NoMad Hotel: Lobby

The Place
The NoMad Hotel
649 South Olive Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014

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It’s an open question as to precisely who is cool enough to be seen in the new NoMad Hotel.

The lobby is a sight.  Entering, you’ll feel like you’re walking onto the set of a Luhrmann film.  It’s cartoonishly opulent with vaulting, ornate ceilings, stuffed game birds perched in the center of the action, gaudily printed sofas, filigreed mezzanine (home to another, more serious restaurant), and a flower arrangement that might best be described as the vegetational equivalent of a Kanye West album.  Think Hearst Castle if the decorative chaos were a smidge (but only just) more contained.

The menu is equally explosive.  Four pages of cocktails, including shareable affairs, ensure that all who take a table here leave lubricated.  The dinner offerings, while leaner, are as eclectic as the decor.  Scallops, diced, soaked in yuzu, and sprinkled with toasted pistachio, live right next door to boneless hunks of fried chicken with chili-lime yogurt.

I don’t doubt that the culinary spirit behind this restaurant is genuine.  But when you walk into the lobby, there is a moment after you’ve met the eye of the statuesque concierge, before the warm–is it contrived?–smile breaks, where you’ll feel an almost imperceptible sense that he or she is looking straight through you.  It may be that you aren’t being judged for your “swagger” (whatever that actually means).  But you also wouldn’t be totally off the reservation if you felt as though you were.

But anyway, I found myself in this den of practiced cool, nestled beneath that maximalist flower arrangement, nursing a cocktail made with beets and bourbon (followed by one with pisco and sheep’s milk, which I humbly but enthusiastically urge you to work up the courage to try), flanked by a viciously haughty European couple on one side and a duck-facing pair of selfie-snapping millennial girls on the other, imbued with the singular tranquility of a man utterly out of his element but who draws deep comfort from the knowledge that he has more than what he needs to feel at home: his best girl and a cheeseburger.

The Order: Dry-Aged Beef Burger

The Price: $22

The Burger
When I consider how ostentatious the decor is, and how concerned every person in this establishment seemed with their appearance, I’m even more shocked at the unpretentious simplicity of this burger.  It is served on a board with only a few spears of lightly pickled and sagitally cut root vegetables accompanying it.  The patty is thick–I’d guess somewhere between one-third and one-half of a pound before it feels fire–and medium-rare red.  And to be sure, the patty will remind you of the virtues of eating a dish like a cheeseburger at a restaurant that styles itself as high cuisine.  The preparation was close to immaculate: it was juicy but not overly bloody, and the patty was substantial and structured without being too gamey; after a few moments in your mouth, it yields to the amylase and melts gracefully, retreating to the background to let the cheese and red onion take center stage.

Those three ingredients play harmoniously with one another, with the sauce acting as a true garnish more than a driver of flavor: it’s aromatic and textural, contributing to the mouthfeel of each bite rather than dominating the taste.  Like a perfectly crafted martini, you’ll be constantly amazed at the degree to which preparation, ingredient quality, and balance influence the quality of a burger.  And not unlike a cocktail, this burger is no better than its worst ingredient, which, in this instance, is the bun.  That is not to say the bun is affirmatively bad, but it certainly is nothing special.  This burger yearns for a less obtrusive bun; something with less volume, something less present.  If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself thinking of what might have been if they’d swapped out the brioche for an English muffin.  Sure, that’s a little 2007, but the food isn’t supposed to be trendy–just the people.

Right?

In any event, I wouldn’t recommend skipping the burger, but I also would have trouble begrudging your decision to get another Sakura Maru instead and then take your leave of the cool kids and wander over to Halal Guys.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 6.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.10 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 7.50 / 10.00
Patty: 9.80 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.70 / 10.00

Total: 87.00 / 100.00

 

HiHo Cheeseburger

The Place
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HiHo Cheeseburger
1320 2nd Street, Suite B
Santa Monica, CA 90401

I know.  It’s been a while.  The last article I started to write for this Project was in October.  I remember the exact day; it was immediately after Justin Turner did this.  I tried to put my feelings into words that night, to no avail.  I got swept up in the frenzy of October baseball.  The hope.  I fell in love with the possibility that 2017 might just be the Dodgers’ year.

Then this happened.

And then this happened.

And now this is happening.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s this.

