Winsome

The Place
Winsome
1115 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90012

IMG_0580Winsome is not on Sunset Boulevard.  Head west down Sunset (away from Downtown) and as you pass Beaudry, you’ll see the Holy Community Church on your right.  Beyond that, you’ll see a new apartment building made of white stone and glass.  Just past the church, make a right on to White Knoll Drive.  That’s where Winsome is, in the ground floor of the aforementioned stone and glass building.  Just a public service announcement, lest you wind up wandering aimless and befuddled down Sunset like Kelsey, Erin, and I did (that is, until finally we gave up and called the restaurant to whimper a desperate request for directions).

I couldn’t help but wonder why they say they’re on Sunset if the restaurant demonstrably is not on Sunset?  Well, this is Los Angeles, which means it’s all about appearances.  It’s easier to brand yourself as a trendy new Los Angeles eatery if you’ve got an address on an iconic Los Angeles thoroughfare.  Per contra, it’s much harder to do it when you front some tributary with a name that sounds like a sleepy cul-de-sac.  And if people get confused or lost by this branding chicanery, all the better; being impossible to find in spite being on a major street is another mark of effortless cool.

Make no mistake, though.  This place is far more polished than Echo Park, a neighborhood renowned more for its unvarnished charm than for its sparkling new real estate developments.  It’s beautiful for being the situs of a cultural collision of sorts, where numerous ethnic and socioeconomic groups live side by side.  There’s something aspirational about that Echo Park.

Winsome represents the “new” (or, if you prefer, the “approaching”) Echo Park.  The building that houses it resembles one of those swanky new high rises over by L.A. Live.  It’s the kind of building that one suspects will be ubiquitous in a few years’ time.  It’s the kind of building that multiplies and slowly, inexorably drains the charm right out of a place, until all that’s left is a spiritually vacant enclave occupied by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of incalculably basic USC alumni.  It’s a nice enough building in itself, but as more of them crop up, before long, Echo Park will be a place where you only see soul if it’s immediately followed by the word “cycle.”

Right, anyway; the restaurant.

Winsome has developed a fair amount of buzz as a brunch-and-pastry spot.  Its light-wood, airy interior has the body of a diner but the heart of a case study house.  The long, dining room is flanked along one edge by a long, white oak bar and on the other by booths with windows for walls.  This breezy, midcentury space spills out onto an idyllic patio, on which strings of lights hang languidly above.  This charming outdoor area is loosely packed with amateur food photographers trying to no-filter their way to fame.

But it still bears markers of the old Echo Park.  Our laconic waiter was clad all in black but for old white Reeboks and an apron the color of pond scum (the latter of which was splattered inexplicably with persimmon-hued paint).  He oozed edgy and aloof Echo Park cool, and he did his job without all the fanfare of interpersonal warmth.

Atmosphere aside, the place is renowned for its brunch offerings.  The pastries are local celebrities and, in the aggregate, merit the acclaim they receive (the strawberry-vanilla brioche is especially superb).  The caramelized grapefruit is a novel idea, but largely ham-fisted in execution.  The slathering of honey provides a syrupy front end to the flavor profile, yielding a product that tastes like Taylor Swift’s personality: saccharine on the surface, but ultimately and fundamentally marred by a gothic – almost corporate, definitely innate – bitterness.

There is a burger on the menu, but no one really talks about it.  I went with Kelsey and Erin to find out if they ought to talk about it.

The Order: The Burger

The Price: $16

The Burger
There’s a scene in The Fountainhead where Ellsworth Toohey says to Howard Roark, “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here.  Why don’t you tell me what you think of me?  In any words you wish.  No one will hear us.”  Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you.”  That exchange flitted into my head as I tried to collect my thoughts in preparation for writing this; I just didn’t have that many thoughts to collect.

On the face of it, there’s nothing objectionable about this burger, and one might even think there is the potential for something quite good.  The bun is a seeded pan de mie sourced from Gjusta.  A bun from a different bakery is an odd choice for a restaurant that prides itself on its superlative baked goods, but I suppose Gjusta is an estimable choice if you’ve chosen to outsource your bun-making.  Delicately sweet and soft at its heart with perfectly toasted edges, this bun was the highlight of the burger.  The patty is about a third of a pound of grass-fed Sunfed Ranch beef, with a slice of milky white Hook’s aged cheddar melted on top.  It is rounded out by pickled shallots (allegedly) and a tall, tangled stack of mustard frills.

