There is a line in Sophocles’ Antigone that has stuck with me. It is a scene in which Creon seeks Teiresias’ advice regarding whether or not to free Antigone. Teiresias tells the ruler, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” Now, I haven’t imprisoned my niece to reinforce gender roles or intemperately deployed the power of government in the context of familial conflict. Nor have I forsaken the bonds of marital and paternal love to preserve an imagined or preferred political order. But I like to think Teiresias’s advice is more generally applicable. Because, you know, parables. Right?
Anyway. As I’ve accrued some modicum of experience in my life, I’ve had occasion to look on my past with a more critical eye. By an large, I’m proud of the way I conducted myself. But there are exceptions. When one cannot or does not act to rectify past errors – to “repair the evil” – those exceptions have a way of blooming into regrets.
Having just hit a milestone, agewise, I think the time is right to come clean about an error I made early in this project. I went with Greg and Lemi to Koreatown’s Cassell’s Hamburgers, a bustling diner nestled in the first floor of the Hotel Normandie. I talked about how I didn’t feel as though Christian Page was reaching his potential with the burger he offered.
That review is, quite literally, the only one I look back on and regret. I like to think (perhaps self-indulgently) the evaluations presented on this Project range anywhere from eminently fair to downright authoritative. The Cassell’s review marks the lone occasion where I deviated from basing my judgment on the food on the plate. So, in the spirit of not committing the only crime, I went back to Cassell’s with Kelsey, Kristen, Nikhil, and Tracy. And now, I’m back before you with my proverbial hat in hand, to give Cassell’s the reconsideration it deserves.
The Burger The chuck-brisket patty was even better than I remembered. Flavorful, tender, and rich, it burst with juicy personality, courtesy to that nearly 70 year-old crossfire broiler. The garnishes were as fresh as I remember. Everything was as it was on my prior visits. I won’t regurgitate here what I’ve written before. If you want to read it, follow the link above. Besides, it’s not really my sense of the burger’s quality that has changed, per se. There are a couple of things about that review, though, that bother me.
The first problem is that I docked the burger for not “hitting its potential.” In addition to being a maddeningly vague and subjective feeling that I struggled then (and struggle now) to justify, it’s just kind of irrelevant. There’s not a dish that’s been cooked that couldn’t be improved somehow. We can’t judge dishes (or anything, for that matter) on the basis of what it could have been. We have to look, first and last, a what a thing is. That matters more. And what Cassell’s is, is a delicious burger–one of the best in the city.
The second problem isn’t one I could have anticipated as I penned the review initially, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Cassell’s stacks up much more formidably than I expected against the other burgers I’ve had since. When people ask me what the best burgers in the city are, this one always comes to mind. That’s got to count for something.
I get it. It’s not like I’ve imprisoned one of my nieces. There has been no mortal sin committed here. It’s not as though I got drunk on power and perpetrated some monstrous act of megalomania. I just docked a burger a couple points unfairly. But a mistake is a mistake, and if this Project is to be worth relying on, you all have to know you can trust me to recognize my mistakes and correct them as they arise. The only crime is pride.
3709 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
If you asked someone with little or no knowledge of Los Angeles to describe Sunday brunch here, she might paint a picture that looks a lot like Sawyer. Sunlight would stream through a constantly open window fronting Sunset Boulevard, filling the place with golden warmth. It would splash onto the face of the bright bar whose tiles evoke what you might find in the breezy colonnade of a Mediterranean – or maybe Aegean? – villa. To heighten the charm of it all, there would be a snug little patio out back, with a few tables, a fireplace, strings of unlit lights (“You should see them at dinner,” the host assures us).
That impossibly bright sunlight would bathe the crowd of diners, all trying very hard to look as if they weren’t trying hard. The men would sit, NIck Fouquet hats balanced on golden locks, henleys unbuttoned to there, draining Peroni from glasses that look too much like jars. Across from them would be ladies in vintage everything, wrists cocked, a glass of rosé balanced just so in their hands, nursing avocado toast with whisper thin discs of radish scattered atop. Everyone would be wearing sunglasses. Everyone would be beautiful.
The food would be typical Los Angeles brunch fare: the aforementioned ubiquitous avocado toast. Something with quinoa and kale. Mexican inspired items (here, shrimp tacos and a breakfast burrito). Chicken and waffles. A breakfast sandwich. And, of course, a burger.
