HiHo Cheeseburger

The Place
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HiHo Cheeseburger
1320 2nd Street, Suite B
Santa Monica, CA 90401

I know.  It’s been a while.  The last article I started to write for this Project was in October.  I remember the exact day; it was immediately after Justin Turner did this.  I tried to put my feelings into words that night, to no avail.  I got swept up in the frenzy of October baseball.  The hope.  I fell in love with the possibility that 2017 might just be the Dodgers’ year.

Then this happened.

And then this happened.

And now this is happening.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s this.

All of which has made me feel approximately like this.

Now, I’m not saying the serial and crushing failure of Dodger baseball and the casual, inevitable hopelessness of Kings hockey are the most pressing problems of our time. Surely neither is.  But they sure can take it out of you.  I guess my point is, it can be exhausting to love something.  I’m not sure it explains my silence here.  Maybe nothing can.  Maybe an explanation isn’t necessary.

Whatever it was that took me away from this, though, one simple idea brought me back: life is too short not to seize the things that bring you joy and keep them close.

That was probably too heavy for a blog about cheeseburgers.  But it was a couple weeks ago, spending a night at HiHo Cheeseburger with my better half (of whom I haven’t been seeing enough lately) that it hit me.  It’s good to be with people you love doing things you love.  So I’m back to say a few words about HiHo Cheeseburger.  With a little good-natured pedantry on the front end.

The Order: Double HiHo Cheeseburger

The Price: $6.95

The Burger
I’ve eaten some great burgers in the past few months.  I resolve to write about all of them in turn.  But it took something like HiHo Cheeseburger to bring me back.

When you think and write about cheeseburgers, you’re often faced with dishes that are presented as elevated iterations of a classic form.  Los Angeles as a food scene is obsessively colloquial.  The culinary consciousness here is not, by and large, predisposed to traditionalist haute cuisine.  Rather, it is about cultural reflection, comfort, familiarity.  The food in this town is an expressive modality, a way for chefs to give you a window through which you can see who they are and where they come from, not merely what they can do.

It may sound a little high-brow, but it’s really the opposite.  Food in Los Angeles is a way for chefs to connect with the rest of us.  You’re not going to get a glimpse into a fancy culinary school; you’re meant to get a glimpse into someone’s childhood dining room.  What makes food here truly exceptional (rather than just some cute nostalgic exercise) is that those classic dishes are re-imagined with beautiful, leveled-up ingredients.

To wit, all the patties at HiHo Cheeseburger are 100% grass-fed Wagyu beef from First Light collective–sustainably raised, totally free of all hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs.  Laugh all you want at how cartoonishly L.A. that is; it tastes better.  The beef elevates what fundamentally is an unabashed photocopy of a Double-Double (right down to the mustard grilling of the patties) to something memorable.  The quality of the meat makes up for the slightly less-inspired seasoning on the patty.

Other elements of the Double-Double are referenced obliquely, for better and worse. The piquant onion jam admirably replaces the animal style minced onions and Thousand Island.  The brioche bun is a step down from its sponge analogue, though it’s tough to take serious issue with it.  The pickles, made in house, are exceptional: sweet, sharp, and snappy but also, delightfully, a hair thicker than you might expect, nicely rounding out the homage to the Baldwin Park O.G.

Regular readers will know I have no issue with people riffing on In-N-Out, especially if it’s done well.  HiHo Cheeseburger riffs on In-N-Out quite well.  And at $6.95, it’s an extremely high value proposition: you’ll have ample room in your wallet to give the Straus milkshakes or the banana cream pie a spin (and wash it down with a beer if you’re trying to drown your latest Los Angeles sports-induced sorrow).

HiHo doesn’t seek to elevate the concept of the cheeseburger.  Just the execution.  And in doing so, it embodies a lot of what is great about food in Los Angeles: it takes an iconic dish and pays respectful homage to it.  If you’re like me, eating here will remind you of why you love living here.  In spite of the Dodgers.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.80 / 10.00
Freshness: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 6.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.70 / 10.00

Overall: 91.30 / 100.00

Meatzilla!

The Place
Meatzilla!
646 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014

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Dip your toe into the internet musings about Meatzilla, and you likely will find yourself annoyed.  The exclamatory nomenclature.  The burger with a pepperoni pizza bun.  The unshakable feeling that everything about the place was conceived with a smirk.  Indeed, even without the deviant punctuation, the name itself is really an etude in hipster snark. There’s very little in the reportage about this place that would inspire any reasonable person to take it seriously.

Most of this stuff had escaped me when DJ, a partner in my office, told me he had it on good authority that Meatzilla made the best burger in Downtown Los Angeles.  Now, having waxed adoring on a different downtown burger myself, I felt predictably compelled to investigate.  So I headed over to Meatzilla with Bret and Greg.  It’s a shack on Main Street, a pretty barebones affair, with a cramped kitchen, a whiteboard menu, stacks of soda boxes filling a side doorway, and a playlist like a Tarantino soundtrack. If they’re trying to project the image of hustling newcomers just trying to make it, it’s coming off gangbusters.  Think Steinbeck repurposed for the Snapchat generation.  Okay, that might be overstating the point a bit, but you get the idea.

