The York

The Place
The York
5018 York Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90042
img_0674It feels like October has been all about the Chicago Cubs and their date with destiny.  They’re the latest beneficiary (see also 2004 Red Sox, 2010 Giants, 1998 Jay-Z) of the special treatment we give to baseball teams that are awful for long enough.  After over a century of losing, the Cubs – finally – are good.  And like the Red Sox, the Giants, and Jay-Z before them, the entire nation (but for we select few who don’t share the impulse for alacritous bandwagoneering) will love them until they finally win.  Then we’ll revile them for doing the very thing we hoped they’d do all along.  To be a “lovable loser,” you have to keep losing.

I watched the final innings of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at The York, which was a Highland Park mainstay long before Highland Park was cool.  It’s a vaulting industrial space, where Edison bulbs throw barely enough light on roughly erased chalkboards sporting the menu of the day, and onto the carmine bricks behind.  The one television is located inconveniently at the back end of the bar, obscured by something from almost any angle.  It was there that I watched Adrián González smack a game-tying single, and then shortly thereafter, Miguel Montero be spoon-fed a hanging slider with the bases loaded.

Much like the Cubs, the York has established itself as a good-natured neighborhood standard.  And much like the Cubs, it’s kind of hard to see what all the fuss is about.  Besides the cool (but imitable) vibe, the cocktails are weak, the food is fine, and the staff just mostly competent.  The clientele is a weird mashup of young fathers and old bachelors, thirty-somethings all.  It’s as if the York is the last place where those two demographics can meet and remember times not too many years ago, when their lives looked more alike.

Kristen, Tristan, Peter, Shahin, Kelsey and I took a trip to the York for dinner to catch the end of the baseball game before going to Creep LA, which – spoiler alert – was basically me paying $53.50 to be called “daddy” by an emo kid in lingerie and then locked in a closet the size of a moving box (with two other people, one of whom, blessedly, was Kelsey) by a small man in yoga pants.

The Order: Cheddar Burger, medium rare

The Price: $15

The Burger
The York’s burger is served on Bread Bar brioche, a heavily marbled sirloin and chuck hybrid patty, rocket (which, more or less, is hipster for “arugula,” which, more or less, is douchebag for “bitter spinach”), harissa aioli (harissa being a North/West-African chili paste that you may have run into at Moun-Of-Tunis, Koutoubia, or a similar spot), and pickled onion.  And cheddar, obviously.

Just by reading that list of ingredients, you may have the impression that there’s a lot – potentially too much – going on here.  That was my concern going in, too.  Imagine my surprise, then, when the burger actually wound up being strangely tame on the palette.  There was no pinching bitterness from the flaccid arugula, no astringent sourness from the too-soupy onions, no blunted bite from the aioli.  Everything got mixed together, reduced into some tasteless primordial ooze, the culinary equivalent of Cage’s 4’33”.  And to top it all off, there wasn’t even the buttery, eggy, cloudlike sweetness you would expect from the brioche (though this had more to do with the fact that it tasted a day old than any fault of poor Bread Bar’s) it was crumbly and Gobi-dry.

And that’s a shame, considering the patty was quite well-conceived.  Heavily marbled and a well-executed medium rare (evenly rouge-hued and barely bloody), the flavor was rich, the texture hardy and coarse.  It was crisped on the outside, but retained its juiciness exceptionally well.  Just like Charlize Theron in The Devil’s Advocate, it deserved a better supporting cast (instead, we got Shouty Al and dead-eyes Keanu; I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a metaphor or not).

Were I predisposed to being snarky, I’d say the good news is that the burger York was only the third-most unpleasant thing that happened to me that night.  But since I am miles above snark and the solicitation of cheap laughs, I’ll leave it at this: Notwithstanding all the neighborhood affection, all the history, all the prescient neo-industrial decor, the York’s burger left a bad taste in my mouth.  Maybe not quite as bitter and caustic as Miguel Montero left, not quite as parched and salty as being locked in that closet, but the fact that those three things are part of the same conversation probably tells you all you need to know.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.20 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.10 / 10.00
Value: 6.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 8.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.80 / 10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.30 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 73.80 / 100.00

Stout

IMG_0432
Alexandros Kagianaris and Charles Lew are pretty serious about casual dining. They envision neighborhood joint Stout as being a place where – to quote their website – “club goers meet the culinary elite for burgers and beer.” Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure who fits into either of those groups, the thrust seems to be that they’re aiming to appeal to a broad swath of people. It’s one of those restaurants that’s trying to please foodies and philistines alike. They do it by using high-quality beef, and assembling burgers with interesting (but not too challenging) toppings.

