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

Dudley Market

The Place
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Dudley Market
9 Dudley Avenue
Venice, CA 90291

Reservations: 424.744.8060
Bar: Beer and wine only

Sunday was a difficult day.  Not in the sense that it was a strenuous day.  Just because it reminded me of the tortured relationship I maintain with Venice.

When I lived on the East Coast, Venice pretty nearly captured everything I missed about home.  The sun’s rays so bright you swear you can see resplendent gold blades against the implausibly blue sky.  The heat of those rays on your skin tempered by the ocean breeze.  The way that breeze that picks up and swirls stray grains of sand.  The way that sand manages to get between your toes, even when you’ve worn shoes.   The seemingly anti-gravitational lean of palm trees in the briny air.  All the beautiful people walking down sidewalks peering into the windows of high-end boutiques, passing through the aromatic clouds drifting up and over from food trucks idling on the blacktop.

And speaking of food,  Venice has long been a culinary center in Los Angeles.  The Tasting Kitchen and Gjelina, by now, are old news (but still newsworthy).  More recently, veteran culinary icons (Josiah Citrin) and young upstarts (Top Chef winner Nyesha Arrington) have laid down roots there as well.

The TL;DR version of all that is that there’s a lot to love in Venice: weather, sunshine, the beach, and delicious food.  For a time, I was dead-set on living in Venice upon returning to Los Angeles.

After that drooling paean, what, you ask, makes my relationship with Venice “tortured?”

Because, before eating a quite-good brunch at the charming Dudley Market, you have to proceed through a gauntlet of challenges that Venice lays before all those who come to share in its beachside bounty.  First, you have to park.  Basically, that amounts to crawling through labyrinthine side streets and alleys, doing your damndest to not commit a tort against one of the actually psychotic cyclists swerving in and out of your path.  As you do, you’ll be flanked on one side by side streets running perpendicular to you, all packed with cars, and on the other side by totally vacant beachside lots charging a cash-only $20 flat rate – a rate that frugality and mulish pride won’t let you pay.

Then you get out of your car (after displaying an embarrassing lack of parallel parking acumen for a crowd of dead-eyed, unwashed, and dreadlocked white people), and you’re forced to really see Venice.  Sun-bronzed hippies, carelessly half-naked, leaning against the walls of grubby and overpriced apartment buildings, weirdly unaffected by the strange funk the beach breeze carries from nearby dumpsters.  Hungover bros speeding down those alleys in their fathers’ leased Teslas.  Bottle blondes in garish $600 sunglasses from last season, oozing a petulant, practiced apathy through bar-battered bangs.  Tourists, drenched in sweat and marveling at the spectacle of all these disparate demographics coexisting seamlessly.  And even if you’re a native, you’ll find yourself marveling at it too.  It’s staggering, stereotypically Californian, and a little gross.

But Venice is like an old friend.  She may occasionally annoy or disgust, but it doesn’t take much to remind you of why you love her and are lucky to have her around.  As pissed as I was about parking, and about feeling like a millennial Frogger dodging $100,000 electric cars, it all melted away when I felt that breeze come in off the Pacific .  Any residual impatience was obliterated when I took the first sip of Dudley Market’s stellar espresso milkshake with the beach at my back.

I didn’t go for the milkshake, of course.  Kelsey and I stopped in at Jesse Barber’s new spot to try the Burger Diane.

The Order: Burger Diane (beef/pork patty,  gruyere, melted onions, greens, dijon, mushroom, and pickles on sourdough hybrid).

You might ask yourself, “Why is it called a Burger Diane?”  It’s likely a play on steak Diane, which is a filet mignon in a mushroom and Dijon mustard-based sauce (there’s more to it than that, like heavy cream and brandy or something, I think; but this isn’t Delmonico’s and I’m not Emeril Lagasse).

The Price: $16 (before tax)

The Burger
Jesse Barber worked at Barnyard before, and it shows.  Dudley Market emphasizes the use of high quality, local, seasonal ingredients above haute-cuisine technique.  The espresso milkshake features housemade ice cream, which gets its high protein content from the biodynamic duck eggs (from Moorpark) they use to make it.  The greens that flanked our burger (some also made their way onto it, actually) were obsessively fresh, drizzled only in lemon juice and oil.  The bacon is from a pig that was butchered less than a week ago in-shop.  It’s all very L.A.

