Shake Shack

The Place
Shake Shack
8520 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

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If you never caught the new (like, that new new) Star Wars movie, then you missed out on Kylo Ren, the most angst-addled villain to grace the silver screen in quite some time (you may know him better as the darkest-skinned – but still white, of course – person on Girls).  See, Kylo Ren is angsty because he wants very badly to be compared favorably to Darth Vader.  He wants to be the next Darth Vader.  So he acts and talks the part.  He commands with unforgiving brutality.  He wears the mask that changes his voice, even though he doesn’t need it.  Think of his relationship with Darth Vader as being kind of like Rivers Cuomo’s relationship with Buddy Holly.

And much like Cuomo, he just isn’t quite as special as his idol.  Deep, withering suspicions – that he’s ultimately just a pale imitation of the thing he strives to be – roil in him.  They consume him.  And most of all, they make him hate the character in the film who he recognizes as truly special, truly significant.  She achieves everything he’s worked so hard for, and she doesn’t even have to try.

It’s a common trope in our world and our folklore: the figure who longs to be a feature of history, but really is just a footnote.  These are people with lofty aspirations to emulate and evoke truly monumental figures, but ultimately, they are undone by their inability to recognize that the mere imitation of an act or a sound may not – and probably will not – capture the subtleties and complexities that exist beneath it.  What I mean is, Kylo Ren choking a person out as part of his WWDVD? mentality is quite different from what animated Darth Vader – namely, living at the nexus between guilt and doubt and rage.

Similarly, putting together a burger that features some of the same ingredients as those featured on the best chain burger money can buy doesn’t guarantee that you’ll best In-N-Out.  And so, in a swaggering and expansive outpost on Santa Monica Boulevard, Shake Shack joins the ranks of these reductive imitators, clamoring for attention and plaudits, begging for favorable comparisons to a great institution.

Shake Shack is the latest in a long line of burger chains that demand to be compared to In-N-Out.  It is a chain that builds buzz via sophomoric articles like this.  Never mind that the two are in no way comparable.  The one is an international chain with an expansive menu (including three different burgers, seasonal/weekly/monthly/whateverly flavors of ice cream, bespoke craft beer, Abita root beer on tap, Cold Stone Creamery style concretes), the other is willfully limited.  The one is surprisingly expensive, the other almost guilt-inducingly cheap.

But the comparison is being made.  So if you drive by Shake Shack, you will see crowds of impossibly cool West Hollywood types: New York imports with trendy haircuts; t-shirts featuring a sneering slogan or maybe a reference they only almost understand; shadowed and lined eyes drooping under the weight of their contempt for the world, smiling with half their face as they post a link from a blog about an article they haven’t read about a study they haven’t read but which reinforces the fact that everyone who disagrees with their particular opinion on their particular cause celebre du jour (based on exhaustive review of numerous blog posts like this) is ill-informed and probably malicious.

These are people bound together by fibrous, almost extant strands of supercilious energy, people who are fueled not by the Krebs cycle like the rest of us, but by the knowledge of their superiority.  And even for these walking superlatives, the need to know if Shake Shack really is better than In-N-Out is so pressing, so dire, that it can wrest them from the urgent business of being better than you.

I went with my parents and Kelsey.  Because while I may not be cool, I am the purveyor of a publication about burgers in Los Angeles, so I’m drawn to trendy burger spots like a fly to a turd.

The Order: Shack Burger

The Price: $5.29 (not including fries or drink)

The Burger
Roughly speaking, I think there are two types of people who might argue that Shake Shack is better than In-N-Out: the first are the reflexively contrarian naysayers.  These are people who don’t have particularly strong or well-developed feelings about In-N-Out (or any alternative), but dislike its ubiquitous appeal and enjoy the idea that their opinion is challenging and controversial.  Then there are people who need New York to be better at everything (rather than just better at being bigger and smellier).  I’ve talked about this phenomenon at some length before.

The goal of this piece, though, is not to take up the issue with either group.  In point of fact, I prefer not to entertain the comparison at all.  As I mentioned before, these restaurants are different enough that the comparison itself is more than a little spurious.  Shake Shack is a peri-industrial hipster chic millennial iteration of a soda fountain, whereas In-N-Out begins and ends as a burger stand out of time, a relic of its founding age.  Another reason behind my rejection of a comparative discussion – and I smirk as I type this – is that these two products are not in the same league.

Shake Shack’s offering features an oversalted, overcooked patty, watery tomato, heat-wilted lettuce, and insipid Thousand Island (Shack sauce) between two feeble, infirm, too-doughy potato buns (this actually surprised me, because I remembered the buns being much better when I first tried Shake Shack in Washington, D.C.).  The entire presentation is a pittance, a burger so small it barely qualifies as a burger.  You will not savor every bite, and after you finish, you will wonder why you waited in line for so long with all those impossibly self-obsessed trendchasers and paid more than double the cost of a Double-Double for it.

If in Shake Shack you were hoping to find The Chirping Crickets, you’ll have to settle for Raditude.  If you were hoping for Luke’s father, you’ll have to settle for Leia’s emo brat.  Shake Shack talks the talk.  It’s high on swagger and hype, but it’s little more than a well-appointed disappointment.  This restaurant doesn’t deliver a product worth mentioning in the same sentence as In-N-Out, let alone comparing to it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 7.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.90 / 10.o0
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.40 / 100.00

Winsome

The Place
Winsome
1115 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90012

IMG_0580Winsome is not on Sunset Boulevard.  Head west down Sunset (away from Downtown) and as you pass Beaudry, you’ll see the Holy Community Church on your right.  Beyond that, you’ll see a new apartment building made of white stone and glass.  Just past the church, make a right on to White Knoll Drive.  That’s where Winsome is, in the ground floor of the aforementioned stone and glass building.  Just a public service announcement, lest you wind up wandering aimless and befuddled down Sunset like Kelsey, Erin, and I did (that is, until finally we gave up and called the restaurant to whimper a desperate request for directions).