The server recommended I order the patty cooked medium.  That was an error; it was overcooked, dry, and charmless.  The patty scarcely deserved the exceptional cheese that was melted on top of it, a truly lovely Hook’s aged white.  It was distantly sweet, mild, perfectly melted, and utterly wasted by the lifeless piece of flesh it was meant to complement.

With a better cast around it, this cheese would have been a wonderful final touch.  But even ignoring the patty, the rest of the burger is rather a mess.  The mustard greens were flaccid, virally overabundant, and bland.  The pickled shallots so nearly approached absolute zero on the palate that I actually doubted their existence.  The sauces, served on the side, were ketchup (from a bottle) and an almost oppressively banal aioli, which essentially tasted like mayonnaise that had been left sitting out.  They weren’t much, but they were just about all I tasted every time I took a bite.

I rarely make overt mention of price unless it is a virtue.  In this case, though this is far from an offensive product, it does not even nearly approach being worth $16.  This price tag is wholly unjustifiable.  I couldn’t help feeling I was paying for the delicious inattention of our server and the string of patio lights more than I was paying for a good meal.  I very seldom feel as though I have wasted money eating a burger.  This was one such occasion.

This is a burger without personality; it is a lazily conceived pro forma offering that expresses nothing, demands nothing, gives nothing.  It smacks of brunch menu tokenism (which is a thing I made up just now, but essentially amounts to the creative minds behind this restaurant saying something like, “Ugh, we probably should put more lunch items on this menu, because otherwise it’ll be all ‘br’ and no ‘unch.'”).

Is this the folly of a young restaurant?  Probably not.  Most young restaurants err by trying too hard.  This just feels lazy.  There’s something respectable in a calculated, but ultimately botched, gamble.  There is little to respect – let alone consider or discuss – in paint-by-numbers concepts executed poorly.

So try as I might, it’s hard to articulate exactly what I think of it.  I just don’t think of it.  Nor should you.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 4.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.20 / 10.00
Bun: 9.10 / 10.00
Patty: 6.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 4.80 / 10.00
Balance: 6.30 / 10.00

Total: 67.40 / 100.00

Petit Trois

The Place
Petit Trois
718 North Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038

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I was talking to my friend Peter last week about Petit Trois.  He went there with his wife recently, and ordered the omelette.  I’m not sure Peter is an omelette connoisseur, but he certainly is an educated enthusiast.  Anyway after a few bites of their omelette – a facially pedestrian offering with nothing more Boursin (yes, from the box) pepper cheese and a dusting of chives  – his wife asked if it was the best omelette he’s ever had.  “No,” he replied, “it’s the first omelette I’ve ever had.”

That’s what makes Ludo Lefebvre special.  His strength is not so much in wildly innovative concepts (though one trip to Trois Mec will show you he’s no slouch in that regard), but rather in expression.  Whatever the concept, from veal belly with crispy artichoke on down to a double cheeseburger, Lefebvre cannot be matched in execution.  Each dish is prepared with such skill and care, that his food has the potential to transcend quality and establish itself in your mind as an archetype of what a certain dish should be like.

Ludo Lefebvre is the rare chef who can make a simple dish feel definitional.  Not every dish achieves it, but when one does, you feel it, and to describe it is really just to speak normatively about how every dish of that kind ought to taste.  I’ll stop short of saying that his best offerings are infused with the intent of the divine, but the thought occurred to me.

The Order: Big Mec

The Price: $18

The Burger
Even if the name Petit Trois isn’t immediately familiar to you, you likely know more about it than you realize.  It’s the daughter restaurant of Trois Mec, at which reservations are famously difficult to secure, but which offers among the finest tasting menus in the city.  Petit Trois, then is an approximately Le Comptoir-sized appendage to its venerable – albeit only marginally larger – parent.  Though the restaurants have markedly different personalities, they share more than a wall; they have a common creative nucleus: Ludo Lefebvre teams with Los Angeles culinary power pair Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (the minds behind Animal, Son of a Gun, and Jon & Vinny’s) on these two gems tucked away in a strip mall behind a gas station.  Don’t let the understated location fool you, though – this part of mid-city is a culinary hotspot.  Just across the street is the mighty, higher-profile Mozzaplex, where Nancy Silverton et. al. have been slinging really important food for decades.

