1212

The Place
1212
1212 Third Street Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401imageSanta Monica on a summer weekend truly is an incredible thing.  The beautiful, sun-bronzed masses take to the streets in outfits carefully chosen to reveal the fruits of a winter spent in pilates classes, or of the paleo diet, or of thousands of dollars in Equinox membership fees or CrossFit classes, or of the latest juice cleanse.

 

When Andy Warhol – speaking about Los Angeles – said, “Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic,”  he might have been talking about Santa Monica.  “Plastic” doesn’t have to mean surgically enhanced.  It just means beautiful in a very banal sort of way.  There is an inhuman kind of beauty, a sort of perfection of the human craft, that you see a lot in Santa Monica (as opposed to, say, the intentional, contrived anti-beauty of Silver Lake).  The people there are, for lack of a better term, impossible looking.  Santa Monica is a simple enough cocktail: one part Free People shabby-chic; three parts Stepford; two parts Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue; a dash of pornish, self-aware sexiness; topped with a magnetic superciliousness.

The men want you to think their biceps and abs just happen to look like that.  They don’t want you to know it was Bumble & Bumble that gave them that hair, not catching waves as the sun rose.  The women want to convince you that they don’t think their Chloe is that big a deal – and in some cases, unbenknownst to them, it’s not – when in point of fact, it’s the centerpiece of their whole outfit.  It’s all about appearances.  Style trumps substance.  Sizzle trumps steak.

Another invective against poor Santa Monica.  But in my defense, my path to getting the burger at 1212 (a new-ish, trendy-ish, rustic but also modern, accessible but also fancy – aspirationally on both counts, by the way – small plates kinda, presentation-first installation on the Third Street Promenade) was blocked by hordes of these saunteringly basic sort.  They cross the street with such languid entitlement that, when the light changes and they become jaywalkers, their pace seems actually so slow.

So, if you decide to go to 1212, be warned: it may take you forty minutes to round one block to make a right turn into a parking lot (the left turn lane was blocked off without explanation by the Santa Monica Police Department, which spends most of its time making operating a motor vehicle in the city slightly less palatable than listening to him read this aloud, while you are made to watch the last forty-five minutes of this with no sound).  And if that was not enough, you then must navigate crowds of people so basic their pH is 15.

After all that – finally – you’ll get to 1212, and hope that the burger – for which you endured such tribulations – will be worth it.  You hope so hard.  I met Kelsey and Kate there.  After the ladies were done declining to dance with a gentleman who looked like a housing-insecure Colonel Mustard, we shared a meal.

The Order: The Burger

The Price: $15.00

The Burger
They certainly don’t want for effort at 1212.  This burger comes topped with black truffle gouda (really), bacon jam (really), a sunny side up egg on a sad ciabatta.  The patty is…well, who knows what kind of beef.  It doesn’t matter, right?  See how much other fancy stuff is on there?  Seriously, the beef is the weakest point of the burger.  The server recommended it cooked medium, which as a general matter, puts me on notice that the flavor of the beef is nothing to write home about.  This held true here.  The patty was bland and gritty, with only the stinging bitterness of char on the front end to confer any personality at all.

The “black truffle” gouda was similarly disappointing.  I put black truffle in quotations earlier because you’ll have to take their word for there being any black truffle at all in that cheese.  If you’re into this kind of thing, you know black truffles are in season, and you might be getting excited at the prospect of some sort of infusion or suspension or what have you.  Get over that.  This is gouda cheese.  There is no truffle to speak of.  There is not even the suggestion of truffle.  The cheese itself tastes fine, but it’s just gouda; the representation of it as something more is mendacious culinary clickbait, and it’s mildly infuriating.  What you’ll get is pedestrian, relatively blunt, pleasantly nutty and reasonably buttery gouda.  Nothing less, but definitely nothing more.

Beneath the bubbling blanket of gouda lies the bacon jam.  It’s more of a chutney than a jam – it’s too tangy to be a jam.  It’s got a strange ragu-like consistency.  It’s oddly sharp and almost sour, and is a reasonably unpleasant add-on.  It clashes with every other ingredient, especially the cheese, and ultimately feels like a try-hard feature that should have been excluded.

Then, there’s the sunny egg.  The egg itself is good enough, runny, smooth and soothing both in taste and texture.  It somehow manages to be the best thing about this burger and feel like surplusage at the same time.  Amid all the flavor noise, the textural complexity the egg adds another layer of confusion to each bite, which the burger lacks the theoretical or actual vitality to support.