I couldn’t help but wonder why they say they’re on Sunset if the restaurant demonstrably is not on Sunset?  Well, this is Los Angeles, which means it’s all about appearances.  It’s easier to brand yourself as a trendy new Los Angeles eatery if you’ve got an address on an iconic Los Angeles thoroughfare.  Per contra, it’s much harder to do it when you front some tributary with a name that sounds like a sleepy cul-de-sac.  And if people get confused or lost by this branding chicanery, all the better; being impossible to find in spite being on a major street is another mark of effortless cool.

Make no mistake, though.  This place is far more polished than Echo Park, a neighborhood renowned more for its unvarnished charm than for its sparkling new real estate developments.  It’s beautiful for being the situs of a cultural collision of sorts, where numerous ethnic and socioeconomic groups live side by side.  There’s something aspirational about that Echo Park.

Winsome represents the “new” (or, if you prefer, the “approaching”) Echo Park.  The building that houses it resembles one of those swanky new high rises over by L.A. Live.  It’s the kind of building that one suspects will be ubiquitous in a few years’ time.  It’s the kind of building that multiplies and slowly, inexorably drains the charm right out of a place, until all that’s left is a spiritually vacant enclave occupied by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of incalculably basic USC alumni.  It’s a nice enough building in itself, but as more of them crop up, before long, Echo Park will be a place where you only see soul if it’s immediately followed by the word “cycle.”

Right, anyway; the restaurant.

Winsome has developed a fair amount of buzz as a brunch-and-pastry spot.  Its light-wood, airy interior has the body of a diner but the heart of a case study house.  The long, dining room is flanked along one edge by a long, white oak bar and on the other by booths with windows for walls.  This breezy, midcentury space spills out onto an idyllic patio, on which strings of lights hang languidly above.  This charming outdoor area is loosely packed with amateur food photographers trying to no-filter their way to fame.

But it still bears markers of the old Echo Park.  Our laconic waiter was clad all in black but for old white Reeboks and an apron the color of pond scum (the latter of which was splattered inexplicably with persimmon-hued paint).  He oozed edgy and aloof Echo Park cool, and he did his job without all the fanfare of interpersonal warmth.

Atmosphere aside, the place is renowned for its brunch offerings.  The pastries are local celebrities and, in the aggregate, merit the acclaim they receive (the strawberry-vanilla brioche is especially superb).  The caramelized grapefruit is a novel idea, but largely ham-fisted in execution.  The slathering of honey provides a syrupy front end to the flavor profile, yielding a product that tastes like Taylor Swift’s personality: saccharine on the surface, but ultimately and fundamentally marred by a gothic – almost corporate, definitely innate – bitterness.

There is a burger on the menu, but no one really talks about it.  I went with Kelsey and Erin to find out if they ought to talk about it.

The Order: The Burger

The Price: $16

The Burger
There’s a scene in The Fountainhead where Ellsworth Toohey says to Howard Roark, “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here.  Why don’t you tell me what you think of me?  In any words you wish.  No one will hear us.”  Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you.”  That exchange flitted into my head as I tried to collect my thoughts in preparation for writing this; I just didn’t have that many thoughts to collect.

On the face of it, there’s nothing objectionable about this burger, and one might even think there is the potential for something quite good.  The bun is a seeded pan de mie sourced from Gjusta.  A bun from a different bakery is an odd choice for a restaurant that prides itself on its superlative baked goods, but I suppose Gjusta is an estimable choice if you’ve chosen to outsource your bun-making.  Delicately sweet and soft at its heart with perfectly toasted edges, this bun was the highlight of the burger.  The patty is about a third of a pound of grass-fed Sunfed Ranch beef, with a slice of milky white Hook’s aged cheddar melted on top.  It is rounded out by pickled shallots (allegedly) and a tall, tangled stack of mustard frills.

The server recommended I order the patty cooked medium.  That was an error; it was overcooked, dry, and charmless.  The patty scarcely deserved the exceptional cheese that was melted on top of it, a truly lovely Hook’s aged white.  It was distantly sweet, mild, perfectly melted, and utterly wasted by the lifeless piece of flesh it was meant to complement.

With a better cast around it, this cheese would have been a wonderful final touch.  But even ignoring the patty, the rest of the burger is rather a mess.  The mustard greens were flaccid, virally overabundant, and bland.  The pickled shallots so nearly approached absolute zero on the palate that I actually doubted their existence.  The sauces, served on the side, were ketchup (from a bottle) and an almost oppressively banal aioli, which essentially tasted like mayonnaise that had been left sitting out.  They weren’t much, but they were just about all I tasted every time I took a bite.

I rarely make overt mention of price unless it is a virtue.  In this case, though this is far from an offensive product, it does not even nearly approach being worth $16.  This price tag is wholly unjustifiable.  I couldn’t help feeling I was paying for the delicious inattention of our server and the string of patio lights more than I was paying for a good meal.  I very seldom feel as though I have wasted money eating a burger.  This was one such occasion.

This is a burger without personality; it is a lazily conceived pro forma offering that expresses nothing, demands nothing, gives nothing.  It smacks of brunch menu tokenism (which is a thing I made up just now, but essentially amounts to the creative minds behind this restaurant saying something like, “Ugh, we probably should put more lunch items on this menu, because otherwise it’ll be all ‘br’ and no ‘unch.'”).

