The Bowery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 91.90 / 100.00

Umami Burger (Pasadena)

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Umami Burger is, for better and worse, an institution.

The better: This place is pretty much entirely responsible for the revitalization and elevation of burgers. Before Umami Burger, the words “cheeseburgers” and “high cuisine” couldn’t really be used in the same sentence. Well, unless the sentence was, “Cheeseburgers are not high cuisine.” Then, Adam Fleischman had an inspired, Double Double-induced moment of clarity, went to Mitsuwa Marketplace, and opened up a shop on La Brea.

The focus was simple: complex burgers that explored the interplay between different savory foods. Obsessively high quality (American Wagyu) beef. Weblike crisps of ossified parmesan. Slow-hot roasted hatch chiles. Juicy, salty cubes of bacon lardon. Sweet, pliant brioche (emblazoned with that signature “U”). That weird, kinda sweet ketchup. Umami was totally “L.A.” On Friday nights, it would buzz with activity; flannel-clad hipsters would wait an eternity to sink their teeth into one of Fleischman’s brainchildren while they pretended to really like – and really get – Bitte Orca.

From those humble roots, the Umami empire spread north (to the Bay Area) and then east (to Miami and New York). Now, you don’t have to be a Silver Lake hipster to get an Umami Burger. You can be a hipster in Greenwich Village or Brooklyn too. Three cheers!

The worse: The restaurant’s expansion has been a double-edged sword. The growth of the Umami brand has been concomitant with the increasing prominence of burgers, and the culinary credibility they’ve accumulated over the years. On the other hand, it’s shown what can happen when a once great outfit spreads itself too thin. So now, Umami is better for what it represents than for what it actually is.

Janak and I went with Shanil and a couple of Shanil’s friends to the Umami Burger in Old Town Pasadena. After running into Silva and Shant – Pasadena’s preeminent power couple – outside the place, the five of us sat down to get to work.

The Place
Umami Burger
49 E Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91105

The Order: Hatch Burger

The Price: $10.50 (before tax)

The Burger
In light of the foregoing, I may well be criticized for being a little cynical. Some among you may suspect that I’m unfairly subjecting Umami Burger to the Death Cab for Cutie treatment – you know, being all shitty about their getting famous. But here’s the thing about Umami Burger (and about Death Cab, for that matter): it kind of sucks now, and it didn’t used to.

The patty is still – allegedly – six ounces of American Wagyu. But if we’re being real, it tastes like the good stuff has been diluted a bit with some more conventional chuck. These patties, quite simply, are not what they used to be. The burger was still pretty well-cooked, though: a competently executed medium rare, glistening on the outside and a delicate pink inside. It was also really juicy; the coarse grind of the beef probably helps in that regard. But while the preparation is still skillful, the meat itself just isn’t as good, and at bottom, that’s kind of a deal-breaker. It’s kind of like…I don’t care how wonderful her personality is: I’m not dating a Celtics fan.

Anyway. The Hatch burger features roasted Hatch chiles, cali cheese, and roasted garlic aioli on that sweet, familiar bun – think of it as a demi-brioche. This is a different version of the Hatch than I’ve eaten previously. The earlier version featured slow roasted chiles; this iteration is slathered in a tendril-hued roasted chile relish-like substance. It’s got less heat, less flavor, and less texture. Basically, it’s a bunch of not-hot slop gracelessly spattered like a bad Jackson Pollock knockoff all over the almost too-melty (and awkwardly flavorless) cheese. The aioli was all over the lower bun, spilling out from beneath the patty with every bite.

Everything about this burger was messy. The patty dripped juices. The aioli oozed out with every bite like cream when you squeeze a Twinkie. The chile slaw was all over the place. The cheese was strange and almost soupy – think hopelessly insipid fondue. While previously, Umami Burger’s menu showcased nuanced, counter-intuitive collaborations between distinctive flavors and textures – all bound by the common thread of being savory – now, it leans too heavily on a) its reputation/laurels, and b) the fact that the patties have some Wagyu beef in them, maybe. The ingredients are largely flavorless and don’t interact very well together at all. The bun is by far the most interesting thing that this burger has to offer, unless you’re interested in insipid meat and chunky chile sauce.

The worst thing I can say about this burger was that it was uninteresting. It is damning evidence of the marked decline of a once-iconic, once-credible, once-awesome burger place. Umami Burger has done us all a great service: It set the table (sorry, that’s a disgraceful pun) for the Plan Checks and the Father’s Offices of the world not only to take Los Angeles’ culinary scene by storm, but also gain that culinary credibility that eluded burger joints for so long. Beyond that, though, I’m surprised to say that I think Umami Burger has kind of outlived its utility.

You might come away from this thinking I’m being too hard on Umami simply because of some proprietary rage about the restaurant I loved before it was mainstream. I can’t really deny that, though I don’t think it played much of a role. Besides, I love lots of famous, mainstream things. Like this. Or this. Or this. Or this. No, I don’t think my problem with Umami Burger is that it’s growing and successful. I think my problem with Umami Burger is that it’s just nowhere near as good as it used to be.