The Burger at 1212 is a product of its environment.  It cares more about sounding good and looking good than it does about actually being good.  It’s ingredients are all fine, but none are particularly thoughtful.  It seems like a burger the chef imagines other chefs dream of serving (you know, a Cultured but Familiar Spin on a Classic), but it’s delicious in the same way the Beautiful People in Santa Monica are beautiful.  Each feature is well-appointed (I guess), but there’s an artificiality to the whole, a lack of genuineness that is facially annoying, but ultimately unsatisfying (at best) or downright repulsive (at worst).  Much like driving in Santa Monica on a Saturday, this burger is best avoided.

Oh, but the kale chips were pretty good.

The Ratings
Flavor: 5.90 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.70 / 10.00
Value: 4.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 5.10 / 10.00
Bun: 5.30 / 10.00
Patty: 5.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 5.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.00 / 10.00
Balance: 3.80 / 10.00

Total: 53.10 / 100.00

Belcampo Meat Co. II

The Place
Belcampo Meat Co. at Grand Central Market
317 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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On some day during your life in Los Angeles, you will experience a moment of being utterly overwhelmed by Grand Central Market.  In that ever-trendier, neon-lit, culinary sprawl you will find yourself staring off into space.  Your eyes will start to glaze over as you bathe in the crowded fluorescence and the pan-ethnic gamut of scents and the heat of stove and sun.  You will equivocate, vacillate, hesitate, and calculate.  You will consider – and this time, really consider – whether braving the line at Eggslut is worth it.  (Hint: It’s never worth it.)  You will think, “If only DTLA Cheese wasn’t out of that burrata toast.”  (Hint: They’re always out of the burrata toast).  You will quietly entertain the notion that today is the day you put aside your existential objection to vegan ramen (Hint: You’ll never put aside your existential objection to vegan ramen – and that’s okay; Vegan Ramenism is the lone form of bigotry that is socially desirable).

I’ve had a few days like that.  On those days, I usually wind up at Belcampo.  In the midst of that kind of uncertainty, I take comfort in the fact that even the worst case scenario includes me eating very, very high quality meat.  Now, admittedly, I didn’t find myself particularly overwhelmed by Grand Central Market today.  I just found myself in the mood for a burger.  So I stopped in at Belcampo and ordered the Double Fast Burger.

The Order: Double Fast burger

The Price: $9.00

The Burger
The nice thing about Belcampo, which has shown up on the Project before, is that you can always count on extremely high quality meat.  When they tell you that the Fast Burger is their homage to the drive-thru burger, you should only believe them so far.  In the main, I can think of no drive-thru slinging burgers made from beef this luxe.  More subtly, this burger is not an homage to the drive-thru writ large; it’s an homage to In-N-Out.

Both of my regular readers will know that I am not opposed to doling out high praise to Double-Double rip-offs.  But imitating the greatest burger chain on the planet is a high-risk, unforgiving enterprise.  And Belcampo’s attempt, while estimable, falls noticeably short in several respects.

In the first place, the patties, while certainly flavorful and of the utmost quality, are not well packed, and too flimsy.  They never quite fell apart while I was eating, but threatened to on several occasions.  And while it’s admirable to use such excellent meat, Belcampo’s purism means the beef is barely seasoned at all.  That, coupled with the fact that this beef actually is just the trimmings of the beef from everything else they use, means you won’t be able to pin down precisely what you’re eating, and it may even vary from bite to bite.  One bite may ring out with marbled echoes of Porterhouse, while in the next, gritty chuck will elbow its way to the forefront.  The quality of the meat is there, but the initial momentary thrill of variety quickly gives way to frustration at a patty that is unfocused and incoherent.

The toppings, in the aggregate, are fine.  Like its cousin the Belcampo Burger, the double fast burger features lettuce that is a bit too wilted and sad not to notice.  The tomato does not offend, despite being a bit slippery and lacking in that sunny juiciness that you hope for.  The cheese is a standout – housemade American that is creamy and unfussy.  It oozes about the patty like sap on a tree stump.

It’s hard to argue this is a better buy than In-N-Out.  The beef is the centerpiece of the burger, but the patties are not as carefully composed, and the toppings are nowhere near as fresh-tasting.  The bun, too, is a pale imitation of a pale imitation of In-N-Out’s standard setter.  The lack of sauce is the final insult: an incomprehensible choice that seriously undermines the balance of the burger (you’ll appreciate In-N-Out’s dressing that much more after eating this).*  And at $9.00, while it’s still quite a bargain, it’s vastly more expensive than In-N-Out (or Burgerlords).