The burger is built around a patty that is about 60% beef and 40% bacon.  It’s cooked just barely on the rare side of medium (there’s no pink). My worry was that the beef would be overcooked to ensure the pork was cooked through, which would give rise to a dry patty  with very little personality on the front end, with pork fat and salt dominating the finish.

My worries were misplaced.  The beef was cooked through but still juicy, and the pork was subtle, adding salty complexity without overwhelming things.  I did not leave Dudley Market convinced that the hybrid patty is a better approach than just cooking an all-beef patty medium rare and putting bacon on top of it, but I am convinced that I was wrong to think you can’t build a good burger around a hybrid patty.  You can.  Barber has.

The bun is what our server called a “sourdough hybrid,” grilled and pressed into flat discs, dusted with poppy seeds and salt flakes.  The crust is buttery and crisp, while the inside maintains the unmistakable just-dry-enough sponginess of sourdough.

The highlight of this burger, though – even more than the estimable patty – was the interplay between the gruyere cheese and the mushrooms.  The gruyere is sweet and nutty, tangling nicely with meaty, bold mushroom.  The pairing is formidable, and it hits hard early.  Less than halfway through the first bite, these two ingredients alone make it clear that this burger is not for the faint of heart.

The cheese and mushrooms are an earthy, complex overture to the surprisingly graceful and tasteful mash-up of beef and bacon that follows.  Just as the savor reaches its climax – at the moment when it’s all about to get a bit too “forest floor and barnyard gore” for good taste – the pickles emerge as if out of nowhere, bright but not too briny, offering a little kick of acid to clean everything up, the ideal prelude to the sweet, mustardy finish.

Only the melted onions, cooked even past the point of caramelized sweetness, seem superfluous; they lurk like emo kids at lunch, hidden from the rest of the flavor profile.  That’s a disappointing but hardly damning flaw in an otherwise superb preparation, as well-balanced as it is creative.

I guess Dudley Market is kind of a microcosm of Venice itself: There are aggravations – notably, slow service and steep prices – but on balance, there are more reasons to return than to stay away (but order with care, as the menu decidedly is not uniformly inspiring; the speck with burrata and balsamic was simple and arresting despite the absence of the advertised poached apple, but the crab louie was little more than an incoherent jumble of pleasant things).

Yes, you’ll need to budget a bit of time for your meal; this place isn’t exactly run with German efficiency (though if you have an enchanting companion and an espresso milkshake to keep you company while you wait, you won’t mind the wait so much).  And yes, the burger specifically – and Dudley Market more generally – is as overpriced as the surrounding real estate.  But unlike the surrounding real estate, there’s more to Dudley Market than a nice view and convenient beach access.    So stop in and try this burger.  Consider it one more reminder why you love Venice in spite of the fact that it’s so…Venice.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.40 / 10.00

Bun: 9.20 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.50 / 10.00
Balance: 9.00 / 10.00

Total: 88.90 / 100.00

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

Bottega Louie

The Place
Bottega Louie
700 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90017
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Bottega Louie is utterly insane. For being in the middle of a just-okay section of Downtown (which, in spite of its current nascent renaissance, remains a just-okay enclave of Los Angeles), it’s so unbelievably scene, it almost defies belief. The quotient of Kim Kardashian wannabes is nothing short of astonishingly high. Over-conditioned bistre hair pulled back into impossibly tight ponytails that shine like dying stars. Designer dresses hug implausible bodily curvatures that veer out of the realm of sexual allure and wind up firmly ensconced in the realm of the creepily artificial. Plunging necklines reveal silicone fjords. Impossibly sour faces are caked in makeup that, by all appearances, was applied by their friend who just got fired from Sephora or something. Scythelike vermillion fingernails scrape against smartphone screens framing selfies.

So yeah. Bottega Louie kills it as far as atmosphere is concerned.

Seriously, what an odd mix of people. I wonder where they all come from. It’s not just people trying to pass as Kardashian cousins. It’s families. Elderly couples. Girls’ nights. Bros. And even a few dates. And the cohort of which I was a member – a group of newly minted lawyers fresh off our first day of work. Yes, this eclectic clientele truly is what parties are made of.

