do – for better and worse.  Onion jam and bacon (made in-house!) are ostensible pride points, but they are lost in the shuffle.  You may detect a whisper of one or the other amid the bitter, charred swirl of the flavor profile, but only just a whisper, and it will not overwhelm you.  The bacon was cut thick into slabs, fatty and without taste.  The onion jam was so difficult to detect that I’m not even certain it was there at all.  Same with the aioli and cheese, while we’re on the topic.  Much of what is on this burger is swallowed by two ingredients: the arugula and the beef.

The grass-fed patty is well-intentioned but overcooked.  It’s big enough; easily a third of a pound, and with a promising, estimably charred crust.  But it is cooked well past medium until brittle and bland.  There is some residual juice left to keep things from getting too dry, but unfortunately, the final product is even less flavorful than the grass on which the poor cow subsisted.  To cook a patty that much, you have to justify it with a blend of meats.  Miro failed to do so, leaving us with little more than fancied up chuck, which doesn’t forgive overcooking.

Grass-fed though the patty may have been, the fine folks in the kitchen at Miro seem to have felt it was starved for roughage.  At least, that’s the most plausible explanation for the Chugach-worth of arugula (one supposes, a ham-fisted tip of the cap to Father’s Office) asymmetrically heaped atop the patty.  It spills out of one end of the bun like a Kardashian out of an Herve Leger dress that’s one size too small, and is barely present at all on the other end.  If all it did was add a (too-heavy) dose of  fresh bitterness to the burger, it wouldn’t be so bad.  But in this case, it masked the remainder of the flavors at work, obfuscating an otherwise intriguing suite of ingredients.

So you won’t taste the subtle interplay between still-melting cheese and bacon drippings.  You won’t taste the sweet matrix of onion jam flirting with the creamy aioli.  You won’t even get to enjoy how the delicious – if slightly dry – bun holds it all together.  You’ll get overcooked meat and an impenetrable thicket of arugula.  For all this burger’s ambitions, it winds up being a poorly executed, unbalanced affair, where the two most pedestrian ingredients outshine the more interesting – though, admittedly, a bit try-hard – additions.

The burger reflects the restaurant that serves it.  A lot of sizzle without much steak.  Miro is swanky, modern, eclectic, and has all the features you’d expect to find in a trendy, delicious restaurant.  Similarly, the burger looks great and features a slew of really of-the-moment ingredients.  Ultimately, though, it just doesn’t deliver.  It looks better than it is.  It’s too trendy for its own good.  It puts image above execution. Is this a portent of things to come in Downtown? Hopefully and probably not.  But it’s hardly encouraging.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 6.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.50 / 10.00
Value: 5.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.40 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.00 / 10.00
Balance: 6.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.90 / 100.00 

Kogi BBQ

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It’s hard to not love Roy Choi.  Kogi BBQ, his brainchild, set the stage for chefs to gain prominence without navigating venture capital weirdness (and the attendant sacrifices in culinary integrity) to secure the immense resources needed to open a brick and mortar restaurant.  Food trucks allow chefs to serve you the food they want to serve you, rather than having to spar with the deep pockets that keep the lights on.

From the trunk of a truck plastered with more stickers than a graying hippie’s Volkswagen, Roy Choi started slinging whatever the hell he wanted.  Most loved it.  Some didn’t.  But even his detractors will admit (some more grudgingly than others) that his food is — if nothing else — interesting, honest, and original.

Some complain that food trucks are like the Internet in that they remove the talent filter that previously existed in the culinary world, which (apparently) ensured a certain level of quality.  It was bad enough that any asshole with a laptop and a hunger pang can pretend to be a food critic.  Now we have to suffer dilettante chefs too?

On balance, though, that view is as wrong with respect to food as it is as applied to information.  It’s nice that food fell from the ivory tower and landed in a strip mall.  Sure, caveat emptor is a much more current creed now that there are literally thousands of places that no reputable outlet will have written about.  You’ve got to dig through a lot of trash to find treasure.  But that’s not such a bad thing; nothing worth having ever came easily.

I’m digressing.  This isn’t a meditation on the merits vel non of food trucks.  It’s about Kogi BBQ.  Roy Choi’s relentless creativity led him to expand the menu at Kogi (the kimchi quesadilla is a revelation, but also a full-frontal gastrointestinal assault).  Eventually, the menu expanded to include a burger, and my interest was piqued.  I went on a solo venture and checked it out.