On the bright side, it’s still the best burger in New York.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.80 / 10.00
Value: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.20 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.90 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 4.00 / 10.00
Balance: 6.00 / 10.00

Total: 66.40 / 100.00

Meat District Co.

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Pasadena is blooming. During my lifetime, Colorado Boulevard has morphed from a “hide yo kids, hide yo wife” zone into a charming little hipster-free facsimile of Silver Lake. A sprawling Intelligentsia Coffee anchors it, abutted by Indiana Colony, home to Cool Haus, Pressed Juicery, the Pie Hole, this one place that sells tea and spices and shit, and this one place that sells flowers and shit. One of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles (seriously, it’s world-rockingly good), Union, just opened up on – you guessed it – Union Street. Oh, and there’s an Umami Burger too. And while those spots do attract their share of carefully (almost convincingly) disheveled beautiful people, it’s nothing like, say, Venice.

Umami Burger, however, isn’t the only burger place that’s made its way into Old Town. Meat District Co. came all the way from Sydney to open up a location just down the block from Slater’s 50/50 (another burger spot). Intrigued by the carnivorous focus and urban-chic décor, Kevin and I went on a romantic little lunch date there. Kevin ordered for me, we split a garden salad…it was kind of adorable. Don’t hate us ’cause you ain’t us.

Anyway, our server was quick to a) conclude that Kevin and I were the cutest couple in the place, and b) tell us that this burger had been named the second best burger in Pasadena this year. And while Pasadena is a fine city with many a fine burger, bragging about that accolade (totally sua sponte, by the way) just felt a little pathetic. It’s kind of like the girl who tells you on the second date how into sports she is. It’s like, I get it. Just watch a Laker game with me, and I think you’ll prove the point. And plus, when a girl talks about being “into sports,” she really means she’s into posting Instagram photos of herself wearing child size jerseys and impossibly short shorts. The point is this: girls who are really into sports don’t talk about it.

Besides, who brags about second place, right? Anyway.

The Place
Meat District Co.
69 N Raymond Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91103

The Order: Cheese Burger and fries

The Price: $9.95 for the burger (lunch special) and $2.00 extra for the fries (yeah, I know – stupid)

The Burger
While I maintain it is still thoroughly lame for our server to have bragged about their micro-regional silver medal, I’ll happily concede (and report) that Meat District Co. makes a good burger. The patty is a half pound of Harris Ranch chuck and short rib. The chuck gives it a grill-ravaged hardiness, while the short rib keeps things tender and subtle. The bun is a well-toasted brioche with a honeyed roundness to it. It holds up well to all the toppings, which cling to it without soaking in. The aged cheddar is nutty, mellow, and substantial. The little gem and the tomato add a breezy freshness. The pickles, however, are insipid, and the house sauce – whatever it is – is overused and too heavy on mayonnaise. Worse still, the caramelized onions get lost in the monsoon of sauce, so their sassy sweetness – of which I caught just glimpses – is muted.

That last criticism is a little misleading, though. While the sauce is a bit overdone, this burger actually is quite well-balanced. In fact, the loss of the caramelized onions might actually have been a good thing, because they might have seemed a little out of their element here. See, this is fundamentally a traditional burger (raw onions would have worked well, adding the sharpness that the pickles didn’t quite bring). Caramelized onions would have stood out for the wrong reasons. So sure, the balance of this burger probably is accidental, but it makes for a happy accident.

At $9.95, Meat District Co. is a pretty good lunch option. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable paying $13 for it (which is the dinner rate), and the $2.00 extra for fries is un peu ridiculous (parenthetically, the fries were excellent). But coming out with a burger of this size and caliber for less than ten bucks is an unequivocal win. The lunch special is great value for money. The fries aren’t, but that’s a conversation they can have on the Los Angeles French Fry Project.

(On that note, a brief aside: some readers have pointed out that I don’t write about French fries enough. Leaving aside the fact that you should know by now that I respond horribly to criticism of any variety, I feel like only people from Idaho really care about potatoes enough to wax poetic about them and last I checked, I’m not Jack O’Connor.)

Anyway, where was I?

Whatever. Here’s the bottom line. This burger gets a lot of the big things right: the patty and cheese interface well together. The garnishes are thoroughly serviceable. The sauce is overbearing, but luckily ends up masking what otherwise might have been an unpleasant oddity. Things sort of fall into place and work themselves out, in spite of the apparent lack of much intentionality. That may not inspire confidence in the creative or culinary chops on display here, but the end product tasted good enough that I don’t care too much.