The Order: Hamburger (Wagyu, Bibb lettuce, Brandywine tomato, red onion, aioli; cheese added)

The Price: $16.00

The Burger
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I’ll admit it. I wanted the meatball sliders. So you might rightly aver that my heart wasn’t quite in this one. Or, if you were inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, you might say that this burger doesn’t really belong on this menu. The food here is basically Italian, with aberrational suggestions of Mexican (ceviche), Creole (crab beignets), and French (niçoise salad). As such, a burger is something of an incongruous item.

This one is a relatively straightforward presentation. The focus, at least nominally, seems to be the patty, so I’ll start there. Wagyu beef is coveted for its rich marbling and intense flavor. Maybe this patty had some of that going on, but it was cooked right out of it. Our server recommended it be ordered medium. This savaged the flavor right out of the patty, replacing whatever subtle richness the oleaginous unsaturated fat might have imparted with the milquetoast savor of chuck. Damn shame.

The toppings, in the aggregate, fared only slightly better. The lettuce was crisp enough, but too dry. The cheese was of the perfect consistency, but disappointingly unassertive. The aioli was far too brash, elbowing out the rest of the garnishes. To give you an idea of the flavor, imagine that someone screamed the word “garlic” into some mayonnaise. The onions were so unexceptional I almost forgot they were there. Only the tomatoes were memorable: rich, sunny, sweet, and juicy. But ultimately, they could not save this burger from itself. A combination of poor preparation and a vastly too-aggressive sauce doomed it.

The vision seems to be a burger that would be exceptional but understated, where a simple arrangement of excellent ingredients would harmonize to create a classed-up iteration of an American standard. At that, it fails. So in seeking to achieve dignified simplicity, this burger, with its atrociously assertive aioli, comes off about as classy and genuine as Kim Kardashian. Sadly, like many of the customers at this restaurant, this burger is just trying way too hard and achieving way too little. Tragically apropos.

Either way, I should have ordered the meatballs. Shit.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.50 / 10.00
Value: 6.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 5.20 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.00 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 4.50 / 10.00
Balance: 5.20 / 10.00

Total: 60.90 / 100.00

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

République

The Place
624 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
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It’s hard to find two places more serious about brunch than New York and Los Angeles. Without getting tangled in the weeds about who does brunch “better” – God help us all if we go a-tumbling down that rabbit hole – République on La Brea will give you a pretty good window into how Los Angeles does brunch. Oddly enough, the mid-city/Miracle Mile area is kind of a perfect cross-section of the city. It’s the rare part of town that is just far enough west that the most intrepid west-LA types will venture over if the brunch is sufficiently alluring. And it’s just far enough east that Silver Lake hipsters will muster up a couple shits to give, throw on their circular-framed sunglasses and/or wide-brim hats and get out.

To the extent that you don’t see how mid-city itself can be that alluring, by now it should be pretty clear that République has established itself as being worth a trip from just about anywhere. An expansive space with a skylight ceiling, Walter Mantzke’s spot doesn’t look like much from the outside. The restaurant’s austere logo is painted onto the concrete in black and white. The only reason this place might catch your eye is that – especially on Sundays – there’s a hell of a line outside.

It’s also been held that République whips up a burger that is “criminally underrated.” Consider my interest piqued. McKenna and I went to check it out. Undeterred by her last encounter with eggs, she ordered a croque madame. Because I’m a colossal francophobe, I judged her aggressively and ordered a burger. We (okay, mainly I) aggressively judged people like this. Proper usage of the words “who” and “whom” was discussed – and when I say “discussed,” of course, I mean explained. By me. And this.

The Order: Dry-Aged Beef Burger, medium rare

The Price: $15

The Burger
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As I ate this burger, a couple things dawned on me. First, messy things are made more satisfying to eat by the very fact of their messiness. Now I see what those Carl’s Jr. ads are getting at (still no official word on why they exclusively feature sexually attractive, scantily clad women). Second – and more directly relevant here – I’m a real sucker for the classics.

Admittedly, a night watching YouTube videos with my friend Andy will reveal this penchant pretty decisively. I mean, in the past couple of weeks, I have sat in silent reverence and watched the music video to “Free Fallin'”. In its entirety. Without a scintilla of irony. Brief sidenote: if you understand why that’s funny, you’re almost undoubtedly more of an insufferable piece of shit than you realize.