The Place
Kogi BBQ
Location varies — see website for details.

The Order: “Pacman” Burger

The Price: $8

The Burger
First things first.  Don’t call it a burger.

The Pacman Burger is named after Manny Pacquiao, and that’s fitting.  Manny Pacquiao doesn’t look like a boxer.  In fact, if I hadn’t seen him punch people in the face with such precision, skill, and dogged determination, I wouldn’t believe he was  a boxer just by looking at him (that might be racist and size-ist, but I’m a small brown man too, and nobody mistakes me for the second coming of Sugar Ray Leonard).

Similarly, the Pacman Burger isn’t really a burger at all.  It’s a self-styled “mashup,” a sandwich consisting of a gallimaufry of fiercely flavorful ingredients.  Front and center, a trio of meats: the outlet’s signature short rib, spicy pork, and spicy citrus chicken.  Rather than being alloyed and compressed into a patty, chunks of each meat sit nestled in a mélange of sauces (salsa roja, salsa verde, sesame mayo, and cilantro onion lime relish) along with cheese and chicharrones, all of this between two (sadly throwaway) sesame buns.

Each bite is a different experience.  The various components of the frenetic assortment of ingredients exist in different proportions throughout the sandwich.  Every square inch, then, features its own unique balance.  That keeps things interesting, but robs the burger of coherence.  It’s hard to come away with a strong impression about what you ate.

What’s more, these various ingredients don’t always balance one another well.  It’s like the Wild West.  The relish and the chicken duplicate the citrus, overloading the palate with acid when they are front and center.  The meats are all distinctive, but compete with one another.  The salsa roja and salsa verde are mostly redundant.  The jack and cheddar cheese mix would be a nice touch, but for the fact that any subtlety it might otherwise impart is impossible to discern in the gustatory monsoon.

Trying to isolate one of these ingredients and assess its impact on the burger is like trying to slow dance at a rave.  And maybe comparing this burger to a rave is apt: some will enjoy the frenzy and the disorientation.  Others will not be taken by the bright lights, loud noises, and disparate elements in close contact.  I wouldn’t say anything is out of place here.  It probably is closer to the mark to say that this burger lacks a sense of place altogether.

All of Choi’s passions collide in a messy, imperfect, chaotic, innovative, oppressively flavorful, challenging, and sometimes frustrating meal.  It really is a “mashup.”  It unites recognizable but arguably disparate and incompatible elements — each a technically worthy creation in its own respective right — and forces them to coexist.  It also forces us to accept that coexistence, even if it doesn’t align with our preferences.

It certainly isn’t arbitrary.  Like a mashup, there’s a harmony beneath all the noise, and it isn’t there by accident.  Even so, there are a few inconveniently inescapable facts about mashups.  First, sometimes the dissonance crowds out the harmony.  Second, sometimes the component parts get in each others’ way instead of working together to make something more.  And third, even if the synergy works, it doesn’t follow that the synthesis is better than its components were on their own.

In this case, the burger falls prey to those first two problems.  There’s just too much going on here to give the burger a consistent taste.  With so many ingredients filling the same role (three meats, four sauces, two cheese), none of them get a chance to interact meaningfully.  To paraphrase the bard, if the burger’s a stage and all the ingredients are merely players, then here, we have like more than one actor playing the same role, and everyone is screaming their lines at the same time.

That said, it isn’t surprising that Roy Choi would make a burger like this; it’s a giant middle finger in the face of convention, and it emanates from the same fundamental principles – truth, abundance, innovation, chaos – that make Kogi so successful.  Choi is, as always, selling what he wants to sell.  It’s less clear that what he’s selling is worth buying, but that’s our choice to make (I’d advise you to redirect your funds to Kogi’s other, worthier offerings), and I doubt he would have it any other way.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.10 / 10.00
Value: 8.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.50 / 10.00
Bun: 6.00 / 10.00
Patty: 5.80 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.30 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 69.40 / 100.00

The Top Ten (April 12, 2016)

I haven’t updated this list since October, and there has been considerable shake-up since then.  At the risk of being behind the times, here are the top ten burgers I’ve written about so far.

