The Top Ten (So Far…Again)

All right, it’s been a while since I told you the best spots to grab a burger in this town of ours, and there have been some changes in the interim. So, here they are again. The ten best burgers I’ve eaten so far on this journey of mine (mind you, I’m only just now nearing the 20% completion mark, so take this with a grain of salt):

  1. In-N-Out (93.00 / 100.00)
  2. The Bowery (91.90 / 100.00)
  3. Super Burger (90.00 / 100.00)
  4. The Flintridge Proper (88.70 / 100.00)
  5. Badmaash (88.10 / 100.00)
  6. Pie ‘N Burger (87.10 / 100.00)
  7. Belcampo Meat Co. (85.20 / 100.00)
  8. Father’s Office (84.90 / 100.00)
  9. Cassell’s Hamburgers (84.80 / 100.00)
  10. Tie: Eggslut and the Spicy Chicken Sandwich at Chick-Fil-A (both received an 83.70 / 100.00)

Okay, so now you’ve got some hot new spots to try, and you know which burgers from the previous installation stood the test of time. Go forth and get ’em.

The L.A. Weekly Burger Battles

I owe Shannon for the tip on this one. She managed to reach me through the thick, noxious, mind-altering fog of bar exam preparation (which is also what I’m offering by way of an excuse for the lack of reviews lately), and apprise me of something of which I was shamefully unaware.

So apparently, LA Weekly is running a burger bracket. They’ve put sixteen burgers in Los Angeles into categories (“divisions”), and they’re putting them up in a head-to-head, winner-advances tournament. It’s not clear how they chose these sixteen burgers. There were some on the list that really didn’t belong, and others that were undoubtedly snubbed. The first round is over, and here are a few quick thoughts heading into Round Two (the “elite eight”):

  • Ledlow beating out Belcampo Meat Co. is the most ridiculous miscarriage of justice since, well, this. Or this. Or this. Or this. God, that last one really hurt.
  • Actually, the whole “Fancy” bracket kind of sucks. Not only were both matchups incorrectly decided, those burgers decidedly, well, just aren’t that fancy. Though I suppose fancy is relative.
  • It’s not clear what the “New School” Bracket actually is, considering some of those places have been around longer than, say, Ledlow, and are decidedly classic burgers (I’m thinking the Oinkster).
  • I don’t know how these sixteen burgers got their feet in the door. This is arbitrary as shit.
  • If the final is anything besides In-N-Out v. Plan Check, this bracket is a crime on par with…well, this. Which isn’t to say that Plan Check should even be in the final, because…ugh, where do I even start?

Now, your humble correspondent was snubbed for an invitation to judge the competition. I’m as perplexed as you are. However, I’ve decided to do the next best thing and offer you my suggested votes for the next round. Do with this information what you will.

Fancy Division: Pick Petit Trois (because you can’t pick Belcampo (because Gillian Ferguson’s tastebuds apparently are less functional than the cuff buttons on an rented tuxedo)).

New School Division: Go with Plan Check. Neither of these places really represent the best of what I think of as “New School” burgers in Los Angeles, but it’s the better of the two.

L.A. Originals Division: Close, but it’s got to be Father’s Office. But the even closer call would be “Which of these places offers a more unpleasant dining experience?” That’s a genuine toss-up.

Fast Food Division: If you have to ask, we’re obviously not in one another’s lives. It’s In-N-Out. By a marathon of country miles, it’s In-N-Out.

This is one to watch closely. In the meantime, you definitely should go do your civic duty.

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

Ashland Hill

IMG_3219Two things will occur to you immediately when you walk into Ashland Hill. First, you likely will think something to the effect of, “How am I going to get a seat at this place?” Seating at Ashland Hill approaches Father’s Official levels of maddening awkwardness. After hovering like a stalker for twenty to thirty minutes around a group of hipster-y, Venice-y surf nerds (who, parenthetically, are engaging in a troubling amount of PDA), you eventually notice another group of people get up, and you bolt over to grab their vacated table like it’s the golden snitch.

The next thing you note is a mural over the far end of the patio. It appears to be Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Next to Humphrey and Lauren is a Raymond Chandler quote: “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.” Egregious hanging prepositions aside (Shame on you, Ray; and shame on you, Ashland Hill, for memorializing such deviant grammatical practices on your walls), it isn’t immediately (or subsequently) clear whether that’s a tip of the cap to Santa Monica, or an oblique indication that going to Ashland Hill is the brand of bad habit to which Santa Monica is so happily conducive. But I guess that’s neither here nor there.