There are a lot of great places to get a meal in Old Town. There are a few places to get a burger, including the now national titan Umami Burger (when did that happen, by the way?). In spite of the abundance of options,  though, I’ll consider going to Meat District Co. for lunch again. But I’ll skip the fries. They just dampened the mood.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.90 / 10.00
Balance: 8.60 / 10.00

Total: 82.40 / 100.00

Ox & Son

IMG_3290Admittedly, I’ve been pretty tough on Santa Monica. But dammit, when this many places are ripping off Father’s Office, it’s kind of hard not to talk a little shit. Anyway, Ox & Son is another Bradley Miller spot. The name is a sentimental tip of the cap to his dad Gary (a butcher nicknamed “Ox”) who taught young Brad to dismember animals before the lad was old enough to drive. Which is, well, you know.

Anyway, Ox & Son is one of an ever-swelling multitude of farm-to-table spots in Santa Monica (and Los Angeles more generally, actually). The menu is adventurous but hit or miss. The yellowtail crudo is worth a second look. The sticky pig cheeks are insipid. But the burger gets a fair amount of love from the locals.

I feel like I say that – “the locals love it!” – every time I write about a burger I eat in Santa Monica. And I think part of that has to do with the love affair that people who live in Santa Monica have with Santa Monica. While I appreciate how lovely it is to love where you live, there’s a whole city out there, y’all. And I promise you, it’s awesome. You should, like, go to Hollywood sometime. They have burgers there too. Some of them don’t mismanage arugula.

But anyway. I’ll spare you another trip down that particular rabbit hole – nobody needs me getting all self-righteously analytical about Santa Monica again. Let’s talk about this burger. We celebrated twenty-some years of Tessa with Scott, Kevin, Deb, Silva, Shant, and (eventually) Greg. I took the opportunity to try out a new burger.

The Place
Ox & Son
1534 Montana Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90403

The Order: O&S Burger

The Price: $20 (before tax)

The Burger
I don’t know, y’all. Part of me feels like a hater. But this is another Santa Monica burger at a new-ish Santa Monica restaurant that presents as original a burger with fancy cheese (raclette here, which is a smooth, creamy number you might have encountered if you’ve ever eaten fondue), arugula, and caramelized onions. Like, honestly, we’ve all been to Father’s Office. We get it. That burger is popular. Now make something of your own.

The O&S Burger, then, is ultimately little more than an overpriced facsimile of what they make at Father’s Office. The patty is a chuck/short rib mix made with beef from the Central Coast (they wouldn’t get more specific than that). It’s tender and reasonably flavorful, but at $20, it damn well better be. The raclette is a distraction. It’s like someone spilled fondue on your burger. The result is a messy, overpowering cheese presence. Raclette is a weird choice, honestly. It’s melty but doesn’t give much in the way of distinctive flavor. It doesn’t meld well with the beef, which means the gooey shitshow decidedly is not worth it.

The arugula is there. And it’s arugula. And it’s on a burger. And given that Ox & Son is like the fourth restaurant in its zip code to put arugula on a burger and then drop the mic, it’s no longer surprising or praiseworthy; it’s now a meme. It’s got a bitter, peppery snap to it. It was fresh enough not to bother, but wilted a little in the pit of hot raclette quicksand in which it was embedded. The onions were zeroes on the palate. I couldn’t tell you anything about them. The truffle aioli sounds way better than it is – gasping notes of truffle submerged beneath a tsunami of mayonnaise. It’s the best, most original idea on the burger, but the execution honestly is kind of ham-fisted.

Most people can’t really articulate what makes Father’s Office so good. They like it because it’s the best burger many people know about in Santa Monica. Because overzealous and pretentious foodies gushed about it on Yelp. But the reason Father’s Office is good is because they took risks with skill. They were the first to incorporate arugula in a serious way. They took a different approach to patty construction. They use rolls instead of buns.

But all that stuff is kind of beside the point. The reason Father’s Office is good is because their risks are all calculated. They are purposeful in their deviations. I got the impression that the folks at Ox & Son realized, “Oh shit, this burger might be too similar to the Father’s Office burger, mightn’t it?” In response, they used a meltier cheese and tweaked the aioli a bit. In the main, that’s not enough of a change to fool anyone who’s paying a scintilla of attention. But more to the point, it compromised the burger. The raclette masked the flavor of the beef. The aioli went to war with the arugula, and in that fog of war, the onions got lost.

Ox & Son undoubtedly is vying for the crown of Best Burger in Santa Monica. Unfortunately, they aren’t even really presenting serious competition for the crown of Best Burger on Montana Avenue.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.40 / 10.00
Value: 5.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 5.90 / 10.00
Bun: 7.50 / 10.00
Patty: 8.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.90 / 10.00
Balance: 6.20 / 10.00

Total: 69.90 / 100.00

Black Hogg

IMG_3248Eric Park doesn’t care what kind of food you like. He doesn’t care what you’re in the mood for. He doesn’t care whether that basmati rice is too fragrant. He doesn’t care if the red sauce is too spicy. He doesn’t care if you don’t know how to approach his offering of charred street corn with a salty dusting of crumbly cotija cheese and rich marrow (though, admittedly, his wait staff does). He lives in a world without borders, a world where wagyu makes brilliant asada, where tacos totally can sit on the table right next to fragrant cauliflower chana masala, where he makes weird bacon popcorn with silky maple crema and serves it like it’s as normal as bread and butter (it’s not – it’s also way more delicious).

