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

 

Sunny Spot

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The 405 freeway is maybe best described as a piece of hell that Los Angeles chose to annex in 1964.  It (along with bananas-high taxes) is the price we pay for living in a sun-soaked paradise: a throbbing vein of gridlock, on which – at the best of hours – brake lights pulse rhythmically.  Quite often though, it’s worse, and the string of red lights in front of you looks like a fluorescent snake if you squint.

For those who live in Los Angeles, the 405 is a conversation piece.  When I meet friends for a meal in Santa Monica or Venice, inevitably I will describe to them either a) what a tragedy the 405 is today, or b) how I skillfully, creatively managed to circumvent the 405.  These topics are staples of the conversational diet in this town.  And they make us an easy target.

I recently spent a Saturday morning – and part of the afternoon – on the 405, driving to brunch at Sunny Spot.  My interminable journey through the gridlock (which, in familiarly epic largesse, spilled indulgently back onto the 101) found me listening to Loveless on repeat and texting my friend Bret with my car in park (and just to completely embody the stereotype, I’ll share that I was between Getty Center and Sunset – nightmare).

Unless you live on the west side, you’ll have to endure some version of this drive to get to Sunny Spot.  When you arrive, you’ll find a classically Venice exercise: peeling turquoise paint on which the name of the restaurant boldly is emblazoned in coral-colored cursive (think the colors of the key at the San Antonio Spurs’ arena circa 2000), a meticulously curated shabby-chic beachside dive aesthetic.  It tries hard not to try hard.

You’ll likely have lost your reservation by the time you arrive (assuming you had the foresight and misplaced optimism to make one).  So you’ll have to wait among aspirant screenwriters and armchair critics; almost impressively basic young women with protein powder-dusted boyfriends following close behind; post-surf stoners, desperately hungry and wondering why they hath forsaken Taco Bell.

It goes without saying that a tiny proportion of guests will be talking to one another.  After all, to our generation, a meal with friends merely means sitting at a table with other people who are also glued to their Instagram feed.  True to form, you’ll see the patrons of the restaurant being alone together, side-by-side but absorbed in Pokémon Go or composing sarcastic YouTube comments or adding this “memory” to their Snapchat story or whatever the intimacy-killer du jour is.

You’ll try and push this depressing portrait of collaborative loneliness out of your head.  You’ll get a greyhound from one of the surprisingly attentive bartenders (you won’t get a Bloody Mary, because they aren’t fantastic here, and you won’t get a mimosa because mimosas are sort of silly).  You’ll steep in the charming, faux-rustic atmosphere of the place, the loose and warm summer shade.  If you’re the type, you’ll lovingly muss your hair and frame a selfie or two.  You’ll wait longer than you should for a table, and do your best not to wonder if it would be easier to get a table at Providence than here.  Then you’ll remember that you should relax; it’s the weekend, and the weekend was made for wasting time.

The Order: Double Cheeseburger

The Price: $15

The Burger
The reason I bring up the 405 and the whole look of Sunny Spot is because I have to talk about them to talk about this burger.

The 405 is not just a freeway.  Well, on the surface it is.  It’s a few lanes arranged in a predetermined path, peppered by ramps every few miles.  But dig deeper, think harder, and you might be surprised with what you realize.  The 405 forces us to confront the ironic truth that, to get somewhere, we have to accept going nowhere for a while.  It wrenches us from the stupefying, swipe-right torrent of instant and meaningless gratification that occupies so much of our time and thought.  It pulls us away from the relentlessly interconnected world and makes us confront our own thoughts.  It demands the one thing so many in this generation lack: patience.

My point is that the 405 isn’t what it seems on the surface, and if you think about it in the right way, you can understand how sitting in traffic actually is a blessing, an opportunity for growth and reflection that has become vanishingly rare as our world becomes a giant touchscreen.  At the very least, it can show you that often times, there’s more to things than what you might see from a cursory look.

