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
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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

The L.A. Weekly Burger Battles

I owe Shannon for the tip on this one. She managed to reach me through the thick, noxious, mind-altering fog of bar exam preparation (which is also what I’m offering by way of an excuse for the lack of reviews lately), and apprise me of something of which I was shamefully unaware.

So apparently, LA Weekly is running a burger bracket. They’ve put sixteen burgers in Los Angeles into categories (“divisions”), and they’re putting them up in a head-to-head, winner-advances tournament. It’s not clear how they chose these sixteen burgers. There were some on the list that really didn’t belong, and others that were undoubtedly snubbed. The first round is over, and here are a few quick thoughts heading into Round Two (the “elite eight”):

  • Ledlow beating out Belcampo Meat Co. is the most ridiculous miscarriage of justice since, well, this. Or this. Or this. Or this. God, that last one really hurt.
  • Actually, the whole “Fancy” bracket kind of sucks. Not only were both matchups incorrectly decided, those burgers decidedly, well, just aren’t that fancy. Though I suppose fancy is relative.
  • It’s not clear what the “New School” Bracket actually is, considering some of those places have been around longer than, say, Ledlow, and are decidedly classic burgers (I’m thinking the Oinkster).
  • I don’t know how these sixteen burgers got their feet in the door. This is arbitrary as shit.
  • If the final is anything besides In-N-Out v. Plan Check, this bracket is a crime on par with…well, this. Which isn’t to say that Plan Check should even be in the final, because…ugh, where do I even start?

Now, your humble correspondent was snubbed for an invitation to judge the competition. I’m as perplexed as you are. However, I’ve decided to do the next best thing and offer you my suggested votes for the next round. Do with this information what you will.

Fancy Division: Pick Petit Trois (because you can’t pick Belcampo (because Gillian Ferguson’s tastebuds apparently are less functional than the cuff buttons on an rented tuxedo)).

New School Division: Go with Plan Check. Neither of these places really represent the best of what I think of as “New School” burgers in Los Angeles, but it’s the better of the two.

L.A. Originals Division: Close, but it’s got to be Father’s Office. But the even closer call would be “Which of these places offers a more unpleasant dining experience?” That’s a genuine toss-up.

Fast Food Division: If you have to ask, we’re obviously not in one another’s lives. It’s In-N-Out. By a marathon of country miles, it’s In-N-Out.

This is one to watch closely. In the meantime, you definitely should go do your civic duty.

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