Roughly speaking, Petit Trois is a French lunch counter.  Reservations are not accepted, and the menu is a cheesy, framed and laminated piece of printer paper.  They serve comfort food which oozes with nostalgic sentimentality (for instance, every Sunday, Ludo Lefebvre – continuing a family tradition – does a chicken roast, where a half chicken is offered atop mirepoix, a bed of rough-cut vegetables redolent of a French country table).  The dishes are, in concept, often childishly simple.  Confit-fried chicken with bitter-cool frisée.  The aforementioned omelette has a flavor profile simple enough not to overwhelm my five year-old niece, but a subtle, buttery complexity that would floor just about anyone.

The cheeseburger is similar.  The name is a tip of the cap to an iconic – though hardly estimable – progenitor, and the inspiration, weirdly enough, is discernible.  The Big Mec is a double cheeseburger featuring two patties, Tillamook cheddar, all utterly drenched in Russian mayonnaise and house-made bordelaise sauce jammed between two brioche buns.  This burger is a study in messy decadence.  It bleeds sauce over its edges like a fountain.  The bottom bun is coated with the two sauces but somehow not soggy, and incredibly, never even threatens disintegration.

The concept here is to unify simplicity and excess.  At first blush, that might seem paradoxical, but it works in practice.  This burger is decadent without being overwrought.  It takes simple ideas and presents them in a maximalist fashion.  It is the culinary equivalent of “Untitled,” the first song off Interpol’s debut, Turn On the Bright Lights.  In that song, Paul Banks repeatedly intones the promissory phrase, “I will surprise you sometime, I’ll come around,” amid a swirling, sparkling, ever-rising torrent of Stratocaster.  There isn’t much to it; but it’s arresting because the same idea, the same brief, haunting, beautiful motif, is pounded into your head so many times.  That approach informs this dish as well.  Of course, the concept would be nothing without execution.  The Big Mec is executed masterfully.

The cheese is perfectly melted but still decidedly solid – it has heft and mass.  And it’s Tillamook, so it’s approachable: sharp and flavorful without being too overpowering.  The patties are stellar, massive things.  Charred on the outside, pink on the inside, irrepressibly juicy and thick.  They absorb only some of the ocean of sauce, but it’s enough to subtly change the flavor of the meat.

At bottom, this burger is about the sauces.  And really, it’s about the bordelaise.  The Russian mayonnaise is piquant, fresh, and just creamy enough, but it is utterly overshadowed by its companion.  The bordelaise at Petit Trois is made with red wine and veal stock and mounted with foie gras (usually, the mount is butter).  It is astounding.  It teeters on the boundary between boozy and acidic, like wine a few atoms away from oxidation.  But it is given shape, depth, and balance by the foie gras mount.  In the end, everything about it feels decadently intentional.  It is the most challenging, but also the most comforting, bordelaise you’ll likely ever taste.  It is smooth but also sharp, mellow but also bright.  It is also just about omnipresent in this burger…and you’ll still want more.  It also creates a beautiful, natural mash-up with the Russian mayonnaise – so natural, in fact, that the sauces feel more coextensive than cooperative.

You’ll ravenously devour this plate of food.  Your hands and teeth will drip with oxblood bordelaise and Russian mayonnaise the color of cooked salmon.  You will do violence to this burger.  The taste of the sauces will linger in your mouth long after you finish.  You will be exhausted, you will be panting.  You will look down at the plate, full to the gills, and you will ache for more.  You’ll see the pool of what’s left of the two sauces, intermixed, looking like a Woolnaugh endpaper, and you’ll wish it wasn’t over.

This is a cheeseburger.  Other things we previously might have known as cheeseburgers do not deserve the privilege of sharing a categorical identity with this dish.  It is the archetypal burger:  comforting, rich, indulgent, decadent, massive, messy, meaty, subtle, warming, unpretentious but refined, accessible, filling, and utterly delicious.

