Shake Shack

The Place
Shake Shack
8520 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

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If you never caught the new (like, that new new) Star Wars movie, then you missed out on Kylo Ren, the most angst-addled villain to grace the silver screen in quite some time (you may know him better as the darkest-skinned – but still white, of course – person on Girls).  See, Kylo Ren is angsty because he wants very badly to be compared favorably to Darth Vader.  He wants to be the next Darth Vader.  So he acts and talks the part.  He commands with unforgiving brutality.  He wears the mask that changes his voice, even though he doesn’t need it.  Think of his relationship with Darth Vader as being kind of like Rivers Cuomo’s relationship with Buddy Holly.

And much like Cuomo, he just isn’t quite as special as his idol.  Deep, withering suspicions – that he’s ultimately just a pale imitation of the thing he strives to be – roil in him.  They consume him.  And most of all, they make him hate the character in the film who he recognizes as truly special, truly significant.  She achieves everything he’s worked so hard for, and she doesn’t even have to try.

It’s a common trope in our world and our folklore: the figure who longs to be a feature of history, but really is just a footnote.  These are people with lofty aspirations to emulate and evoke truly monumental figures, but ultimately, they are undone by their inability to recognize that the mere imitation of an act or a sound may not – and probably will not – capture the subtleties and complexities that exist beneath it.  What I mean is, Kylo Ren choking a person out as part of his WWDVD? mentality is quite different from what animated Darth Vader – namely, living at the nexus between guilt and doubt and rage.

Similarly, putting together a burger that features some of the same ingredients as those featured on the best chain burger money can buy doesn’t guarantee that you’ll best In-N-Out.  And so, in a swaggering and expansive outpost on Santa Monica Boulevard, Shake Shack joins the ranks of these reductive imitators, clamoring for attention and plaudits, begging for favorable comparisons to a great institution.

Shake Shack is the latest in a long line of burger chains that demand to be compared to In-N-Out.  It is a chain that builds buzz via sophomoric articles like this.  Never mind that the two are in no way comparable.  The one is an international chain with an expansive menu (including three different burgers, seasonal/weekly/monthly/whateverly flavors of ice cream, bespoke craft beer, Abita root beer on tap, Cold Stone Creamery style concretes), the other is willfully limited.  The one is surprisingly expensive, the other almost guilt-inducingly cheap.

But the comparison is being made.  So if you drive by Shake Shack, you will see crowds of impossibly cool West Hollywood types: New York imports with trendy haircuts; t-shirts featuring a sneering slogan or maybe a reference they only almost understand; shadowed and lined eyes drooping under the weight of their contempt for the world, smiling with half their face as they post a link from a blog about an article they haven’t read about a study they haven’t read but which reinforces the fact that everyone who disagrees with their particular opinion on their particular cause celebre du jour (based on exhaustive review of numerous blog posts like this) is ill-informed and probably malicious.

These are people bound together by fibrous, almost extant strands of supercilious energy, people who are fueled not by the Krebs cycle like the rest of us, but by the knowledge of their superiority.  And even for these walking superlatives, the need to know if Shake Shack really is better than In-N-Out is so pressing, so dire, that it can wrest them from the urgent business of being better than you.

I went with my parents and Kelsey.  Because while I may not be cool, I am the purveyor of a publication about burgers in Los Angeles, so I’m drawn to trendy burger spots like a fly to a turd.

The Order: Shack Burger

The Price: $5.29 (not including fries or drink)

The Burger
Roughly speaking, I think there are two types of people who might argue that Shake Shack is better than In-N-Out: the first are the reflexively contrarian naysayers.  These are people who don’t have particularly strong or well-developed feelings about In-N-Out (or any alternative), but dislike its ubiquitous appeal and enjoy the idea that their opinion is challenging and controversial.  Then there are people who need New York to be better at everything (rather than just better at being bigger and smellier).  I’ve talked about this phenomenon at some length before.

The goal of this piece, though, is not to take up the issue with either group.  In point of fact, I prefer not to entertain the comparison at all.  As I mentioned before, these restaurants are different enough that the comparison itself is more than a little spurious.  Shake Shack is a peri-industrial hipster chic millennial iteration of a soda fountain, whereas In-N-Out begins and ends as a burger stand out of time, a relic of its founding age.  Another reason behind my rejection of a comparative discussion – and I smirk as I type this – is that these two products are not in the same league.