Is this the folly of a young restaurant?  Probably not.  Most young restaurants err by trying too hard.  This just feels lazy.  There’s something respectable in a calculated, but ultimately botched, gamble.  There is little to respect – let alone consider or discuss – in paint-by-numbers concepts executed poorly.

So try as I might, it’s hard to articulate exactly what I think of it.  I just don’t think of it.  Nor should you.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 4.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.20 / 10.00
Bun: 9.10 / 10.00
Patty: 6.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 4.80 / 10.00
Balance: 6.30 / 10.00

Total: 67.40 / 100.00

Fritzi

The Place
Fritzi
814 Traction Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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I remember when Give Up by the Postal Service came out.  I was a sophomore in high school.  It was before winter formal.  That particular winter formal was to be a rare triumph for me in the romance department.  I took one of the prettiest and most popular girls in the freshman class.  Unfortunately, as it turned out 1) I wasn’t very attractive (please indulge my optimistic use of the past tense), 2) she was out of my league, 3) I’m inveterately and painfully awkward, and 4) teenagers are a heartless sort.

The result: she bolted as soon as we arrived, and spent the entire evening with confident, attractive junior alpha males who played sports and got bad grades.  Meanwhile, I, the archetypal beta male, sat on a bench staring into a swimming pool, waiting for high school to end, and playing various tracks from Give Up in my head to pass the time. This admittedly depressing scene was interrupted when I was rescued by my friend David and his date Sara (incidentally, about halfway through “Clark Gable”).

I still wonder why that album came into my head, especially considering my tortured relationship with it.  I hated to like Give Up.  See, some Death Cab for Cutie fans were nervous when Give Up dropped (these were the Sub Pop days, when Death Cab fans were less numerous and more proprietary than today’s breed).  Publicly, we worried side projects portend artistic restlessness, or worse, stagnation, that they threaten to reveal a beloved artist reduced to repackaging old ideas instead of presenting new ones.

Privately though, we’d admit that our real issue wasn’t artistic; it was that side projects have the whiff of infidelity.  Death Cab fans liked to envision Ben Gibbard poring over ragged spiral notebooks scribbling the lyrics to the next “A Lack Of Color,” not seeking new modes of expression.  Him having another band felt like a betrayal.

What an odd feeling. It’s not as if I didn’t love Ben Gibbard just because Give Up came out.  It’s just that the release of Give Up made me face all facets of that love, even the ugly ones: affection, loyalty, fear (of change and of loss), comfort, complacency, possessiveness, jealousy.  The only thing more frightening than watching someone you love change is the prospect of getting left behind somewhere along the way.  So I listened, with layered trepidation.

I find these feelings have survived in me, and they resurfaced again recently when Neal Fraser diverted his attention from Redbird to give Fritzi the full sit-down restaurant treatment.  When Fritzi became something more than a whimsical pop-up or a window at Arts District Brewing, that familiar proprietary jealousy, that envious dogma of mine, was impossible to escape, even though culinary side projects often work out just fine.

The Order: Fritzi Burger

The Price: $11.50

The Burger
Maybe you’ve never heard of Fritzi.  It would be hard to fault you, actually.  It first surfaced as a pop-up, then soft-opened as a practically nameless take-out window nestled in a corner of Arts District Brewing, where everyone from the merely buzzed to the blacked out could partake in some high-class, high-carb hangover prophylaxis.  The only signage to speak of was a large marquee above the window that glowingly admonished all passers-by: “DON’T FORGET TO EAT.”

By the time Fritzi actually opened a dining room directly next door to Arts District Brewing (serviced by the same kitchen as the take-out window; the two spaces are less adjacent than they are interlocked), it would have been easy to not notice.  There was almost no fanfare; besides, we’d been eating off that menu for months.

But Fritzi commands attention.  It is the brainchild of Neal Fraser, who ranks among the most deadly serious chefs in the city.  The fare is fast-food inspired and fundamentally uncomplicated.With quintessentially Arts District pretentiousness (i.e., trying far too hard to project a laid-back, industrial Bohemian charm), Fritzi will tell you they serve “artisanal nosh.”  That means no of-the-moment crudo, no robust and hearty braised goat gemelli, and – sadly – no peri-eponymous (I can’t resist making the epunymous joke) tray of veal.

Nothing here is a signature dish.  This is an off-duty project, a glimpse at what Neal Fraser might make at a cookout – nothing too high-minded…but, well, he’s still Neal Fraser.  As such, expect sophisticated, subtly reimagined classics.

The Fritzi Burger is, for lack of a better term, so Fraser.  Each component of the conventional burger is rethought, elevated.  This burger offers a hybrid patty (Nueske bacon and beef) that is given ample (viz., nine hours) sous vide time; a generous smear of Fontina fondue which offers a gooey, honeyed nuttiness; a sweet Calabrese relish with a whisperingly slow-hot finish; a fresh salve of mild thousand island; and iceberg lettuce to add cooling textural contrast.

The patty is a masterstroke, a subtle, intensely flavorful execution of an idea that sounds excellent in theory but often is butchered grotesquely in practice.  The Nueske bacon imparts a smoky, marbled dimension to the beef, evoking the faintest thoughts of a Texan barbecue pit.  The fondue creates a sumptuous, almost silken coating around the patty, mild and comforting.  Both sauces are excellent, and work well enough in concert with one another.  They offer a few redundant notes, but ultimately elevate the entire experience.  I was glad for the lettuce, if only because it offered a bit of complexity in a burger that otherwise verges on textural monotony.

While Fraser excels in reimagining individual ingredients, he sometimes almost loses sight of the forest for the trees.  It’s fine to reshape each piece of a puzzle, especially if you improve each one; but change them enough, and they won’t fit together.