Eric Park, as it happens, doesn’t really give a shit about you. He gives a shit about food. Black Hogg, an innocuous hole in the wall on Sunset in Silver Lake, is that rare place where the idiosyncratic feels natural and unforced, where all the food’s quirky personality emanates from the honest joy the chef takes in experimenting, not from some gross culinary exhibitionism.

Eric Park, incidentally, is also pretty into bone marrow. At least, it’s a centerpiece of two of the most popular dishes on the menu – the aforementioned street corn and the so-called marrow burger. I went with Kevin, my impossibly cool parents, my cousin, and her husband to give this burger a whirl. We walked in after a day at the beach, sunstroked and languid, withstood an avalanche of leering judgment from the assembled hipsters, and ordered up.

The Place
Black Hogg
2852 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026

The Order: Marrow burger, medium rare

The Price: $18 (before tax)

The Burger
This is a cool burger. It’s not conventional. The flavor profile is unbalanced and it hits hard on the palate. There are two different kinds of onions – a bundle of pink-pickled scythes and a tangle of stewy caramelized strips, the latter of which evokes French onion. Underneath it all, there is a bosk of bitter watercress.

Let’s talk about the marrow first, because you’re probably wondering. The burger comes out brash: there’s a fat bone right next to it, full of gelatinous marrow. It’s not immediately obvious how the two go together, so the best thing you can do is wing it. Scoop out the marrow with a spoon, and sort of smear it on the inside of the top bun. I thought of the marrow the sauce, rather than a topping. This is primarily because there is no other sauce, but also because the marrow really just forms a thin film on the bun. It’s not present enough to think of it as a topping.

The patty is Black Hogg’s “secret house burger blend” (whatever that means). The chef recommends medium rare, which comes out stoutly charred and dark pink on the inside. While I don’t know what the secret blend is, I can report that it’s a solid slab of meat, flavorful, juicy, and full of personality. The bitterness of the charred exterior gives way to a rich interior, but it all kind of tussles with the onions and the watercress. Then the brioche steps in, sweet and wonderful, to soak everything up.

Ultimately, the problem is one of balance. There’s a little too much sharpness and bitterness in this burger, without enough offsetting mellowness. Bitterness (watercress) follows sharpness (onions) follows bitterness (the patty). There is no calming cheese, there is no sauce to soothe the cut of the char or the onions or the watercress. There are only traces of the fatty marrow on the burger, which is about the closest thing this burger has to “sauce.” Nor is there any cheese to blunt the harsher elements of the flavor profile.

It’s a funny thing: while there is a lot going on in this burger, there’s also a lot missing. What is there truly is fascinating, complex, and compelling. But the burger could stand to be rounded out by some other flavors. Cheese and a creamy sauce would do a lot to counteract the otherwise predominantly bitter toppings, and would amplify the presence of the marrow a bit. As it is, this burger is an interesting experiment, but sort of self-defeating. It overshadows its strengths with a unidimensional collection of toppings. Rather than offsetting the toppings, the patty contributes still more to the bitter dimension.

I want to stop for a second. This burger wasn’t transcendent, but it was just about the only thing on the menu that wasn’t. This restaurant is shit-kickingly good. Every single other thing we had was conceived and executed to perfection. You absolutely will not regret going to Black Hogg. Basically, this is an unforgettable restaurant that happens to serve a, well, not-unforgettable burger. But don’t let that deter you. You have to go check this place out, even if you don’t really have to try the burger.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.60 / 10.00
Value: 6.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.80 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.10 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 4.70 / 10.00
Balance: 7.80 / 10.00

Total: 81.10 / 100.00

The Flintridge Proper

IMG_3237When Courtney texted me today and asked me if I wanted to go to Flintridge Proper to help her put off packing for a bit (she’s moving to Pasadena, the genius), I thought it would just be a good opportunity to hang out with her, grab a drink, and unwind after a long (half) week of studying. Little did I know, it would bring out the most judgmental iterations of both of us. Out of consideration for her (and okay fine, myself), I’ll refrain from relating many of our reactions to the people around us at The Proper. Instead, I’ll limit my discussion to their excellent burger.

About an hour later, Courtney and I were sitting in the lounge area at Flintridge Proper, backs to the window on a long leather bench, looking across at chairs upholstered in some unidentifiable dusty tangerine colored fabric, and in the midst of a pretty interesting group of people.

