Grill ‘Em All

The Place
Grill ‘Em All
19 East Main Street
Alhambra, CA 91801
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Okay, so straight up: Grill ‘Em All is the weirdest place I’ve been to since the Project started. No doubt. Second place is so far behind that I literally don’t even know what it is.

Here’s the story: Ryan Harkins and Matt Chernus won The Great Food Truck Race and then bought this snug little cranny in an Alhambra strip mall. Grill ‘Em All, for the philistines in my readership, is a play on the name of a pretty rad album by Metallica (you know, before they started sucking…and also sucking).

The entire place buys…well, heavily into the heavy metal theme. While I waited for my food, I listened to dated (and second-rate) metal and watched a rerun of a Sting v. Ric Flair NWA Heavyweight Championship match. It’s a weird theme on its own, but throw in the hilarious contrast with the unavoidably milquetoast clientele, and spending a half hour there borders on surreal.

Having said that, the theme doesn’t really seem like a gimmick so much as the product of a genuine fascination with heavy metal. Given that basically all of the cultural references this place makes would go soaring over the British faded heads of the One Direction-obsessed members of the digital native generation, I think it’s a safer bet to assume Harkins and Chernus just like metal music a lot. Probably more importantly, Grill ‘Em All has endeared itself to foodie types for blending culinary innovation with caloric opulence. I went to try one of their many artery-cloggers.

The Order: Napalm Death (half pound patty, pepper jack, pickled jalapeño, cream cheese, habanero aioli, jalapeño poppers)

The Price: $12

The Burger
I mean, wow. It’s hard to know where to start. This burger is unbelievably overwhelming. Basically, it presents different iterations of the same two flavor components: chili and cheese. The idea is that this burger is supposed to be punishingly spicy. It you’ve got any tolerance for heat at all, you’ll laugh that right off. The jalapeños are meek, and whatever bite the habanero might have had goes out the window because aioli is just never spicy.

Having said that, the various chili-centric ingredients allow for the flavor of the chiles to shine through. This is relatively rare, given that most burgers do not feature peppers in any central way. In this burger, the flavor – especially of the jalapeños – is very present in the flavor profile. The jalapeños have a gentle heat (blunted by the pickling or, in the case of the poppers, the cheddar) and a peppery sweetness which emerges from the caustic cut of the vinegar. The poppers are crispy on the outside and almost impossibly gooey on the inside. They’re a decadent addition, messy and unpretentious.

The patty is a half pound cooked medium rare. Grill ‘Em All’s medium rare is a bit overcooked for my tastes, but still juicy enough. There is very little char on the patty, which is also relatively lightly seasoned. As a result, for all its heft, the meat doesn’t really communicate much in the way of personality. It’s a little insipid, and not a worthy centerpiece. It’s saved a bit by the habanero aioli, which is surprisingly complex and picks up the floral flavor of the habanero pretty well. It makes up for what the patty lacks in charm.

The various cheeses are the most interesting part of the burger. They neutralize most of the heat, which allows the flavor of the chiles to rise. But on their own, cream cheese and pepper jack are a counterintuitive combination. The pepper jack is pepper jack; it starts with a kick but quickly retreats into buttery delicacy. The cream cheese, melted from all the heat, comes in on the finish. It is relatively mild, but a little funkier. It really dominates the back-end of each bite.

At first blush, this burger might seem to have a little bit of a kitchen sink vibe. But the ingredients hang together surprisingly well. The result is a hugely unconventional but surprisingly coherent presentation. With all that’s going on, there’s a little more here than the bun can contain at times, but the Napalm Death tastes a lot more sophisticated than it sounds. Or, sophisticated for a burger with jalapeño poppers on it, anyway. It may not be as sinister (or as spicy) as its name may indicate, but it’s still a good choice if you’re in the mood for something unconventional.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.90 / 10.00
Value: 8.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Balance: 8.70 / 10.00

Total: 84.40 / 100.00

Pharo’s Burgers

I was going to have a snappy photo of the bacon cheeseburger from Pharo’s Burgers. Then some dudes threw me into a pool, and my phone’s soul exploded. As a result, no picture, just a link to some other dude’s picture, which I can assure you is a faithful rendering.

There are some places you just don’t really ever check out, and don’t really hear much about either. That cool movie theatre that only plays old movies in the town where you went to college. The hike in Malibu with all those amazing views. That one coffee shop that serves coffee drinks in mason jars and makes that delicious sandwich with the prosciutto. The Warhol exhibit at that museum on the other side of town. The BodyWorks exhibit at the California Science Center. Encino.

File Pharo’s Burgers under that category. I was born and raised in Pasadena, but nobody mentioned it was any good. I never really heard about it, and I never really cared to explore it…so I never did. Recently, though, my friend Jackson told me to check it out. He goes there quite often and swore by it. What the hell, right? So yesterday, Kevin, Shanil, and I went to give it a try.

The Place
Pharo’s Burgers
1129 North Garfield Avenue
Alhambra, CA 91801

The Order: Bacon Cheeseburger

The Price: $5.95

The Burger
If you haven’t heard about this place, honestly, it’s probably because there isn’t much to say. And that’s not entirely a pejorative; Pharo’s Burgers keeps it simple. This burger is about as unfussy as it gets: a heap of shredded lettuce steeped in weakly tangy Thousand Island, a slightly jaundiced (but juicy enough) disc of tomato, a thin sheet of not-very-melted cheese, a quarter-pound chuck patty, and several strips of crumpled bacon.

