The York

The Place
The York
5018 York Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90042
img_0674It feels like October has been all about the Chicago Cubs and their date with destiny.  They’re the latest beneficiary (see also 2004 Red Sox, 2010 Giants, 1998 Jay-Z) of the special treatment we give to baseball teams that are awful for long enough.  After over a century of losing, the Cubs – finally – are good.  And like the Red Sox, the Giants, and Jay-Z before them, the entire nation (but for we select few who don’t share the impulse for alacritous bandwagoneering) will love them until they finally win.  Then we’ll revile them for doing the very thing we hoped they’d do all along.  To be a “lovable loser,” you have to keep losing.

I watched the final innings of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at The York, which was a Highland Park mainstay long before Highland Park was cool.  It’s a vaulting industrial space, where Edison bulbs throw barely enough light on roughly erased chalkboards sporting the menu of the day, and onto the carmine bricks behind.  The one television is located inconveniently at the back end of the bar, obscured by something from almost any angle.  It was there that I watched Adrián González smack a game-tying single, and then shortly thereafter, Miguel Montero be spoon-fed a hanging slider with the bases loaded.

Much like the Cubs, the York has established itself as a good-natured neighborhood standard.  And much like the Cubs, it’s kind of hard to see what all the fuss is about.  Besides the cool (but imitable) vibe, the cocktails are weak, the food is fine, and the staff just mostly competent.  The clientele is a weird mashup of young fathers and old bachelors, thirty-somethings all.  It’s as if the York is the last place where those two demographics can meet and remember times not too many years ago, when their lives looked more alike.

Kristen, Tristan, Peter, Shahin, Kelsey and I took a trip to the York for dinner to catch the end of the baseball game before going to Creep LA, which – spoiler alert – was basically me paying $53.50 to be called “daddy” by an emo kid in lingerie and then locked in a closet the size of a moving box (with two other people, one of whom, blessedly, was Kelsey) by a small man in yoga pants.

The Order: Cheddar Burger, medium rare

The Price: $15

The Burger
The York’s burger is served on Bread Bar brioche, a heavily marbled sirloin and chuck hybrid patty, rocket (which, more or less, is hipster for “arugula,” which, more or less, is douchebag for “bitter spinach”), harissa aioli (harissa being a North/West-African chili paste that you may have run into at Moun-Of-Tunis, Koutoubia, or a similar spot), and pickled onion.  And cheddar, obviously.

Just by reading that list of ingredients, you may have the impression that there’s a lot – potentially too much – going on here.  That was my concern going in, too.  Imagine my surprise, then, when the burger actually wound up being strangely tame on the palette.  There was no pinching bitterness from the flaccid arugula, no astringent sourness from the too-soupy onions, no blunted bite from the aioli.  Everything got mixed together, reduced into some tasteless primordial ooze, the culinary equivalent of Cage’s 4’33”.  And to top it all off, there wasn’t even the buttery, eggy, cloudlike sweetness you would expect from the brioche (though this had more to do with the fact that it tasted a day old than any fault of poor Bread Bar’s) it was crumbly and Gobi-dry.

And that’s a shame, considering the patty was quite well-conceived.  Heavily marbled and a well-executed medium rare (evenly rouge-hued and barely bloody), the flavor was rich, the texture hardy and coarse.  It was crisped on the outside, but retained its juiciness exceptionally well.  Just like Charlize Theron in The Devil’s Advocate, it deserved a better supporting cast (instead, we got Shouty Al and dead-eyes Keanu; I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a metaphor or not).

