Pie ‘N Burger

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Everyone on Yelp went here after Pie ‘N Burger was featured on Food Network as the third best burger in the country. Needless to say, it got a ton of hate from the insufferable masses (“Whatever, it’s not that good. I’ve definitely had better…I won’t name a better place right now, because that would require me being constructive and actually hazarding an affirmative opinion, but I totally could if I wanted to, because I know a lot about food. Find me on Instagram!”).

I don’t trust Yelp, and I’d respectfully submit that you shouldn’t either. In the main, it’s a morally bankrupt market distortion factory. No, seriously. But like actually though. But the real problem (or well, the other problem besides Jeremy Stoppelman doing his best Frank Costello impression) is that Yelp is really just full of people with shitty opinions. People who depend on someone else’s interface to get exposure for their crappy opinions. People who lack the courage to just run a failing blog.

Right, I’m done shitting on Yelp. For the moment. But it does suck. So there.

Okay, I’m really done. Promise.

Anyway. For those of us who grew up in Pasadena, Pie ‘N Burger isn’t that place we read about last week and rushed to so we could look discerning by posting about how overrated it is. It’s a place we grew up with. A place we went to on occasion. A place we liked, but with which we weren’t obsessed. I went to school literally blocks away. It’s familiar. Look, I’m trying to establish editorial credibility. Just let me have this.

So yeah. Kevin, Shanil, and I stopped off this morning for a breakfast of burgers and a shared pecan sweet bun (yes, shared).

The Place
Pie ‘N Burger
913 East California Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91106

The Order: Cheeseburger

The Price: $11.45

The Burger
Pie ‘N Burger is younger than In-N-Out by fifteen years, but you’d never guess that after stepping inside. From the Formica countertops to the clientele, this place is old. It doesn’t have the slick, spit-shined aura of efficiency you find at In-N-Out. But then, that’s not really the vibe they’re going for at Michael Osborn’s Pasadena staple. No, Pie ‘N Burger focuses on food. That focus comes largely at the expense of, well, everything else: you know, things like ambience, modernity, attentiveness, thorough dishwashing, and basic human friendliness.

Needless to say, Kevin, Shanil, and I were the slickest, youngest, most debonair things in the room. Which may or may not surprise you depending on your estimation of us (be gentle). In spite of that, it took a minute (or eight) until the server deigned to come over and take our order. Once she did, though, things moved pretty quickly. The burgers came out wrapped in wax paper. The severely, wonderfully charred patty (I ballpark it at a third of a pound, but it may well have been heftier than that) herniated out from between the buns, a yellow film of cheese still melting on top. Short, thin introns of grilled onion swam in a sumptuous pink matrix of creamy, tangy, house-made Thousand Island. Besides that, there were a few pickles and basically an entire lettuce patch.

The patty is absolutely excellent. The exterior is blackened into a delicious, savory crust containing the surprisingly juicy, flavorful interior. It’s arguably a touch overcooked, but only enough to offend personal preference, not enough to compromise the objective quality of the burger. By which I mean I like a burger a little more rare, but this patty wasn’t cooked to the point of dryness. There was plenty of flavor remaining to satisfy.

The grilled onions were another highlight. Left to stew in Thousand Island, the flavors interacted beautifully, creating a cool, wonderful complement to the patty. The flavors were linked nicely by the shared grill flavor, but otherwise brought different personalities to the burger: the patty was crackling and savory, the sauce cool and sweet. The pickles picked up where the Thousand Island left off, adding a fresh, sour little snap. The buns were standard white, but toasted until their rims were black. This gave them a nice crispiness at the edges, but it softened as you went in, giving the burger a kind of textural arc.

Weirdly, all three of us shared the same major gripe: the lettuce. Don’t get me wrong, it was fresh, crisp, and wonderful. But there was just way, way, way too much of it. By the time I’d eaten all the beef, there was still a pretty enormous amount of lettuce (and bun, for that matter) left. The sheer magnitude of lettuce upset the balance of the burger, and was by far its weakest attribute. On the bright side, it wasn’t a depressing, wilted mess.