All of which has made me feel approximately like this.

Now, I’m not saying the serial and crushing failure of Dodger baseball and the casual, inevitable hopelessness of Kings hockey are the most pressing problems of our time. Surely neither is.  But they sure can take it out of you.  I guess my point is, it can be exhausting to love something.  I’m not sure it explains my silence here.  Maybe nothing can.  Maybe an explanation isn’t necessary.

Whatever it was that took me away from this, though, one simple idea brought me back: life is too short not to seize the things that bring you joy and keep them close.

That was probably too heavy for a blog about cheeseburgers.  But it was a couple weeks ago, spending a night at HiHo Cheeseburger with my better half (of whom I haven’t been seeing enough lately) that it hit me.  It’s good to be with people you love doing things you love.  So I’m back to say a few words about HiHo Cheeseburger.  With a little good-natured pedantry on the front end.

The Order: Double HiHo Cheeseburger

The Price: $6.95

The Burger
I’ve eaten some great burgers in the past few months.  I resolve to write about all of them in turn.  But it took something like HiHo Cheeseburger to bring me back.

When you think and write about cheeseburgers, you’re often faced with dishes that are presented as elevated iterations of a classic form.  Los Angeles as a food scene is obsessively colloquial.  The culinary consciousness here is not, by and large, predisposed to traditionalist haute cuisine.  Rather, it is about cultural reflection, comfort, familiarity.  The food in this town is an expressive modality, a way for chefs to give you a window through which you can see who they are and where they come from, not merely what they can do.

It may sound a little high-brow, but it’s really the opposite.  Food in Los Angeles is a way for chefs to connect with the rest of us.  You’re not going to get a glimpse into a fancy culinary school; you’re meant to get a glimpse into someone’s childhood dining room.  What makes food here truly exceptional (rather than just some cute nostalgic exercise) is that those classic dishes are re-imagined with beautiful, leveled-up ingredients.

To wit, all the patties at HiHo Cheeseburger are 100% grass-fed Wagyu beef from First Light collective–sustainably raised, totally free of all hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs.  Laugh all you want at how cartoonishly L.A. that is; it tastes better.  The beef elevates what fundamentally is an unabashed photocopy of a Double-Double (right down to the mustard grilling of the patties) to something memorable.  The quality of the meat makes up for the slightly less-inspired seasoning on the patty.

Other elements of the Double-Double are referenced obliquely, for better and worse. The piquant onion jam admirably replaces the animal style minced onions and Thousand Island.  The brioche bun is a step down from its sponge analogue, though it’s tough to take serious issue with it.  The pickles, made in house, are exceptional: sweet, sharp, and snappy but also, delightfully, a hair thicker than you might expect, nicely rounding out the homage to the Baldwin Park O.G.

Regular readers will know I have no issue with people riffing on In-N-Out, especially if it’s done well.  HiHo Cheeseburger riffs on In-N-Out quite well.  And at $6.95, it’s an extremely high value proposition: you’ll have ample room in your wallet to give the Straus milkshakes or the banana cream pie a spin (and wash it down with a beer if you’re trying to drown your latest Los Angeles sports-induced sorrow).

HiHo doesn’t seek to elevate the concept of the cheeseburger.  Just the execution.  And in doing so, it embodies a lot of what is great about food in Los Angeles: it takes an iconic dish and pays respectful homage to it.  If you’re like me, eating here will remind you of why you love living here.  In spite of the Dodgers.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.80 / 10.00
Freshness: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 6.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.70 / 10.00

Overall: 91.30 / 100.00

Love & Salt

The Place
Love & Salt
317 Manhattan Beach Boulevard
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266

Love & Salt
You probably can’t live in Manhattan Beach.  The prices are too high; the lifestyle is too idyllically Californian; the people are too beautiful for their age; the parking is too scarce.  Most importantly, perhaps, the quality restaurants are too few.  While higher dining options exist – M.B. Post, Fishing With Dynamite, and the subject of this review, Love & Salt – the culinary scene in Manhattan Beach would perhaps most aptly be characterized as “family friendly.”  Perfect if you like Pitfire Pizza, less so if your preferences skew toward street food, fusion or small plates.