Shake Shack’s offering features an oversalted, overcooked patty, watery tomato, heat-wilted lettuce, and insipid Thousand Island (Shack sauce) between two feeble, infirm, too-doughy potato buns (this actually surprised me, because I remembered the buns being much better when I first tried Shake Shack in Washington, D.C.).  The entire presentation is a pittance, a burger so small it barely qualifies as a burger.  You will not savor every bite, and after you finish, you will wonder why you waited in line for so long with all those impossibly self-obsessed trendchasers and paid more than double the cost of a Double-Double for it.

If in Shake Shack you were hoping to find The Chirping Crickets, you’ll have to settle for Raditude.  If you were hoping for Luke’s father, you’ll have to settle for Leia’s emo brat.  Shake Shack talks the talk.  It’s high on swagger and hype, but it’s little more than a well-appointed disappointment.  This restaurant doesn’t deliver a product worth mentioning in the same sentence as In-N-Out, let alone comparing to it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 7.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.90 / 10.o0
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.40 / 100.00

LABP x PHL: Village Whiskey

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It is conceivable that, if there is a heaven, it resembles Village Whiskey.

I’m hesitant to wax theological here; that’s a horrendously fraught enterprise, and I doubt many of you would like what I had to say. To be clear, though, I’m not saying Village Whiskey is necessarily a perfect place. But it does have a lot of the trappings of a perfect place: a robust, whiskey-focused drink selection; a menu composed by a talented chef, José Garces (the centerpiece of which is a burger); and a vibrant, friendly atmosphere that is the perfect complement to good company. And milkshakes. It’s hard to imagine heaven without milkshakes.

This is a restaurant that is proud of its burger. I went with Kevin, Rumi, and Alexis to see if that pride is misplaced. It was a busy evening: I took selfies with two random girls for them to send to their friends on Snapchat. Alexis broke a glass in rage because she drinks slowly. And between the two of them, Kevin and Rumi can’t match my check-paying skills and sneakiness. And we ate.

The Place
Village Whiskey
118 South 20th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

The Order: Village Burger, medium rare, with cheddar, bacon, avocado, and caramelized onions

The Price: $22.50 ($13 base; $2.50 for cheddar, $3.00 for bacon, $2.50 for avocado, $1.50 for caramelized onions)

The Burger
The patty is eight ounces of farm-raised Maine Angus beef, impressively juicy and roughly packed into a small puck. It’s got the hallmark structural imperfection and asymmetry of a patty that was assembled by hand. The cheddar forms a nutty glaze over the top of the beef, bleeding over the sides and into the natural crannies in the patty. The patty is balanced atop thin blades of avocado. Beams of bacon shoot out the sides of the burger like exposed girders. Anchoring it all is a slice of tomato and a couple leaves of Bibb lettuce and a thin drizzle of Thousand Island.

The customizable burger is a tricky endeavor, and it’s hard to know how to evaluate it. After all, it leaves a lot in the hands of the consumer (and therefore, out of the hands of the chef). On the other hand, it places the onus on the restaurant to provide a burger of consistent quality no matter what ingredients they’re given. Oftentimes, diners don’t know how to thoughtfully assemble ingredients and instead opt to just choose a bunch of stuff they like. By offering a relatively diverse and challenging selection of additions, Village Whiskey places a lot of trust in their customers and their kitchen staff to make everything work.

It’s nice that as a fallback, the default garnishes are limited and fresh, the Thousand Island is unobtrusive and a mostly textural element, and the beef is very precisely cooked. This sets up a strong foundation upon which the other ingredients can interact more comfortably. My selection was relatively uncomplicated, with the bacon-avocado combination doing the heavy lifting. The smokiness of the bacon was mellowed nicely by the creamy avocado. Lurking under it all, the caramelized onions were sweet and tangy, harmonizing nicely with the Thousand Island.