To our left: the late-thirties couples clinging desperately to the gasping remnants of their social lives. One couple brought their kid, a blonde thing, creepier than he was cute. The men, clad in pre-torn jeans and sporting goatees that haven’t been okay since 1993, spoke far too loudly about nothing in particular. The women gulped sauvignon blanc with the obvious relish of the exhausted La Cañada working mom.

To our right, an Asian-American couple with their two children (whose penchant for straddling one another really creeped Courtney and me out). They were a pair of holy terrors, two boys who had brought half their toy box and all of their insane, high-volume energy. When they weren’t busy breaking glasses and crowing like roosters (I swear to you, none of that is lies), they were running barefoot back and forth on the seat of the booth, while their father straightened his fedora and drained his martini.

Faced with this scene, we ordered some stiff cocktails (who wouldn’t?), settled in for a long couple hours, and split a burger.

The Place
The Flintridge Proper
464 Foothill Boulevard
La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011

The Order: Proper Burger with added bacon and avocado

The Price: $20 (before tax)

The Burger
Given our surroundings, this burger must have been pretty damn good, because I left The Proper wondering when I could come back and eat it again.

Honestly, the burger is kind of a basic bitch, but it’s really emblematic of the modern trend: an upscaled (and yeah, absurdly expensive) iteration of a familiar classic. This is not a hamburger restaurant. It’s a bar that happens to serve a hamburger. And that’s important to bear in mind; this certainly is not a place that advertises itself as a hamburger place (like, say, Cassell’s, despite the fact that the culinary philosophy behind their respective burgers is similar in some ways).

By now, you’re almost certainly wondering what drove me to call a cheeseburger a “basic bitch.” Well, let’s just say this: it’s the perfect burger to eat the week of the Fourth of July. In a lot of ways, it’s a classic American burger: The patty is a monster – half a pound of sizzling beef blanketed with sweet, bubbly housemade American cheese (The Proper makes a lot of things in house: cheese, gin, bitters, ginger beer – it’s quite something, if you’re into that sort of thing, which, well yeah, I totally am). There’s cool shards of shredded lettuce and (utterly outstanding) Thousand Island. Then there’s succulent, curly bacon, crisp and crimson at the center, the edges fried to a peppery black, embedded in slender, silken half-moons of avocado. The bun was a golden brioche, rich but not heavy, sweet but not overpowering.

Give me a second here to gush about that thin, piquant glaze of Thousand Island on the top brioche bun. I’m not at all sure what went into this. It was present without being unobtrusive. Smooth but not runny. Tangy, but with enough creamy bitterness to give it some distinctive personality. Like I said, I don’t know what the hell went into this stuff, but I wanted more of it. As subtle as it was, it was a highlight of this already very excellent burger.

If I’m complaining about something, it’ll be price. This is a $20 burger. I don’t remember the last time I’ve spent that much on a burger. But, if I’m being frank, I honestly don’t much care. While I won’t say that it’s unequivocally worth $20, I can say that I don’t feel all that terrible about spending that money. Maybe the best way to put it is this: I will be back to The Proper for another burger. Hopefully without the side order of noisy toddlers.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.00 / 10.00
Value: 7.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.30 / 10.00
Balance: 9.40 / 10.00

Total: 88.70 / 100.00

The Independence

IMG_3209There are a few major gripes people have with Santa Monica. First, parking is hell. Second, it’s not really close or on the way to anything (except, like, Malibu). And third, when you go out, you kind of find yourself running into the same kind of person over and over again. Like, I get it. You went to [insert Pac-12 school here], and were in [insert Greek organization here]. Yeah, no, I’m sure it was an awesome experience. And yeah, that’s a sweet button down. It definitely looks better on you than it did on the last three guys I saw it on. In this bar. Sure, I’ll wait here while you go talk to that girl. Yeah, no, I’m sure you “crush all kinds of ass.”

Okay. Maybe I’m getting a little bitchy. But prides of snowflake-unique bros and lady-bros aside, no one should be heard to say Santa Monica’s food scene isn’t absolutely killer (and also in the process of exploding), because it totally, totally is. Even if burgers aren’t your thing, you can go have some southern-kissed French food at Kris Tominaga’s up-and-comer Cadet (get the rabbit and thank me later). Go to aestus and learn why all the patrons at the Royce miss Alex Ageneau. Or go to what is now an old standard, Rustic Canyon, and be assured that yeah, Jeremy Fox still has it. Or just go to Sidecar Donuts (soon, my little ones…soon) and reflect – with warming self-satisfaction – that everyone waiting in line at Dunkin’ Donuts is as idiotic as they seem. And then eat some fried dough and forget what you were thinking about.

That brings me to The Independence. It’s a trendy new spot in Santa Monica. Located at the corner of Broadway and Second (right where the incalculably sacrilegiously monikered Buddha’s Belly used to be – good riddance), it’s a sprawling, modern restaurant-bar with all the touches one would expect of a spot this hip – one wall is plastered with violently colorful murals, and another consists entirely of windows. It’s bright and fresh, and just trendy enough to make you feel cool but not out of place. Vibe aside, it’s got plenty of culinary cred; Tom Block manages the menu (you might recognize the name; he was the creative nucleus over at BLT Steak too).