So don’t let the absurdly shitty service or the old-timey vibe fool you. Pie ‘N Burger is a standard for a reason. They make a damn good burger. It may not be the third best burger in the country, but it’s also much better than you might guess if all you did was read the propaganda on shitty Yelp. It is definitely worthy of recognition, and of your time. If you find yourself hungry for a burger in Pasadena, this is a compelling option.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.30 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 87.10 / 100.00

Original Tommy’s

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A couple of weeks ago, I saw Blue Streak was on television. I was twelve when that movie came out, and I loved that shit. I saw it in the theater twice. I bought it on DVD and watched it until I could talk along with every scene. I remember how hard I laughed when Martin Lawrence got really sassy with FBI agents, how hilariously awkward Luke Wilson is, how cramp-inducingly funny it was when Dave Chapelle showed a bunch of drug dealers how he “pulled somebody’s guts out through their ass, and their eyes fell out.” So came on, I was thrilled. Here was a movie that I loved when I was a kid. I figured it had held up as well as all the other movies I loved around that time: Tommy Boy, Happy Gilmore, and Billy Madison, just to name a few.

But it hasn’t. At all. It really is a hopelessly unfunny movie. It’s dated. It’s trite. It’s badly written. It’s disgracefully acted. The plot is an absolute throwaway. And while I’m not prepared to completely freak out about it, the lesson is clear: Sometimes, the things you love just don’t hold up.

Yesterday, Shanil and I went to Tommy’s for lunch. This was a place I always loved as a kid. I think you can kind of see where I’m going with this.

The Place
Original Tommy’s
2575 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90057

The Order: Double cheeseburger (no tomato), fries, large Coke

The Price: $7.95

The Burger
In 1946, Tommy Koufax opened up this shack at the corner of Beverly and Rampart. It didn’t (and doesn’t) look like much, but it’s since grown into a little Los Angeles empire. It’s older than In-N-Out, and more exclusively a Los Angeles institution. More than 50 million people have enjoyed Tommy’s signature chili-drenched burgers in the seven decades since Tommy’s first opened its doors.

I remember, as a kid, piling into the car with my brothers and parents and driving out to Tommy’s. We’d return home with a big box full of cheeseburgers, chili-cheese fries, icy sodas, and sweet-hot yellow peppers (when they didn’t forget to give them to us, which they usually did). Looking back, it was one of my favorite family traditions (besides Disneyland, which is my runaway favorite). I don’t remember much from those drives, but I never will forget the excitement, the eager and expectant relish with which I unwrapped those burgers. Tommy’s was among my favorite youthful indulgences.

Admittedly, I haven’t been to this place in quite some time. My brothers and I grew up (you’ll notice I did not say we “matured”). They have lives and families of their own now. They’re making new traditions, which is super cool. But as I pulled into the drive-thru at Tommy’s yesterday, I couldn’t help flashing back to those days, and I got absolutely demolished by a wave of sentimentality. When I unwrapped my burger, I was suffused with those old, familiar childlike expectations, back before I was the cynical, narcissistic malcontent with a shitty personality and a cloudy disposition.

Then I unwrapped it. And I was like, “Wait, I used to look forward to this?”

It’s really not appetizing to look at. The burger itself is two waifish, overcooked patties blanketed in cheddar, which is itself slathered with a pasty, semi-solid block of chili that’s really more the consistency of refried beans. It’s rounded out by ebullient diced raw white onions, snappy pickles, and some good old-fashioned yellow mustard. All of this is wedged between buns as limp and lifeless as an unusually lazy sloth. Who is asleep. And drunk.

Let’s talk about that chili first. It’s not how I remember. You’re not talking about chili that’s going to drip everywhere, spilling off the burger in that tantalizing way that it does when the sexy ladies on the Carl’s Jr. commercials take their seductively greedy bites. No, this is something closer to a brick of chili. It looks solid, and has the consistency of a paste. It tastes convincing (and good) enough, but there’s an unreality about it – a kind of textural creepiness – that’s a little off-putting. If I want astronaut food, I’ll ask my friend Courtney to get me some of that freeze-dried ice cream shit (explanation: Courtney works for NASA; though in all honesty, she’d probably tell me to stop talking crazy and get some real food, albeit preferably without the side of catastrophically annoying Asian kids).

But anyway.