So yes, this is a well-balanced burger, and it’s also pretty big — but you pay for it. At $22.50, it’s one of the most expensive burgers I’ve yet eaten. Candidly, it doesn’t completely live up to its price tag, but it’s still pretty good and really satisfying (I came medium hungry and didn’t even come close to finishing this monster). And as expensive as it is, I’d recommend it. My advice: round out the experience with some duck fat fries and a whiskey cocktail (or two), then finish with a vanilla bourbon milkshake. It’ll run you quite a few bucks, but you’ll leave full, happy, and maybe even a little buzzed.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.80 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90  /10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.20 / 10.00
Balance: 9.20 / 10.00

Total: 86.90 / 100.00

Messhall Kitchen

IMG_0025Before I start, a prefatory remark. I apologize for the long delay between posts. I have been busy being an enormous catch. File this under not-so-humble humblebrag. Point is, I’ve been too occupied reading internet comments about myself and looking longingly at my own picture to eat or write about burgers. Sorry not sorry. In related news: my being featured in that campaign hasn’t made women more attracted to me. At all.

ANYWAY. Let’s talk about Messhall.

For most people, Los Feliz triggers one of three thoughts:

Los Feliz Boulevard at rush hour is one of the most compelling pieces of proof of a malevolent God;

or

Do I pronounce it like the Spanish (Los “Fe-LEES”) or do I pronounce it like the transplants who live here say it (Los “FEE-liz”)?;

or

Oh, that’s a nice place to, like, raise a young family.

If you’re me, you also think of late nights with friends at House of Pies and the 101 Café after concerts at the Wiltern, but that’s because I’m a fat kid with a nostalgic streak. You might also think of Mexico City. Or Little Dom’s (whose burger this Project imminently will tackle). What you probably don’t think of is the flourishing restaurant scene. And why would you? Sure, Los Feliz is a cool part of Los Angeles, but it really hasn’t managed to produce a real blockbuster restaurant like Downtown, mid-city, or Silver Lake have. Unless you count Sqirl. Sqirl is good. Plus, saying you got brunch there makes you hip, plugged-in, and trendy. And you can sit with people who are too cool to go to Alcove (because, like, who even does that anymore?), but who want to wear their sunglasses while they take down their frittata, or seared polenta, or whatever.

(I actually like Sqirl, but targets don’t come much easier than their clientele.)

Listen, the point is the culinary pickings in Los Feliz are pretty slim. It’s not clear that Messhall Kitchen is aiming to change the culinary reputation of Los Feliz all by itself. But it’s safe to say that this place might augur a tectonic shift in the food scene here. Their menu offers quietly multicultural and just-inventive-enough takes on comfort foods. The sweet potato tamale weds sweet corn with slow-braised, drippy pork chile verde. The poutine features fries soggy after being slathered in short-rib and cheese curds. With time, places like Messhall could well change the culinary complexion of Los Feliz (interesting, because the co-owner, Bill Chait, owns Louise’s Trattoria, one of the most aggressively uninteresting culinary experiences you can have in Los Angeles County).

But Kevin, McAdoo, and I didn’t go to taste the ground floor of a sea change in the culinary profile of Los Feliz. We went to try Messhall’s vaunted burger. Well, and McAdoo was there to help defray the simmering perception that Kevin and I have a weird relationship (we aren’t dating).

The Place
Messhall Kitchen
4500 Los Feliz Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027

The Order: Mess Burger

The Price: $16 (before tax, includes fries)

The Burger
So okay, here’s a brief anatomical rundown of the burger. There’s a bun the size of North Dakota. Then, a substantial – say between one-third and one-half pound – patty drenched in what Messhall mysteriously dubs their “smokey sauce” (I’m resisting the impulse to make a crass joke about the forest fire safety bear), a sweet, runny, terra cotta condiment in which tangy belts of slow onion swim about. Crunchy discs of bread and butter pickles are also bathed in the sauce, but not enough to hide their charming, sweet and briny bite. A leathery sheet of nutty white cheddar is melted over the patty, almost to the point of liquidity.

If that sounds like a wonderful mix of flavors to you, I agree. Unfortunately, I can’t really report to you how they interact. The bun in this burger is so structurally dominant that it actually becomes physically intrusive. It is so enormous that, with every bite, it folds over and envelops the rest of the ingredients, masking their respective flavors and their interactions with one another. Whatever subtlety there is in this burger is completely obliterated by an overmassive bun that is kind of like a pushy salesman; it just won’t let anyone else get a word in.