But Manhattan Beach really does encapsulate the Southern California lifestyle, or at least what many people outside Southern California would imagine our lifestyle to be.  It’s mostly white, mostly rich, mostly sunny, mostly upscale, mostly clean, mostly successful, and mostly USC alumni.  It exemplifies the relaxed affluence that is more closely associated with Southern California than with anywhere else.  You’ll spot an off-puttingly muscular forty-something year old man strolling down Manhattan Beach Boulevard with impossibly adorable children, his bronze arms bursting from Rip Curl t-shirts, salt-and-pepper hair cut close, smiling through his Maui Jim sunglasses at the cards life dealt him.  And just when you think you might live a life like his one day, you see the glint of the alabaster dial on his $20,000 watch as it catches the sun just so, and you’ll remember that this is not your place.

In spite of being inaccessible, though, I can’t shake the feeling whenever I’m in Manhattan Beach that there’s something missing there (besides minorities, I mean).  It’s a city that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.  It’s beachy, it’s Californian, there’s a Marine Layer, and the schools are top-notch, sure, but it feels fundamentally anti-urban.  It’s oddly devoid of genuine culture.  It’s an ecosystem, not a city.

If you’re looking for a B(a)esha Rodell-approved break from the blocks upon blocks of suburban ennui (and you are lucky enough to find a parking spot), you might stop in at Michael Fiorelli’s Love & Salt.  Chef Michael Fiorelli’s food is described by the restaurant as Italian-inspired, but “with a California soul.”  It may be that soul animating the splash of salsa verde on the grilled octopus, or (depending on how forgiving you feel) the presence of gluten-free pasta.  Good-natured ribbing aside, the food here is good.  The cocktails are excellent as well.  It may not be the most innovative menu in the world, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.

One item for which Love & Salt has become quietly regarded is a burger, which was inspired neither by Italy nor the restaurant’s soul, but rather by a particularly intransigent regular customer who persisted in ordering a burger in spite of there not being one on the menu.  Chef Fiorelli finally relented and, using what ingredients he had on hand, he served what is now known as the Downlow Burger.  It recently received sterling plaudits from local tastemakers, so I predictably felt compelled to sample it.  In the spirit of its origins, the Downlow Burger remains off the menu (as in, on the down low) at dinner, but they make a limited run of twelve per day during weekend brunch.  Calling ahead to request a set-aside is advisable.  Kelsey, Kristen, Tristan and I did just that, and took in a Saturday brunch there.

The Order: the Downlow Burger

The Price: $16

The Burger
The Downlow Burger consists of two substantial black angus beef patties, fontina cheese, caramelized onions, housemade pickles, and a tomato aioli, all on brioche.  Probably the highest praise I can heap on this burger is that it presents like a cousin of Petit Trois.  It’s a saucy, paradoxical thing: minimalistic but indulgent, familiar but challenging, understated but brazen.  Like Ludo’s masterwork, it eschews typical garnishment in favor of fewer, bolder flavors, assembled purposefully to complement one another.

The beef is the anchor, and though it was overcooked (and therefore a touch gritty), it was juicy and bursting with savor that stabilized every bite.  The fontina cheese added a lightly botanical quality, while its fruit and nut notes seeped into the meat, giving it a subtle sweetness that interacted well with the caramelized onions, the residual tang of which, in turn, married nicely with the delicate sourness of the pickles.  The buns hold everything together, but don’t impress too much in their own right.

The really impressive choice here was the tomato aioli.  While the tomato flavor was the right call, ketchup would have been too ham-fisted, too obvious, too sharp, and it wouldn’t have fit in the context of this burger, which decidedly is aiming for gourmet status.  By presenting the tomato as an aioli, Fiorelli manages to present the right flavor, but with a softer touch.  It’s a really sophisticated, thoughtful, creative stroke, and it elevates this burger and preserves a balanced flavor profile.  It’s no bordelaise sauce mounted with foie gras, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 9.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.20 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.60 / 10.00

Total: 90.80 / 100.00

Meatzilla!

The Place
Meatzilla!
646 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014

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Dip your toe into the internet musings about Meatzilla, and you likely will find yourself annoyed.  The exclamatory nomenclature.  The burger with a pepperoni pizza bun.  The unshakable feeling that everything about the place was conceived with a smirk.  Indeed, even without the deviant punctuation, the name itself is really an etude in hipster snark. There’s very little in the reportage about this place that would inspire any reasonable person to take it seriously.