While the chili is the centerpiece of the burger, it’s the other toppings that really surprise, and end up making a stronger statement to this burger’s credit. The onions are as sharp and sweet as a honey-dipped knife. The pickles are firm and sour, with that satisfying snap. These toppings provide good textural and flavor contrast. And frankly, it’s nice to see someone outside of a baseball stadium still has love for yellow mustard. I like yellow mustard, dammit. In this age of favoring gruyere over cheddar, of making complex and fancy-ass umami alloys of different types of beef, of conflating “classic” and “boring,” I find this steadfast adherence to tradition (which almost certainly is the product of laziness and a lack of creativity rather than any kind of worthy sentiment) refreshing. And it’s good, in an unabashedly sophomoric kind of way.

So here’s the point: young Pra’s unbridled love for Tommy’s was not justified. Old Pra is sager in this regard (though admittedly, Old Pra misdirects his affection in other ways – see, e.g., my latest ex-girlfriend…*shiver*). Old Pra recognizes that the chili isn’t very good. The beef is not good. This burger just isn’t as good as I remember it being. I started wondering, “Shit, was I as wrong about Tommy’s as I was about Blue Streak?” My happy childhood memories were threatening to crumble around me.

But then I got my shit together and thought about it a little more. Unlike Blue Streak, I wasn’t totally wrong about Tommy’s. This burger doesn’t suck. The garnishes add charm and surprising complexity. The chili isn’t earth-shattering, but then again, a) it’s still chili, and b) it’s a little unrealistic to expect Mike Stevens-level shit on a burger that costs eight bucks (with fries and a drink). The beef isn’t good either, but there’s enough going on to obfuscate that fact and make the overall experience pretty damn worthwhile – the whole exceeds the sum of the parts, and all that. So I guess this burger actually is less like Blue Streak and more like Disneyland. Sure, it’s less majestic and awe-inspiring than it was when I was a kid, but that’s not going to stop me from going. Because it’s still pretty damn good.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 8.80 / 10.00

Total: 82.60 / 100.00

Super Burger

IMG_3289To our wild and crazy generation, Hidden in Plain View describes a (very intense, vaguely scary, definitely bad) post-hardcore band from New Jersey. But in the age of Yelp and Urbanspoon and countless food blogs purveyed by narcissistic, self-obsessed foodies screaming ignored into the aether of the interwebs (WHO NEEDS THEM, AM I RIGHT), the phrase has kind of lost its currency in the culinary world.

One thing that kind of sucks about the electronic age is that the thrill of discovery is blunted by its inevitability. It’s refreshing, then, when a truly magnificent place slips through the e-cracks and manages to escape your attention. Then, you hear about it from an actual human being, you go there and discover a place to which you know you will return countless times in the future, and it feels pretty remarkable. It’s nice to actually find something, rather than just passively accumulating and half-processing information.

My friend Andy told me about Super Burger. His experience there left him pleasantly shocked. Because here’s the thing: This place has been around forever – like, seriously, decades – but has managed to escape the detection of anyone in our social circle (and my friends and I are not disinterested in burgers, in case you’d not noticed). I was skeptical going in; between the internet grapevine and my own deep roots in Pasadena, it was nothing short of inconceivable that I would have failed to hear about a place this good.

So we went. I got an avocado bacon cheeseburger. We agreed that Serena Williams is a) the finest individual athlete in America who isn’t named Michael Phelps, b) that she makes it nearly impossible to like her in spite of that fact, and c) lots of people who don’t like her are probably just uncomfortable seeing a minority succeed at what has so traditionally been a “white sport.” And we also agreed that the writing about her heading into the U.S. Open is going to be insufferable. Because ESPN. And we also agreed that Bill Simmons seems dangerously close to becoming a citizen (or at least a permanent resident) of Whiny Bitch Victim Complex Town.

What can I say? It was a productive lunch.

The Place
Super Burger
458 N Altadena Drive
Pasadena, CA 91107

The Order: Avocado Bacon Cheeseburger, Coke.

The Price: $8.95 (approximately)

The Burger
After my first bite, the thought that occurred to me was, “How the hell did I miss this?”