Granted, this person might not know to paint Kelsey and me into her picture. Unless, I suppose, she envisioned Los Angeles as a place where wonderful girls like Kelsey voluntarily spend their birthday with burger-obsessed nerds. In which case, perhaps you’d find us painted into that idyllic scene right where we were today, at a corner table relishing the superlative people-watching Silver Lake generally (and Sawyer specifically) has on offer, and discussing whether Fear of God jeans would be worth the investment (the verdict: likely not), and contemplating the finer points of the Sawyer Burger.
The Order: Sawyer Burger (added bacon and avocado)
The Price: $18 ($14 base, optional additions (sunny side up egg, bacon, and/or avocado) $2 each)
First, a quick overview of the presentation: between seeded rolls is a hefty patty, cooked medium (per our server’s recommendation) and thinly filmed with Grafton cheddar. The meat sits atop a single piece of lettuce about the size of a catalpa leaf. On top of the patty is a splash of tomato relish that looks like it came off the end of Jackson Pollock’s brush. The bacon and avocado were added last.
It’s the kind of burger you might expect from a restaurant focused on seafood. That’s not really a ringing endorsement off the bat, I realize, but for what it’s worth, it’s more a comment on the approach to this dish than it is one on its quality.
The patty is the burger’s greatest weakness. The seasoning was ham-fisted, unsophisticated, and excessive, creating a constant peppery undercurrent to every bite that was more annoying than charming (probably because of the lack of a subtle complementary flavor). The texture of the beef might perhaps best be characterized as “unsettling.” It’s hard to describe, but also decidedly…well, wrong. Whereas one might expect a beef patty to have a certain coarse crumble to it, Sawyer’s patty had an off-putting, sticky coherence to it. When cut, the patty looked – and tasted – downright raw in some places.
The cheddar may as well not have been there. Indeed, I almost forgot it had been included in the first instance as I ate it. It added no texture, no taste, no contrast, nothing. A true disappointment, especially considering the excellent Vermont cheese on offer. The lettuce was unwieldy and far too large, seemingly there more for artistic reasons than culinary ones. The bun was a soggy, tasteless mess, soaked before I even took a bite, and disintegrating like Lot’s wife once I laid hands on it.
The tomato relish was a theoretically interesting presentation, but based on the taste, I suspect that “relish” is being used more as an impressive label than a reflection of reality. It was pulverized tomato, a halfhearted, uninspired stew that merely impersonated a culinary flourish. In point of fact, the relish did nothing but soak the buns into oblivion, making the whole enterprise much messier than it needed to be. As even casual readers of this publication know (and yes, I’m indulging in the rank fiction that I may have another kind of reader), I’m not averse to getting my hands dirty, but it’s got to be in service of something.
Not to harp on it, but the relish really captures my sense that this burger was a seafood restaurant’s burger. Relishes, often work on fish as a means by which to complement the flaky, buttery flesh of the catch (as a trip to basically any hotel restaurant in Hawai’i would prove conclusively), but they’re less inherently at home on a burger. Burgers generally benefit from the presence of a true sauce. If you’re going to add a relish or a jam, fine, but it should have a purpose that comes across in every bite. This slurried, nascent pico de gallo did not achieve that.
This burger is not without positives. Like so many college electives, the bacon and avocado were the most pleasant aspects of this experience, largely because they were the least challenging. The former was thick and savory, cooked to a pleasant, succulent crisp. The wedges of avocado were rich and buttery, playing well – if predictably – with the bacon. But again, these garnishes stood largely alone. And it’s telling that the optional elements of the burger were its strongest elements.
Another issue is the sheer structure of this dish. It is so large, so unwieldy, that I never at any point got a bite with all the ingredients in it. In addition to being frustrating, it makes the burger an incoherent experiential jumble with no real arc. I daresay, $18 is quite a dear sum to fork over for such a burger like this, which is as poorly conceived as it is executed.
I’m not saying a seafood restaurant can’t make a good burger. I am sort of saying that you can’t approach a burger like you’d approach seafood, and just hope that you can let people throw some bacon and avocado on it and forgive all your sins. The team at Sawyer has created a burger in a Mahi Mahi fillet’s body. Idyllic atmosphere aside, this burger is a miss. Come for the ambience, maybe stay for the smoked trout salad? This is, after all, a seafood restaurant.