It occurs to me that this review reads pretty negatively up to this point.  Belcampo does a lot of things right.  They offer ingredients-first burgers that don’t attempt to hide behind gimmicky ingredients or high-cuisine shenanigans.  To the extent this offering falls flat, it does so relative to its industry-topping comparables, In-N-Out and Burgerlords.  In its own right, it’s a good burger.  Inconveniently, though, it has some stiff competition, and that’s hard to forget.

It may be that the Fast Burger is the “worst case scenario” for Belcampo to which I alluded above.  Indeed, the very concept of a drive-thru inspired burger seems anathema to the Belcampo’s whole schtick.  And that’s really the big problem here: Belcampo isn’t a burger stand.  It’s not a fast food restaurant.  It shouldn’t pretend to be one.

*Because this burger did not have sauce, I haven’t included sauce in my ten-point scale.  However, the lack of sauce affects the quality of the burger, which I’ve reflected in a lower score in the Balance rating.  The overall score – without the sauce category – is out of 90.00, which I then normalized to 100.00 by doing cross-multiplication.  Be impressed.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 7.20 / 10.00
Patty: 8.10 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.80 / 10.00
Sauce: N/A
Balance: 7.40 / 10.00

Total: 73.00 / 90.00 = 81.11 / 100.00

Redbird

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I think about judgment day a lot.  Call it the end of the world, or the apocalypse, or whatever you want.  I think about it.  I think about when fire and brimstone rain down heavy and hot from skies that split like the seam of a too-small blazer.  When it turns out the Old Testament was right.  When God gets sick of all our shit and exacts vengeance on us for our innumerable sins.  When we all find out that we were fools to be cynical and supercilious.  When the joke, as it happens, was on us all along.  When it doesn’t matter whether we’ve found God, because he finds us.  When it doesn’t matter what we believe.  When nothing matters but the lives we’ve led.

When that day of reckoning comes, I hope I’m sitting at Redbird with the tar-black summer sky above me, a meal settling, the cold sting of a scotch and sherry cocktail lingering on my lips, waiting for my pavlova to arrive.  That’s not because Redbird is the best restaurant in this city, or even the fanciest.  It’s not because Neal Fraser is the best chef in the city (though he must be in any conversation on the topic).  But I can’t think of a better place to face the apocalypse (leaving aside the delicious irony of being condemned to an eternity alongside Dante’s most wanted while sitting in a repurposed rectory).

See, when it all ends, I want to be somewhere beautiful, and I want to be doing something delightful.  Redbird is the most beautiful place to eat in Los Angeles.  Bar none.  It also is one of the ten best restaurants in this city.  Its décor is as eclectic as its menu, which in turn is as eclectic as Los Angeles.  Fraser presents crudo with bright wedges of citrus and an adobe-red dusting of peppery togarashi; delicate, crisped slabs of Wyoming trout; a symphonic barbecued tofu (which, by the way, is dream-hauntingly good – better even than Sang Yoon’s resplendent chicory-coffee barbecue sauce-bathed Kurobuta pork ribs at Lukshon – whether or not you like tofu).  And he presents them all with such easy familiarity that you’ll forget how weird it is to find them all on the same menu.  Just like Los Angeles, in which so many different cultures and kinds live side by side.  It’s curated chaos, but to those of us who have been fortunate enough to really come to know it, its splendor is difficult to match.  The perfect place to watch it all end.

Wednesday was not the apocalypse, so Bret and I settled for lunch at Redbird.  It’s a perfect option for those who ache for a longer intermissio from the raw grind of the work day.  Fraser offers a slightly abbreviated version of his menu, including a prix fixe for the indecisive and slightly profligate, and a burger for … well, not least for the man who writes about burgers.

The Order: Prime Burger

The Price: $18

The Burger
This might be the burger for the end times.  See, if you happen to be jonesing for a burger when the fabric of the earth falls away and reveals the roiling inferno that lies behind it all, you won’t have time to let the marrow melt, or caramelize the onions, or pull any other high-cuisine moves.  You’ll have time to throw together a few ingredients – whatever is at hand – into the last burger you’ll ever eat.  Now, having said that, it’s the last burger you’ll ever eat.  And you’ll be damned if you’ll let it be pedestrian.  Even at the end of the world, you’ll have to compromise, to balance countervailing interests.