There are lots of different ways to categorize burgers, but patty size is a useful way. Some places – In-N-Out pops to mind – feature thin patties. They maximize surface area and season their meat really well. Then, there are what I think of as pub-style burgers, with thicker patties that depend more heavily on the flavor of the meat and the grill.

In-N-Out sets the bar for the thin patty burger. It’s a benchmark. Now, I haven’t eaten at Super Burger enough to be conclusive about this, but let me tell you one thing. This is the best short-order burger I have eaten at any place not called In-N-Out. I think the most telling thing here is that I would frame this review by comparing this place to In-N-Out.

The patty is a roughshod, hand-packed monster, probably weighing in at no less than a half-pound. There’s no short rib or brisket anywhere near this thing – it’s a budget burger – but somehow, it manages to be juicy, intensely flavorful, and delicious. The bun is wholesale. The lettuce and tomato are throwaways, the Thousand Island adds a necessary tangy punch but is otherwise unremarkable. The onions are just fine but should probably have been grilled (I’d imagine they’d have done this had I asked). The cheese is firmly B-plus stuff. The action happens with the four massive wedges of astonishingly fresh, firm, flavorful avocado and the perfectly crisp, sumptuously undulating strips of bacon. The interplay between this and the ever surprising beef is nothing short of astounding. Seriously.

Another point: Conventional wisdom will direct you to get the teriyaki burger. I have it on good authority that you should ignore the conventional wisdom. I can tell you that the avocado bacon cheeseburger is, by fast food standards, revelatory. Sure, it’s not a gourmet, grass-fed, organic, dry-aged situation. But over the decades that Super Burger has sat on that corner, leaning into a residential neighborhood, they apparently have perfected their craft. If In-N-Out sets the bar for the thin patty burger, Super Burger may well set the bar for the pub style burger.

I could wax superlative about this place for a while. I could tell you how you have to haul ass to Pasadena (and then keep driving east once you get to the cool part). I could Come Full Circle and tell you how this burger reminded me how good it feels to really discover a new place without the crutch of the Internet, or how this burger is like the Serena Williams of pub-style burgers, only without the shitty attitude (or reactionary racist blowback). And all that is true. But in all honesty, this is just a completely delicious burger that you should eat whenever you have a chance but are short on time.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.50 / 10.00
Value: 9.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 9.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.80 / 10.00

Total: 90.00 / 100.00

The Oinkster

IMG_3201This one will be near and dear to some of you. The Oinkster has a special place in the hearts of many here in the City of Angels. But that has almost nothing to do with the burger they serve. Most people love the Eagle Rock powerhouse for its house-cured pastrami (which, I admit, drool), or its unbelievably slowly slow roasted pulled pork, or its singular milkshakes (I’m still unsure what ube is*, but it’s weirdly compelling) which feature local favorite Fosselman’s ice cream – by the way, if you haven’t had Fosselman’s ice cream and you live in Los Angeles, you’re nothing short of a monster…a silly, silly monster.

For still others, the love is more undifferentiated; they just kind of vibe with Andre Guerrero’s “slow fast food” gestalt. They like that he’s a legit culinary force who knows how to slum it with style. And who can blame them? The Michelin-recognized mind behind Max and Señor Fred is famously restless, but has the versatility to carry it off. His every swing of the bat, it seems, is a home run.

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to love about the Oinkster. So much so, that the burger kind of gets lost in the shuffle. And so, in spite of supposedly having one of the best burgers in the city, relatively few people have actually had it. It’s like, the best burger no one has ever had. Kind of poetic. But anyway. I was at a loose end this weekend, so I made the drive to Eagle Rock and got the burger. After all, if the venerable LAist says it’s one of L.A.’s best, you can consider me on notice.

*I know. Ube is purple yam. I have Wikipedia too. God, it’s called dramatic license, guys.

The Place
The Oinkster
2005 Colorado Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90041

The Order: Classic 1/3-pound burger (with Gruyere cheese), Belgian fries, Coke.

The Price: $6.50 (burger); $3.25 (fries); $2.00 (Coke) – pre-tax.

The Burger
Let’s start with basic anatomy. The burger comes on an idiosyncratically flimsy white bread bun (which proves problematic – stay tuned). The patty is stellar: six ounces of fresh-ground, tightly packed Nebraska Angus beef, and it’s topped with house-made Thousand Island, pickles, raw white onions, lettuce, and two hefty slices of tomato. The cheese options are American or Cheddar (for an additional $0.75) or Gruyere (for an extra $1.50).

