Grill ‘Em All

The Place
Grill ‘Em All
19 East Main Street
Alhambra, CA 91801
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Okay, so straight up: Grill ‘Em All is the weirdest place I’ve been to since the Project started. No doubt. Second place is so far behind that I literally don’t even know what it is.

Here’s the story: Ryan Harkins and Matt Chernus won The Great Food Truck Race and then bought this snug little cranny in an Alhambra strip mall. Grill ‘Em All, for the philistines in my readership, is a play on the name of a pretty rad album by Metallica (you know, before they started sucking…and also sucking).

The entire place buys…well, heavily into the heavy metal theme. While I waited for my food, I listened to dated (and second-rate) metal and watched a rerun of a Sting v. Ric Flair NWA Heavyweight Championship match. It’s a weird theme on its own, but throw in the hilarious contrast with the unavoidably milquetoast clientele, and spending a half hour there borders on surreal.

Having said that, the theme doesn’t really seem like a gimmick so much as the product of a genuine fascination with heavy metal. Given that basically all of the cultural references this place makes would go soaring over the British faded heads of the One Direction-obsessed members of the digital native generation, I think it’s a safer bet to assume Harkins and Chernus just like metal music a lot. Probably more importantly, Grill ‘Em All has endeared itself to foodie types for blending culinary innovation with caloric opulence. I went to try one of their many artery-cloggers.

The Order: Napalm Death (half pound patty, pepper jack, pickled jalapeño, cream cheese, habanero aioli, jalapeño poppers)

The Price: $12

The Burger
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I mean, wow. It’s hard to know where to start. This burger is unbelievably overwhelming. Basically, it presents different iterations of the same two flavor components: chili and cheese. The idea is that this burger is supposed to be punishingly spicy. It you’ve got any tolerance for heat at all, you’ll laugh that right off. The jalapeños are meek, and whatever bite the habanero might have had goes out the window because aioli is just never spicy.

Having said that, the various chili-centric ingredients allow for the flavor of the chiles to shine through. This is relatively rare, given that most burgers do not feature peppers in any central way. In this burger, the flavor – especially of the jalapeños – is very present in the flavor profile. The jalapeños have a gentle heat (blunted by the pickling or, in the case of the poppers, the cheddar) and a peppery sweetness which emerges from the caustic cut of the vinegar. The poppers are crispy on the outside and almost impossibly gooey on the inside. They’re a decadent addition, messy and unpretentious.

The patty is a half pound cooked medium rare. Grill ‘Em All’s medium rare is a bit overcooked for my tastes, but still juicy enough. There is very little char on the patty, which is also relatively lightly seasoned. As a result, for all its heft, the meat doesn’t really communicate much in the way of personality. It’s a little insipid, and not a worthy centerpiece. It’s saved a bit by the habanero aioli, which is surprisingly complex and picks up the floral flavor of the habanero pretty well. It makes up for what the patty lacks in charm.

The various cheeses are the most interesting part of the burger. They neutralize most of the heat, which allows the flavor of the chiles to rise. But on their own, cream cheese and pepper jack are a counterintuitive combination. The pepper jack is pepper jack; it starts with a kick but quickly retreats into buttery delicacy. The cream cheese, melted from all the heat, comes in on the finish. It is relatively mild, but a little funkier. It really dominates the back-end of each bite.

At first blush, this burger might seem to have a little bit of a kitchen sink vibe. But the ingredients hang together surprisingly well. The result is a hugely unconventional but surprisingly coherent presentation. With all that’s going on, there’s a little more here than the bun can contain at times, but the Napalm Death tastes a lot more sophisticated than it sounds. Or, sophisticated for a burger with jalapeño poppers on it, anyway. It may not be as sinister (or as spicy) as its name may indicate, but it’s still a good choice if you’re in the mood for something unconventional.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.90 / 10.00
Value: 8.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Balance: 8.70 / 10.00

Total: 84.40 / 100.00

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.

Stout

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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

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

The Bowery

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In the age of Amazon and ATMs and self-checkout groceries, there is something to be said for good, old-fashioned customer service: a quick smile and a pleasant conversation is a depressingly cherished rarity in this day and age. Don’t get me wrong; I like Amazon Prime as much as the next guy – dat free two-day shipping doe – but it’s nice to be reminded that the old, human-centric way of doing things is still around.

