The Pub at Golden Road Brewery

The Place
The Pub at Golden Road Brewery
5410 West San Fernando Road
Los Angeles, CA 90039

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Nestled in the crook of the 134 and 5 freeways, maybe you saw the violent azure of the Golden Road Brewery, a cartoonish oasis in that weird part of town that’s not quite Glendale, not quite Burbank, not quite Atwater.  Maybe you heard about it after a Golden Road brewpub popped up at Grand Central Market or Dodger Stadium (thanks, Anheuser-Busch InBev).  Maybe you wanted to know whether Los Angeles actually does craft beer.  It really doesn’t matter much, once you’re here.

Maybe you lacked the foresight to take an Uber, in which case you’ll stubbornly scan the nearby streets for a (scarce) parking spot before wisely throwing in the towel and paying for the valet.  But what’s waiting for you in this Smurf-hued warehouse (next to two others – one red, one yellow) is one of the more singular spaces in the city.  A massive brewpub, serving close to two dozen beers, fully equipped with a (wood) ping-pong table and a (sheet metal) cornhole, Golden Road initially seems like something of an adult playground.

But then you’ll notice an area more closely resembling an actual playground, and you’ll see servers adeptly dodging the swerving, sprinting toddlers that abound in this place, roaming free as if in a Chuck-E-Cheese’s.  After a few minutes, you realize this is actually a family space, a place for a thirty-something to find echoes of a social life she thought she’d lost after getting a time-consuming job, setting down roots, paying a mortgage, and all that.  It’s a place to gather.  A place where buzzed fathers can play ping-pong with their kids.  It’s simultaneously heartwarming, disconcerting, charming, concerning, and profoundly odd.

After settling into the weirdness (or, depending on your proclivities, after a pint or two) you might notice the menu’s surprising bursts of sophistication.  One of the items featured is a burger, which bears the brewery’s name (albeit acronymally).  Sam, my guest of honor from Boston, his friend Brandon, Kelsey, and I went to try the burger (joined later by Nikhil the workaholic).  In a rare moment of social inhibition, I listened to Brandon criticize Dodger Stadium; but because we had just met, I refrained from releasing the full vitriolic flood of noble rage such heresy deserved.  Unsurprisingly, that choice has since left me in a fugue state perpetuated by paralytic, self-loathing regret.  It is, then, from the cusp of seething, shame-ravaged catatonia that I write this.  Brandon, if you’re reading, thanks a lot…and you’re welcome.

The Order: GRB Burger

The Price: $12.00

The Burger
The great thing about Golden Road beer, if you’ve not had it, is that it makes fresh presentations feel familiar.  Their Wolf Pup Session IPA – likely among the best session IPAs you’ll drink at the price point – is a playful, citrusy offering that embodies this interplay between familiar and challenging.  Tangy, sweet orange peel gives way to the crisp bitterness yielded by a litany of hops (the hard-charging bitterness of Simcoe providing a crackling backdrop for the complex acidity of Mosaic and a bunch of others that I don’t know nearly enough to name).

Anyway, the point here isn’t to showcase how little I know about beer.  It’s just to give you an idea of what Golden Road is all about.  Which brings us to the menu.  Fundamentally, this is bar food.  Pretzels, garlic fries, chips and guacamole, artichoke dip, and steak sandwiches are unsurprising fare to find on offer at a brewery.  But  read through more carefully, and you might conclude that these standard offerings are really just culinary ballast on a menu, there to allow for bursts of quirkiness.  Idiosyncratic items like a burger with a beet-centric patty, fried avocado tacos, a salmon sandwich with ginger lime slaw, and pulled pork verde are among the expressions that evidence an experimental itch.

The burger reflects that.  The first item of interest is the patty.  A blend of short-rib and rib-eye cooked pink, it’s gorgeous, complex, marbled, sweet.  It melts as you chew it.  It is an attention-grabbing centerpiece.  It dominates the news cycle of every bite.  It is a stand-alone item, an estimable entree in itself.  Its complexity of flavor allows it to reach out and connect with every other ingredient, giving the burger a balanced coherence, where everything seems put in place to complement the patty.

The other ingredients are high-minded classics.  The bacon is hazily savory, with only faint smokiness; it plays predictably nicely with the smooth, ruddy aged cheddar.  Caramelized onions impart singed sweetness.  Sun-dried tomatoes work surprisingly well, giving each bite welcome textural subtlety and mellow ripeness.  The remoulade is distantly piquant, pleasant enough but not arresting.  The bun, a straightforward brioche bun dusted with sesame and poppy seeds, is a sweet bookend to it all, with the seeds offering a lingering, complicated nuttiness.

Golden Road’s heart venerates the classics, but presents them in a cerebral, updated fashion.  That’s a fitting duality for a place that seems designed to let people slipping into middle age relive their youth, and put away a few pints while pretending their metabolisms are what they’ve always been.  At the risk of getting too misty-eyed in our analysis, let’s be clear: this is bar food, and bar food is bar food.  So I would discourage getting your hopes too high.  But, for those whose relationship with day drinking is something akin to, “These days, I feel worse and know better,” a GRB Burger and a Wolf Pup or three marks a nice escape from the new normal.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.90 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.70 / 10.00
Balance: 9.20 / 10.00

Total: 84.60 / 100.00

 

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

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