The patty is a juicy, beautiful medium rare. As juicy and flavorful as it is though, it holds together impressively. This probably is due to the fact that a) it’s really well-pressed, and b) it’s really well-grilled. The outside is a crispy, just-charred-enough umami crust that contains the pink, gently cooked beef on the inside. Leaving some pink in the patty allows the flavor of the beef to really shine through. It’s six ounces of really strong stuff, and is a worthy focal point of this – or any – burger. The earthy, nutty Gruyere complemented the beef beautifully. It was $1.50 well spent.

The Thousand Island is another high point. It’s a tangy little number, clearly made with In-N-Out’s famous and enigmatic spread in mind. To be sure, many have tried to reverse engineer that spread (myself included), and precious few have succeeded (myself decidedly not included). Oinkster’s attempt is as admirable as any I’ve yet had. Having said that, it’s thinner and runnier than In-N-Out’s spread. This makes the burger quite a bit messier; by the time I got halfway through, the sauce had completely soaked through the bun.

From there, things deteriorated (literally and figuratively). The toppings were good, if not great. They weren’t some sad, undifferentiated, flavorless mass, but they also didn’t stand boldly on their own. The whole was more than the sum of its parts – except I mean that pejoratively. The garnishes were awkwardly codependent; the sharpness of the onions yielded timidly to the sourness of the pickles, which itself leaned, exhausted, on the watery crunch of the lettuce. So while all the toppings were all present enough to get noticed, none was particularly flavorful in its own right. They gave little flashes of flavor that faded out faster than Gotye did from mainstream recognition (which was real sad by the way; he’s a talented cat).

The even bigger problem here was that the burger wasn’t very well built. By the time I had  run out of patty, the tomatoes were herniating out of the back of the bun like a couple of slipped discs. The pickles had long since gone to plate. The lettuce and onions were hanging on for dear life. The bottom bun had been completely corroded away by an acid wash of Thousand Island. The burger wasn’t just messy, it was structurally unsound. Near the end, if I had put a brown robe on the burger, it would have looked like when Obi-Wan Kenobi…well, you know.

This burger tasted good. The beef was delicious. The sauce was good but inconvenient. But it was a colossal pain in the ass to eat. The toppings were not so great. As a result, the burger itself was imbalanced. I don’t know. It was kind of like watching Scent of a Woman: unbelievably good leading man, but with just a weak sauce supporting cast (Chris O’Donnell, if you’re reading this, the answer is yes…I did just compare you to flaccid lettuce…sorry). It was – in more ways than one – sloppy. While certainly nothing to scoff at, when I go back to the Oinkster, it’ll be for the pastrami.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.60 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.20 / 10.00
Bun: 4.00 / 10.00
Patty: 9.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.90 / 10.00
Balance: 8.30 / 10.00

Total: 76.20 / 100.00

Cassell’s Hamburgers

IMG_3183Al Cassell founded Cassell’s back in 1948. The idea was a hamburger stand that stuck to the basics; the original menu consisted of nothing but burgers, a patty melt, and a couple sandwiches. Since reopening in Koreatown less than a year ago, Christian Page has expanded the menu a bit (now you can get breakfast, some pie, a house-made soda, or a cocktail). For the most part though, this place has stayed true to its founder’s vision: a focus on burgers and a commitment to quality.

I went with Greg and Lemi to check out the new, hipster-friendly, mod-diner iteration of Cassell’s on the ground floor of the Hotel Normandie, and see how this burger stacked up.

The Place
Cassell’s
3600 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90020

The Order: Cheeseburger (Swiss Cheese, tomato, lettuce, pickle, red onion, nitrate free bacon, avocado, cooked medium rare (server recommendation)); Saint Archer IPA, Vanilla Coke (I was at a diner; how could I not?).

The Price: $13.49 (burger); $3.50 (Coke); $7.00 (IPA).

The Burger
Process matters at Cassell’s. So does tradition. That’s why they use the same grinder to grind the meat every day, the same press to make the patties, and the same crossfire broiler that Al Cassell himself used to fire up burgers all those decades ago.