In one sense, I get it: the patty is juicy and there is a lot of sauce on this burger. This bun avoids the problem of over-absorption and sogginess to which a less substantial bun might have been susceptible. But for God’s sake, there’s a happy medium in there somewhere. This was way over the top. Ultimately, I had to physically deconstruct this burger to actually taste the other ingredients. I removed the top bun and put it aside, and ate the burger open-faced with a fork and knife. Which made me look, well, not great.  And was pretty ridiculous. But I do what I have to do, damn it.

Anyway, the patty was very high quality. Our server confidently recommended that we order it rare, and the meat’s natural flavor could support that preparation. The sauce tasted fine but was poorly portioned; it crowded out the other flavors, such that everything else was muddied in a smokey-sweet haze. The pickles were present, but too inextricably linked to the sauce for their flavor to shine on its own. The onions were effectively lost in the soupy swirl of the sauce. The cheese complemented the rare beef well, providing a mellow counterpart to the assertive savor of the patty.

No one should be heard to criticize this burger for the quality of its ingredients. Even the fundamental ideas informing the assembly are sound. The problem is one of proportion. The burger is oversauced, but more importantly, features a bun that literally swallows the rest of the dish. The result is a dry, spongy front end to every bite that gives way to a muddle of ingredients too chewed-up to appreciate its individual components.

One more thing: this burger is very, very expensive. For sixteen bucks, I expect something truly memorable. In one sense, Messhall gave me that. I remember this burger, just not for the right reasons. I remember this burger because it’s bun got all up in my grill (literally), and didn’t let me taste anything else. I remember it because it tasted way too much like I was eating two uncharacteristically filling pieces of bread. I remember it because I actually thought, “Man, if I want a bunch of meat and shit wrapped in bread, I’ll eat a Hot Pocket. That takes three minutes, costs a few bucks, and I can do it in my sweats.” Not the right kind of memorable.

For now, I’ll reserve judgment as to whether Messhall portends a change in the culinary scene in Los Feliz. That’s a bigger question, one more effectively addressed by someone with a deeper knowledge than I. What I can tell you is this: this burger gets a lot of good ingredients together. The sauce is distinctive but also somehow familiar. There is real potential for something special here. But the experiment is botched due to its imbalance. So if Messhall does want to spearhead a change in the food future of Los Feliz, it probably won’t do it on the back of this burger, which is good – maybe even great – in concept, but just about average in execution.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.40 / 10.00
Value: 5.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.60 / 10.00
Bun: 4.10 / 10.00
Patty: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 4.00 / 10.00

Total: 75.90 / 100.00

Original Tommy’s

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A couple of weeks ago, I saw Blue Streak was on television. I was twelve when that movie came out, and I loved that shit. I saw it in the theater twice. I bought it on DVD and watched it until I could talk along with every scene. I remember how hard I laughed when Martin Lawrence got really sassy with FBI agents, how hilariously awkward Luke Wilson is, how cramp-inducingly funny it was when Dave Chapelle showed a bunch of drug dealers how he “pulled somebody’s guts out through their ass, and their eyes fell out.” So came on, I was thrilled. Here was a movie that I loved when I was a kid. I figured it had held up as well as all the other movies I loved around that time: Tommy Boy, Happy Gilmore, and Billy Madison, just to name a few.

But it hasn’t. At all. It really is a hopelessly unfunny movie. It’s dated. It’s trite. It’s badly written. It’s disgracefully acted. The plot is an absolute throwaway. And while I’m not prepared to completely freak out about it, the lesson is clear: Sometimes, the things you love just don’t hold up.

Yesterday, Shanil and I went to Tommy’s for lunch. This was a place I always loved as a kid. I think you can kind of see where I’m going with this.

The Place
Original Tommy’s
2575 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90057

The Order: Double cheeseburger (no tomato), fries, large Coke

The Price: $7.95

The Burger
In 1946, Tommy Koufax opened up this shack at the corner of Beverly and Rampart. It didn’t (and doesn’t) look like much, but it’s since grown into a little Los Angeles empire. It’s older than In-N-Out, and more exclusively a Los Angeles institution. More than 50 million people have enjoyed Tommy’s signature chili-drenched burgers in the seven decades since Tommy’s first opened its doors.

I remember, as a kid, piling into the car with my brothers and parents and driving out to Tommy’s. We’d return home with a big box full of cheeseburgers, chili-cheese fries, icy sodas, and sweet-hot yellow peppers (when they didn’t forget to give them to us, which they usually did). Looking back, it was one of my favorite family traditions (besides Disneyland, which is my runaway favorite). I don’t remember much from those drives, but I never will forget the excitement, the eager and expectant relish with which I unwrapped those burgers. Tommy’s was among my favorite youthful indulgences.

