Ox & Son

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

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

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

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

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

The Order: O&S Burger

The Price: $20 (before tax)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 69.90 / 100.00

Ashland Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Price: $17 (before tax)

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, this is some rococo shit.

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 83.60 / 100.00