Sunny Spot is sort of like the 405 in that way.  If you weren’t looking all that hard, you’d see a beachy Venice restaurant with a gregarious color scheme.  You might miss the subtleties at play here.  Their brunch menu features standard items with haute tweaks.  Grana Padano in an otherwise unremarkable chop salad.  Crisp chicharron on the Cuban pork sandwich.  A sunny egg on the BLTA.

This is a place that quite clearly is trying to give you what you want in a way that’s better than you wanted.  They want to blend the familiar with the high-level.  It’s not just a beachside shack; it’s a place that is dedicated to the marked – if incremental – heightening of tastes.  This is admirable, and an especially tall order when your target audience is so often obsessed with the banal and unchallenging.

What I’m trying to get at here is the (weird, semantic) distinction between being complicated and being complex.  The 405 is complicated because it introduces logistical uncertainty in my life.  Because there are so many damn cars on it, I’m late for any plans that involve me taking the 405.  But the 405 is complex because it makes me feel something every time I’m on it, and exploring those feelings makes me think more deeply and more critically about the world around me and my interaction with it.

Sunny Spot itself is uncomplicated – it’s a simple enough formula of beautiful, precisely disheveled people and a milieu to match; but it’s complex because it seems to be at least attempting to subvert and refine the unsophisticated impulses of the very clientele to which the place – at least aesthetically – caters by subtly altering the familiar.

How does this distinction apply to burgers?  Well, it’s easy to make a burger complicated by fettering it with a slew of features.  But complexity isn’t about the number of variables in play; it’s about the depth of interaction between those variables, and it’s really about the way the thing makes you feel, what it arouses in you when you take a bite.  Sunny Spot rejects being complicated in hopes that it might achieve subtle complexity.

In eschewing all the traditional trappings, Sunny Spot is trying to challenge your preconceptions of what is indispensable on a burger.  Lettuce, tomato, ketchup: these are distractions.  Sunny Spot presents a burger with a spare flavor profile.  By reducing the number of ingredients, the goal seems to be to heighten subtle interactions rather than presenting an amalgam of various flavors.

This burger places two hefty patties smeared with American cheese front and center.  This centerpiece is rounded out with dijonnaise, pickles, and caramelized onions, all of which is sandwiched between two brioche buns.  Note that this hits every one of the basic taste triggers: sour (pickles), sweet (dijonnaise and onions), bitter (onions), salty (beef), and umami (beef and cheese).  This burger touches all the bases without giving too much of anything.

The good news is that this burger is efficiently conceived and executed.  It’s a competent exercise in lean construction.  But that’s all it is: just craft.  This burger clearly wants the diner to do the work of figuring out how these flavors are put together.  That doesn’t stop it from being good.  But it precludes greatness.

A great burger will give you a window into the mind of the person who made it.  It might even arouse memories, feelings, thoughts.  It will show you something or make you feel something.  The best food isn’t that which you can appreciate as a well-formed study in culinary craft.  It’s the food that enriches you somehow, connects with you individually, feels like it was made for you.  This burger will mean the same thing to everyone who eats it.  Few will abhor it, none will yearn for it once it’s gone.  It’s a pleasant, but eminently duplicable, experience.  As far as it goes, it’s great.  The problem is that it just doesn’t go all that far.

In this case, the distinction between complicated and complex is purely academic.  This burger is neither.  Relatively few ingredients interact in predictable, uninspired ways.  The beef and cheese overwhelm the flavor profile.  The brioche is a touch dry.  The dijonnaise and pickles are barely perceptible, so any subtle interaction between them is a whisper in a thunderstorm.  The onions are unevenly distributed on the patty, providing pockets of soupy bittersweetness.  None of this is offensive – in fact, the toppings themselves (especially the dijonnaise, oddly enough) are all quite good – but the ingredients simply stand side by side without ever cohering.  This is an orchestra tuning, not playing a symphony: the talent may be there, but the real show hasn’t started yet.