  1. Burgerlords (93.20 / 100.00)
  2. In-N-Out (93.00 / 100.00)
  3. The Bowery (91.90 / 100.00)
  4. Super Burger (90.00 / 100.00)
  5. Plan Check Kitchen + Bar (89.80 / 100.00)
  6. Dudley Market (88.90 / 100.00)
  7. The Flintridge Proper (88.70 / 100.00)
  8. Republique (88.20 / 100.00)
  9. TIE: ERB and Badmaash (88.10 / 100.00)

Stay tuned, clearly.  More changes are basically a sure thing.  After all, as you may have read on the label of a pair of Volcom Stone pants you had in sixth grade, “The Only Constant Is Change.”

Dudley Market

The Place
image
Dudley Market
9 Dudley Avenue
Venice, CA 90291

Reservations: 424.744.8060
Bar: Beer and wine only

Sunday was a difficult day.  Not in the sense that it was a strenuous day.  Just because it reminded me of the tortured relationship I maintain with Venice.

When I lived on the East Coast, Venice pretty nearly captured everything I missed about home.  The sun’s rays so bright you swear you can see resplendent gold blades against the implausibly blue sky.  The heat of those rays on your skin tempered by the ocean breeze.  The way that breeze that picks up and swirls stray grains of sand.  The way that sand manages to get between your toes, even when you’ve worn shoes.   The seemingly anti-gravitational lean of palm trees in the briny air.  All the beautiful people walking down sidewalks peering into the windows of high-end boutiques, passing through the aromatic clouds drifting up and over from food trucks idling on the blacktop.

And speaking of food,  Venice has long been a culinary center in Los Angeles.  The Tasting Kitchen and Gjelina, by now, are old news (but still newsworthy).  More recently, veteran culinary icons (Josiah Citrin) and young upstarts (Top Chef winner Nyesha Arrington) have laid down roots there as well.

The TL;DR version of all that is that there’s a lot to love in Venice: weather, sunshine, the beach, and delicious food.  For a time, I was dead-set on living in Venice upon returning to Los Angeles.

After that drooling paean, what, you ask, makes my relationship with Venice “tortured?”

Because, before eating a quite-good brunch at the charming Dudley Market, you have to proceed through a gauntlet of challenges that Venice lays before all those who come to share in its beachside bounty.  First, you have to park.  Basically, that amounts to crawling through labyrinthine side streets and alleys, doing your damndest to not commit a tort against one of the actually psychotic cyclists swerving in and out of your path.  As you do, you’ll be flanked on one side by side streets running perpendicular to you, all packed with cars, and on the other side by totally vacant beachside lots charging a cash-only $20 flat rate – a rate that frugality and mulish pride won’t let you pay.

Then you get out of your car (after displaying an embarrassing lack of parallel parking acumen for a crowd of dead-eyed, unwashed, and dreadlocked white people), and you’re forced to really see Venice.  Sun-bronzed hippies, carelessly half-naked, leaning against the walls of grubby and overpriced apartment buildings, weirdly unaffected by the strange funk the beach breeze carries from nearby dumpsters.  Hungover bros speeding down those alleys in their fathers’ leased Teslas.  Bottle blondes in garish $600 sunglasses from last season, oozing a petulant, practiced apathy through bar-battered bangs.  Tourists, drenched in sweat and marveling at the spectacle of all these disparate demographics coexisting seamlessly.  And even if you’re a native, you’ll find yourself marveling at it too.  It’s staggering, stereotypically Californian, and a little gross.

But Venice is like an old friend.  She may occasionally annoy or disgust, but it doesn’t take much to remind you of why you love her and are lucky to have her around.  As pissed as I was about parking, and about feeling like a millennial Frogger dodging $100,000 electric cars, it all melted away when I felt that breeze come in off the Pacific .  Any residual impatience was obliterated when I took the first sip of Dudley Market’s stellar espresso milkshake with the beach at my back.

I didn’t go for the milkshake, of course.  Kelsey and I stopped in at Jesse Barber’s new spot to try the Burger Diane.

The Order: Burger Diane (beef/pork patty,  gruyere, melted onions, greens, dijon, mushroom, and pickles on sourdough hybrid).