The Prime Burger at Redbird manages that. It is spartan in an indulgent kind of way, deceptively complex, intensely flavorful but stripped of pretense and unnecessary ornamentation.  This feels like the burger chefs will make when there is no one left to cook for.  If Howard Roark spent his life behind a grill instead of a drafting table, he would have aspired to create this burger.  It is the product of passion and craft.  Every ingredient serves a purpose.  Nothing is out of place.  The fact that it’s a crowd-pleaser?  That’s merely an externality.

The patty is pure Fraser: massive, marbled, loosely packed, pink and bloody.  It might be overwhelming, I guess, were it executed with anything less than perfect mastery.  But this is Neal Fraser, so it’s executed with nothing less than perfect mastery.  The remoulade is piquant, tart, and generously portioned (and why not?  You’ll want an extra scoop of sauce when the apocalypse is impending).  This sauce is a beautiful, rich, indulgent complement to the sumptuous, almost buttery, beef.  Aged cheddar drips like sap, so slowly that it forms an amorphous tendon that seems to connect patty to plate.  It’s creamy and thick, with a distant whispering sharpness.  There is a chile relish that adds a smoky sweetness (but almost no heat), and extra pickles to add more zip if you want them.

The bun is the burger’s weakest part.  A too-dry, too-thick brioche, it tasted a day old and was a bit too imposing for this burger.  The dryness of the thing wasn’t helped by the fact that it was flaked with sea salt.  It’s a noticeable imperfection, but the rest of the flavors are bold enough to compensate for it.  In the end, the burger hangs together impressively well in spite of a disappointing bun.  Besides, when judgment day comes, you probably won’t be too picky about the bun on your burger.

In case it isn’t abundantly clear, I liked this burger very much.  It’s big and brash, but is ultimately memorable for its relative simplicity.  It’s a really well-prepared, thoughtful offering.  It manages to achieve simultaneously simplicity and complexity, boldness and subtlety, immediacy and depth.  It’s a great burger.  Don’t wait until the end of the world to try it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 7.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.30 / 10.00
Bun: 6.80 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Balance: 9.30 / 10.00

Total: 88.20 / 100.00

Tyler’s Burgers

The Place

Tyler’s Burgers
149 South Indian Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA 92262

No reservations
Bar: Beer and wine
Cash only

You’re eight years old, maybe nine.  It’s the height of summer—say, early July?  You’ve settled comfortably into your vacation, and your dreaded return to school is not yet on the radar.  You can’t really tell the days apart; they blend together into an undifferentiated mass of weekdays and weekends and friends and sunburns and beach days and day trips and sun-warmed pools.  You bask in the delicious swelter of the long summer days.  You feel invincible, ageless.

On one of those days, a day quite literally like every other early July day, your parents take you to a cookout at a friend’s house.  You walk into your friend’s backyard, grass brushing against the sides of your feet left bare by your sandals.  You hear laughter and beer cans opening.  You smell freshly-cut grass soaked in lemonade spills and sprinkler spray, the delicate cloud of sweet summer sweat, chlorinated water, and—above all—the smell of smoke, charcoal, and crackling grilled meat.

Hold that picture for a moment.

Diana Diamico started a restaurant based on that kind of picture.  Two decades ago, she set up shop in a sixty year-old building on the main drag in Palm Springs.  It used to be a Greyhound Bus depot.  Her goal was to recreate a burger that her mother used to sling way back when at a burger stand on the boardwalk in Venice Beach.  That burger, so firmly rooted in Diamico’s memories of childhood, “became the foundation of knowing the difference between mediocrity and the best.”  It also became the foundation stone of her business.

Diamico’s burger, then, is a nod to the past, to a time when things felt—were?—simpler.  Maybe that’s an excessively romantic way to think about a burger (especially if you’re one of those cynical millennial types), but nostalgia is a powerful emotion.  It affects not only what we like, but also—not least in the case of Diamico—what we do.  Tyler’s is a business built on memories.  It’s also been held that you can’t get a better burger in Palm Springs.  Well, Kelsey and I were out there for the long weekend, so we went to give it a try.