Were I predisposed to being snarky, I’d say the good news is that the burger York was only the third-most unpleasant thing that happened to me that night.  But since I am miles above snark and the solicitation of cheap laughs, I’ll leave it at this: Notwithstanding all the neighborhood affection, all the history, all the prescient neo-industrial decor, the York’s burger left a bad taste in my mouth.  Maybe not quite as bitter and caustic as Miguel Montero left, not quite as parched and salty as being locked in that closet, but the fact that those three things are part of the same conversation probably tells you all you need to know.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.20 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.10 / 10.00
Value: 6.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 8.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.80 / 10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.30 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 73.80 / 100.00

The Escondite

The Dr. Joyce Brothers
The Dr. Joyce Brothers
The Fat Albert
The Fat Albert

If you’re willing to take a spin to the kinda sketchy border of Little Tokyo and Skid Row, you’ll discover a few things: first, the dark side of gentrification; second, ample free street parking (the meters die at 6 pm!); and third, one of the weirdest dives I’ve yet been to in this town: The Escondite (which, aptly, is Spanish for “hideout”).

The first thing you notice when you walk into The Escondite is that it’s an eclectic spot. Deer antler chandeliers (fully outfitted with cheesy, fake-flickering, bright-orange electric candles) hang over the length of the bar. The back wall is wood-paneled and lined with vintage western posters, kind of evoking Bigfoot West in West L.A. Just near the entrance is a cramped stage tailor-made for a (probably pretty shitty) 80s cover band.

The next thing you’ll notice is that it’s decidedly a Chicago bar. The city flag hangs over the far end of the bar, and there are more Blackhawks banners and commemorations than you can shake a stick at (which – at least for someone with a distaste for the most boring iteration of evil – were pretty difficult to stomach). One almost expects to see a Rahm Emanuel staffer drafting menacing text messages, or a couple fat dudes getting drunk and loudly promising everyone that this year would be the Bears’ year, or a couple of hopelessly unwashed bros trying to hit on the bartender by yelling “GO CUBS” and offering limp-wristed high fives. Okay, so I actually saw all but one of those things.

But I digress.

I met up with Sergio to try a couple of their many (deeply insane) burgers. I walked in around 5:30. The place was still glowing from the Blackhawks tragic victory this Monday last. I muttered a few words that I won’t republish here (this is a family blog, after all), I slid into a booth, and I put my back to the wall. Facing the bar, staring ahead, I saw not one, but two Blackhawks banners hanging behind the row of taps. I muttered a tasteful variation of the same epithet I mentioned above. All I could think about was how Duncan Keith couldn’t seriously have won the Conn Smythe Trophy. All that team spirit…for such a horrible, soulless team? And this affront in the shadow of Staples Center? It was almost enough to make me lose my appetite. Almost.

But, I reminded myself, I wasn’t there to get sad about the fearsome, seemingly unstoppable expansion of hockey’s evil empire (help me, Tanner Pearson…you’re my only hope). I was there to eat a burger. So I put those deflating thoughts out of my head. Sergio and I each ordered one, and split them right down the middle.

The Place
The Escondite
410 Boyd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: One Dr. Joyce Brothers, one Fat Albert, Coke (for me), Diet Coke (for Sergio). Note: The Escondite does not allow substitutions.

The Price: $32.16, all told.

The Burger(s!)
Part One: The Dr. Joyce Brothers
The first burger was our server’s favorite. She self-identified as being into the “plainest stuff in the world.” The Dr. Joyce Brothers, she assured us, is the most accessible burger on the menu. A six-ounce patty with melted provolone cheese was rounded out with a lone (but substantial) tomato disc, a thicket of sprouts, wide slices of avocado, red onion, romaine lettuce, and a drizzle of Italian dressing on a buttery brioche bun.

To be fair, this one was as advertised: It was essentially the plainest thing ever. From beef to bun, nothing really stood out and took charge of the flavor profile. There were a variety of textures in play: crisp romaine, rich avocado, the wild tangle of the sprouts. This textural diversity was the only thing I could really grab onto with this burger. None of the toppings imparted any flavor. At all. For all its heft, the burger didn’t really pack a punch. The only thing that had much flavor at all was the Italian dressing, which was comprehensively lost beneath the din of bland, wiry sprouts and blunted by the avocado.