Most of this stuff had escaped me when DJ, a partner in my office, told me he had it on good authority that Meatzilla made the best burger in Downtown Los Angeles.  Now, having waxed adoring on a different downtown burger myself, I felt predictably compelled to investigate.  So I headed over to Meatzilla with Bret and Greg.  It’s a shack on Main Street, a pretty barebones affair, with a cramped kitchen, a whiteboard menu, stacks of soda boxes filling a side doorway, and a playlist like a Tarantino soundtrack. If they’re trying to project the image of hustling newcomers just trying to make it, it’s coming off gangbusters.  Think Steinbeck repurposed for the Snapchat generation.  Okay, that might be overstating the point a bit, but you get the idea.

The Order: Beef! Beef!

The Price: $9.50

The Burger
The whole concept of the place may seem tongue-in-cheek and affected, but the fare on offer is far from it.  While there are some experimental items on the menu to be sure, Meatzilla is conceptually a purist’s burger joint, whose bread and butter is no-frills, beef-forward presentations redolent more of summer cookout than a hipster Thanksgiving.

The Beef! Beef!, for instance, features two absolutely mammoth patties with discs of housemade pickles about the diameter of a nickel laid sporadically on top, along with tangy white onion.  A thick primordial ooze of cheese – Muenster on one patty and American on the other – drips from the meat.  You might mistake it for a runny fried egg (which you can add, by the way, for a buck fifty).  A generous – but not excessive – helping of Sriracha ketchup films both buns.  And that’s it.  No lettuce, no tomato, none of the other standard garnishes.

The beef is flavorful and surprisingly not overwhelming.  It was a hair overcooked, and while that normally wouldn’t be an issue, when there’s this much beef, there’s a smaller margin for error.  The pickles were utterly exceptional though, perfectly sour and with a healthy snap to them.  The onions were similarly well integrated, soaked in ketchup, and smartly kept raw to add more crunch and tang to complement the massive amounts of beef.  The ketchup was not overpowering, offering a nice sweet-hot undertone to each bite without being too assertive.  The cheese was a coup: gooey, rich, and indulgent, it gave every bite a sumptuous, smooth warmth.

All these garnishes, though, were just complementary though.  While Burgerlords and In-N-Out seek to harmonize all the ingredients into a coherent, synthesized whole in which all the components cooperate to create something larger than the sum of its parts, Meatzilla is, true to its name, a beef-first and beef-last kind of enterprise.  If, at Burgerlords, the burger is an orchestra in which the meat is just one instrument, at Meatzilla, the beef is the soloist, with other instruments there to add color and texture, but never to command your attention.

So is this the best burger in Los Angeles?  I guess that depends.  This burger is not a work of art.  But I left my meal with a pretty clear understanding of why someone might fall in love with it.  If you think a burger should be an unapologetically beef-focused dish, Meatzilla will appeal to you.  They’re about beef.  Not about buns (though the bun holds up impressively here, even if it isn’t the most dynamic component of the burger), or garnishes, or balance, or anything else.  But beef.

What’s more, there’s a sentimentality inherent in this dish.  Meatzilla has the sort of unbalanced charm that will take you back to the backyard cookouts with friends you only distantly remember from a washed-out photograph.  The smell of the grill would waft over and intermix with the harsh scent of chlorinated water.  It’s the burger you ate before you cared that soda was bad for you.  It’s the burger you ate before you started obsessing over calorie counts and carbohydrates.  It’s the burger that would buckle a paper plate.  It’s the burger you ate before you became a well-heeled culinary connoisseur and forgot how to enjoy something unsophisticated.  It’s the burger you ate when you cared more that your food was fun rather than an immaculately curated art project, when it didn’t matter if a dish wasn’t a perfectly manicured harmony of flavors and textures.

The last word is that while it’s hard for me to say this is downtown’s best burger, it’s hard to argue it isn’t either.  It’s a strange, unsettled feeling I left with, but it’s a feeling that is pulling me back to Meatzilla for another visit.  Which, at bottom, is all that matters, I guess.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.60 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.50 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.90 / 10.00
Balance: 7.90 / 10.00

Total: 84.60 / 100.00

Errata: Cassell’s Hamburgers

There is a line in Sophocles’ Antigone that has stuck with me.  It is a scene in which Creon seeks Teiresias’ advice regarding whether or not to free Antigone.  Teiresias tells the ruler, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil.  The only crime is pride.”  Now, I haven’t imprisoned my niece to reinforce gender roles or intemperately deployed the power of government in the context of familial conflict.  Nor have I forsaken the bonds of marital and paternal love to preserve an imagined or preferred political order.  But I like to think Teiresias’s advice is more generally applicable.  Because, you know, parables.  Right?