Make no mistake: This is as indispensable an eating experience as the critically acclaimed tasting menu across the wall.  If you have not yet eaten this cheeseburger, it may well be argued that you have never eaten a cheeseburger at all.  The Big Mec at Petit Trois is nothing short of a masterpiece.  Drive quickly, order quickly, but eat slowly.  After all, this will be your first cheeseburger – you should savor it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 10.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.90 / 10.00
Bun: 9.90 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 10.00 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 95.70 / 100.00

Tyler’s Burgers

The Place

Tyler’s Burgers
149 South Indian Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA 92262

No reservations
Bar: Beer and wine
Cash only

You’re eight years old, maybe nine.  It’s the height of summer—say, early July?  You’ve settled comfortably into your vacation, and your dreaded return to school is not yet on the radar.  You can’t really tell the days apart; they blend together into an undifferentiated mass of weekdays and weekends and friends and sunburns and beach days and day trips and sun-warmed pools.  You bask in the delicious swelter of the long summer days.  You feel invincible, ageless.

On one of those days, a day quite literally like every other early July day, your parents take you to a cookout at a friend’s house.  You walk into your friend’s backyard, grass brushing against the sides of your feet left bare by your sandals.  You hear laughter and beer cans opening.  You smell freshly-cut grass soaked in lemonade spills and sprinkler spray, the delicate cloud of sweet summer sweat, chlorinated water, and—above all—the smell of smoke, charcoal, and crackling grilled meat.

Hold that picture for a moment.

Diana Diamico started a restaurant based on that kind of picture.  Two decades ago, she set up shop in a sixty year-old building on the main drag in Palm Springs.  It used to be a Greyhound Bus depot.  Her goal was to recreate a burger that her mother used to sling way back when at a burger stand on the boardwalk in Venice Beach.  That burger, so firmly rooted in Diamico’s memories of childhood, “became the foundation of knowing the difference between mediocrity and the best.”  It also became the foundation stone of her business.

Diamico’s burger, then, is a nod to the past, to a time when things felt—were?—simpler.  Maybe that’s an excessively romantic way to think about a burger (especially if you’re one of those cynical millennial types), but nostalgia is a powerful emotion.  It affects not only what we like, but also—not least in the case of Diamico—what we do.  Tyler’s is a business built on memories.  It’s also been held that you can’t get a better burger in Palm Springs.  Well, Kelsey and I were out there for the long weekend, so we went to give it a try.

The Order: Cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger

The Price: $8 (cheeseburger), $9.50 (bacon cheeseburger)

The Burgers
It might seem odd that I’m reviewing two burgers at once—and it’s true; usually I don’t do that.  But these two offerings weren’t different enough to merit separate reviews.  If you’re like me, your instincts would guide you towards ordering the bacon cheeseburger, because bacon.  Now, while it’s hard to say that ordering the bacon cheeseburger is flat out misguided (especially if you’re into that sort of thing), I can’t endorse it.  To my mind, the bacon is more of a distraction than a complement here—albeit a delicious, delicious distraction (especially if you’re into that sort of thing).  But that isn’t an indictment of the bacon cheeseburger so much as it is a veneration of the standard cheeseburger.  I think the order is the regular cheeseburger with American cheese and grilled onions.  Hold the tomato for bonus points (I had it on the bacon cheeseburger, and it didn’t add much).

Go back to that picture in your head.  You’re at the barbecue and you’re handed a hastily arranged burger.  The garnishes are simple: an oozing sheet of American cheeese, crisp lettuce, bright pickles, succulent tomato, maybe some sweet, charmingly flaccid rings of grilled onion.  The sauces are conventional, unfussy: ketchup, yellow mustard, and a thin glaze of mayonnaise mixing into some unnamed but familiar metacondiment the color of a sunset.

Tyler’s has done a pretty good job of recreating that burger.  It’s not necessarily this burger that’s memorable.  It’s that it evokes really fond memories.  If you’re like me, this burger will around feelings of nostalgia in you. It’s the taste of a summer barbecue.  It’s the taste of being told to wait a half hour before swimming.  The patty is substantial – seven ounces at least.  Were I to complain that it was a touch overcooked, that would only be a matter of taste.  The outside of the patty is deliciously crackled by the flat top, the inside juicy and savory enough.  The sponge bun is the stuff of In-N-Out dreams, but slightly thicker.  That’s okay, given the thickness and heft of the patty.

The toppings are all solid, but the cheese is the standout.  It completely covers the patty in a thick, dripping sheet.  Swiss is an option, but I can’t imagine it topping the American I chose.  I’ll readily stipulate that American is perhaps the most sophomoric of all the cheeses, but my gracious, it was indulgent, rich, and creamy.  And for as unfussy an expression as this burger is, it was the ideal complement.  The grilled onions were a fabulous addition too, sweet and grill-burnt.  They sank into the quicksand-like cheese until the two almost infused one another.  Stellar stuff.