The Order: Beef! Beef!

The Price: $9.50

The Burger
The whole concept of the place may seem tongue-in-cheek and affected, but the fare on offer is far from it.  While there are some experimental items on the menu to be sure, Meatzilla is conceptually a purist’s burger joint, whose bread and butter is no-frills, beef-forward presentations redolent more of summer cookout than a hipster Thanksgiving.

The Beef! Beef!, for instance, features two absolutely mammoth patties with discs of housemade pickles about the diameter of a nickel laid sporadically on top, along with tangy white onion.  A thick primordial ooze of cheese – Muenster on one patty and American on the other – drips from the meat.  You might mistake it for a runny fried egg (which you can add, by the way, for a buck fifty).  A generous – but not excessive – helping of Sriracha ketchup films both buns.  And that’s it.  No lettuce, no tomato, none of the other standard garnishes.

The beef is flavorful and surprisingly not overwhelming.  It was a hair overcooked, and while that normally wouldn’t be an issue, when there’s this much beef, there’s a smaller margin for error.  The pickles were utterly exceptional though, perfectly sour and with a healthy snap to them.  The onions were similarly well integrated, soaked in ketchup, and smartly kept raw to add more crunch and tang to complement the massive amounts of beef.  The ketchup was not overpowering, offering a nice sweet-hot undertone to each bite without being too assertive.  The cheese was a coup: gooey, rich, and indulgent, it gave every bite a sumptuous, smooth warmth.

All these garnishes, though, were just complementary though.  While Burgerlords and In-N-Out seek to harmonize all the ingredients into a coherent, synthesized whole in which all the components cooperate to create something larger than the sum of its parts, Meatzilla is, true to its name, a beef-first and beef-last kind of enterprise.  If, at Burgerlords, the burger is an orchestra in which the meat is just one instrument, at Meatzilla, the beef is the soloist, with other instruments there to add color and texture, but never to command your attention.

So is this the best burger in Los Angeles?  I guess that depends.  This burger is not a work of art.  But I left my meal with a pretty clear understanding of why someone might fall in love with it.  If you think a burger should be an unapologetically beef-focused dish, Meatzilla will appeal to you.  They’re about beef.  Not about buns (though the bun holds up impressively here, even if it isn’t the most dynamic component of the burger), or garnishes, or balance, or anything else.  But beef.

What’s more, there’s a sentimentality inherent in this dish.  Meatzilla has the sort of unbalanced charm that will take you back to the backyard cookouts with friends you only distantly remember from a washed-out photograph.  The smell of the grill would waft over and intermix with the harsh scent of chlorinated water.  It’s the burger you ate before you cared that soda was bad for you.  It’s the burger you ate before you started obsessing over calorie counts and carbohydrates.  It’s the burger that would buckle a paper plate.  It’s the burger you ate before you became a well-heeled culinary connoisseur and forgot how to enjoy something unsophisticated.  It’s the burger you ate when you cared more that your food was fun rather than an immaculately curated art project, when it didn’t matter if a dish wasn’t a perfectly manicured harmony of flavors and textures.

The last word is that while it’s hard for me to say this is downtown’s best burger, it’s hard to argue it isn’t either.  It’s a strange, unsettled feeling I left with, but it’s a feeling that is pulling me back to Meatzilla for another visit.  Which, at bottom, is all that matters, I guess.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.60 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.50 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.90 / 10.00
Balance: 7.90 / 10.00

Total: 84.60 / 100.00

The Top Ten (November 1, 2016)

The passage of Halloween means that the holidays are upon us.   That means it’s time to engage in behavior that makes you feel deeply guilty at season’s end.  What better way to do that than by checking out the brand new, and thoroughly shaken-up, top ten burgers in Los Angeles?

  1. Petit Trois (95.70 / 100.00)
  2. Burgerlords (93.20 / 100.00)
  3. In-N-Out Burger (93.00 / 100.00
  4. The Bowery (91.90 / 100.00)
  5. Fritzi (91.10 / 100.00)
  6. Plan Check Kitchen + Bar (Bleuprint) (90.70 / 100.00)
  7. Super Burger (90.00 / 100.00)
  8. Plan Check Kitchen + Bar (Plan Check Burger) (89.80 / 100.00)
  9. Dudley Market (88.90 / 100.00)
  10. The Flintridge Proper (88.70 / 100.00)

Get out there – these burgers aren’t going to eat themselves.  And happy holidays.

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

The Top Ten (April 12, 2016)

I haven’t updated this list since October, and there has been considerable shake-up since then.  At the risk of being behind the times, here are the top ten burgers I’ve written about so far.

  1. Burgerlords (93.20 / 100.00)
  2. In-N-Out (93.00 / 100.00)
  3. The Bowery (91.90 / 100.00)
  4. Super Burger (90.00 / 100.00)
  5. Plan Check Kitchen + Bar (89.80 / 100.00)
  6. Dudley Market (88.90 / 100.00)
  7. The Flintridge Proper (88.70 / 100.00)
  8. Republique (88.20 / 100.00)
  9. TIE: ERB and Badmaash (88.10 / 100.00)

Stay tuned, clearly.  More changes are basically a sure thing.  After all, as you may have read on the label of a pair of Volcom Stone pants you had in sixth grade, “The Only Constant Is Change.”