This burger was not made for you.  It was made for everyone.  It is always correct but never remarkable.  It will be good to everyone and great to no one.  Fairly, you may not care about the fine-grain distinctions between complicated and complex.  In that case, know this: you will neither regret ordering this burger nor crave it again.  But it won’t make you feel anything.  And it certainly won’t make you forget that drive.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.20 / 10.00
Value: 7.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 5.20 / 10.00
Creatvity/Style: 7.80 / 10.00
Bun: 7.80 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Balance: 7.30 / 10.00

Total: 79.20 / 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

ERB

The Place
Everson Royce Bar (ERB)
1936 7th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90021

I knew Everson Royce as a liquor store in Pasadena with a pretty good selection of whiskey and (apparently) a considerably better selection of wine. Today, it’s grown up into one of the trendiest bars in one of the trendiest neighborhoods (mine, incidentally – NBD but KBD) in Los Angeles. The façade is spartan: bare neon lights, buzzing, form the word “BAR” in white capitals. To the right of the threshold, a simple goal plaque bears the name of the bar and the year of its establishment — 2015.

Mozzaplex alumnus Matt Molina is the mind behind ERB’s menu. After a weirdly sudden (but evidently, not acrimonious) departure from the Mozza empire, Molina came here, to a scaled down bar-restaurant concept that is much less in the “high cuisine” category. From a tasteful mid-city icon with a voluminous wine list to a buzzing hipster hive with a menu section dedicated to boilermakers? Welcome to L.A.

Anyway, this burger has earned some pretty considerable hype. Nikhil, Bret, Shawn, and I went to give it a try.

The Order: Single Burger

The Price: $10

The Burger
Molina keeps it simple. The bun is buttered brioche. The patty is prime beef chuck overrun by decadent, soupy Tillamook that is something in between a topping and a sauce. There’s a thin film of a bright garlic aioli under the patty. It’s accompanied by a few wedges of dill pickle. All of the ingredients are expertly assembled and beautifully complementary. Operating at the curious nexus of minimalism and decadence, this burger is a surprising and satisfying offering.

The sweetness of the just-browned bun finishes with round notes of toasted butter that sidle up against the milky, sharp cheese before melting into the hardy, uncomplicated savor of the chuck. The aioli peeks out intermittently, not intrusive, but allowing it’s presence to be felt, and adding a subtle spark of creamy sharpness.

This might come as a surprise, but I won’t complain about the lack of toppings. There’s enough complexity in play here to keep your palate occupied from bite to bite. But when you offer a barebones presentation like this, it’s important not to cut corners on quality. Molina’s burger sidesteps the skimping issues that make Eggslut‘s burger a frustrating endeavor. The patty here is substantial enough to satisfy. The problem is in meat quality. For such a meat-centric offering, Molina asks a lot out of straight chuck. A more subtle – and yeah, maybe more indulgent – patty construction would have gone a long way towards making this burger something really special. You know, that or a few orders off the boilermaker menu.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 8.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.70 / 10.00
Patty: 7.80 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.30 / 10.00

Total: 88.10 / 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

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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

Super Burger

IMG_3289To our wild and crazy generation, Hidden in Plain View describes a (very intense, vaguely scary, definitely bad) post-hardcore band from New Jersey. But in the age of Yelp and Urbanspoon and countless food blogs purveyed by narcissistic, self-obsessed foodies screaming ignored into the aether of the interwebs (WHO NEEDS THEM, AM I RIGHT), the phrase has kind of lost its currency in the culinary world.

One thing that kind of sucks about the electronic age is that the thrill of discovery is blunted by its inevitability. It’s refreshing, then, when a truly magnificent place slips through the e-cracks and manages to escape your attention. Then, you hear about it from an actual human being, you go there and discover a place to which you know you will return countless times in the future, and it feels pretty remarkable. It’s nice to actually find something, rather than just passively accumulating and half-processing information.