Each ingredient played its role admirably, filling a very specific niche in the burger’s flavor profile. The Thousand Islands had a meek tang to it that brightened the coppice of lettuce a bit. The tomato was not of the finest caliber, mushier than it was firm. The patty was overcooked (likely intentionally so), char-broiled well past medium. The bacon was salty and crisp, providing the intended depth of flavor and textural variety, but not much more than that.

I don’t know; it was a bacon cheeseburger. Nothing felt misplaced or misguided, but nothing felt inspired. Everything here has been done before: It has been done better, and it has been done worse. It’s hard to be anything but frustratingly noncommittal. I imagine it is a little maddening to read a review that fails to adopt a firm stance – sorry – but this burger does not lend itself to roiling passion. It’s a competently executed but largely uninteresting offering. Pharo’s Burgers puts out a dish that is impossible to love or to hate. It is a place and a burger to which you will not object to returning…if prompted.

But some places, you just don’t really ever check out.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.40 / 10.00
Value: 8.30 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 5.00 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.10 / 10.00
Balance: 8.30 / 10.00

Total: 74.20 / 100.00

B-Man’s Teriyaki and Burgers

IMG_3178B-Man’s is one of those chains that most people in Los Angeles have never heard of. This is probably due to the fact that it’s market presence is concentrated farther east than most tragically hip Angelenos ever dare to venture (“Ewww, you mean it’s in the part of Pasadena that’s closer to, like, Alhambra?”). But it’s been around for longer than most people realize, serving up a singular hybrid of American, Japanese, and Hawaiian fast food for over a decade now.

B-Man’s has locations in Pasadena, Azusa, and Duarte and a super-cheesy website. So maybe their PR department could use a personnel shuffle. But none of that is particularly relevant to the quality of their burger. I decided to eat B-Man’s for dinner tonight. I called in around 8 pm to place my order, and they were just wrapping it up when I arrived around 8:12.

The Place
B-Man’s Teriyaki and Burgers
3007 Huntington Drive, #102
Pasadena, CA 91107

The Order: Double ABC Burger, no tomato, Swiss Cheese.

The Price: $5.05 (excluding tax).

The Burger
The Double ABC burger is kind of a monster. It features two patties of about four ounces, lettuce, pickles, avocado, and a healthy drizzle (okay, a veritable deluge) of honey-based teriyaki. The buns are flimsy, bulk-bought affairs. The patties are coated with bubbly melted Swiss cheese (American is an option too, but make like you’re opening a bank account to cover up financial malfeasance, and go Swiss).

This burger is not carefully prepared, or thoughtfully arranged. It does not feature locally sourced, house-ground meat. There is nothing organic in or around it. It wasn’t made by a celebrity chef (it was made by, just, like, some dudes). It’s not a gourmet burger – nor is it priced as such. This is a fast-food burger. And it’s a pretty damn good fast food burger, if not a heart-stoppingly phenomenal one.

It’s a crowd pleaser. There are all kinds of goodies on offer: Freshly grilled beef with slices of melted cheese oozing all over the patty. A foundation of creamy avocado. Crisp lettuce and pickles providing a kick of crunchy personality. And the central feature: a liberal portion of sweet, sunny teriyaki sauce drenching everything, and lighting up the flavor profile of the burger like a honeyed Roman candle.

The teriyaki is a delightful, decadent touch. It contrasts beautifully with the charred beef (and indeed, it elevates it). But that’s just one of many contrasts present in this cheeseburger. Another one, subtle but lovely, is how the sweet-sour snap of the pickles flirts with the velvety avocados, imparting depth of texture and of flavor.

In spite of all the contrasts that are present in this burger, in spite of its busy (occasionally overwhelming) flavor profile, the burger makes sense. It’s pretty well-composed, and the toppings complement each other nicely. It’s far from an intuitive collection of ingredients, but it works. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

The problem, then, is that the burger doesn’t employ the best tools (the parts – that is, the ingredients – aren’t worth all that much). Nothing here, save for the sauce, is of impressively high quality. The bun is uninspired wholesale fare. The meat of the patty tastes like standard unseasoned chuck, and the hope seems to have been to char-grill away any deficiencies in quality or dearth of flavor. And while the teriyaki does a decent job of masking the fact that the patties aren’t really a worthy centerpiece to this burger, it can’t compensate for the lack of flavor that attends using meat that just isn’t that fantastic. Similarly, the avocados, lettuce, and pickles are serviceable, but not stellar.

Inescapably, by the time I’d scarfed down this burger (maybe tellingly, this isn’t one you savor), I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened had it been made with higher quality ingredients and more careful preparation. That may not be entirely fair, since this is a five-dollar burger we’re talking about. On the other hand, in a world where In-N-Out exists, I expect more from fast food restaurants. This burger may only cost five bucks, but that’s appreciably more than a double-double, which never leaves any doubts as to quality (at any level).

B-Man’s offers a burger based on a good concept, and which has some very real strengths. At bottom though, it feels like they cut corners with ingredient quality and preparation. This is a burger you could probably duplicate – maybe even best – in your kitchen. There’s something to be said for having a good idea, but without execution to match it, you’re left with a product that will always satisfy, but never inspire.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 6.60 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.60 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.90 / 10.00
Bun: 6.10 / 10.00
Patty: 7.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.10 / 10.00
Balance: 8.90 / 10.00

Total: 73.00 / 100.00