Burgerlords

The Place
Burgerlords
943 North Broadway, #102
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Los Angeles is beautiful because no matter how well you know her, she keeps changing on you in subtle, unknowable ways. Just when I think I’ve got her figured out, I stop and look in time to see the sun hit her in a slightly different way. The only constant in my relationship with this town is that I love it. The reasons why I love it, though, like me, are always changing.

I could go into a big long thing about it, but that’s kind of what love is, isn’t it? Watching someone change – and changing yourself – but staying connected? Because eventually you learn to think of change not as the disappearance of the old, but the discovery of something new. And that’s how, after years and decades of marriage, people wake up together just as fiercely in love as they were on the morning after their wedding.

Or something. Gracious, don’t take my word for it; I know way more about burgers than love.

Here’s my point. My favorite thing about this project is that, no matter how exhaustively I research, no matter how much I think I know, there’s always a surprise just around the corner. A comment made in passing by an acquaintance. An almost-hidden spot that makes me double take (and maybe almost rear-end someone) driving down Broadway. A recommendation from someone I’d written off as a dilettante. A remark from someone who’s just trying to revive a conversation.

Two weeks ago, I didn’t know Burgerlords existed, even though it’s practically in my back yard. Now, I’m sitting here with the empty box in front of me, the wrapping still soggy with thousand islands, the fast fading smell of the best french fries I’ve ever eaten and a truly remarkable burger lingering like a cloud above my coffee table, writing about it. God, I love this city.

Here’s all you need to know by way of background: Burgerlords is the brainchild of the actual children of Andre Guerrero, who you know because he’s the guy behind the Oinkster. It used to be the name of an insanely popular Tumblr run by the same dudes. Now, it’s a restaurant hidden in a corner of Chinatown where it would never occur to you to head for food. Which is unfortunate for you. That’s why you read this, though.

The Order: Double Cheeseburger Combo

The Price: $10.00

The Burger
I’ll spare you the suspense. I know I haven’t eaten every burger in Los Angeles. But none of the ones I have eaten can beat this one. I won’t belabor that point too much. Instead, I’ll get to brass tacks.

This burger is quite obviously an homage to the Double-Double. And yes, living up to that progenitor is an audacious goal.

Obviously, this is a much smaller operation than In-N-Out. The Guerrero brothers have not proven that they can maintain quality in the face of expansion. But they have expressed no intention or ambition to expand. For now, Burgerlords is just a window in Chinatown that you can’t see from the street. When you go – and you must go – resist the temptation to try and see the future through that window. Instead, try and appreciate what’s in front of you. The burger being made with love, care, and respect. The sizzle and hiss of beef on burner. The crackle of frying potatoes. Focus on what’s there. It’s more than enough.

The patties are grass-fed beef. They call it their “tri-blend” without further elaboration. None is necessary. It has the hardiness of chuck, the sweet tenderness of short rib, and insinuates (without achieving, but come on, the thing is ten bucks) the complexity of Wagyu. It’s seasoned to utter perfection, with the seasoning bringing out the natural savor of the meat, amplifying rather than masking.

The bun is the most overt tip of the cap to In-N-Out. It matches its ancestor in spongy sweetness, and is the perfect bookend to this burger. The toppings are the weakest point; the lettuce is a little sad and wilted, the tomatoes are a bit watery. These are minor nits. The onions and cheese fare better, offering a personality and tastefully assertive flavor to contrast the anchoring umami undertones of the patty. The thousand island is the subtlest you’ll likely taste on a burger, but is the perfect, cooling counterpart to the beef and cheese.

As I read over the last couple paragraphs, which I’ve written and re-written, they don’t get the point across. It occurs to me now that there really is no getting the point across. These ingredients coalesce into something much more than the aggregation of their individual tastes. Just like a symphony is more than a bunch of instruments being played at the same time. There’s nothing special about this burger. But that’s what makes it so special.

There’s a line in 500 Days of Summer where one of the characters describes the girl of his dreams, and enumerates the many ways in which she is different from his girlfriend. Then he pauses, and says, “But Robin is better than the girl of my dreams – she’s real.”

I thought of that line while I was eating this burger. I could dream up an insane burger. One with foie gras, a bone marrow drip, St. Andre cheese, avocado, bacon, or any other number of exotic or indulgent ingredients. But dreams are dreams; they don’t necessarily reflect anything that would work in the waking world. Burgerlords hasn’t made the burger of my dreams. They’ve done something better. They’ve made what is to date the best burger I’ve ever had.

Burgerlords might not be good enough to make you fall in love with Los Angeles. It might not make you fall in love with burgers. (Although, if you didn’t love either of those two things, it’s not clear why you’re here reading this in the first instance.) But for those of us who already love either or both of those things, it’s a pretty damn good reminder of why.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.60 / 10.00
Value: 9.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.40 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 93.20 / 100.00