It is conceivable that, if there is a heaven, it resembles Village Whiskey.
I’m hesitant to wax theological here; that’s a horrendously fraught enterprise, and I doubt many of you would like what I had to say. To be clear, though, I’m not saying Village Whiskey is necessarily a perfect place. But it does have a lot of the trappings of a perfect place: a robust, whiskey-focused drink selection; a menu composed by a talented chef, José Garces (the centerpiece of which is a burger); and a vibrant, friendly atmosphere that is the perfect complement to good company. And milkshakes. It’s hard to imagine heaven without milkshakes.
This is a restaurant that is proud of its burger. I went with Kevin, Rumi, and Alexis to see if that pride is misplaced. It was a busy evening: I took selfies with two random girls for them to send to their friends on Snapchat. Alexis broke a glass in rage because she drinks slowly. And between the two of them, Kevin and Rumi can’t match my check-paying skills and sneakiness. And we ate.
118 South 20th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
The Order: Village Burger, medium rare, with cheddar, bacon, avocado, and caramelized onions
The Price: $22.50 ($13 base; $2.50 for cheddar, $3.00 for bacon, $2.50 for avocado, $1.50 for caramelized onions)
The Burger The patty is eight ounces of farm-raised Maine Angus beef, impressively juicy and roughly packed into a small puck. It’s got the hallmark structural imperfection and asymmetry of a patty that was assembled by hand. The cheddar forms a nutty glaze over the top of the beef, bleeding over the sides and into the natural crannies in the patty. The patty is balanced atop thin blades of avocado. Beams of bacon shoot out the sides of the burger like exposed girders. Anchoring it all is a slice of tomato and a couple leaves of Bibb lettuce and a thin drizzle of Thousand Island.
The customizable burger is a tricky endeavor, and it’s hard to know how to evaluate it. After all, it leaves a lot in the hands of the consumer (and therefore, out of the hands of the chef). On the other hand, it places the onus on the restaurant to provide a burger of consistent quality no matter what ingredients they’re given. Oftentimes, diners don’t know how to thoughtfully assemble ingredients and instead opt to just choose a bunch of stuff they like. By offering a relatively diverse and challenging selection of additions, Village Whiskey places a lot of trust in their customers and their kitchen staff to make everything work.
It’s nice that as a fallback, the default garnishes are limited and fresh, the Thousand Island is unobtrusive and a mostly textural element, and the beef is very precisely cooked. This sets up a strong foundation upon which the other ingredients can interact more comfortably. My selection was relatively uncomplicated, with the bacon-avocado combination doing the heavy lifting. The smokiness of the bacon was mellowed nicely by the creamy avocado. Lurking under it all, the caramelized onions were sweet and tangy, harmonizing nicely with the Thousand Island.
So yes, this is a well-balanced burger, and it’s also pretty big — but you pay for it. At $22.50, it’s one of the most expensive burgers I’ve yet eaten. Candidly, it doesn’t completely live up to its price tag, but it’s still pretty good and really satisfying (I came medium hungry and didn’t even come close to finishing this monster). And as expensive as it is, I’d recommend it. My advice: round out the experience with some duck fat fries and a whiskey cocktail (or two), then finish with a vanilla bourbon milkshake. It’ll run you quite a few bucks, but you’ll leave full, happy, and maybe even a little buzzed.
In the age of Amazon and ATMs and self-checkout groceries, there is something to be said for good, old-fashioned customer service: a quick smile and a pleasant conversation is a depressingly cherished rarity in this day and age. Don’t get me wrong; I like Amazon Prime as much as the next guy – dat free two-day shipping doe – but it’s nice to be reminded that the old, human-centric way of doing things is still around.
I have similar feelings about the Los Angeles food scene. It’s nice to see young chefs bucking convention and innovating so bravely. Restaurants like Neal Fraser’s Redbird, Ari Taymor’s Alma, Chris Jacobson’s Girasol, and Kris Tominaga’s Cadet – just to name a few – confidently offer brave, inventive, challenging dishes. Parenthetically, you should check out all of those restaurants. This innovation is at the heart of the redefinition of cuisine in Los Angeles. But sometimes, in the midst of this new culinary renaissance of ours, it’s nice to go somewhere that reassures you that some people still have the capacity to make something beautiful out of the conventional.