As new on the block as The Independence is, the burger has already generated considerable buzz. So obviously, I was drawn there like a carnivorous moth to a delicious, umami flame. Tessa, Alexandra, and Julia made me look really good while I ate it. Which reminds me: if this review seems a little less detailed than usual, it’s because I was really busy being mortified at the terrifying, occasionally scatalogical text messages Julia and Tessa sent from my phone. Don’t ask. It’s personal.

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yeah, the burger.

The Place
The Independence
205 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401

The Order: Angus Burger, medium rare

The Price: $16 (before tax)

The Burger
At the risk of being way, way, way too meta, the burger here kind of reminds me of the guys in Santa Monica that I was bitching about earlier. It was an imitation of something else. At its core, it lacked identity. For a restaurant called The Independence, I was stunned by how much this burger seemed to be trying to emulate one of its Santa Monica counterparts (rivals?). Of course, that’s not an indictment in and of itself. Imitation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love it, for instance, when H&M imitates my favorite designers for a fraction of the cost. Or when LL Cool J imitates a naval criminal investigator. Or when Demi Lovato imitates a musician. Okay, so I actually only like one of those things.

Sorry. Got a little sidetracked there. I was talking about the imitation game that The Independence play with their burger. It’s not a photocopy, by any stretch, but the inspiration of Father’s Office is clearly present in this burger.

Background for the unschooled: Father’s Office is the most famous burger in Santa Monica (and Culver City, for that matter). The citizens of that fine town will cite that burger as one of the crowning virtues of their city. Father’s Office, they will assure you, is the best burger in Los Angeles. Who cares that it’s cramped? Who cares that there is no actual wait staff? Who cares that you have to hover around people’s tables like hyenas waiting to steal fresh kills? Not Santa Monicans (Santa Monica-ites? Santa Monicansans?). They will stand by that little shop on Montana so fervently that they won’t even go to the one in Culver City (which, parenthetically, is way bigger and way less frustrating and way easier to navigate and also identical from a quality standpoint).

Suffice it to say, it’s hard to blame them. But this isn’t a review of Father’s Office. The point is, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the new kid on the block (which is funny, because Tom Block…get it?…never mind) is trying to get a foothold by way of imitation. Like I said before, this is no culinary Xerox; there are enough differences between this burger and the one at Father’s Office that no one could accuse The Independence of straight-up pilfering someone else’s idea. But the inspiration is clear. It’s kind of like when bands put stickers on the cover of their record saying, “If you love [insert impossibly popular band here], you’ll love this!” They wrote their own songs, sure, but they stepped into the stylistic shoes of another artist. This burger clearly was designed in the tall shadow of the Office Burger.

Okay, I think I’ve established where I think they were coming from in conceiving this burger, so let’s talk about the burger itself now. There is complex, nutty gruyere delicquesced atop (not within) the harshly charred Angus patty. A coppice of bitter arugula sits in a thick bed beneath the beef, concealing a den of slithering French onions. The bottom onion bun is coated with what they call an herb aioli (but which, really, is pretty much just mayonnaise).

The flavor profile of this burger is odd. It hits hard with bitterness on the front end. The sharp cut of the arugula dominates early, and bleeds into the harsh grill-char of the patty. That bitterness gives way not to the soothing nuttiness of the gruyere, but rather to the sharp, soupy onions. Whatever complexity (not very much) is in the aioli is lost behind that dominantly bitter front-end. The cheese and interior of the patty save the finish; earthy gruyere melting into the tender, juicy Angus. The burger leaves the palate much more gracefully than it enters. The finish was good enough to make me forget that harsh introduction and keep on eating.

Holding everything together was that onion bun, which was an interesting choice given the flavors at work in the burger itself. While I’m all for using non-traditional buns, I don’t know if I back this choice. I think a chalky ciabatta would have neutralized things well. A brioche would have been even better, offering a complementary buttery sweetness that was conspicuously absent from this burger’s flavor profile. The onion bun, though moist, was kind of redundant from a gustatory standpoint. It was a dim echo of the bold French onions that were so present. In one sense, you could make the case that it was consistent with the rest of what was happening in the burger. I don’t really see that as a virtue, though. It didn’t add anything, even though it really could have.

This burger skewed too far toward the brash, bitter end of things. It lacked balance. It’s a rare example of a situation in which the execution actually was superior to the conception. The idea was brought to fruition pretty much perfectly…it just wasn’t a very good idea. It did too much of the same thing – here’s something bitter, then here’s another thing that’s bitter, and then here’s something that’s sharp but not acidic enough to complement the bitterness. Then cheese.