In the case of the Fritzi Burger, that’s just a distant threat – this burger hangs together well, never veering into incoherence.  But it also is a mildly unsettling dish, because – as a whole – it doesn’t always feel completely intentional.  But existential niggling aside, this burger is stellar, not to be missed, and yet another shining example in a litany of Neal Fraser’s innovative genius.

Ultimately, no matter how rabid a Death Cab fan I was, I listened to Give Up.  I couldn’t help myself.  In my more honest moments, I recognize it as a superior product to solidly (maybe conservatively) 85% of Death Cab for Cutie’s oeuvre.  But even short of that admission, I know I put aside my feelings of betrayal on behalf of Gibbard’s bandmates because I wanted to understand what was compelling enough to divert his creative focus.  I didn’t really listen because I wanted to.  I listened because I had to.

So if you felt similar vicarious betrayal when Chef Fraser took time away from Redbird to launch Fritzi, you probably also feel a similar morbid curiosity regarding what Fritzi is all about.  Succumb to it.  This burger may not be better than 85% of the menu at Redbird, but it is too good to be missed owing to proprietary hipster envy.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.40 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 8.90 / 10.00

Total: 91.10 / 100.00

Petit Trois

The Place
Petit Trois
718 North Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038

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I was talking to my friend Peter last week about Petit Trois.  He went there with his wife recently, and ordered the omelette.  I’m not sure Peter is an omelette connoisseur, but he certainly is an educated enthusiast.  Anyway after a few bites of their omelette – a facially pedestrian offering with nothing more Boursin (yes, from the box) pepper cheese and a dusting of chives  – his wife asked if it was the best omelette he’s ever had.  “No,” he replied, “it’s the first omelette I’ve ever had.”

That’s what makes Ludo Lefebvre special.  His strength is not so much in wildly innovative concepts (though one trip to Trois Mec will show you he’s no slouch in that regard), but rather in expression.  Whatever the concept, from veal belly with crispy artichoke on down to a double cheeseburger, Lefebvre cannot be matched in execution.  Each dish is prepared with such skill and care, that his food has the potential to transcend quality and establish itself in your mind as an archetype of what a certain dish should be like.

Ludo Lefebvre is the rare chef who can make a simple dish feel definitional.  Not every dish achieves it, but when one does, you feel it, and to describe it is really just to speak normatively about how every dish of that kind ought to taste.  I’ll stop short of saying that his best offerings are infused with the intent of the divine, but the thought occurred to me.

The Order: Big Mec

The Price: $18

The Burger
Even if the name Petit Trois isn’t immediately familiar to you, you likely know more about it than you realize.  It’s the daughter restaurant of Trois Mec, at which reservations are famously difficult to secure, but which offers among the finest tasting menus in the city.  Petit Trois, then is an approximately Le Comptoir-sized appendage to its venerable – albeit only marginally larger – parent.  Though the restaurants have markedly different personalities, they share more than a wall; they have a common creative nucleus: Ludo Lefebvre teams with Los Angeles culinary power pair Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (the minds behind Animal, Son of a Gun, and Jon & Vinny’s) on these two gems tucked away in a strip mall behind a gas station.  Don’t let the understated location fool you, though – this part of mid-city is a culinary hotspot.  Just across the street is the mighty, higher-profile Mozzaplex, where Nancy Silverton et. al. have been slinging really important food for decades.

Roughly speaking, Petit Trois is a French lunch counter.  Reservations are not accepted, and the menu is a cheesy, framed and laminated piece of printer paper.  They serve comfort food which oozes with nostalgic sentimentality (for instance, every Sunday, Ludo Lefebvre – continuing a family tradition – does a chicken roast, where a half chicken is offered atop mirepoix, a bed of rough-cut vegetables redolent of a French country table).  The dishes are, in concept, often childishly simple.  Confit-fried chicken with bitter-cool frisée.  The aforementioned omelette has a flavor profile simple enough not to overwhelm my five year-old niece, but a subtle, buttery complexity that would floor just about anyone.

The cheeseburger is similar.  The name is a tip of the cap to an iconic – though hardly estimable – progenitor, and the inspiration, weirdly enough, is discernible.  The Big Mec is a double cheeseburger featuring two patties, Tillamook cheddar, all utterly drenched in Russian mayonnaise and house-made bordelaise sauce jammed between two brioche buns.  This burger is a study in messy decadence.  It bleeds sauce over its edges like a fountain.  The bottom bun is coated with the two sauces but somehow not soggy, and incredibly, never even threatens disintegration.

The concept here is to unify simplicity and excess.  At first blush, that might seem paradoxical, but it works in practice.  This burger is decadent without being overwrought.  It takes simple ideas and presents them in a maximalist fashion.  It is the culinary equivalent of “Untitled,” the first song off Interpol’s debut, Turn On the Bright Lights.  In that song, Paul Banks repeatedly intones the promissory phrase, “I will surprise you sometime, I’ll come around,” amid a swirling, sparkling, ever-rising torrent of Stratocaster.  There isn’t much to it; but it’s arresting because the same idea, the same brief, haunting, beautiful motif, is pounded into your head so many times.  That approach informs this dish as well.  Of course, the concept would be nothing without execution.  The Big Mec is executed masterfully.

The cheese is perfectly melted but still decidedly solid – it has heft and mass.  And it’s Tillamook, so it’s approachable: sharp and flavorful without being too overpowering.  The patties are stellar, massive things.  Charred on the outside, pink on the inside, irrepressibly juicy and thick.  They absorb only some of the ocean of sauce, but it’s enough to subtly change the flavor of the meat.