Otherwise, Bradley Miller’s spot is pretty much what you’d expect. It’s appropriately trendy for a beer garden located in that soft space where Santa Monica starts to melt into Venice. The hostess is sweet but superfluous (she doesn’t seat you; she merely explains the fact that sitting and eating at that restaurant is a logistical clustercuss). The service is competent and unobtrusive. The food comes out fast. The staff are friendly enough that you have a perfectly pleasant experience, but not so friendly as to allow you to forget that they’re way cooler than you. The clientele oozes practiced quirkiness.

Regardless of all that ballyhoo, this much is certain: There are many places in Santa Monica the Project is slated to try. Ashland Hill generated more excitement among the locals than most of them. So on Wolf’s last night in town, he, Alexandra, Rumi, Megan, and I went to see what all the fuss was about.

The Place
Ashland Hill
2807 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405

The Order: Ashland Hill Burger, medium rare (herb and parmesan fries included)

The Price: $17 (before tax)

The Burger
It seems pretty clear that Ashland Hill was looking to do something a bit different here. There are a lot of singular flavors here, and they interact in novel ways. The best way to understand it, I think, will be for me to describe the individual pieces, and then talk about one interaction that stuck with me.

First, there’s the meat. Ashland Hill employs a strange pressing technique. I don’t know what it is, but the patty is texturally and structurally distinct from any other burger I’ve ever had. In the first place, it’s coarse. But more notably (and kind of relatedly, actually), the patty seems to fall apart – not melt, but actually crumble – as you eat it. And that seems intentional.

It’s weird, but it works. You bite into the burger, and the patty kind of fragments in your mouth as you eat. It’s very strange, but it also exposes a larger surface area of meat to your mouth, which can never be a bad thing. The result? You really taste the beef, even through all the other ingredients. The patty is topped with a thick melted slab of what is advertised as sharp white cheddar cheese (but which is, in point of fact, quite mild-mannered indeed), and it sits atop a bed of cool watercress, leafy and distantly peppery.

Next, there is the paprika aioli. It is a bright, burnt orange, adding a nice burst of color. The sunny, dusty, spicy flavor of paprika is very present, even through the eggy base of the sauce. Though it isn’t half bad, the aioli is probably the most confusing part of the burger, if I’m being honest. But more on that in a hot minute.

I suspect Ashland Hill is proudest of the bacon and red onion jam that coats the patty (or they should be). It’s titanic. Chunks of bacon and onion hang suspended in a sweet, vaguely fruity matrix. Internally, this jam plays on the sweet-savory contrast, and serves a similar role within the context of the entire burger (on balance it’s sweet, so in its capacity as a topping, it complements the other savory components). It also adds an interesting textural subtlety to the burger.

Yeah, this is some rococo shit.

By far the most important interaction in the burger is that between the jam and the aioli. While I’m hesitant to call it a flaw, I conclusively can say the decision to include both didn’t make a ton of sense to me. The flavors butted heads, because the paprika couldn’t coexist peacefully with the sweet little ropes of onion or the bricks of bacon. It’s not entirely clear why the aioli needed to be a paprika aioli as opposed to…anything else.

Using multiple sauces – or sauce analogues, like jams or relishes – is a risky proposition. It demands careful balancing and perfect proportioning. While the sauces on this burger seem to have been conceived really carefully, it’s less clear that the decision to put them together was as well thought-out. Ultimately, they get in each others’ way. For my money, I’d ditch the aioli altogether. Luckily, that’s an option; modifications are welcome, and they’ll happily hold the aioli.

That minor balancing gripe aside, this is a good burger. The beef is good and well-assembled. The ingredients are fresh and well prepared. The bun is eggy, rich, and hardy. It holds up well to the substantial slab of meat it’s tasked to contain, and supplies its share of flavor without being too intrusive. The only other complaint, then, is that it’s really expensive. At seventeen bucks, it’ll put a dent in your wallet. That said, it’s a huge meal. I came hungry and ate half of mine (for reference, Wolf came feeling normal and demolished his inside of ten minutes. For further reference, he’s very manly and I am less manly). And it comes with (decent but thoroughly uninspiring) herb and parmesan fries. So it’s expensive, but not utterly unjustifiable.

All told, if you don’t mind braving the seating nightmare, taking the financial hit, and holding the aioli, Ashland Hill has a pretty good, if slightly baroque, burger for you.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 5.50 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 6.70 / 10.00

Total: 83.60 / 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

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