To the extent that The Independence is seeking to emulate Father’s Office, they aren’t doing a bang-up job. They’re incorporating some of the same stuff (gruyere, arugula, beef), but they don’t seem to realize that those are dangerous tools to work with (okay, maybe not the beef), tools that require judicious balancing and careful maintenance. The Office Burger isn’t good because of the ingredients; it’s good because the ingredients are well-harmonized and purposefully proportioned. That wasn’t the case with this burger. This burger felt like someone ate Father’s Office and said, “Yes, that’s good and seems easy; I too will use those ingredients and make money.” Sadly, it’s not easy. The Independence would have been well-served to live up to their name a little bit more. They’re losing the imitation game.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.90 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.70 / 10.00
Value: 5.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.10 / 10.00
Bun: 7.30 / 10.00
Patty: 8.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.40 / 10.00
Balance: 7.60 / 10.00

Total: 76.50 / 100.00

The Tasting Kitchen

IMG_3169The Tasting Kitchen is a Venice mainstay. It’s grown up from its humble beginnings of handwritten menus and a perennially exhausted but always good-natured staff. It bears mentioning at the outset that while a lot of things have changed (for the better, I might add) about Casey Lane’s shop, the service remains absolutely top-notch. Our experience was pretty fantastic (except for an awkward incident with a waiter getting a little snappy with a busboy within earshot of our table).

ANYWAY. The Tasting Kitchen probably is best-known (aptly) for its tasting menu, but its burger has been a quiet staple on the menu for a while now, and I felt compelled to investigate. Rob and I went there on a bro-date, and when we weren’t too busy falling embarrassingly in love with one of the servers there, we ate the burger.

The Place
The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Venice, CA 90291

The Order: BCC Burger (braised bacon, chile chutney, cheddar), French Fries, Japanese Goldrush (Nikka Malt, lemon, honey).

The Price: $17 for the burger and fries. $16 for the cocktail.

The Burger
The Tasting Kitchen’s bill of fare features a diverse array of dishes, running the gamut from traditional (they do a pretty straightforward, slow-hot bucatini all’amatriciana) to more adventurous (grill-charred octopus with earthy Roman beans and brash ‘nduja). Their burger would probably best be characterized as non-traditional. It eschews the conventional toppings in favor of a more minimal approach, but each topping seems to be tailored to bring maximal flavor. Besides the cheese and the (substantial) patty, there are only two things between the rustic buns: a thick, all-business slab of braised bacon and a roasted chile chutney. An unobtrusive aioli was served on the side.

After a little bit of a wait to get things started, there wasn’t much time between courses. The burger came out just after our appetizers had settled. The meat was of obvious quality, and was well-prepped for cooking. The patty was thick and juicy. My main complaint is similar to the one I expressed about the patty on the griddled cheeseburger at Ledlow: it was way undercooked. The meat was essentially rare, and with a patty of that size, two problems result. First, the bottom bun got soaked through – especially since it was much thinner than its counterpart on top. Second, being so undercooked, the meat didn’t cohere well, and the patty kind of fell apart on us while we ate. It tasted good enough, but it wasn’t easy to eat.

The chile chutney was a brave addition, and was given serious prominence. It was smoky and rich, but without a lot of other flavors to complement it, it sort of stuck out. Out there on its own, with nothing to blunt its fierce roasted boldness, it was sort of a lonely renegade on the burger’s flavor profile. The braised bacon, however, was a masterstroke. It was a thick slab of pig, salty and rich, but gorgeously marbled and decadent. It didn’t blend particularly well with the chiles, unfortunately. Had the chutney been a little sweeter (like one customarily would expect chutney to be), it would have played beautifully off the flavor of the bacon. As it was, the burger featured two toppings – one fine, one fabulous – that didn’t quite mesh together. Adding the aioli didn’t achieve much. It cut the richness of the bacon a bit, and didn’t blend particularly well with the chutney. Frankly, the sauce didn’t seem tailor-made for the burger. It went better with the French fries (which, for the record, were stellar).

The bun was great. It evoked a sourdough, being far less eggy than a brioche. The bottom bun was a little thin, which drew extra attention to the fact that the patty was undercooked. Saturated with juices and blood from the beef, it quickly got soggy and flimsy, like wet paper, and lost a lot of its delightful texture. It was a shame, because it was, on its own, quite a wonderfully-crafted bun.

Much like the restaurant itself, the burger featured a wide variety of flavors coexisting side-by-side. That’s cool, but it’s also kind of the problem with the dish. The ingredients didn’t come together in such a way that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The BCC burger presents a few different textures and tastes, but the union doesn’t feel necessary or inevitable. It’s far from conventional, but that alone didn’t make it unforgettable.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 6.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.90 / 10.00

Total: 80.80 / 100.00

Ledlow

Displaying IMG_3154.JPGJosef Centeno rightly has become kind of a local celebrity in Downtown Los Angeles. Over the past few years, he has been opening new restaurants at a furious pace, and has established himself as the preeminent culinary personality in the neighborhood. Between Main and Los Angeles, 4th Street essentially belongs to him. The fantastic young trio of Bäco Mercat, Bar Amá, and Orsa & Winston is deservedly beloved by critic and consumer alike – GQ’s Alan Richman hailed Bäco Mercat as the ninth-best restaurant in America in 2013.