At bottom, this burger is about the sauces.  And really, it’s about the bordelaise.  The Russian mayonnaise is piquant, fresh, and just creamy enough, but it is utterly overshadowed by its companion.  The bordelaise at Petit Trois is made with red wine and veal stock and mounted with foie gras (usually, the mount is butter).  It is astounding.  It teeters on the boundary between boozy and acidic, like wine a few atoms away from oxidation.  But it is given shape, depth, and balance by the foie gras mount.  In the end, everything about it feels decadently intentional.  It is the most challenging, but also the most comforting, bordelaise you’ll likely ever taste.  It is smooth but also sharp, mellow but also bright.  It is also just about omnipresent in this burger…and you’ll still want more.  It also creates a beautiful, natural mash-up with the Russian mayonnaise – so natural, in fact, that the sauces feel more coextensive than cooperative.

You’ll ravenously devour this plate of food.  Your hands and teeth will drip with oxblood bordelaise and Russian mayonnaise the color of cooked salmon.  You will do violence to this burger.  The taste of the sauces will linger in your mouth long after you finish.  You will be exhausted, you will be panting.  You will look down at the plate, full to the gills, and you will ache for more.  You’ll see the pool of what’s left of the two sauces, intermixed, looking like a Woolnaugh endpaper, and you’ll wish it wasn’t over.

This is a cheeseburger.  Other things we previously might have known as cheeseburgers do not deserve the privilege of sharing a categorical identity with this dish.  It is the archetypal burger:  comforting, rich, indulgent, decadent, massive, messy, meaty, subtle, warming, unpretentious but refined, accessible, filling, and utterly delicious.

Make no mistake: This is as indispensable an eating experience as the critically acclaimed tasting menu across the wall.  If you have not yet eaten this cheeseburger, it may well be argued that you have never eaten a cheeseburger at all.  The Big Mec at Petit Trois is nothing short of a masterpiece.  Drive quickly, order quickly, but eat slowly.  After all, this will be your first cheeseburger – you should savor it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 10.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.90 / 10.00
Bun: 9.90 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 10.00 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 95.70 / 100.00

Sunny Spot

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The 405 freeway is maybe best described as a piece of hell that Los Angeles chose to annex in 1964.  It (along with bananas-high taxes) is the price we pay for living in a sun-soaked paradise: a throbbing vein of gridlock, on which – at the best of hours – brake lights pulse rhythmically.  Quite often though, it’s worse, and the string of red lights in front of you looks like a fluorescent snake if you squint.

For those who live in Los Angeles, the 405 is a conversation piece.  When I meet friends for a meal in Santa Monica or Venice, inevitably I will describe to them either a) what a tragedy the 405 is today, or b) how I skillfully, creatively managed to circumvent the 405.  These topics are staples of the conversational diet in this town.  And they make us an easy target.

I recently spent a Saturday morning – and part of the afternoon – on the 405, driving to brunch at Sunny Spot.  My interminable journey through the gridlock (which, in familiarly epic largesse, spilled indulgently back onto the 101) found me listening to Loveless on repeat and texting my friend Bret with my car in park (and just to completely embody the stereotype, I’ll share that I was between Getty Center and Sunset – nightmare).

Unless you live on the west side, you’ll have to endure some version of this drive to get to Sunny Spot.  When you arrive, you’ll find a classically Venice exercise: peeling turquoise paint on which the name of the restaurant boldly is emblazoned in coral-colored cursive (think the colors of the key at the San Antonio Spurs’ arena circa 2000), a meticulously curated shabby-chic beachside dive aesthetic.  It tries hard not to try hard.

You’ll likely have lost your reservation by the time you arrive (assuming you had the foresight and misplaced optimism to make one).  So you’ll have to wait among aspirant screenwriters and armchair critics; almost impressively basic young women with protein powder-dusted boyfriends following close behind; post-surf stoners, desperately hungry and wondering why they hath forsaken Taco Bell.

It goes without saying that a tiny proportion of guests will be talking to one another.  After all, to our generation, a meal with friends merely means sitting at a table with other people who are also glued to their Instagram feed.  True to form, you’ll see the patrons of the restaurant being alone together, side-by-side but absorbed in Pokémon Go or composing sarcastic YouTube comments or adding this “memory” to their Snapchat story or whatever the intimacy-killer du jour is.

You’ll try and push this depressing portrait of collaborative loneliness out of your head.  You’ll get a greyhound from one of the surprisingly attentive bartenders (you won’t get a Bloody Mary, because they aren’t fantastic here, and you won’t get a mimosa because mimosas are sort of silly).  You’ll steep in the charming, faux-rustic atmosphere of the place, the loose and warm summer shade.  If you’re the type, you’ll lovingly muss your hair and frame a selfie or two.  You’ll wait longer than you should for a table, and do your best not to wonder if it would be easier to get a table at Providence than here.  Then you’ll remember that you should relax; it’s the weekend, and the weekend was made for wasting time.

The Order: Double Cheeseburger

The Price: $15

The Burger
The reason I bring up the 405 and the whole look of Sunny Spot is because I have to talk about them to talk about this burger.

The 405 is not just a freeway.  Well, on the surface it is.  It’s a few lanes arranged in a predetermined path, peppered by ramps every few miles.  But dig deeper, think harder, and you might be surprised with what you realize.  The 405 forces us to confront the ironic truth that, to get somewhere, we have to accept going nowhere for a while.  It wrenches us from the stupefying, swipe-right torrent of instant and meaningless gratification that occupies so much of our time and thought.  It pulls us away from the relentlessly interconnected world and makes us confront our own thoughts.  It demands the one thing so many in this generation lack: patience.

My point is that the 405 isn’t what it seems on the surface, and if you think about it in the right way, you can understand how sitting in traffic actually is a blessing, an opportunity for growth and reflection that has become vanishingly rare as our world becomes a giant touchscreen.  At the very least, it can show you that often times, there’s more to things than what you might see from a cursory look.