The Bowery is such a place. Kevin, Shanil, and I have been going here for years. We usually pair it with a run to Amoeba Records. It’s been a tradition of ours; we do it any time the three of us are in town together. Today, we took Rumi along for the ride. When we arrived around 3 pm and found the door locked, we got emotional. It turns out, The Bowery doesn’t open on Sundays until 4 pm. Because of course it doesn’t. Anyway. We went to Amoeba and then came back at 4, hangry as all hell, for a long-overdue burger.
The Place The Bowery
6268 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90028
The Order: Bowery Burger (with cheddar cheese, bacon, avocado, sauteed mushrooms, and jalapeño)
The Price: $14 ($10 base, $1 per topping) before tax
The Bowery is nestled in the heart of Hollywood – pretty much right at Sunset and Vine – which means you have to navigate hordes of some of the most aggressive hipsters on the face of planet earth to get there. Seriously, there was a lot of side boob (cool it with that shit, ladies). And ironic facial hair. And girls in wide-brim fedoras and circular-framed sunglasses. And frowning. It’s a stone’s throw from Amoeba Records, where – in a desperate gambit in my ongoing (and eminently unsuccessful) campaign to be hip – I bought the new Jamie xx record, to which, I quickly realized, I’m not cool enough to listen.
The Bowery holds itself out as a New York-inspired gastropub, which means it’s small, everything is written on chalkboards, and everyone wears all black. Thankfully, that’s where the similarities to New York end: The weather outside isn’t a disaster (i.e. hot and sticky or oppressively freezing), you won’t get yelled at for crossing the street, there are way fewer finance douche-bros, it doesn’t smell like sweat and trash in the streets, and my ex-girlfriend is nowhere to be found. I’m especially thankful for one of those things.
Anyway. The Bowery’s purported claim to fame is its burger. The weird thing about it, though, is that the composition of that burger is largely up to the diner. More on that in a second; first, let’s talk about the constants. The most noteworthy aspect of this burger is that it is served on an English muffin in lieu of a conventional bun. The muffin is toasted perfectly, the rim delicately blackened, the heart crisp but still fluffy. That toasting prevents the muffin from getting soaked through, but it is not so severe as to savage away the flavor of the muffin itself. The patty is between six and eight ounces of grass-fed beef, cooked to a sumptuous, dripping medium rare.
Besides that, the identity of this burger is largely dependent upon consumer caprice. The Bowery offers a choice of cheeses – blue, herbed goat, gruyere, American, and cheddar – toppings, for a dollar each – red onion confit, caramelized onions, onion rings, sautéed mushrooms, roast garlic, avocado, bacon, fried egg, roasted jalapeño – and sauces – spicy hickory barbecue, ranch, or aioli.
So there is a versatility here; the burger can mold to your mood and preferences. In many ways, it will be what you want it to be. But that arguably cuts both ways: if you aren’t sure what you want, it can be a little overwhelming. This problem, of course, is easily solved; you should only come to The Bowery if you have at least a vague idea of what you want.
But let’s be clear: There is no wrong answer here. All four of us got different burgers, and all four of us a) cleaned our plates with lustful relish, and b) were totally satisfied that we had made the best possible choice. My burger was topped with bacon, avocado, sautéed mushrooms, roasted jalapeño, and spicy hickory barbecue sauce.
No fewer than four strips of bacon, thick cut and fried to a snapping crisp, were wavy and perfectly fried.The avocado, soft and ripe, was cut into thin slivers connected at the bottom and spread like a Chinese fan. The intense flavor of the horde of mushrooms anchored the profile of the burger, complementing the beef gorgeously. The roasted jalapeño was delicately hot, bringing a subtle flavorful undertone and an enchanting, creeping spice to the finish of each bite. The sauce was sweet but sassy; it had the gentlest kick, and paired especially well with the jalapeño and bacon.
The remarkable thing about this place is that, whatever assortment of toppings you choose, the burger you get will be perfectly balanced. They have chosen their ingredient selections like a well-planned wardrobe; everything matches everything else. They are masters of proportion; they know how the ingredients operate in context, and so they know how to assemble them in any combination. That said, getting that perfect arrangement of toppings may cost you: at a buck each, they really can make this burger a pretty expensive experience.
Now, my borderline-cannibalistic hunger may have had something to do with it, and it may be averred that my objectivity is buckling under the weight of tradition. But conspiracy theories aside, this is a damn good meal. The Bowery claims to have the best burger in Los Angeles, and I can tell you: it’s not a ridiculous claim.