Besides that, the burger’s personality hasn’t really changed, even if it’s been updated for modern usage. This is, at bottom, a diner burger. The base model comes with nothing more than meat on a bun (with cheese, if you order it). Lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, and Thousand Islands dressing are included on the side – add as much or as little as you want – and you can (for a fee) add nitrate-free bacon, avocado, a fried egg, or grilled onions. Mine came to me with avocado (because I’m Californian) and bacon (because I’m a human being). I added one (perfectly-sized) piece of lettuce, three pickle chips, one slice of tomato – deep red, firm and juicy – and three concentric rings of red onion, as well as a thin glaze of Thousand Island on the top bun.

There’s an important point to be made here. Cassell’s has some (not all) of the options (bacon, avocado, fried eggs) that have become standard fare at gourmet burger shops across the city. They are aware of and attentive – if perhaps a touch resistant – to the fact that people like to put lots of deviant shit on their burgers (deviant, that is, from the pre-Loving v. Virginia perspective of Al Cassell, so take it with a grain of salt). And sure, they’ll let you add the frills if you must (and I must), but those frills decidedly are not what they’re selling.

So what are they selling? Like I said, this is a diner burger. They’ve taken Al Cassell’s old formula and updated it in subtle ways. Some things haven’t changed – there’s only so much you can do to lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onions. But there are other areas where things have changed, and it’s pretty evident that these are the things about which Cassell’s is proudest – specifically, the bun and the meat.

This bodes well. Practically, it means Cassell’s doesn’t depend on novel toppings to prop up an otherwise shitty burger. They don’t want you saying, “Wow, this patty tastes like cardboard and raw quinoa, but is that kimchee?” You might say these are burger purists. They focus on the components that matter. The Parker House buns were crisp on the outside, but milky and buttery on the inside, a rich complement to the crunchy, fresh garnishes, and a worthy counterpart to the bold, juicy patty. They are light but hardy. They stayed dry without being heavy, and they were firm without being tough.

As for the patty, it’s pretty obvious that this thing is Page’s baby. It’s a 1/3 pound suspension of Colorado Angus chuck and brisket that makes Shake Shack look like Burger King. It was flavorful and bold, with the different meats imparting subtle differences in flavor and tone. At medium rare, it was perfectly cooked: delicately charred on the outside, with enough juicy personality inside to keep things interesting without making a mess.

A couple things stick out when you eat this burger. First, everything on it is absurdly fresh. The meat tastes like it was ground today. The lettuce is crisp and cool. The tomatoes are explosively juicy. Even the onions, had a sassy, crunchy tang. The pickles, sadly, got a little lost in the shuffle. They weren’t particularly sharp or sour, and as a result, ended up tasting more like cucumber on which someone had spilled vinegar. The Thousand Islands was similarly unexceptional. This may have had something to do with the fact that I didn’t add enough, but I tasted a bit off the blade of my knife, and it was insipid even outside the context of the burger.

The optional toppings were excellent. The cheese was a thin slice of Swiss that delicately melted over the patty. It added depth of flavor without being intrusive or sharp on the palate, and it had maintained enough solidity that it wasn’t stringy or stretchy. The bacon was thick cut and crisp, exactly how burger bacon should be. The avocado was generously portioned and perfectly ripe – which means it was firm, not flabby, smeary quasi-guacamole.

The interplay between bacon and avocado was, predictably, wonderful, especially since the former was perfectly prepared. The other garnishes were fresh and crisp enough to impart some actual gustatory interest, rather than just being “those things that are not meat and also slightly less hot than everything else.” The freshness of all the ingredients allowed their respective tastes to shine through, which gave the burger’s flavor profile layers, which revealed themselves in every bite. Presenting the garnishes on the side means you have total control over how dominant any one flavor will be – a pleasant intermissio from the presumptuous, peri-fascist paternalism of other burger places.

On the whole, the flavors in this burger balance well, but that’s to be expected when you employ such a tried and true formula. It’s hard to credit Cassell’s with executing a precarious balancing act with aplomb. They didn’t do that at all. Instead (and by design, mind you), they did a simple thing well. Rather than trying to buck convention, they embrace it. This is a unapologetically classic American hamburger. It is the kind of thing you would buy your tourist friends when they ask to eat American food.