You might ask yourself, “Why is it called a Burger Diane?”  It’s likely a play on steak Diane, which is a filet mignon in a mushroom and Dijon mustard-based sauce (there’s more to it than that, like heavy cream and brandy or something, I think; but this isn’t Delmonico’s and I’m not Emeril Lagasse).

The Price: $16 (before tax)

The Burger
Jesse Barber worked at Barnyard before, and it shows.  Dudley Market emphasizes the use of high quality, local, seasonal ingredients above haute-cuisine technique.  The espresso milkshake features housemade ice cream, which gets its high protein content from the biodynamic duck eggs (from Moorpark) they use to make it.  The greens that flanked our burger (some also made their way onto it, actually) were obsessively fresh, drizzled only in lemon juice and oil.  The bacon is from a pig that was butchered less than a week ago in-shop.  It’s all very L.A.

The burger is built around a patty that is about 60% beef and 40% bacon.  It’s cooked just barely on the rare side of medium (there’s no pink). My worry was that the beef would be overcooked to ensure the pork was cooked through, which would give rise to a dry patty  with very little personality on the front end, with pork fat and salt dominating the finish.

My worries were misplaced.  The beef was cooked through but still juicy, and the pork was subtle, adding salty complexity without overwhelming things.  I did not leave Dudley Market convinced that the hybrid patty is a better approach than just cooking an all-beef patty medium rare and putting bacon on top of it, but I am convinced that I was wrong to think you can’t build a good burger around a hybrid patty.  You can.  Barber has.

The bun is what our server called a “sourdough hybrid,” grilled and pressed into flat discs, dusted with poppy seeds and salt flakes.  The crust is buttery and crisp, while the inside maintains the unmistakable just-dry-enough sponginess of sourdough.

The highlight of this burger, though – even more than the estimable patty – was the interplay between the gruyere cheese and the mushrooms.  The gruyere is sweet and nutty, tangling nicely with meaty, bold mushroom.  The pairing is formidable, and it hits hard early.  Less than halfway through the first bite, these two ingredients alone make it clear that this burger is not for the faint of heart.

The cheese and mushrooms are an earthy, complex overture to the surprisingly graceful and tasteful mash-up of beef and bacon that follows.  Just as the savor reaches its climax – at the moment when it’s all about to get a bit too “forest floor and barnyard gore” for good taste – the pickles emerge as if out of nowhere, bright but not too briny, offering a little kick of acid to clean everything up, the ideal prelude to the sweet, mustardy finish.

Only the melted onions, cooked even past the point of caramelized sweetness, seem superfluous; they lurk like emo kids at lunch, hidden from the rest of the flavor profile.  That’s a disappointing but hardly damning flaw in an otherwise superb preparation, as well-balanced as it is creative.

I guess Dudley Market is kind of a microcosm of Venice itself: There are aggravations – notably, slow service and steep prices – but on balance, there are more reasons to return than to stay away (but order with care, as the menu decidedly is not uniformly inspiring; the speck with burrata and balsamic was simple and arresting despite the absence of the advertised poached apple, but the crab louie was little more than an incoherent jumble of pleasant things).

Yes, you’ll need to budget a bit of time for your meal; this place isn’t exactly run with German efficiency (though if you have an enchanting companion and an espresso milkshake to keep you company while you wait, you won’t mind the wait so much).  And yes, the burger specifically – and Dudley Market more generally – is as overpriced as the surrounding real estate.  But unlike the surrounding real estate, there’s more to Dudley Market than a nice view and convenient beach access.    So stop in and try this burger.  Consider it one more reminder why you love Venice in spite of the fact that it’s so…Venice.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.40 / 10.00

Bun: 9.20 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.50 / 10.00
Balance: 9.00 / 10.00

Total: 88.90 / 100.00

Big Dean’s Oceanfront Café

The Place
Big Dean’s Oceanfront Café
1615 Ocean Front Walk
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Big Dean’s is a Santa Monica classic. It was there before Santa Monica was Santa Monica. Just south of the city’s iconic (and still rad) pier, it’s a bustling little dive just off the water. You walk through the charmingly cramped front patio and into a ramshackle bar space, customarily full of affably boisterous people, beer drunk and bleary-eyed. A ramp along the right wall of the room leads you to the back patio, which seems pulled straight out of Inherent Vice.