I suppose that’s really neither here nor there. République is a “fancy” restaurant. Most “fancy” restaurants fall into the trap of unnecessarily embellishing their burgers in a “fancy” way. Oh, what? Yeah, no, that isn’t white cheddar. In the first place, it’s way too crumbly to be white cheddar, but it’s actually pule. Pule? You haven’t heard of it? Yeah, no, most people haven’t. It’s actually a Serbian cheese made from donkey milk. Yeah, it costs almost $2000 per pound. I know, that’s why we charge $57 for this burger. You’ll really like it. You know, if you can like, you know, appreciate it.

République sidesteps that problem pretty effectively by adopting a tried and true formula and not changing it. At all. In any regard. The focus is not on reinvention of the wheel for its own sake. Rather, Mantzke et al. emphasize execution. They want this burger to evoke memories of backyard barbecues, with bright sun, casually charred burgers, impossibly fresh garnishes, and an absence of pretension that emanates not from laziness, but from a joyful reverence for the classic formulation of the dish.

And that brings me back to the classics. See, kids? That’s called closing the loop.

What I really appreciate about this burger is that there is so little to tell. The beef is dry-aged and utterly astonishing (they recommend it medium rare – you should listen). The garnishes are of the highest quality and freshness, especially the indulgent, meaty discs of tomato. The bun is a sunny brioche peppered with poppy seeds – delicious, but it did not take very long for it to soak through and start disintegrating. The grilled onions add a creeping, silvery sweetness without dominating the flavor profile of the burger. The Thousand Island imparts a gentle, foundational buzz of tangy flavor to each bite.

The inspiration for this burger, pretty plainly, is In-N-Out Burger. And while it certainly goes blow-for-blow as far as freshness and ingredient quality is concerned, the patty is more massive and central. It’s got more thickness and heft than a Double Double, which means, the flavor of the meat overwhelms any pretreatment of the patty (whereas, at In-N-Out, the charred sweetness of the beef is complemented beautifully by the pre-grill seasoning).

It’s not entirely fair to compare République to In-N-Out in the way you might be tempted to do so. The different approach to patty structure alone makes the comparison a pretty fraught one. But the commitment to freshness, execution, consistency, and – above all – simplicity is the same. And its high praise to tell you that this burger, in those ways, evoked the Californian burger titan. But, I’ll be damned if it didn’t.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.70 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.70 / 10.00
Value: 8.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.00 / 10.00

Total: 88.20 / 100.00

Stout

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Alexandros Kagianaris and Charles Lew are pretty serious about casual dining. They envision neighborhood joint Stout as being a place where – to quote their website – “club goers meet the culinary elite for burgers and beer.” Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure who fits into either of those groups, the thrust seems to be that they’re aiming to appeal to a broad swath of people. It’s one of those restaurants that’s trying to please foodies and philistines alike. They do it by using high-quality beef, and assembling burgers with interesting (but not too challenging) toppings.

Regardless, Stout has received its fair share of accolades. L.A. Weekly called its eponymous burger the ninth best burger in Los Angeles. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that ninth is the new first. Anyhow, Stout has three locations: Hollywood (on Cahuenga), Studio City (on Ventura), and Santa Monica (on Santa Monica).

McKenna and I went to Stout’s Studio City location to put its bona fides to the test. Our trip was not without adventure: She got a burger with an over-easy egg on it; as she picked it up, the yolk split and spilled out of the bun like lava over the rim of a volcano, completely drenching her hands. It bears mentioning that she survived the explosion and took down the burger like a champ (even if it meant having hands so covered in yolk and sauce that she had to drink her beer through a straw. Which she did. Also like a champ).

For her trouble – or maybe just for her scintillating personality – our server really took quite a shining to McKenna (probably because she didn’t hear all the shit McKenna was talking about the evening’s playlist). They bonded over the course of the night, not always (albeit quite often) at my expense. But a dose of well-intentioned derision is a small price to pay for seeing someone’s hands coated in egg yolks like a vegan’s ideation of Jack the Ripper.

I’m digressing. The TL;DR version is that we went and ate burgers. One exploded. Beer was sipped through a straw.