Sunny Spot is sort of like the 405 in that way.  If you weren’t looking all that hard, you’d see a beachy Venice restaurant with a gregarious color scheme.  You might miss the subtleties at play here.  Their brunch menu features standard items with haute tweaks.  Grana Padano in an otherwise unremarkable chop salad.  Crisp chicharron on the Cuban pork sandwich.  A sunny egg on the BLTA.

This is a place that quite clearly is trying to give you what you want in a way that’s better than you wanted.  They want to blend the familiar with the high-level.  It’s not just a beachside shack; it’s a place that is dedicated to the marked – if incremental – heightening of tastes.  This is admirable, and an especially tall order when your target audience is so often obsessed with the banal and unchallenging.

What I’m trying to get at here is the (weird, semantic) distinction between being complicated and being complex.  The 405 is complicated because it introduces logistical uncertainty in my life.  Because there are so many damn cars on it, I’m late for any plans that involve me taking the 405.  But the 405 is complex because it makes me feel something every time I’m on it, and exploring those feelings makes me think more deeply and more critically about the world around me and my interaction with it.

Sunny Spot itself is uncomplicated – it’s a simple enough formula of beautiful, precisely disheveled people and a milieu to match; but it’s complex because it seems to be at least attempting to subvert and refine the unsophisticated impulses of the very clientele to which the place – at least aesthetically – caters by subtly altering the familiar.

How does this distinction apply to burgers?  Well, it’s easy to make a burger complicated by fettering it with a slew of features.  But complexity isn’t about the number of variables in play; it’s about the depth of interaction between those variables, and it’s really about the way the thing makes you feel, what it arouses in you when you take a bite.  Sunny Spot rejects being complicated in hopes that it might achieve subtle complexity.

In eschewing all the traditional trappings, Sunny Spot is trying to challenge your preconceptions of what is indispensable on a burger.  Lettuce, tomato, ketchup: these are distractions.  Sunny Spot presents a burger with a spare flavor profile.  By reducing the number of ingredients, the goal seems to be to heighten subtle interactions rather than presenting an amalgam of various flavors.

This burger places two hefty patties smeared with American cheese front and center.  This centerpiece is rounded out with dijonnaise, pickles, and caramelized onions, all of which is sandwiched between two brioche buns.  Note that this hits every one of the basic taste triggers: sour (pickles), sweet (dijonnaise and onions), bitter (onions), salty (beef), and umami (beef and cheese).  This burger touches all the bases without giving too much of anything.

The good news is that this burger is efficiently conceived and executed.  It’s a competent exercise in lean construction.  But that’s all it is: just craft.  This burger clearly wants the diner to do the work of figuring out how these flavors are put together.  That doesn’t stop it from being good.  But it precludes greatness.

A great burger will give you a window into the mind of the person who made it.  It might even arouse memories, feelings, thoughts.  It will show you something or make you feel something.  The best food isn’t that which you can appreciate as a well-formed study in culinary craft.  It’s the food that enriches you somehow, connects with you individually, feels like it was made for you.  This burger will mean the same thing to everyone who eats it.  Few will abhor it, none will yearn for it once it’s gone.  It’s a pleasant, but eminently duplicable, experience.  As far as it goes, it’s great.  The problem is that it just doesn’t go all that far.

In this case, the distinction between complicated and complex is purely academic.  This burger is neither.  Relatively few ingredients interact in predictable, uninspired ways.  The beef and cheese overwhelm the flavor profile.  The brioche is a touch dry.  The dijonnaise and pickles are barely perceptible, so any subtle interaction between them is a whisper in a thunderstorm.  The onions are unevenly distributed on the patty, providing pockets of soupy bittersweetness.  None of this is offensive – in fact, the toppings themselves (especially the dijonnaise, oddly enough) are all quite good – but the ingredients simply stand side by side without ever cohering.  This is an orchestra tuning, not playing a symphony: the talent may be there, but the real show hasn’t started yet.

This burger was not made for you.  It was made for everyone.  It is always correct but never remarkable.  It will be good to everyone and great to no one.  Fairly, you may not care about the fine-grain distinctions between complicated and complex.  In that case, know this: you will neither regret ordering this burger nor crave it again.  But it won’t make you feel anything.  And it certainly won’t make you forget that drive.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.20 / 10.00
Value: 7.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 5.20 / 10.00
Creatvity/Style: 7.80 / 10.00
Bun: 7.80 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Balance: 7.30 / 10.00

Total: 79.20 / 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

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

The Bowery

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In the age of Amazon and ATMs and self-checkout groceries, there is something to be said for good, old-fashioned customer service: a quick smile and a pleasant conversation is a depressingly cherished rarity in this day and age. Don’t get me wrong; I like Amazon Prime as much as the next guy – dat free two-day shipping doe – but it’s nice to be reminded that the old, human-centric way of doing things is still around.

I have similar feelings about the Los Angeles food scene. It’s nice to see young chefs bucking convention and innovating so bravely. Restaurants like Neal Fraser’s Redbird, Ari Taymor’s Alma, Chris Jacobson’s Girasol, and Kris Tominaga’s Cadet – just to name a few – confidently offer brave, inventive, challenging dishes. Parenthetically, you should check out all of those restaurants. This innovation is at the heart of the redefinition of cuisine in Los Angeles. But sometimes, in the midst of this new culinary renaissance of ours, it’s nice to go somewhere that reassures you that some people still have the capacity to make something beautiful out of the conventional.