Having said all that, here’s my gripe. I said before that these are burger purists. Maybe that’s true. The other possibility is that they’re a little risk-averse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this place is holding something back. The quality of the preparation led me to wonder if maybe the whole “mom-and-pop” schtick isn’t really just a cop-out, an excuse to not get creative and take risks. Because some decidedly modern culinary flourishes (most notably the patty) notwithstanding, this burger is a period piece. There is untapped creativity here. Page clearly is talented and inventive, but his burger, though very good, felt as though it was as unchallenging for him to conceive and execute as it was for me to eat and enjoy.

Now, part of me appreciates that. In a scene where everyone seems to be trying to do something shocking, it’s refreshing to eat a burger that’s just concerned with doing things right. But still, I feel like Page is capable of more that “just” a great diner burger. And as unfair as it may be, I think he could make a burger that is truly something special. This isn’t it. All this one is is really damn good. Which I guess I’m willing to settle for.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 7.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.70 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.20 / 10.00
Balance: 8.40 / 10.00

Total: 84.80 / 100.00

B-Man’s Teriyaki and Burgers

IMG_3178B-Man’s is one of those chains that most people in Los Angeles have never heard of. This is probably due to the fact that it’s market presence is concentrated farther east than most tragically hip Angelenos ever dare to venture (“Ewww, you mean it’s in the part of Pasadena that’s closer to, like, Alhambra?”). But it’s been around for longer than most people realize, serving up a singular hybrid of American, Japanese, and Hawaiian fast food for over a decade now.

B-Man’s has locations in Pasadena, Azusa, and Duarte and a super-cheesy website. So maybe their PR department could use a personnel shuffle. But none of that is particularly relevant to the quality of their burger. I decided to eat B-Man’s for dinner tonight. I called in around 8 pm to place my order, and they were just wrapping it up when I arrived around 8:12.

The Place
B-Man’s Teriyaki and Burgers
3007 Huntington Drive, #102
Pasadena, CA 91107

The Order: Double ABC Burger, no tomato, Swiss Cheese.

The Price: $5.05 (excluding tax).

The Burger
The Double ABC burger is kind of a monster. It features two patties of about four ounces, lettuce, pickles, avocado, and a healthy drizzle (okay, a veritable deluge) of honey-based teriyaki. The buns are flimsy, bulk-bought affairs. The patties are coated with bubbly melted Swiss cheese (American is an option too, but make like you’re opening a bank account to cover up financial malfeasance, and go Swiss).

This burger is not carefully prepared, or thoughtfully arranged. It does not feature locally sourced, house-ground meat. There is nothing organic in or around it. It wasn’t made by a celebrity chef (it was made by, just, like, some dudes). It’s not a gourmet burger – nor is it priced as such. This is a fast-food burger. And it’s a pretty damn good fast food burger, if not a heart-stoppingly phenomenal one.

It’s a crowd pleaser. There are all kinds of goodies on offer: Freshly grilled beef with slices of melted cheese oozing all over the patty. A foundation of creamy avocado. Crisp lettuce and pickles providing a kick of crunchy personality. And the central feature: a liberal portion of sweet, sunny teriyaki sauce drenching everything, and lighting up the flavor profile of the burger like a honeyed Roman candle.

The teriyaki is a delightful, decadent touch. It contrasts beautifully with the charred beef (and indeed, it elevates it). But that’s just one of many contrasts present in this cheeseburger. Another one, subtle but lovely, is how the sweet-sour snap of the pickles flirts with the velvety avocados, imparting depth of texture and of flavor.

In spite of all the contrasts that are present in this burger, in spite of its busy (occasionally overwhelming) flavor profile, the burger makes sense. It’s pretty well-composed, and the toppings complement each other nicely. It’s far from an intuitive collection of ingredients, but it works. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

The problem, then, is that the burger doesn’t employ the best tools (the parts – that is, the ingredients – aren’t worth all that much). Nothing here, save for the sauce, is of impressively high quality. The bun is uninspired wholesale fare. The meat of the patty tastes like standard unseasoned chuck, and the hope seems to have been to char-grill away any deficiencies in quality or dearth of flavor. And while the teriyaki does a decent job of masking the fact that the patties aren’t really a worthy centerpiece to this burger, it can’t compensate for the lack of flavor that attends using meat that just isn’t that fantastic. Similarly, the avocados, lettuce, and pickles are serviceable, but not stellar.