My friend Andy told me about Super Burger. His experience there left him pleasantly shocked. Because here’s the thing: This place has been around forever – like, seriously, decades – but has managed to escape the detection of anyone in our social circle (and my friends and I are not disinterested in burgers, in case you’d not noticed). I was skeptical going in; between the internet grapevine and my own deep roots in Pasadena, it was nothing short of inconceivable that I would have failed to hear about a place this good.

So we went. I got an avocado bacon cheeseburger. We agreed that Serena Williams is a) the finest individual athlete in America who isn’t named Michael Phelps, b) that she makes it nearly impossible to like her in spite of that fact, and c) lots of people who don’t like her are probably just uncomfortable seeing a minority succeed at what has so traditionally been a “white sport.” And we also agreed that the writing about her heading into the U.S. Open is going to be insufferable. Because ESPN. And we also agreed that Bill Simmons seems dangerously close to becoming a citizen (or at least a permanent resident) of Whiny Bitch Victim Complex Town.

What can I say? It was a productive lunch.

The Place
Super Burger
458 N Altadena Drive
Pasadena, CA 91107

The Order: Avocado Bacon Cheeseburger, Coke.

The Price: $8.95 (approximately)

The Burger
After my first bite, the thought that occurred to me was, “How the hell did I miss this?”

There are lots of different ways to categorize burgers, but patty size is a useful way. Some places – In-N-Out pops to mind – feature thin patties. They maximize surface area and season their meat really well. Then, there are what I think of as pub-style burgers, with thicker patties that depend more heavily on the flavor of the meat and the grill.

In-N-Out sets the bar for the thin patty burger. It’s a benchmark. Now, I haven’t eaten at Super Burger enough to be conclusive about this, but let me tell you one thing. This is the best short-order burger I have eaten at any place not called In-N-Out. I think the most telling thing here is that I would frame this review by comparing this place to In-N-Out.

The patty is a roughshod, hand-packed monster, probably weighing in at no less than a half-pound. There’s no short rib or brisket anywhere near this thing – it’s a budget burger – but somehow, it manages to be juicy, intensely flavorful, and delicious. The bun is wholesale. The lettuce and tomato are throwaways, the Thousand Island adds a necessary tangy punch but is otherwise unremarkable. The onions are just fine but should probably have been grilled (I’d imagine they’d have done this had I asked). The cheese is firmly B-plus stuff. The action happens with the four massive wedges of astonishingly fresh, firm, flavorful avocado and the perfectly crisp, sumptuously undulating strips of bacon. The interplay between this and the ever surprising beef is nothing short of astounding. Seriously.

Another point: Conventional wisdom will direct you to get the teriyaki burger. I have it on good authority that you should ignore the conventional wisdom. I can tell you that the avocado bacon cheeseburger is, by fast food standards, revelatory. Sure, it’s not a gourmet, grass-fed, organic, dry-aged situation. But over the decades that Super Burger has sat on that corner, leaning into a residential neighborhood, they apparently have perfected their craft. If In-N-Out sets the bar for the thin patty burger, Super Burger may well set the bar for the pub style burger.

I could wax superlative about this place for a while. I could tell you how you have to haul ass to Pasadena (and then keep driving east once you get to the cool part). I could Come Full Circle and tell you how this burger reminded me how good it feels to really discover a new place without the crutch of the Internet, or how this burger is like the Serena Williams of pub-style burgers, only without the shitty attitude (or reactionary racist blowback). And all that is true. But in all honesty, this is just a completely delicious burger that you should eat whenever you have a chance but are short on time.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.50 / 10.00
Value: 9.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 9.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.80 / 10.00

Total: 90.00 / 100.00

The Escondite

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

The Price: $32.16, all told.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 61.10 / 100.00

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

Total: 83.40 / 100.00

B-Man’s Teriyaki and Burgers

IMG_3178B-Man’s is one of those chains that most people in Los Angeles have never heard of. This is probably due to the fact that it’s market presence is concentrated farther east than most tragically hip Angelenos ever dare to venture (“Ewww, you mean it’s in the part of Pasadena that’s closer to, like, Alhambra?”). But it’s been around for longer than most people realize, serving up a singular hybrid of American, Japanese, and Hawaiian fast food for over a decade now.