Regardless, Stout has received its fair share of accolades. L.A. Weekly called its eponymous burger the ninth best burger in Los Angeles. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that ninth is the new first. Anyhow, Stout has three locations: Hollywood (on Cahuenga), Studio City (on Ventura), and Santa Monica (on Santa Monica).

McKenna and I went to Stout’s Studio City location to put its bona fides to the test. Our trip was not without adventure: She got a burger with an over-easy egg on it; as she picked it up, the yolk split and spilled out of the bun like lava over the rim of a volcano, completely drenching her hands. It bears mentioning that she survived the explosion and took down the burger like a champ (even if it meant having hands so covered in yolk and sauce that she had to drink her beer through a straw. Which she did. Also like a champ).

For her trouble – or maybe just for her scintillating personality – our server really took quite a shining to McKenna (probably because she didn’t hear all the shit McKenna was talking about the evening’s playlist). They bonded over the course of the night, not always (albeit quite often) at my expense. But a dose of well-intentioned derision is a small price to pay for seeing someone’s hands coated in egg yolks like a vegan’s ideation of Jack the Ripper.

I’m digressing. The TL;DR version is that we went and ate burgers. One exploded. Beer was sipped through a straw.

The Place
Stout Burgers & Beer
11262 Ventura Boulevard
Studio City, CA 91604

The Order: The Imperialist (roasted tomato, ketchup, aged cheddar, mustard relish), cooked “pink” (as opposed to “not pink” – the other choice)

The Price: $11.00

The Burger
Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t know why they call it the Imperialist. I’m also fully aware that I didn’t eat the flagship burger at Stout, the one for which it earned such acclaim. Obviously, I will be back to Stout for its namesake burger, but I was jonesing for something a bit on the subtler end. So obviously, I ordered a burger called the Imperialist.

Like I said, I don’t know why the call it that. But I have an idea. I think it’s because they took a perfectly good, perfectly functional, perfectly traditional ingredient combination – cheddar, ketchup, and mustard – and invaded that tranquil space with some weird newfangled addition. Listen, roasted tomato is a dicey proposition in any context. Put it all up in the shit of a classic burger, and it’s just invasive (not to mention arbitrary).

It was aggressively smoky and then concentratedly sweet. The ferocious – almost saccharine – back-end of the tomato bled into the ketchup, brought out the sweetness of the (excellent) bun, and really accented the notes of fruit in the cheddar (simultaneously blunting its acidic and nutty quality), making a sunburnt sweetness the dominant element of the early part of every bite.

Both McKenna and I noticed that the patty was a little dry. This probably had something to do with the fact that it was coarse and loosely packed, which gave the meat’s juices room to escape. The bottom of the patty was coated in mustard relish, a weird but very pungent sauce that pretty much overwhelmed the finish of every bite.

My brown person bias maybe coming into play here, but I’ve never been a fan of imperialism. One of my friends – who shall remain nameless and blameless – argues that imperialism gave the backward masses of the developing world a sense for administrative efficiency and built us roads and rail (mind you, he’s 84% joking when he says shit like that). Be that as it may, I think the colonial footprint is a harmful one. Stout’s Imperialist, sadly, is no more successful.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.40 / 10.00
Value: 8.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.10 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.20 / 10.00
Balance: 6.90 / 10.00

Total: 71.00 / 100.00

Black Hogg

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

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

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

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

The Order: Marrow burger, medium rare

The Price: $18 (before tax)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 81.10 / 100.00

Badmaash

IMG_3176Badmaash is weird. Walk in, and there’s a wall of wine corks on your left, behind which a lily-white hostess in leather shorts and white leather sneakers guides you to your table, which is backed by a wall of panels ranging in hue from aubergine to bright pink. You sit down on the orange leather bench, and you look at the menu, which features, on the top right corner, a thoroughly goofy-looking Indian supervillain. Or something. And you think, “This is weird.”