Anyway.  As I’ve accrued some modicum of experience in my life, I’ve had occasion to look on my past with a more critical eye.  By an large, I’m proud of the way I conducted myself.  But there are exceptions.  When one cannot or does not act to rectify past errors – to “repair the evil” – those exceptions have a way of blooming into regrets.

Having just hit a milestone, agewise, I think the time is right to come clean about an error I made early in this project.  I went with Greg and Lemi to Koreatown’s Cassell’s Hamburgers, a bustling diner nestled in the first floor of the Hotel Normandie.  I talked about how I didn’t feel as though Christian Page was reaching his potential with the burger he offered.

 

That review is, quite literally, the only one I look back on and regret.  I like to think (perhaps self-indulgently) the evaluations presented on this Project range anywhere from eminently fair to downright authoritative.  The Cassell’s review marks the lone occasion where I deviated from basing my judgment on the food on the plate.  So, in the spirit of not committing the only crime, I went back to Cassell’s with Kelsey, Kristen, Nikhil, and Tracy.  And now, I’m back before you with my proverbial hat in hand, to give Cassell’s the reconsideration it deserves.

The Burger
The chuck-brisket patty was even better than I remembered.  Flavorful, tender, and rich, it burst with juicy personality, courtesy to that nearly 70 year-old crossfire broiler.  The garnishes were as fresh as I remember.  Everything was as it was on my prior visits.  I won’t regurgitate here what I’ve written before.  If you want to read it, follow the link above.  Besides, it’s not really my sense of the burger’s quality that has changed, per se.  There are a couple of things about that review, though, that bother me.

The first problem is that I docked the burger for not “hitting its potential.”  In addition to being a maddeningly vague and subjective feeling that I struggled then (and struggle now) to justify, it’s just kind of irrelevant.  There’s not a dish that’s been cooked that couldn’t be improved somehow.  We can’t judge dishes (or anything, for that matter) on the basis of what it could have been.  We have to look, first and last, a what a thing is.  That matters more.  And what Cassell’s is, is a delicious burger–one of the best in the city.

The second problem isn’t one I could have anticipated as I penned the review initially, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Cassell’s stacks up much more formidably than I expected against the other burgers I’ve had since.  When people ask me what the best burgers in the city are, this one always comes to mind.  That’s got to count for something.

I get it.  It’s not like I’ve imprisoned one of my nieces.  There has been no mortal sin committed here.  It’s not as though I got drunk on power and perpetrated some monstrous act of megalomania.  I just docked a burger a couple points unfairly.  But a mistake is a mistake, and if this Project is to be worth relying on, you all have to know you can trust me to recognize my mistakes and correct them as they arise.  The only crime is pride.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 9.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.50 / 10.00
Patty: 9.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.40 / 10.00

Total: 91.20 / 100.00

The Habit Burger Grill

The Place
The Habit Burger Grill
Various Locations

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Image courtesy of TripAdvisor

You may remember The Habit made waves a couple years back.  Playing the role of dark horse to perfection, the Santa Barbara-based West Coast mainstay placed first in Consumer Reports’ fast-food survey, beating out other local heroes like In-N-Out (spoiler alert: that’s unvarnished sacrilege), and larger outlets like Steak ‘n Shake and Smashburger.

Now obviously, it’s far from clear that you, I, or anyone else should trust or defer to the culinary preferences of people who only got a say because they subscribe to Consumer Reports (like, consider how many people you know who subscribe to Consumer Reports).  Having said that, the people surveyed ate almost 100,000 meals between them.  So if nothing else, there’s a good amount of data behind this survey.

For a burger chain you’ve probably never heard of, the Habit is quite an old mainstay.  It was founded in 1969, and has since steadily expanded throughout California, creeping into Arizona and Utah as well.  It migrated east into New Jersey recently too, but it’s still definitely a child of the West.  With thanks to Juno for making it possible, Bret and I took five from work to grab this old standard for lunch.