B-Man’s has locations in Pasadena, Azusa, and Duarte and a super-cheesy website. So maybe their PR department could use a personnel shuffle. But none of that is particularly relevant to the quality of their burger. I decided to eat B-Man’s for dinner tonight. I called in around 8 pm to place my order, and they were just wrapping it up when I arrived around 8:12.

The Place
B-Man’s Teriyaki and Burgers
3007 Huntington Drive, #102
Pasadena, CA 91107

The Order: Double ABC Burger, no tomato, Swiss Cheese.

The Price: $5.05 (excluding tax).

The Burger
The Double ABC burger is kind of a monster. It features two patties of about four ounces, lettuce, pickles, avocado, and a healthy drizzle (okay, a veritable deluge) of honey-based teriyaki. The buns are flimsy, bulk-bought affairs. The patties are coated with bubbly melted Swiss cheese (American is an option too, but make like you’re opening a bank account to cover up financial malfeasance, and go Swiss).

This burger is not carefully prepared, or thoughtfully arranged. It does not feature locally sourced, house-ground meat. There is nothing organic in or around it. It wasn’t made by a celebrity chef (it was made by, just, like, some dudes). It’s not a gourmet burger – nor is it priced as such. This is a fast-food burger. And it’s a pretty damn good fast food burger, if not a heart-stoppingly phenomenal one.

It’s a crowd pleaser. There are all kinds of goodies on offer: Freshly grilled beef with slices of melted cheese oozing all over the patty. A foundation of creamy avocado. Crisp lettuce and pickles providing a kick of crunchy personality. And the central feature: a liberal portion of sweet, sunny teriyaki sauce drenching everything, and lighting up the flavor profile of the burger like a honeyed Roman candle.

The teriyaki is a delightful, decadent touch. It contrasts beautifully with the charred beef (and indeed, it elevates it). But that’s just one of many contrasts present in this cheeseburger. Another one, subtle but lovely, is how the sweet-sour snap of the pickles flirts with the velvety avocados, imparting depth of texture and of flavor.

In spite of all the contrasts that are present in this burger, in spite of its busy (occasionally overwhelming) flavor profile, the burger makes sense. It’s pretty well-composed, and the toppings complement each other nicely. It’s far from an intuitive collection of ingredients, but it works. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

The problem, then, is that the burger doesn’t employ the best tools (the parts – that is, the ingredients – aren’t worth all that much). Nothing here, save for the sauce, is of impressively high quality. The bun is uninspired wholesale fare. The meat of the patty tastes like standard unseasoned chuck, and the hope seems to have been to char-grill away any deficiencies in quality or dearth of flavor. And while the teriyaki does a decent job of masking the fact that the patties aren’t really a worthy centerpiece to this burger, it can’t compensate for the lack of flavor that attends using meat that just isn’t that fantastic. Similarly, the avocados, lettuce, and pickles are serviceable, but not stellar.

Inescapably, by the time I’d scarfed down this burger (maybe tellingly, this isn’t one you savor), I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened had it been made with higher quality ingredients and more careful preparation. That may not be entirely fair, since this is a five-dollar burger we’re talking about. On the other hand, in a world where In-N-Out exists, I expect more from fast food restaurants. This burger may only cost five bucks, but that’s appreciably more than a double-double, which never leaves any doubts as to quality (at any level).

B-Man’s offers a burger based on a good concept, and which has some very real strengths. At bottom though, it feels like they cut corners with ingredient quality and preparation. This is a burger you could probably duplicate – maybe even best – in your kitchen. There’s something to be said for having a good idea, but without execution to match it, you’re left with a product that will always satisfy, but never inspire.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 6.60 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.60 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.90 / 10.00
Bun: 6.10 / 10.00
Patty: 7.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.10 / 10.00
Balance: 8.90 / 10.00

Total: 73.00 / 100.00