The Order: Cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger

The Price: $8 (cheeseburger), $9.50 (bacon cheeseburger)

The Burgers
It might seem odd that I’m reviewing two burgers at once—and it’s true; usually I don’t do that.  But these two offerings weren’t different enough to merit separate reviews.  If you’re like me, your instincts would guide you towards ordering the bacon cheeseburger, because bacon.  Now, while it’s hard to say that ordering the bacon cheeseburger is flat out misguided (especially if you’re into that sort of thing), I can’t endorse it.  To my mind, the bacon is more of a distraction than a complement here—albeit a delicious, delicious distraction (especially if you’re into that sort of thing).  But that isn’t an indictment of the bacon cheeseburger so much as it is a veneration of the standard cheeseburger.  I think the order is the regular cheeseburger with American cheese and grilled onions.  Hold the tomato for bonus points (I had it on the bacon cheeseburger, and it didn’t add much).

Go back to that picture in your head.  You’re at the barbecue and you’re handed a hastily arranged burger.  The garnishes are simple: an oozing sheet of American cheeese, crisp lettuce, bright pickles, succulent tomato, maybe some sweet, charmingly flaccid rings of grilled onion.  The sauces are conventional, unfussy: ketchup, yellow mustard, and a thin glaze of mayonnaise mixing into some unnamed but familiar metacondiment the color of a sunset.

Tyler’s has done a pretty good job of recreating that burger.  It’s not necessarily this burger that’s memorable.  It’s that it evokes really fond memories.  If you’re like me, this burger will around feelings of nostalgia in you. It’s the taste of a summer barbecue.  It’s the taste of being told to wait a half hour before swimming.  The patty is substantial – seven ounces at least.  Were I to complain that it was a touch overcooked, that would only be a matter of taste.  The outside of the patty is deliciously crackled by the flat top, the inside juicy and savory enough.  The sponge bun is the stuff of In-N-Out dreams, but slightly thicker.  That’s okay, given the thickness and heft of the patty.

The toppings are all solid, but the cheese is the standout.  It completely covers the patty in a thick, dripping sheet.  Swiss is an option, but I can’t imagine it topping the American I chose.  I’ll readily stipulate that American is perhaps the most sophomoric of all the cheeses, but my gracious, it was indulgent, rich, and creamy.  And for as unfussy an expression as this burger is, it was the ideal complement.  The grilled onions were a fabulous addition too, sweet and grill-burnt.  They sank into the quicksand-like cheese until the two almost infused one another.  Stellar stuff.

As I ate the cheeseburger (which, to bring it full circle, probably deserves the mantle of best burger in Palm Springs), I glanced over to the bar and saw a family sitting together, presumably on a Memorial Day vacation.  Their young son couldn’t have been older than ten.  He was holding his cheeseburger aloft when I looked, to eat a hanging disc of pickle.  He had ketchup on his face.  His hands were a mess.  His too-big blue t-shirt had escaped stains for the moment, but I found myself doubting that would last as I watched him attack his burger with the gleeful abandon that summer engenders in everyone of that age.  And as I bit back into my own burger with the neat and proper sobriety of adulthood, that age felt a little closer.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.60 / 10.00
Value: 9.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.50 / 10.00 

Total: 86.70 / 100.00

Kogi BBQ

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It’s hard to not love Roy Choi.  Kogi BBQ, his brainchild, set the stage for chefs to gain prominence without navigating venture capital weirdness (and the attendant sacrifices in culinary integrity) to secure the immense resources needed to open a brick and mortar restaurant.  Food trucks allow chefs to serve you the food they want to serve you, rather than having to spar with the deep pockets that keep the lights on.

From the trunk of a truck plastered with more stickers than a graying hippie’s Volkswagen, Roy Choi started slinging whatever the hell he wanted.  Most loved it.  Some didn’t.  But even his detractors will admit (some more grudgingly than others) that his food is — if nothing else — interesting, honest, and original.

Some complain that food trucks are like the Internet in that they remove the talent filter that previously existed in the culinary world, which (apparently) ensured a certain level of quality.  It was bad enough that any asshole with a laptop and a hunger pang can pretend to be a food critic.  Now we have to suffer dilettante chefs too?

On balance, though, that view is as wrong with respect to food as it is as applied to information.  It’s nice that food fell from the ivory tower and landed in a strip mall.  Sure, caveat emptor is a much more current creed now that there are literally thousands of places that no reputable outlet will have written about.  You’ve got to dig through a lot of trash to find treasure.  But that’s not such a bad thing; nothing worth having ever came easily.