Let’s get this out of the way at the outset: You are going to have to get past the fact that Eggslut is kind of an affected and gimmicky name. Do that, and you’ll come to appreciate that it’s a) kind of apt, and b) kind of clever, and c) kind of funny. But more importantly, Alvin Cailan’s egg-centric eatery on the Broadway side of Grand Central Market serves really balanced, carefully conceived dishes.
Some people will sardonically argue that the business plan seems to be, “Hey, we like Iron Chef and eggs, so let’s just combine them.” Strictly speaking, that’s not wrong. But it’s also incomplete. There’s a lot more going on here. Cailan and company strive to serve innovative twists on familiar comfort food. They strive to offer food that is innovative and inclusive. In practice, the innovation generally consists of, “Hey, what stuff might taste good with eggs?” But behind each dish is deceptively thoughtful composition. You’d make a mistake to think this place is just a bunch of hipsters or bros chuckling while they just put eggs on shit that doesn’t normally have eggs on it.
Shanil and I went to check it out. Kevin was supposed to come, but he was busy being disgustingly late. By the time he showed up to order, my food had digested, and they had raised and slaughtered another cow to make his burger.
Eggslut’s burger clearly was conceived with lots of love and respect for the institution of the burger. The focus is on high quality ingredients, simplicity, and complementary flavors. The egg is not intended to be the centerpiece of the burger. Prepared over-medium, it’s meant to be runny but not messy, to offer a textural contrast and some delightful, yolky flavor. And, all else being equal, it did that. As an absolute matter, the egg could not have been prepared better.
The real highlight of this burger, though, is the pickles. The interaction between the copious sweet pickle chips and the creamy egg yolk was nothing short of astonishing. It was the single most compelling ingredient pairing I’ve encountered since the Project got started. It completely justifies the spartan collection of ingredients found on this burger. Initially, when I looked at the description of the burger on the menu, I wondered why there wasn’t more going on.
Then, two things happened: First, I saw that you can add bacon and avocado. But given Eggslut’s generally judicious approach to ingredient inclusion, I chose not to. They include what needs to be included; I decided to order it like they suggested, not how they allowed. Second (and more importantly), I took a bite, and understood that the utterly symphonic collaboration between these two ingredients was more than enough to carry the water for this burger. The absence of sauce was not a deficiency, but an exercise in laudable restraint.
So if I’m going to register one complaint (and I am), it’s not really that the egg is scandalously slutty, it’s that the beef is kind of a prude (yes, I’ve tastelessly bought into the coarse foundational metaphor, but the general point holds). The patty is a paper-thin wafer of wagyu beef. High quality stuff, to be sure, but there’s so little of it that it makes not a gustatory dent. In one sense, I get it; there’s no way you could charge nine bucks for a beef with, say, a six-ounce wagyu patty. But the relentless pursuit of value sacrifices too much; this tastes like someone just put one brioche bun on either ear and thought really hard about wagyu beef. My point is that the patty is really small.
So while the complementary ingredients are beautifully – perhaps perfectly – balanced, this dish doesn’t feel like a burger; it feels like a sandwich. Someone forgot about the patty here, and it’s a damn shame, because this burger would be something really special were it a little better balanced. I imagined what it would be like if the egg yolk dripped and soaked into the patty, flirting with well-seasoned, flavorful, juicy beef. What a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy. But sadly, that’s all it is – a fantasy. What Eggslut has given us is an unfinished, unbalanced symphony, an almost-masterpiece that ends up making an impression more for what it could be than for what it actually is.
To 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)
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.
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?
When 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 Order: Proper Burger with added bacon and avocado
The Price: $20 (before tax)
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.
If you’re willing to take a spin to the kinda sketchy border of Little Tokyo and Skid Row, you’ll discover a few things: first, the dark side of gentrification; second, ample free street parking (the meters die at 6 pm!); and third, one of the weirdest dives I’ve yet been to in this town: The Escondite (which, aptly, is Spanish for “hideout”).
The first thing you notice when you walk into The Escondite is that it’s an eclectic spot. Deer antler chandeliers (fully outfitted with cheesy, fake-flickering, bright-orange electric candles) hang over the length of the bar. The back wall is wood-paneled and lined with vintage western posters, kind of evoking Bigfoot West in West L.A. Just near the entrance is a cramped stage tailor-made for a (probably pretty shitty) 80s cover band.