Sadly, instead of deliciously acid-addled hippies spinning conspiratorial yarns – about what Richard Nixon was really doing during those eighteen minutes and/or how Keith Richards really stayed alive all this time and/or what the White Album is really about – you will find yourself beset on all sides by six-foot-something bros speaking far too loudly about far too little. And if you happen to be a less-than-six-foot Sri Lankan man wearing an Aviator Nation henley, you’ll hear those delightful bros yell, “HEY, LOOK GUYS! IT’S AZIZ!”

Sadly, I’m not taking creative license here. Some drunk idiot bro in fact did yell that as I walked by. It was pretty great. Some people weep for the future. Based on my experience with some of the folks at Big Dean’s, I think the present is kind of a tear-jerker too.

Aberrant (and, let’s be real, woefully unclever) racism aside, this place embodies so much of what’s great about California. It’s got that famously L.A. beach-blown charm, it’s a short walk from stunning views of those famous Pacific shore sunsets, and it boasts a more down-to-earth (though “friendly” probably is a stretch) staff than you’ll find anywhere in downtown, Silver Lake, Hollywood, or anywhere else where the drinks are bourbon-based and the denim is black.

Big Dean’s is the kind of place you come to unwind after a day lazily baking in the sand under oppressively perfect azure skies. A place where you arrive still-glistening from a hike at Point Dume. A place where you bring friends when you want to scream at your favorite (or least favorite) sports team. A place where you come to share tables with strangers and drink unreasonably large beers. A pretty cool place to spend a Saturday afternoon with a buddy.

Anyway, they also have a burger. Eater L.A. called it one of the city’s best last year. Geck took me on a hot date to check it out. We talked about work. We argued about whether Cam Newton is less likable than Richard Sherman. We talked about how Geck eats his fries with mustard because you can take the dude out of Bakersfield, but you can’t take the Bakersfield out of the dude. We talked about the right girls, the wrong girls, the ones that got away, the ones that wouldn’t go away.We talked about letting them down easy and letting them under our skin. We talked about making things work and letting things go. We talked about rejection and acceptance. Things got deep. They got real. Then we forgot about all that emo shit, ate burgers, drank beer, and watched football. Because when in Brome, do as the Bro-mans do.*

*I’m deeply in love with that Bro-mans pun.

The Order: Big Dean’s Cheeseburger

The Price:

The Burger
At the outset, I think it proper to clear up a couple potential misconceptions. First, If you’ve ever looked at the Big Dean’s website, you might believe the burger awaiting you at this beachside dive even remotely resembles the perfectly manicured and crisped specimen on the website. It definitely does not. Second, Eater L.A. says this burger is like In-N-Out with a view. It definitely is not.

 

It’s odd that anyone would think of Big Dean’s offering in either of those two ways, really, because both ideas really miss the heart of this burger’s appeal. Let’s be real, no one loves Ryan Gosling because of his scintillating personality.

To be clear, Big Dean’s has not made the Ryan Gosling of burgers. To claim that anyone has would be a blasphemy of the first order, not one you’ll read here. This burger’s charm is not in its perfect construction, and it just isn’t In-N-Out. This burger fits this scene perfectly well. It’s got an unpretentious backyard grill quality to it that will make you immensely nostalgic. This is a summer cookout in a plastic basket. It’s lemonade on the lawn. It’s the sun-sizzling air on the blacktop. It’s a sun’s-out-guns-out, long weekend burger. The patty is a thick disc of chuck smashed carelessly together, teetering seductively on the edge of being overcooked. The bun tastes straight from a package. The garnishes are stereotypical, cool and fresh and summery.

I’ll readily concede, it’s not a compelling cast of characters. But the magic emanates not from the star power of any of the players, but rather from the surprising, cohesive harmony of the ensemble. The ingredients play off one another in a way that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has stood by the grill, plate in hand, enduring horrid dad humor while waiting for that burger to cook.

This burger, then, succeeds by way of raw pathos. It will remind you of a time when you were a little more innocent, a little less ruined by the world. It will take you back to the days in which it might actually have been surprising to have someone scream the name of the only South Asian celebrity they know when you walk by. The good old days.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.30 / 10.00
Value: 9.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.80 / 10.00
Bun: 7.80 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.90 / 10.00

Total: 83.80 / 100.00