Burgerlords x Otium: Burger Merger No. 1

The Place

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Burger Merger No. 1: Burgerlords x Otium
943 North Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90012

When Otium opened in 2015, it surely was one of the most hotly anticipated restaurant openings Los Angeles had seen in some time.  Nestled in the crook of a grove of dust-green olive trees and the hivelike Broad Museum, this cantilevered structure of wood and glass – with its sinewy steel beams and vaulting ceilings – drew attention for its architecture before it every plated a dish.

When finally it did open, there was the requisite amount of buzz.  Some loved it, others hated it.  But regardless of where your allegiances may fall in the J-Gold / B(a)esha Rodell clash (in case you were wondering, Otium doesn’t crack my top ten (or twenty (or thirty)) restaurants in the city; I think it’s very good, ambitious but not indispensable), one thing was certain: through Otium, Timothy Hollingsworth sought to leave a footprint, to be among the most significant restaurants in the city.

Has Chef Hollingsworth achieved his goal?  That probably depends on who you ask.  Some say Hollingsworth is among the preeminent chefs in Los Angeles already.  That’s not an outrageous claim (to be sure, it’s impressive that after so brief a spell in the city, he can have so dedicated a following) but if we’re being honest, the plaudits probably are a little premature.  Like, Brandon Ingram has a smooth jump shot and can get to the rack in style, but he’s not the franchise yet, you know?

Weirdly enough, the clearest evidence of this has come when he stepped out of his open kitchen by the Broad and ventured east and north, into Chinatown, to Burgerlords, slinging special collaboration burgers, which will be available every Monday in October.  The so-called Burger Merger presented a more aw-shucks picture of Tim Hollingsworth.  Clad in skinny jeans and a t-shirt commemorating the collaboration, flax-blonde hair styled in a very in-style undercut, he navigated the gathered crowd with easy charm and familiarity.

In this inaugural Burger Murger, Hollingsworth put forth two offerings: a barbecued eel burger, which is the object of this review (and which Nikhil, Adam, and I ordered), and a vegan burger (ordered by Kelsey as part of what I can only conclude is a campaign to humiliate herself and discredit me), which is the object of nothing more than my pervasive and fundamental contempt.

The Order: Barbecued Eel Burger

The Price:

The Burger
If you’re like me, you’ll have questions as you approach this event.  What is the point of this collaboration?  What exactly is a barbecued eel burger?  Is it a ground eel patty?  Is it a slab of eel in lieu of a patty?  Is that vegan judging me?  Is the eel a topping?  Is this going to be disgusting?  Is this event moving the ball towards Timothy Hollingsworth being an L.A. food icon?  Did anyone order the vegan burger?  Did I leave my car lights on?

You might not come away with clear answers to those questions after eating this burger.  I can tell you this much: There is a beef patty.  The burger features shishito peppers, scallions, tomato, avocado, mayonnaise, and barbecued eel.

Here’s the problem: When you brand something as a barbecued eel burger, customers will fairly expect to know where the eel is, to be able to identify it visually and within the flavor profile of the burger.  That’s not possible here.  This burger was good, but it didn’t taste like a barbecued eel burger.  The eel, sliced into oblivion, did little besides add a little extra savor to every bite, a sort of fish-saucy roundness to the finish (it might have balanced better had there been an extra patty; the single patty was a bit paltry for my taste).  That’s fine, but let’s be clear: Calling this a barbecued eel burger was a branding choice made to offer the appearance of innovative sophistication.  It wasn’t a reflection of the actual flavor profile of the burger.

Besides that, it’s a relatively milquetoast offering, defined only by its internal conflict.  The toppings compete rather than cooperate.  The shishitos are masked by the overwhelming savor of the meats.  The traces of avocado within an overwhelming matrix of mayonnaise get lost like a ship in fog.  A thick slice of tomato, juicy and bright, is the highlight of the toppings, but simultaneously renders what otherwise might have been subtly cooling fronds of scallion little more than bitter whispers.

So sure, this burger will draw a lot of attention.  There will be lines across the courtyard and – probably – plaudits from Hollingsworth’s faithful (who, weirdly enough, can approach Beyhive/Belieber/Team Breezy levels of fervor).  In the end, though, this first Burger Merger feels like little more than an exercise public relations symbiosis.  I’ll stop short of saying it’s cynical, because the product isn’t bad.  But it’s a way to increase Burgerlords’ profile while making Timothy Hollingsworth seem a little more integrated into this city.  At that much – and probably not more than that much – it will be successful.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.90 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.60 / 10.00
Patty: 7.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.10 / 10.00
Balance: 7.20 / 10.00

Total: 81.20 / 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