As I ate the cheeseburger (which, to bring it full circle, probably deserves the mantle of best burger in Palm Springs), I glanced over to the bar and saw a family sitting together, presumably on a Memorial Day vacation.  Their young son couldn’t have been older than ten.  He was holding his cheeseburger aloft when I looked, to eat a hanging disc of pickle.  He had ketchup on his face.  His hands were a mess.  His too-big blue t-shirt had escaped stains for the moment, but I found myself doubting that would last as I watched him attack his burger with the gleeful abandon that summer engenders in everyone of that age.  And as I bit back into my own burger with the neat and proper sobriety of adulthood, that age felt a little closer.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.60 / 10.00
Value: 9.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.50 / 10.00 

Total: 86.70 / 100.00

Pharo’s Burgers

I was going to have a snappy photo of the bacon cheeseburger from Pharo’s Burgers. Then some dudes threw me into a pool, and my phone’s soul exploded. As a result, no picture, just a link to some other dude’s picture, which I can assure you is a faithful rendering.

There are some places you just don’t really ever check out, and don’t really hear much about either. That cool movie theatre that only plays old movies in the town where you went to college. The hike in Malibu with all those amazing views. That one coffee shop that serves coffee drinks in mason jars and makes that delicious sandwich with the prosciutto. The Warhol exhibit at that museum on the other side of town. The BodyWorks exhibit at the California Science Center. Encino.

File Pharo’s Burgers under that category. I was born and raised in Pasadena, but nobody mentioned it was any good. I never really heard about it, and I never really cared to explore it…so I never did. Recently, though, my friend Jackson told me to check it out. He goes there quite often and swore by it. What the hell, right? So yesterday, Kevin, Shanil, and I went to give it a try.

The Place
Pharo’s Burgers
1129 North Garfield Avenue
Alhambra, CA 91801

The Order: Bacon Cheeseburger

The Price: $5.95

The Burger
If you haven’t heard about this place, honestly, it’s probably because there isn’t much to say. And that’s not entirely a pejorative; Pharo’s Burgers keeps it simple. This burger is about as unfussy as it gets: a heap of shredded lettuce steeped in weakly tangy Thousand Island, a slightly jaundiced (but juicy enough) disc of tomato, a thin sheet of not-very-melted cheese, a quarter-pound chuck patty, and several strips of crumpled bacon.

Each ingredient played its role admirably, filling a very specific niche in the burger’s flavor profile. The Thousand Islands had a meek tang to it that brightened the coppice of lettuce a bit. The tomato was not of the finest caliber, mushier than it was firm. The patty was overcooked (likely intentionally so), char-broiled well past medium. The bacon was salty and crisp, providing the intended depth of flavor and textural variety, but not much more than that.

I don’t know; it was a bacon cheeseburger. Nothing felt misplaced or misguided, but nothing felt inspired. Everything here has been done before: It has been done better, and it has been done worse. It’s hard to be anything but frustratingly noncommittal. I imagine it is a little maddening to read a review that fails to adopt a firm stance – sorry – but this burger does not lend itself to roiling passion. It’s a competently executed but largely uninteresting offering. Pharo’s Burgers puts out a dish that is impossible to love or to hate. It is a place and a burger to which you will not object to returning…if prompted.

But some places, you just don’t really ever check out.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.40 / 10.00
Value: 8.30 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 5.00 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.10 / 10.00
Balance: 8.30 / 10.00

Total: 74.20 / 100.00

Pie ‘N Burger

IMG_3364
Everyone on Yelp went here after Pie ‘N Burger was featured on Food Network as the third best burger in the country. Needless to say, it got a ton of hate from the insufferable masses (“Whatever, it’s not that good. I’ve definitely had better…I won’t name a better place right now, because that would require me being constructive and actually hazarding an affirmative opinion, but I totally could if I wanted to, because I know a lot about food. Find me on Instagram!”).

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

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

Okay, I’m really done. Promise.

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

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

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

The Order: Cheeseburger

The Price: $11.45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 87.10 / 100.00

Cassell’s Hamburgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 84.80 / 100.00