Inescapably, by the time I’d scarfed down this burger (maybe tellingly, this isn’t one you savor), I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened had it been made with higher quality ingredients and more careful preparation. That may not be entirely fair, since this is a five-dollar burger we’re talking about. On the other hand, in a world where In-N-Out exists, I expect more from fast food restaurants. This burger may only cost five bucks, but that’s appreciably more than a double-double, which never leaves any doubts as to quality (at any level).

B-Man’s offers a burger based on a good concept, and which has some very real strengths. At bottom though, it feels like they cut corners with ingredient quality and preparation. This is a burger you could probably duplicate – maybe even best – in your kitchen. There’s something to be said for having a good idea, but without execution to match it, you’re left with a product that will always satisfy, but never inspire.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 6.60 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.60 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.90 / 10.00
Bun: 6.10 / 10.00
Patty: 7.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.10 / 10.00
Balance: 8.90 / 10.00

Total: 73.00 / 100.00

In-N-Out Burger

Displaying IMG_3137.JPGIf we’re being honest with ourselves, this saga could only have started here. Since taking Baldwin Park by storm in 1948, In-N-Out has become a staple of life in California. Over the years, it has achieved nationwide fame, even being the subject of an extended, gushing soliloquy by a starstruck Anthony Bourdain. In-N-Out Burger is what most people in Los Angeles think of when they hear the word hamburger. The Los Angeles burger scene started at In-N-Out Burger. It is only fitting, then, that the Los Angeles Burger Project starts there as well.

The Place:
In-N-Out Burger
310 N. Harvey Drive
Glendale, CA 91206

The Order (pictured above): Double-Double (mustard fried, no tomato, onions, extra toast on the bun); French fries, Coke.

Price: $7.41 (including tax).

The Burger
What can I write that most of you don’t already know? In-N-Out has mastered the art of the burger, and executes fresh (never frozen), impossibly consistent masterpieces thousands of times daily. The strength of this burger is in its simplicity. The cheese is melted and gooey without being messy. Wonderfully fresh and crisp lettuce and onions give the burger textural complexity. The lettuce is especially praiseworthy: never wilted, in spite of its proximity to freshly-grilled meat and melted cheese. The spread is tangy without being overpowering.

You could make a pretty strong case that the bun is the strongest element of the burger. Perfectly sized, perfectly absorbent, perfectly toasted, this bun has just enough independent flavor to influence the taste profile of the burger without dominating it. While many gourmet burgers feature a buttery brioche, In-N-Out’s bun is more traditional, but perfectly suited to the fresh simplicity of the offering.

Ultimately though, the meat is the marquee feature. The immaculately seasoned patties are juicy and perfectly cooked – just far enough past medium rare to preserve the meat’s natural flavor and juiciness, while also avoiding being messy or bloody (though, if you prefer a bit more blood and a bit less structure, you are free to request that the meat be medium rare). Notes of crackling fried mustard lingers under the delicate char. The thin patties provide a greater seasoned surface area, which gives the meat much more depth of flavor than a brutish, thick patty might.

In-N-Out is perhaps most impressive, though, for its consistency. This is a restaurant that has never compromised on its core values of making fresh, delicious food. Their commitment is evident in their consistently delicious and perfectly prepared burgers. Pull up to an In-N-Out Burger in the middle of nowhere, and you can be damn certain that you will get the same phenomenal product you would get from them in the heart of Los Angeles.

In-N-Out is not the place to go if you are looking for an inventive, boundary-pushing burger. Their menu is small, their ingredients limited, and their focus narrow. They make no effort to reinvent the wheel. They have a winning formula, and they stick to it. The food here will not challenge you. It will not surprise you. But it is also much more than just a known quantity. In-N-Out never wanted to redefine the burger. They just wanted to master it. And that, they have achieved in spades.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.70 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.80 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 10.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.70 / 10.00
Patty: 9.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.10 / 10.00

Total: 93.00 / 100.00