The Place
Stout Burgers & Beer
11262 Ventura Boulevard
Studio City, CA 91604

The Order: The Imperialist (roasted tomato, ketchup, aged cheddar, mustard relish), cooked “pink” (as opposed to “not pink” – the other choice)

The Price: $11.00

The Burger
Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t know why they call it the Imperialist. I’m also fully aware that I didn’t eat the flagship burger at Stout, the one for which it earned such acclaim. Obviously, I will be back to Stout for its namesake burger, but I was jonesing for something a bit on the subtler end. So obviously, I ordered a burger called the Imperialist.

Like I said, I don’t know why the call it that. But I have an idea. I think it’s because they took a perfectly good, perfectly functional, perfectly traditional ingredient combination – cheddar, ketchup, and mustard – and invaded that tranquil space with some weird newfangled addition. Listen, roasted tomato is a dicey proposition in any context. Put it all up in the shit of a classic burger, and it’s just invasive (not to mention arbitrary).

It was aggressively smoky and then concentratedly sweet. The ferocious – almost saccharine – back-end of the tomato bled into the ketchup, brought out the sweetness of the (excellent) bun, and really accented the notes of fruit in the cheddar (simultaneously blunting its acidic and nutty quality), making a sunburnt sweetness the dominant element of the early part of every bite.

Both McKenna and I noticed that the patty was a little dry. This probably had something to do with the fact that it was coarse and loosely packed, which gave the meat’s juices room to escape. The bottom of the patty was coated in mustard relish, a weird but very pungent sauce that pretty much overwhelmed the finish of every bite.

My brown person bias maybe coming into play here, but I’ve never been a fan of imperialism. One of my friends – who shall remain nameless and blameless – argues that imperialism gave the backward masses of the developing world a sense for administrative efficiency and built us roads and rail (mind you, he’s 84% joking when he says shit like that). Be that as it may, I think the colonial footprint is a harmful one. Stout’s Imperialist, sadly, is no more successful.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.40 / 10.00
Value: 8.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.10 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.20 / 10.00
Balance: 6.90 / 10.00

Total: 71.00 / 100.00

LABP x PHL: Village Whiskey

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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.

The Place
Village Whiskey
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.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.80 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90  /10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.20 / 10.00
Balance: 9.20 / 10.00

Total: 86.90 / 100.00

Messhall Kitchen

IMG_0025Before I start, a prefatory remark. I apologize for the long delay between posts. I have been busy being an enormous catch. File this under not-so-humble humblebrag. Point is, I’ve been too occupied reading internet comments about myself and looking longingly at my own picture to eat or write about burgers. Sorry not sorry. In related news: my being featured in that campaign hasn’t made women more attracted to me. At all.

ANYWAY. Let’s talk about Messhall.

For most people, Los Feliz triggers one of three thoughts:

Los Feliz Boulevard at rush hour is one of the most compelling pieces of proof of a malevolent God;

or

Do I pronounce it like the Spanish (Los “Fe-LEES”) or do I pronounce it like the transplants who live here say it (Los “FEE-liz”)?;

or

Oh, that’s a nice place to, like, raise a young family.

If you’re me, you also think of late nights with friends at House of Pies and the 101 Café after concerts at the Wiltern, but that’s because I’m a fat kid with a nostalgic streak. You might also think of Mexico City. Or Little Dom’s (whose burger this Project imminently will tackle). What you probably don’t think of is the flourishing restaurant scene. And why would you? Sure, Los Feliz is a cool part of Los Angeles, but it really hasn’t managed to produce a real blockbuster restaurant like Downtown, mid-city, or Silver Lake have. Unless you count Sqirl. Sqirl is good. Plus, saying you got brunch there makes you hip, plugged-in, and trendy. And you can sit with people who are too cool to go to Alcove (because, like, who even does that anymore?), but who want to wear their sunglasses while they take down their frittata, or seared polenta, or whatever.

(I actually like Sqirl, but targets don’t come much easier than their clientele.)

Listen, the point is the culinary pickings in Los Feliz are pretty slim. It’s not clear that Messhall Kitchen is aiming to change the culinary reputation of Los Feliz all by itself. But it’s safe to say that this place might augur a tectonic shift in the food scene here. Their menu offers quietly multicultural and just-inventive-enough takes on comfort foods. The sweet potato tamale weds sweet corn with slow-braised, drippy pork chile verde. The poutine features fries soggy after being slathered in short-rib and cheese curds. With time, places like Messhall could well change the culinary complexion of Los Feliz (interesting, because the co-owner, Bill Chait, owns Louise’s Trattoria, one of the most aggressively uninteresting culinary experiences you can have in Los Angeles County).