The next thing you’ll notice is that it’s decidedly a Chicago bar. The city flag hangs over the far end of the bar, and there are more Blackhawks banners and commemorations than you can shake a stick at (which – at least for someone with a distaste for the most boring iteration of evil – were pretty difficult to stomach). One almost expects to see a Rahm Emanuel staffer drafting menacing text messages, or a couple fat dudes getting drunk and loudly promising everyone that this year would be the Bears’ year, or a couple of hopelessly unwashed bros trying to hit on the bartender by yelling “GO CUBS” and offering limp-wristed high fives. Okay, so I actually saw all but one of those things.
But I digress.
I met up with Sergio to try a couple of their many (deeply insane) burgers. I walked in around 5:30. The place was still glowing from the Blackhawks tragic victory this Monday last. I muttered a few words that I won’t republish here (this is a family blog, after all), I slid into a booth, and I put my back to the wall. Facing the bar, staring ahead, I saw not one, but two Blackhawks banners hanging behind the row of taps. I muttered a tasteful variation of the same epithet I mentioned above. All I could think about was how Duncan Keith couldn’t seriously have won the Conn Smythe Trophy. All that team spirit…for such a horrible, soulless team? And this affront in the shadow of Staples Center? It was almost enough to make me lose my appetite. Almost.
But, I reminded myself, I wasn’t there to get sad about the fearsome, seemingly unstoppable expansion of hockey’s evil empire (help me, Tanner Pearson…you’re my only hope). I was there to eat a burger. So I put those deflating thoughts out of my head. Sergio and I each ordered one, and split them right down the middle.
The Order: One Dr. Joyce Brothers, one Fat Albert, Coke (for me), Diet Coke (for Sergio). Note: The Escondite does not allow substitutions.
The Price: $32.16, all told.
The Burger(s!) Part One: The Dr. Joyce Brothers The first burger was our server’s favorite. She self-identified as being into the “plainest stuff in the world.” The Dr. Joyce Brothers, she assured us, is the most accessible burger on the menu. A six-ounce patty with melted provolone cheese was rounded out with a lone (but substantial) tomato disc, a thicket of sprouts, wide slices of avocado, red onion, romaine lettuce, and a drizzle of Italian dressing on a buttery brioche bun.
To be fair, this one was as advertised: It was essentially the plainest thing ever. From beef to bun, nothing really stood out and took charge of the flavor profile. There were a variety of textures in play: crisp romaine, rich avocado, the wild tangle of the sprouts. This textural diversity was the only thing I could really grab onto with this burger. None of the toppings imparted any flavor. At all. For all its heft, the burger didn’t really pack a punch. The only thing that had much flavor at all was the Italian dressing, which was comprehensively lost beneath the din of bland, wiry sprouts and blunted by the avocado.
Speaking of which, I never thought there was any such thing as “too much” avocado. But this burger might just have had too much avocado. And that’s not necessarily because of the avocado itself (far be it from me to blame avocado for anything – I’m not a heretic). It’s just that avocado is not much of a flavor centerpiece. It’s the perfect – perfect – complement. It adds a neutral textural matrix in which other flavors interact beautifully (think guacamole). It neutralizes harsh flavors well, allowing for more daring contrasts (like, say, my renowned grapefruit-habañero guacamole). Here though, it was left to pull all the weight, flavor-wise, and that’s just not what avocado is meant to do.
Our server recommended that we have the patty cooked medium. This was a true medium – very little pink, and you could really taste the grill. Sadly, it wasn’t much of a patty. It was six ounces of what tasted like regular old chuck – it was too insipid to be Angus, too dry to be brisket, not tender enough to be sirloin. While six ounces may not seem like much, it’s pretty noticeable when it’s not providing much in the way of flavor.
Oddly, the bun was the most interesting part of the burger. A complex brioche-esque thing, it had a sweet, front end that gave way nicely into a buttery finish. Light but not absorbent, it was pretty delicious. But otherwise, this burger was as bland and soulless as the 2015 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks: good on paper, but they ain’t got no heart. Suck it, Jonathan Toews.
Part Two: Fat Albert
This is where the action was. When I first had the idea for the burger project, it was stuff like this that I was excited to eat. Burgers that were devilishly weird, adventurous, brash, that had personality. The Escondite, then, is noteworthy for having delivered the first burger that really, honestly threw me for a loop.