The Order: Double Charburger with Cheese

The Price: $4.95

The Burger
For such a well-established outfit, The Habit certainly has escaped widespread attention or acclaim.  That might have something to do with its sort of silly branding (their truck invites you to “Get up in [their] grill” – see what they did there?), or the fact that it just sort of feels like a shoddy fast casual restaurant.

Far from the heaven-white, spit-shined gleam of an In-N-Out burger, the hidden gem illicitness of a Burgerlords, or even the ruddy and unvarnished appeal of the Oinkster, The Habit’s brick and mortar spots have all the charm of, like, a T.G.I. Friday’s.  You’ll find them nestled in shopping blocks, flanked by, say, a Nordstrom Rack and HomeGoods.  It’s almost impossible to take seriously, especially for a well-heeled foodie type.  One expects servers with pique polos covered in buttons, fried onions fashioned into crisp flowers, seafood from oceans unknown, and steaks whose origin is impossible to discern.

At first blush, you might be struck by what feels like a too-expansive menu, replete with salads nobody ought ever order, an odd albacore sandwich that is just strange enough to intrigue (but not intriguing enough to order), and some curious sides (tempura green beans, anyone?).  While it’s probably true that the menu would benefit from a good editorial trim, there is enough weirdness on this menu to suggest an undercurrent of sophisticated curiosity that might make this burger worth trying.

Readily, I will admit my anticipatory scorn was building heavily as I approached this burger.  In a swell of self-congratulatory elitism, I prepared to dismiss the Consumer Reports survey result as just some sampling tomfoolery, reflecting the unsophisticated preferences of some culinary neophytes who lack the time, mind, or means to frequent the truly good restaurants.

Sadly, this is not (entirely) a redemption narrative.  I was undoubtedly being unfair (and a big jerk) in my preconceptions about The Habit.  That survey was, after all, just a survey about fast food.  But in aid of crystalline clarity, let me state this unequivocally: this is not the best burger – fast food or otherwise – in this city, let alone the country.  It is, however, a well (not perfectly) executed Californian classic, certainly much better than you might expect from the kitschy look of the place.

Envision a slightly heftier, meatier iteration of the (still comfortably superior) Double-Double with a worse bun, and you’re in the Habit’s airspace.  The bun is a simple white bread bun with the lightest kiss of sweetness.  It was slightly dry but adsorbent enough to keep things from getting messy.  The lettuce was  shredded, flirting with the mayonnaise and the pickles hidden below, creating a piquant and crisp cushion to anchor the whole flavor profile of the burger.  The tomato wasn’t exactly market-fresh, but gave a juicy enough punch.  The caramelized onions were a nice touch, sweet and sharp on the tongue without being too soupy (though they were a bit stringy and hard to eat).

The Habit distinguishes itself – for better or worse  – in the size of the patties.  They are massive crisped discs of beef, with slabs of melted cheese draped over them like fire blankets.  They are big enough to decisively take center stage in the flavor profile of this burger without completely drowning out the other ingredients.  True to the burger’s name, they have a solid char, which gives a distant savory bitterness to the front-end of every bite.  Sadly, they’re also a bit overcooked, which dries them out a fair amount.  What the patties bring to the table in flavor, then, is sort of ruined by their textural deficiencies.  And given their sheer size, these faults are tough to ignore, and aren’t really balanced by the burger’s other virtues.

Having said all that, I can understand why the Habit would have gotten itself something of a following.  It’s an undeniably excellent deal at the price point – value-wise, it definitely falls in the same category as In-N-Out.  And it probably deserves to be slotted in with that class of burgers that are “slightly better than fast food” but “not really gourmet.”  And it handily beat out my elitist preconceptions.  But you should quickly disabuse yourself of the notion that the Habit can lay a finger to In-N-Out.  I have mulled over that result for a good long time, and have come no closer to a colorable explanation for it.  But the fact remains that while I may never understand how the Habit beats out In-N-Out in the minds of the Consumer Reports readership, it isn’t difficult to understand the restaurant’s appeal.  It may be overblown, but it isn’t undeserved.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.40 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.00 / 10.00

Value: 9.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 7.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.50 / 10.00
Balance: 8.40 / 10.00

Total: 83.00 / 100.00

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