The Bowery is such a place. Kevin, Shanil, and I have been going here for years. We usually pair it with a run to Amoeba Records. It’s been a tradition of ours; we do it any time the three of us are in town together. Today, we took Rumi along for the ride. When we arrived around 3 pm and found the door locked, we got emotional. It turns out, The Bowery doesn’t open on Sundays until 4 pm. Because of course it doesn’t. Anyway. We went to Amoeba and then came back at 4, hangry as all hell, for a long-overdue burger.

The Place
The Bowery
6268 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90028

The Order: Bowery Burger (with cheddar cheese, bacon, avocado, sauteed mushrooms, and jalapeño)

The Price: $14 ($10 base, $1 per topping) before tax

The Burger
The Bowery is nestled in the heart of Hollywood – pretty much right at Sunset and Vine – which means you have to navigate hordes of some of the most aggressive hipsters on the face of planet earth to get there. Seriously, there was a lot of side boob (cool it with that shit, ladies). And ironic facial hair. And girls in wide-brim fedoras and circular-framed sunglasses. And frowning. It’s a stone’s throw from Amoeba Records, where – in a desperate gambit in my ongoing (and eminently unsuccessful) campaign to be hip – I bought the new Jamie xx record, to which, I quickly realized, I’m not cool enough to listen.

The Bowery holds itself out as a New York-inspired gastropub, which means it’s small, everything is written on chalkboards, and everyone wears all black. Thankfully, that’s where the similarities to New York end: The weather outside isn’t a disaster (i.e. hot and sticky or oppressively freezing), you won’t get yelled at for crossing the street, there are way fewer finance douche-bros, it doesn’t smell like sweat and trash in the streets, and my ex-girlfriend is nowhere to be found. I’m especially thankful for one of those things.

Anyway. The Bowery’s purported claim to fame is its burger. The weird thing about it, though, is that the composition of that burger is largely up to the diner. More on that in a second; first, let’s talk about the constants. The most noteworthy aspect of this burger is that it is served on an English muffin in lieu of a conventional bun. The muffin is toasted perfectly, the rim delicately blackened, the heart crisp but still fluffy. That toasting prevents the muffin from getting soaked through, but it is not so severe as to savage away the flavor of the muffin itself. The patty is between six and eight ounces of grass-fed beef, cooked to a sumptuous, dripping medium rare.

Besides that, the identity of this burger is largely dependent upon consumer caprice. The Bowery offers a choice of cheeses – blue, herbed goat, gruyere, American, and cheddar – toppings, for a dollar each – red onion confit, caramelized onions, onion rings, sautéed mushrooms, roast garlic, avocado, bacon, fried egg, roasted jalapeño – and sauces – spicy hickory barbecue, ranch, or aioli.

So there is a versatility here; the burger can mold to your mood and preferences. In many ways, it will be what you want it to be. But that arguably cuts both ways: if you aren’t sure what you want, it can be a little overwhelming. This problem, of course, is easily solved; you should only come to The Bowery if you have at least a vague idea of what you want.

But let’s be clear: There is no wrong answer here. All four of us got different burgers, and all four of us a) cleaned our plates with lustful relish, and b) were totally satisfied that we had made the best possible choice. My burger was topped with bacon, avocado, sautéed mushrooms, roasted jalapeño, and spicy hickory barbecue sauce.

No fewer than four strips of bacon, thick cut and fried to a snapping crisp, were wavy and perfectly fried.The avocado, soft and ripe, was cut into thin slivers connected at the bottom and spread like a Chinese fan. The intense flavor of the horde of mushrooms anchored the profile of the burger, complementing the beef gorgeously. The roasted jalapeño was delicately hot, bringing a subtle flavorful undertone and an enchanting, creeping spice to the finish of each bite. The sauce was sweet but sassy; it had the gentlest kick, and paired especially well with the jalapeño and bacon.

The remarkable thing about this place is that, whatever assortment of toppings you choose, the burger you get will be perfectly balanced. They have chosen their ingredient selections like a well-planned wardrobe; everything matches everything else. They are masters of proportion; they know how the ingredients operate in context, and so they know how to assemble them in any combination. That said, getting that perfect arrangement of toppings may cost you: at a buck each, they really can make this burger a pretty expensive experience.

Now, my borderline-cannibalistic hunger may have had something to do with it, and it may be averred that my objectivity is buckling under the weight of tradition. But conspiracy theories aside, this is a damn good meal. The Bowery claims to have the best burger in Los Angeles, and I can tell you: it’s not a ridiculous claim.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 7.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.30 / 10.00
Bun: 9.40 / 10.00
Patty: 9.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.90 / 10.00

Total: 91.90 / 100.00

Pharo’s Burgers

I was going to have a snappy photo of the bacon cheeseburger from Pharo’s Burgers. Then some dudes threw me into a pool, and my phone’s soul exploded. As a result, no picture, just a link to some other dude’s picture, which I can assure you is a faithful rendering.

There are some places you just don’t really ever check out, and don’t really hear much about either. That cool movie theatre that only plays old movies in the town where you went to college. The hike in Malibu with all those amazing views. That one coffee shop that serves coffee drinks in mason jars and makes that delicious sandwich with the prosciutto. The Warhol exhibit at that museum on the other side of town. The BodyWorks exhibit at the California Science Center. Encino.

File Pharo’s Burgers under that category. I was born and raised in Pasadena, but nobody mentioned it was any good. I never really heard about it, and I never really cared to explore it…so I never did. Recently, though, my friend Jackson told me to check it out. He goes there quite often and swore by it. What the hell, right? So yesterday, Kevin, Shanil, and I went to give it a try.