Cards on the table: The Fat Albert is completely gross. Just unbelievably disgusting. Cool? Cool.
It features the same (vaguely depressing, very middling) provolone-coated six-ounce patty found on the Dr. Joyce Brothers. But this time, the patty has ample backup in the flavor department. Two strips of applewood smoked bacon are splayed out parallel atop the cheese. The cheese and bacon are the only toppings. Then the fun starts: the Fat Albert offers a liberal swirl of maple syrup. This mounting arterial nightmare is served on a glazed doughnut.
If the patty was problematic on the Dr. Joyce Brothers, it was because there was nothing to compensate for its lack of flavor. Here, that wasn’t as much of a problem. The bacon was smoky, salty, and crisp, fried to a crackling brick red. At the risk of sounding like a greedy piece of shit, two strips wasn’t really enough; about halfway into the burger, I realized I wasn’t going to get bacon in every bite, and let me tell you: that was a sad moment for me.
The savory and salty patty-bacon combo played nice with the mild, sweet provolone. But that was about the only subtlety here. The maple syrup and the glazed doughnut offered a fearlessly aggressive sweetness that went to war with the savory stuff in every bite. The opaque, sugary glaze from the doughnut melted from the heat of the meat and oozed onto the patty, settling in the space between strips of still-sizzling bacon.
This burger was weird. It was counterintuitive. It was astonishingly unhealthy. And it was hard to put down. To be clear, it is not something I could eat every day (assuming arguendo that my heart could sustain that kind of rampant abuse, which – obviously – it could not). But I’m glad I ate it today.
It kind of felt like a Chicagoan’s idea of what the typical Los Angeles native is like: adventurous, loud, and extroverted, with an exterior that’s just sweet enough to compensate for the fact that it’s a little boring on the inside. There isn’t much (besides the sultry provolone lurking coyly between bacon and beef) to talk about beyond the stark and obvious contrast between sweet (doughnut/syrup) and savory (beef/bacon/cheese). There are precious few intricacies lurking behind the big, showy (and, sure, delicious) contradiction that comes at you right up front.
And you know what? That’s actually okay. This burger isn’t meant to be complex. It’s a culinary fart joke: crude, juvenile, and obvious to the point of unsophistication. But you can’t help but love it a little bit.
Al Cassell founded Cassell’s back in 1948. The idea was a hamburger stand that stuck to the basics; the original menu consisted of nothing but burgers, a patty melt, and a couple sandwiches. Since reopening in Koreatown less than a year ago, Christian Page has expanded the menu a bit (now you can get breakfast, some pie, a house-made soda, or a cocktail). For the most part though, this place has stayed true to its founder’s vision: a focus on burgers and a commitment to quality.
I went with Greg and Lemi to check out the new, hipster-friendly, mod-diner iteration of Cassell’s on the ground floor of the Hotel Normandie, and see how this burger stacked up.
The Place Cassell’s
3600 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90020
The Order: Cheeseburger (Swiss Cheese, tomato, lettuce, pickle, red onion, nitrate free bacon, avocado, cooked medium rare (server recommendation)); Saint Archer IPA, Vanilla Coke (I was at a diner; how could I not?).
The Price: $13.49 (burger); $3.50 (Coke); $7.00 (IPA).
The Burger Process matters at Cassell’s. So does tradition. That’s why they use the same grinder to grind the meat every day, the same press to make the patties, and the same crossfire broiler that Al Cassell himself used to fire up burgers all those decades ago.
Besides that, the burger’s personality hasn’t really changed, even if it’s been updated for modern usage. This is, at bottom, a diner burger. The base model comes with nothing more than meat on a bun (with cheese, if you order it). Lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, and Thousand Islands dressing are included on the side – add as much or as little as you want – and you can (for a fee) add nitrate-free bacon, avocado, a fried egg, or grilled onions. Mine came to me with avocado (because I’m Californian) and bacon (because I’m a human being). I added one (perfectly-sized) piece of lettuce, three pickle chips, one slice of tomato – deep red, firm and juicy – and three concentric rings of red onion, as well as a thin glaze of Thousand Island on the top bun.