Admittedly, I haven’t been to this place in quite some time. My brothers and I grew up (you’ll notice I did not say we “matured”). They have lives and families of their own now. They’re making new traditions, which is super cool. But as I pulled into the drive-thru at Tommy’s yesterday, I couldn’t help flashing back to those days, and I got absolutely demolished by a wave of sentimentality. When I unwrapped my burger, I was suffused with those old, familiar childlike expectations, back before I was the cynical, narcissistic malcontent with a shitty personality and a cloudy disposition.

Then I unwrapped it. And I was like, “Wait, I used to look forward to this?”

It’s really not appetizing to look at. The burger itself is two waifish, overcooked patties blanketed in cheddar, which is itself slathered with a pasty, semi-solid block of chili that’s really more the consistency of refried beans. It’s rounded out by ebullient diced raw white onions, snappy pickles, and some good old-fashioned yellow mustard. All of this is wedged between buns as limp and lifeless as an unusually lazy sloth. Who is asleep. And drunk.

Let’s talk about that chili first. It’s not how I remember. You’re not talking about chili that’s going to drip everywhere, spilling off the burger in that tantalizing way that it does when the sexy ladies on the Carl’s Jr. commercials take their seductively greedy bites. No, this is something closer to a brick of chili. It looks solid, and has the consistency of a paste. It tastes convincing (and good) enough, but there’s an unreality about it – a kind of textural creepiness – that’s a little off-putting. If I want astronaut food, I’ll ask my friend Courtney to get me some of that freeze-dried ice cream shit (explanation: Courtney works for NASA; though in all honesty, she’d probably tell me to stop talking crazy and get some real food, albeit preferably without the side of catastrophically annoying Asian kids).

But anyway.

While the chili is the centerpiece of the burger, it’s the other toppings that really surprise, and end up making a stronger statement to this burger’s credit. The onions are as sharp and sweet as a honey-dipped knife. The pickles are firm and sour, with that satisfying snap. These toppings provide good textural and flavor contrast. And frankly, it’s nice to see someone outside of a baseball stadium still has love for yellow mustard. I like yellow mustard, dammit. In this age of favoring gruyere over cheddar, of making complex and fancy-ass umami alloys of different types of beef, of conflating “classic” and “boring,” I find this steadfast adherence to tradition (which almost certainly is the product of laziness and a lack of creativity rather than any kind of worthy sentiment) refreshing. And it’s good, in an unabashedly sophomoric kind of way.

So here’s the point: young Pra’s unbridled love for Tommy’s was not justified. Old Pra is sager in this regard (though admittedly, Old Pra misdirects his affection in other ways – see, e.g., my latest ex-girlfriend…*shiver*). Old Pra recognizes that the chili isn’t very good. The beef is not good. This burger just isn’t as good as I remember it being. I started wondering, “Shit, was I as wrong about Tommy’s as I was about Blue Streak?” My happy childhood memories were threatening to crumble around me.

But then I got my shit together and thought about it a little more. Unlike Blue Streak, I wasn’t totally wrong about Tommy’s. This burger doesn’t suck. The garnishes add charm and surprising complexity. The chili isn’t earth-shattering, but then again, a) it’s still chili, and b) it’s a little unrealistic to expect Mike Stevens-level shit on a burger that costs eight bucks (with fries and a drink). The beef isn’t good either, but there’s enough going on to obfuscate that fact and make the overall experience pretty damn worthwhile – the whole exceeds the sum of the parts, and all that. So I guess this burger actually is less like Blue Streak and more like Disneyland. Sure, it’s less majestic and awe-inspiring than it was when I was a kid, but that’s not going to stop me from going. Because it’s still pretty damn good.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 8.80 / 10.00

Total: 82.60 / 100.00

Meat District Co.

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

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

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

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

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

The Order: Cheese Burger and fries

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, where was I?

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

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

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

Total: 82.40 / 100.00

The Flintridge Proper

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Order: Proper Burger with added bacon and avocado

The Price: $20 (before tax)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 88.70 / 100.00

Ledlow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 64.00 / 100.00