The Place
Pharo’s Burgers
1129 North Garfield Avenue
Alhambra, CA 91801

The Order: Bacon Cheeseburger

The Price: $5.95

The Burger
If you haven’t heard about this place, honestly, it’s probably because there isn’t much to say. And that’s not entirely a pejorative; Pharo’s Burgers keeps it simple. This burger is about as unfussy as it gets: a heap of shredded lettuce steeped in weakly tangy Thousand Island, a slightly jaundiced (but juicy enough) disc of tomato, a thin sheet of not-very-melted cheese, a quarter-pound chuck patty, and several strips of crumpled bacon.

Each ingredient played its role admirably, filling a very specific niche in the burger’s flavor profile. The Thousand Islands had a meek tang to it that brightened the coppice of lettuce a bit. The tomato was not of the finest caliber, mushier than it was firm. The patty was overcooked (likely intentionally so), char-broiled well past medium. The bacon was salty and crisp, providing the intended depth of flavor and textural variety, but not much more than that.

I don’t know; it was a bacon cheeseburger. Nothing felt misplaced or misguided, but nothing felt inspired. Everything here has been done before: It has been done better, and it has been done worse. It’s hard to be anything but frustratingly noncommittal. I imagine it is a little maddening to read a review that fails to adopt a firm stance – sorry – but this burger does not lend itself to roiling passion. It’s a competently executed but largely uninteresting offering. Pharo’s Burgers puts out a dish that is impossible to love or to hate. It is a place and a burger to which you will not object to returning…if prompted.

But some places, you just don’t really ever check out.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.40 / 10.00
Value: 8.30 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 5.00 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.10 / 10.00
Balance: 8.30 / 10.00

Total: 74.20 / 100.00

Belcampo Meat Co.

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My generation can be pretty annoying. Among our most grating tendencies is our penchant for armchair activism. Facebook and Twitter let us feel like we’re participating despite being totally passive. And the anonymity of being insulated from actual accountability by our keyboards and screens allow us to – quite literally – join the mob and feel morally righteous as we participate in the destruction of the lives of total strangers.

And yet, for all our hashtag campaigns, article sharing, perennial outrage, and cause bandwagons, most of us actually don’t contribute (or know) anything. Worse still, so many of us mistake all that shit for actually having a positive impact (“I’m raising awareness so that ‘we as a society'” – read: other people – “can make positive changes”).

Why do I bring this up? Because I want to emphasize just how refreshing it is when activism actually manifests itself in concrete action. Belcampo Meat Co. cares about the humane treatment of animals in the food industry. Instead of sharing a bunch of PETA articles on their Facebook and then going back to watching cat videos, they opened a restaurant that embodies the principles they espouse. Belcampo sources all the meat you purchase, order, and/or eat from their own farm. They have total control over how the animals are treated. Accordingly, they strive to ensure the animals are raised and processed in a humane way. Their definition of “free range” isn’t “Oh, yeah, we give them five square feet of fenced-in space and they can totally see grass on a clear day, maybe.”

Shit, this was a really roundabout way to make a simple point. Somewhere, my sophomore year English teacher probably is shivering. And giving me a terrible grade. If you’re reading this, Mrs. Holmgren, I’m sorry (but you should at least be happy that I haven’t used the passive voice). But not sorry enough to delete it. After all, it felt good to write, and sometimes, you just have to call your generation out on its shit. Also, sorry for saying “shit”.

Anyway. Now that I’ve told you how cool Belcampo (and how shitty everyone else) is, let’s talk about the burger. Shanil, Very On-Time Kevin, and I headed over to Grand Central Market to try their eponymous burger.

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

The Order: Belcampo Burger

The Price: $12.50

The Burger
The unique thing about Belcampo is how they have a controlling hand in every stage of the process – from raising the meat to grilling the patty. You could probably make a pretty solid case that this institutional coherence gives them a better instinct for how to prepare their meat – the more you know about the meat, the more capably you can deal with it. Or at least, that’s a claim colorable enough for me to believe. And then write.

Regardless of the why or the how, one thing is certain: This burger is conceived and built to showcase the meat – five and a half ounces of what Belcampo calls their “premium grind” – whatever it is, it’s grass-fed, dry-aged, and impressive. Coating the top of the patty is a thin, waxy film of white cheddar. Next, a stewy tangle of bittersweet caramelized onions under a thatch of heat-wilted lettuce, capped off with the also-mysterious “house sauce”.

Unfortunately, the focus on meat comes at the expense of all the other ingredients. The lettuce is sad and limp. The sauce is largely unassertive (though admittedly, not offensive). The cheese is mild and creamy, but timid. The bun nominally is brioche, but really it’s just a glorified sesame bun.

These supporting cast members come together to create a backdrop that one might regard as banal. The thing is, though, it seems like this is an intentional flavor milieu in which to present the patty. The other ingredients allow the patty to shine. In the context of the burger as a whole, the ingredients come off less as boring and more as appropriately unobtrusive. They stay out of the way so the patty can really emerge.

And emerge it does. It’s complex, absurdly fresh, flavorful, moist, and delicious. This is seriously – like, seriously – high-quality meat. The result, on the whole, is quite surprising. This is a purist’s burger – a butcher’s burger. It is a beef-centric dish. Nothing else is particularly present because nothing else particularly matters. This burger was not designed to be an ensemble piece. It’s a character study, a solo performance. It’s a burger carried not by solid contributions from every piece, but from the superstardom of the main component.

So Belcampo is not just to be credited with putting their ideology into practice (as opposed to just tweeting about it). They’re due praise for the product. They have produced beef that is good enough by itself to justify coming back to this place for another burger. Next time, hopefully the burger won’t trigger a massive, long-winded missive.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.30 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.30 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.80 / 10.00
Bun: 7.60 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.60 / 10.00
Balance: 8.50 / 10.00

Total: 85.20 / 100.00