Ledlow is the newest addition to the group. It offers American small-plate fare that emphasizes simplicity, preparation, and ingredient quality. They offer gently modernized iterations of familiar dishes – their deviled eggs and Tasso ham is among their most popular dishes; it takes the workhorse ham and eggs and softens the edges with tarragon and cornichon. THis place has already generated enormous buzz – including a coveted review from Jonathan Gold, and it’s easy to see why. The small plates are simple, fresh, beautifully prepared, balanced, flavorful, and just complex enough to be interesting without getting too zany.

The cheeseburger is one of the most popular items on the menu. My companion Shannon and I put it to the test.

The Place
Ledlow
400 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: Griddled Cheeseburger and Fries (single), Rye Smile (rye, lemon, maraschino, ginger, soda)

The Price: $14 (excluding tax) for the burger, $12 (excluding tax) for the cocktail.

The Burger
The burger is pretty consistent with Ledlow’s governing philosophy. Rather than challenging the eater by piling on surprising ingredients, Ledlow’s attempts to offer the most sophisticated version of a classic dish. As such, the changes to the traditional diner cheeseburger are, at least nominally, minimal. In a quietly irreverent move, a poppy seed bun replaces the traditional sesame seed bun. Cheddar and American cheeses are melted together on the patty. A Dijon and garlic aioli is the lone condiment. Besides that, only lettuce, pickle, and red onions accompany one four-ounce patty (for an extra $2, diners can get an extra four-ounce patty; an extra $4 will get you a triple).

Sadly, Ledlow’s offering is much better in theory than in practice. While the conception is just fine, the execution was sloppy. When the burger finally did come out (and it took some time), we were disappointed to find the ingredients were unbalanced and the burger did not hang together well. A single, fiercely curling (and maddeningly isosceles) triangle of lettuce was almost exclusively on one side of the burger. Though crisp and fresh, it was too present on one half of the burger, and barely there on the other.

Ledlow’s menu expressly says they prepare their burgers “cooked through.” This begs the question of what constitutes “rare” there, considering our burger was red – not pink – on the inside. While there certainly is nothing wrong with rare meat in general, beef as rare as this is difficult to justify in a burger. The bun was also problematic: it was dry and grainy in the middle, and soggy where it met the contents of the burger.

This burger’s fatal flaw, however, was balance. The assembly of the burger highlighted all of its flaws. The ingredients all fought to get to the front of the flavor profile rather than complementing one another. In the end, the onions and the aioli won out (to the detriment of the burger). They completely dominated the burger; every bite was totally overrun by the sharpness of the onions and Dijon on the front-end, which gave way to a garlicky finish.

Sadly, this really ended up masking some of the burger’s virtues. For instance, even though the golden alloy of cheeses was a subtle touch that really actually did add some complexity and dimension, it was essentially impossible to taste in the midst of the nuclear winter of aioli and onion. Moreover, we couldn’t discern how (or even if) the patty was seasoned (the fact that it was way undercooked likely didn’t help, since the overabundance of juices masked whatever gasping residue of seasoning survived the gustatory onslaught of the onions and sauce).

There are a couple of potential fixes here (I’m not sure how accommodating the restaurant would be of requests like these or how effective they might be, but it certainly is worth a shot). Most obvious would be to order the aioli on the side, and remove a few of the onions prior to diving in. Next, ask for your burger to be cooked medium to medium-well. If they tell you the burger will be cooked through, ask them to go a even shade further on the well-done end than they normally would. Finally, the burger comes with a little tub of ketchup for the French fries (which, parenthetically, were delicious). Add a little. The burger’s flavor profile would have benefited a lot from the sweetness that ketchup imparts. It might have blunted the harsh front-end flavors that made the burger tough to enjoy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the other food Shannon and I had while at Ledlow was delicious. Creamy deviled eggs wedded beautifully with indulgent strips of leathery Tasso ham and misty tarragon, all anchored by perfectly proportioned potatoes, which added just enough starch to keep the dish grounded. It was easy to see why this is another of Ledlow’s signature dishes. Their vegetable crudités also looked stunning, a long piece of wood bearing various and sundry fruits and vegetables – some raw and some sumptuously grill-blackened. The dishes here are brave for their simplicity. It is all about preparation and quality here. When Ledlow hits, it hits hard and memorably. Unfortunately, the burger was simply disappointing.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.10 / 10.00
Value: 6.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 4.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.40 / 10.00
Bun: 6.50 / 10.00
Patty: 7.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.60 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 64.00 / 100.00