I’m digressing.  This isn’t a meditation on the merits vel non of food trucks.  It’s about Kogi BBQ.  Roy Choi’s relentless creativity led him to expand the menu at Kogi (the kimchi quesadilla is a revelation, but also a full-frontal gastrointestinal assault).  Eventually, the menu expanded to include a burger, and my interest was piqued.  I went on a solo venture and checked it out.

The Place
Kogi BBQ
Location varies — see website for details.

The Order: “Pacman” Burger

The Price: $8

The Burger
First things first.  Don’t call it a burger.

The Pacman Burger is named after Manny Pacquiao, and that’s fitting.  Manny Pacquiao doesn’t look like a boxer.  In fact, if I hadn’t seen him punch people in the face with such precision, skill, and dogged determination, I wouldn’t believe he was  a boxer just by looking at him (that might be racist and size-ist, but I’m a small brown man too, and nobody mistakes me for the second coming of Sugar Ray Leonard).

Similarly, the Pacman Burger isn’t really a burger at all.  It’s a self-styled “mashup,” a sandwich consisting of a gallimaufry of fiercely flavorful ingredients.  Front and center, a trio of meats: the outlet’s signature short rib, spicy pork, and spicy citrus chicken.  Rather than being alloyed and compressed into a patty, chunks of each meat sit nestled in a mélange of sauces (salsa roja, salsa verde, sesame mayo, and cilantro onion lime relish) along with cheese and chicharrones, all of this between two (sadly throwaway) sesame buns.

Each bite is a different experience.  The various components of the frenetic assortment of ingredients exist in different proportions throughout the sandwich.  Every square inch, then, features its own unique balance.  That keeps things interesting, but robs the burger of coherence.  It’s hard to come away with a strong impression about what you ate.

What’s more, these various ingredients don’t always balance one another well.  It’s like the Wild West.  The relish and the chicken duplicate the citrus, overloading the palate with acid when they are front and center.  The meats are all distinctive, but compete with one another.  The salsa roja and salsa verde are mostly redundant.  The jack and cheddar cheese mix would be a nice touch, but for the fact that any subtlety it might otherwise impart is impossible to discern in the gustatory monsoon.

Trying to isolate one of these ingredients and assess its impact on the burger is like trying to slow dance at a rave.  And maybe comparing this burger to a rave is apt: some will enjoy the frenzy and the disorientation.  Others will not be taken by the bright lights, loud noises, and disparate elements in close contact.  I wouldn’t say anything is out of place here.  It probably is closer to the mark to say that this burger lacks a sense of place altogether.

All of Choi’s passions collide in a messy, imperfect, chaotic, innovative, oppressively flavorful, challenging, and sometimes frustrating meal.  It really is a “mashup.”  It unites recognizable but arguably disparate and incompatible elements — each a technically worthy creation in its own respective right — and forces them to coexist.  It also forces us to accept that coexistence, even if it doesn’t align with our preferences.

It certainly isn’t arbitrary.  Like a mashup, there’s a harmony beneath all the noise, and it isn’t there by accident.  Even so, there are a few inconveniently inescapable facts about mashups.  First, sometimes the dissonance crowds out the harmony.  Second, sometimes the component parts get in each others’ way instead of working together to make something more.  And third, even if the synergy works, it doesn’t follow that the synthesis is better than its components were on their own.

In this case, the burger falls prey to those first two problems.  There’s just too much going on here to give the burger a consistent taste.  With so many ingredients filling the same role (three meats, four sauces, two cheese), none of them get a chance to interact meaningfully.  To paraphrase the bard, if the burger’s a stage and all the ingredients are merely players, then here, we have like more than one actor playing the same role, and everyone is screaming their lines at the same time.

That said, it isn’t surprising that Roy Choi would make a burger like this; it’s a giant middle finger in the face of convention, and it emanates from the same fundamental principles – truth, abundance, innovation, chaos – that make Kogi so successful.  Choi is, as always, selling what he wants to sell.  It’s less clear that what he’s selling is worth buying, but that’s our choice to make (I’d advise you to redirect your funds to Kogi’s other, worthier offerings), and I doubt he would have it any other way.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.10 / 10.00
Value: 8.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.50 / 10.00
Bun: 6.00 / 10.00
Patty: 5.80 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.30 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 69.40 / 100.00

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

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
IMG_0538
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
Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 11.21.50 AM
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
IMG_0458
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