There’s an important point to be made here. Cassell’s has some (not all) of the options (bacon, avocado, fried eggs) that have become standard fare at gourmet burger shops across the city. They are aware of and attentive – if perhaps a touch resistant – to the fact that people like to put lots of deviant shit on their burgers (deviant, that is, from the pre-Loving v. Virginia perspective of Al Cassell, so take it with a grain of salt). And sure, they’ll let you add the frills if you must (and I must), but those frills decidedly are not what they’re selling.
So what are they selling? Like I said, this is a diner burger. They’ve taken Al Cassell’s old formula and updated it in subtle ways. Some things haven’t changed – there’s only so much you can do to lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onions. But there are other areas where things have changed, and it’s pretty evident that these are the things about which Cassell’s is proudest – specifically, the bun and the meat.
This bodes well. Practically, it means Cassell’s doesn’t depend on novel toppings to prop up an otherwise shitty burger. They don’t want you saying, “Wow, this patty tastes like cardboard and raw quinoa, but is that kimchee?” You might say these are burger purists. They focus on the components that matter. The Parker House buns were crisp on the outside, but milky and buttery on the inside, a rich complement to the crunchy, fresh garnishes, and a worthy counterpart to the bold, juicy patty. They are light but hardy. They stayed dry without being heavy, and they were firm without being tough.
As for the patty, it’s pretty obvious that this thing is Page’s baby. It’s a 1/3 pound suspension of Colorado Angus chuck and brisket that makes Shake Shack look like Burger King. It was flavorful and bold, with the different meats imparting subtle differences in flavor and tone. At medium rare, it was perfectly cooked: delicately charred on the outside, with enough juicy personality inside to keep things interesting without making a mess.
A couple things stick out when you eat this burger. First, everything on it is absurdly fresh. The meat tastes like it was ground today. The lettuce is crisp and cool. The tomatoes are explosively juicy. Even the onions, had a sassy, crunchy tang. The pickles, sadly, got a little lost in the shuffle. They weren’t particularly sharp or sour, and as a result, ended up tasting more like cucumber on which someone had spilled vinegar. The Thousand Islands was similarly unexceptional. This may have had something to do with the fact that I didn’t add enough, but I tasted a bit off the blade of my knife, and it was insipid even outside the context of the burger.
The optional toppings were excellent. The cheese was a thin slice of Swiss that delicately melted over the patty. It added depth of flavor without being intrusive or sharp on the palate, and it had maintained enough solidity that it wasn’t stringy or stretchy. The bacon was thick cut and crisp, exactly how burger bacon should be. The avocado was generously portioned and perfectly ripe – which means it was firm, not flabby, smeary quasi-guacamole.
The interplay between bacon and avocado was, predictably, wonderful, especially since the former was perfectly prepared. The other garnishes were fresh and crisp enough to impart some actual gustatory interest, rather than just being “those things that are not meat and also slightly less hot than everything else.” The freshness of all the ingredients allowed their respective tastes to shine through, which gave the burger’s flavor profile layers, which revealed themselves in every bite. Presenting the garnishes on the side means you have total control over how dominant any one flavor will be – a pleasant intermissio from the presumptuous, peri-fascist paternalism of other burger places.
On the whole, the flavors in this burger balance well, but that’s to be expected when you employ such a tried and true formula. It’s hard to credit Cassell’s with executing a precarious balancing act with aplomb. They didn’t do that at all. Instead (and by design, mind you), they did a simple thing well. Rather than trying to buck convention, they embrace it. This is a unapologetically classic American hamburger. It is the kind of thing you would buy your tourist friends when they ask to eat American food.
Having said all that, here’s my gripe. I said before that these are burger purists. Maybe that’s true. The other possibility is that they’re a little risk-averse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this place is holding something back. The quality of the preparation led me to wonder if maybe the whole “mom-and-pop” schtick isn’t really just a cop-out, an excuse to not get creative and take risks. Because some decidedly modern culinary flourishes (most notably the patty) notwithstanding, this burger is a period piece. There is untapped creativity here. Page clearly is talented and inventive, but his burger, though very good, felt as though it was as unchallenging for him to conceive and execute as it was for me to eat and enjoy.
Now, part of me appreciates that. In a scene where everyone seems to be trying to do something shocking, it’s refreshing to eat a burger that’s just concerned with doing things right. But still, I feel like Page is capable of more that “just” a great diner burger. And as unfair as it may be, I think he could make a burger that is truly something special. This isn’t it. All this one is is really damn good. Which I guess I’m willing to settle for.