But Kevin, McAdoo, and I didn’t go to taste the ground floor of a sea change in the culinary profile of Los Feliz. We went to try Messhall’s vaunted burger. Well, and McAdoo was there to help defray the simmering perception that Kevin and I have a weird relationship (we aren’t dating).

The Place
Messhall Kitchen
4500 Los Feliz Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027

The Order: Mess Burger

The Price: $16 (before tax, includes fries)

The Burger
So okay, here’s a brief anatomical rundown of the burger. There’s a bun the size of North Dakota. Then, a substantial – say between one-third and one-half pound – patty drenched in what Messhall mysteriously dubs their “smokey sauce” (I’m resisting the impulse to make a crass joke about the forest fire safety bear), a sweet, runny, terra cotta condiment in which tangy belts of slow onion swim about. Crunchy discs of bread and butter pickles are also bathed in the sauce, but not enough to hide their charming, sweet and briny bite. A leathery sheet of nutty white cheddar is melted over the patty, almost to the point of liquidity.

If that sounds like a wonderful mix of flavors to you, I agree. Unfortunately, I can’t really report to you how they interact. The bun in this burger is so structurally dominant that it actually becomes physically intrusive. It is so enormous that, with every bite, it folds over and envelops the rest of the ingredients, masking their respective flavors and their interactions with one another. Whatever subtlety there is in this burger is completely obliterated by an overmassive bun that is kind of like a pushy salesman; it just won’t let anyone else get a word in.

In one sense, I get it: the patty is juicy and there is a lot of sauce on this burger. This bun avoids the problem of over-absorption and sogginess to which a less substantial bun might have been susceptible. But for God’s sake, there’s a happy medium in there somewhere. This was way over the top. Ultimately, I had to physically deconstruct this burger to actually taste the other ingredients. I removed the top bun and put it aside, and ate the burger open-faced with a fork and knife. Which made me look, well, not great.  And was pretty ridiculous. But I do what I have to do, damn it.

Anyway, the patty was very high quality. Our server confidently recommended that we order it rare, and the meat’s natural flavor could support that preparation. The sauce tasted fine but was poorly portioned; it crowded out the other flavors, such that everything else was muddied in a smokey-sweet haze. The pickles were present, but too inextricably linked to the sauce for their flavor to shine on its own. The onions were effectively lost in the soupy swirl of the sauce. The cheese complemented the rare beef well, providing a mellow counterpart to the assertive savor of the patty.

No one should be heard to criticize this burger for the quality of its ingredients. Even the fundamental ideas informing the assembly are sound. The problem is one of proportion. The burger is oversauced, but more importantly, features a bun that literally swallows the rest of the dish. The result is a dry, spongy front end to every bite that gives way to a muddle of ingredients too chewed-up to appreciate its individual components.

One more thing: this burger is very, very expensive. For sixteen bucks, I expect something truly memorable. In one sense, Messhall gave me that. I remember this burger, just not for the right reasons. I remember this burger because it’s bun got all up in my grill (literally), and didn’t let me taste anything else. I remember it because it tasted way too much like I was eating two uncharacteristically filling pieces of bread. I remember it because I actually thought, “Man, if I want a bunch of meat and shit wrapped in bread, I’ll eat a Hot Pocket. That takes three minutes, costs a few bucks, and I can do it in my sweats.” Not the right kind of memorable.

For now, I’ll reserve judgment as to whether Messhall portends a change in the culinary scene in Los Feliz. That’s a bigger question, one more effectively addressed by someone with a deeper knowledge than I. What I can tell you is this: this burger gets a lot of good ingredients together. The sauce is distinctive but also somehow familiar. There is real potential for something special here. But the experiment is botched due to its imbalance. So if Messhall does want to spearhead a change in the food future of Los Feliz, it probably won’t do it on the back of this burger, which is good – maybe even great – in concept, but just about average in execution.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.40 / 10.00
Value: 5.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.60 / 10.00
Bun: 4.10 / 10.00
Patty: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 4.00 / 10.00

Total: 75.90 / 100.00