But you’ve heard about the spiced lamb burger from blogs and overzealous Yelpers, so you decide to give the place the benefit of the doubt. You peruse the rest of the menu, noting how this place, like so many others, feels a little gimmicky.

But you remember the adoring articles and comments, so you decide to give this place the benefit of the doubt. Then you eat, and you forget the weirdness. You have chicken tikka poutine, crispy fries drenched in gravy with flavorful chunks of chicken tikka, shredded cilantro, and gooey cheese curds. You get tandoori broccoli (a real show-stealer); the charred heads thirstily, delightfully soaking up the spicy tandoori sauce. There’s more traditional stuff too: chicken tikka masala (hit), lamb chops “chaampey” (miss – too much cumin), and butter chicken samosas (hit, but would have been an even bigger hit if they were crispier).

It’s a pretty good schtick they have going here. Sure, the place is a little kitschy and it probably is trying a little too hard, but a) this is Los Angeles; everyone’s trying too hard, and b) they’re deadly serious about food. And besides, you’ve heard this spiced lamb burger is “criminally underrated,” which piqued your curiosity, so you decide to give the place the benefit of the doubt and just try the damn burger.

The Place
Badmaash
108 W. 2nd Street, #104
Los Angeles, CA 90012

The Order: Spiced Lamb Burger

The Price: $13

The Burger
There’s a lot to talk about here, but the main takeaway is this: Go to Badmaash as soon as you can, and order this burger. It sounds like it’s a gimmick, placed on the menu to lend credibility to Badmaash’s self-styling as an Indian gastropub. In fact, it’s just an emblem of why the Indian gastropub thing is such a good idea.

The patty is free range lamb leg. They grind and spice it every day in house. The spices, while present and robust, never obscure the taste of the lamb underneath. That speaks to a more general point: As complex as this burger is, you will never forget that you are eating lamb. The unmistakable flavor stays with you through every bite. The meat itself was well-cooked, and even if it was a touch (and I really mean only the tiniest touch) too dry, the other toppings picked up the slack and added enough compensatory moisture for me not to care very much.

The garnishes were fantastic as well. Torn shards of iceberg lettuce and red onion separated the patty from the bottom bun, preventing soaking. A firm, juicy slice of roma tomato sat, atop the patty, drizzled capriciously (and generously) with spiced mayonnaise. Capping it all off was a mound of cilantro. Badmaash outsourced their burger bookends – their buns are brioche sourced from the legendary Los Angeles bakers at Breadbar.

If that sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. But like I said, the folks behind Badmaash are serious about food. Nothing here is unintentional. There are no accidents, and there is no excess. This burger is busy, but not frivolous. Brash, not impulsive. Robust, not impetuous. You get the point. The flavors combined symphonically, the cool, dull spiciness of the mayonnaise a logical follow-on to the chilly, juicy crunch of the lettuce, tomato, and the tangy, crisp onions. Beneath it all, the rich lamb, created a wonderful, quietly surprising foundation for the whole burger. The meat is the source of the complexity here. All the other toppings blend together as a coherent and complementary unit.

This burger was the perfect blend of fresh (the lamb patty, spiced mayo, and cilantro) with familiar (tomato, lettuce, and onion). Even without cheese, this burger was explosively flavorful and wonderfully texturally diverse.  And even though I prefer when restaurants make their buns in-house, I understand the decision to source the buns from Breadbar. Their stellar, buttery brioche really was a suitable container for this ICBM of flavor.

Above all, this burger is surprising. It deviates from tradition in the bravest way: by making a meaningful change to the patty, which is the fulcrum of any burger. And let’s be clear: this isn’t some chicken sandwich that derives its allure from the fact that it’s breaded and deep-fried. This is lamb, a meat with a very distinct flavor that is difficult to run away from. Rather than hide from it, though, Badmaash embraces it, skillfully assembling the flavor profile of the burger around the lamb. The rest of the dish, then, accommodates the lamb perfectly.

I will be back for this burger (and more of that chicken tikka poutine – my god). It is unlike any burger I’ve eaten. It is utterly unique, impeccably executed, and has a personality all its own. Like the restaurant itself, it may be too weird for some. But in a city full of people and restaurants who are trying way too hard to be weird for the sake of weirdness, Badmaash stands out for being weird because weird works.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.50 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 9.10 / 10.00

Total: 88.10 / 100.00