Speaking of which, I never thought there was any such thing as “too much” avocado. But this burger might just have had too much avocado. And that’s not necessarily because of the avocado itself (far be it from me to blame avocado for anything – I’m not a heretic). It’s just that avocado is not much of a flavor centerpiece. It’s the perfect – perfect – complement. It adds a neutral textural matrix in which other flavors interact beautifully (think guacamole). It neutralizes harsh flavors well, allowing for more daring contrasts (like, say, my renowned grapefruit-habañero guacamole). Here though, it was left to pull all the weight, flavor-wise, and that’s just not what avocado is meant to do.

Our server recommended that we have the patty cooked medium. This was a true medium – very little pink, and you could really taste the grill. Sadly, it wasn’t much of a patty. It was six ounces of what tasted like regular old chuck – it was too insipid to be Angus, too dry to be brisket, not tender enough to be sirloin. While six ounces may not seem like much, it’s pretty noticeable when it’s not providing much in the way of flavor.

Oddly, the bun was the most interesting part of the burger. A complex brioche-esque thing, it had a sweet, front end that gave way nicely into a buttery finish. Light but not absorbent, it was pretty delicious. But otherwise, this burger was as bland and soulless as the 2015 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks: good on paper, but they ain’t got no heart. Suck it, Jonathan Toews.

Part Two: Fat Albert
This is where the action was. When I first had the idea for the burger project, it was stuff like this that I was excited to eat. Burgers that were devilishly weird, adventurous, brash, that had personality. The Escondite, then, is noteworthy for having delivered the first burger that really, honestly threw me for a loop.

Cards on the table: The Fat Albert is completely gross. Just unbelievably disgusting. Cool? Cool.

It features the same (vaguely depressing, very middling) provolone-coated six-ounce patty found on the Dr. Joyce Brothers. But this time, the patty has ample backup in the flavor department. Two strips of applewood smoked bacon are splayed out parallel atop the cheese. The cheese and bacon are the only toppings. Then the fun starts: the Fat Albert offers a liberal swirl of maple syrup. This mounting arterial nightmare is served on a glazed doughnut.

If the patty was problematic on the Dr. Joyce Brothers, it was because there was nothing to compensate for its lack of flavor. Here, that wasn’t as much of a problem. The bacon was smoky, salty, and crisp, fried to a crackling brick red. At the risk of sounding like a greedy piece of shit, two strips wasn’t really enough; about halfway into the burger, I realized I wasn’t going to get bacon in every bite, and let me tell you: that was a sad moment for me.

The savory and salty patty-bacon combo played nice with the mild, sweet provolone. But that was about the only subtlety here. The maple syrup and the glazed doughnut offered a fearlessly aggressive sweetness that went to war with the savory stuff in every bite. The opaque, sugary glaze from the doughnut melted from the heat of the meat and oozed onto the patty, settling in the space between strips of still-sizzling bacon.

This burger was weird. It was counterintuitive. It was astonishingly unhealthy. And it was hard to put down. To be clear, it is not something I could eat every day (assuming arguendo that my heart could sustain that kind of rampant abuse, which – obviously – it could not). But I’m glad I ate it today.

It kind of felt like a Chicagoan’s idea of what the typical Los Angeles native is like: adventurous, loud, and extroverted, with an exterior that’s just sweet enough to compensate for the fact that it’s a little boring on the inside. There isn’t much (besides the sultry provolone lurking coyly between bacon and beef) to talk about beyond the stark and obvious contrast between sweet (doughnut/syrup) and savory (beef/bacon/cheese). There are precious few intricacies lurking behind the big, showy (and, sure, delicious) contradiction that comes at you right up front.

And you know what? That’s actually okay. This burger isn’t meant to be complex. It’s a culinary fart joke: crude, juvenile, and obvious to the point of unsophistication. But you can’t help but love it a little bit.

The Ratings
Dr. Joyce Brothers
Flavor: 4.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 6.00 / 10.00
Value: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 4.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.50 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 5.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.10 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 61.10 / 100.00

Fat Albert
Flavor: 8.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 6.20 / 10.00
Value: 8.20 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.80 / 10.00
Bun: 9.10 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 8.80 / 10.00

Total: 83.40 / 100.00