I have similar feelings about the Los Angeles food scene. It’s nice to see young chefs bucking convention and innovating so bravely. Restaurants like Neal Fraser’s Redbird, Ari Taymor’s Alma, Chris Jacobson’s Girasol, and Kris Tominaga’s Cadet – just to name a few – confidently offer brave, inventive, challenging dishes. Parenthetically, you should check out all of those restaurants. This innovation is at the heart of the redefinition of cuisine in Los Angeles. But sometimes, in the midst of this new culinary renaissance of ours, it’s nice to go somewhere that reassures you that some people still have the capacity to make something beautiful out of the conventional.

The Bowery is such a place. Kevin, Shanil, and I have been going here for years. We usually pair it with a run to Amoeba Records. It’s been a tradition of ours; we do it any time the three of us are in town together. Today, we took Rumi along for the ride. When we arrived around 3 pm and found the door locked, we got emotional. It turns out, The Bowery doesn’t open on Sundays until 4 pm. Because of course it doesn’t. Anyway. We went to Amoeba and then came back at 4, hangry as all hell, for a long-overdue burger.

The Place
The Bowery
6268 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90028

The Order: Bowery Burger (with cheddar cheese, bacon, avocado, sauteed mushrooms, and jalapeño)

The Price: $14 ($10 base, $1 per topping) before tax

The Burger
The Bowery is nestled in the heart of Hollywood – pretty much right at Sunset and Vine – which means you have to navigate hordes of some of the most aggressive hipsters on the face of planet earth to get there. Seriously, there was a lot of side boob (cool it with that shit, ladies). And ironic facial hair. And girls in wide-brim fedoras and circular-framed sunglasses. And frowning. It’s a stone’s throw from Amoeba Records, where – in a desperate gambit in my ongoing (and eminently unsuccessful) campaign to be hip – I bought the new Jamie xx record, to which, I quickly realized, I’m not cool enough to listen.

The Bowery holds itself out as a New York-inspired gastropub, which means it’s small, everything is written on chalkboards, and everyone wears all black. Thankfully, that’s where the similarities to New York end: The weather outside isn’t a disaster (i.e. hot and sticky or oppressively freezing), you won’t get yelled at for crossing the street, there are way fewer finance douche-bros, it doesn’t smell like sweat and trash in the streets, and my ex-girlfriend is nowhere to be found. I’m especially thankful for one of those things.

Anyway. The Bowery’s purported claim to fame is its burger. The weird thing about it, though, is that the composition of that burger is largely up to the diner. More on that in a second; first, let’s talk about the constants. The most noteworthy aspect of this burger is that it is served on an English muffin in lieu of a conventional bun. The muffin is toasted perfectly, the rim delicately blackened, the heart crisp but still fluffy. That toasting prevents the muffin from getting soaked through, but it is not so severe as to savage away the flavor of the muffin itself. The patty is between six and eight ounces of grass-fed beef, cooked to a sumptuous, dripping medium rare.

Besides that, the identity of this burger is largely dependent upon consumer caprice. The Bowery offers a choice of cheeses – blue, herbed goat, gruyere, American, and cheddar – toppings, for a dollar each – red onion confit, caramelized onions, onion rings, sautéed mushrooms, roast garlic, avocado, bacon, fried egg, roasted jalapeño – and sauces – spicy hickory barbecue, ranch, or aioli.

So there is a versatility here; the burger can mold to your mood and preferences. In many ways, it will be what you want it to be. But that arguably cuts both ways: if you aren’t sure what you want, it can be a little overwhelming. This problem, of course, is easily solved; you should only come to The Bowery if you have at least a vague idea of what you want.

But let’s be clear: There is no wrong answer here. All four of us got different burgers, and all four of us a) cleaned our plates with lustful relish, and b) were totally satisfied that we had made the best possible choice. My burger was topped with bacon, avocado, sautéed mushrooms, roasted jalapeño, and spicy hickory barbecue sauce.

No fewer than four strips of bacon, thick cut and fried to a snapping crisp, were wavy and perfectly fried.The avocado, soft and ripe, was cut into thin slivers connected at the bottom and spread like a Chinese fan. The intense flavor of the horde of mushrooms anchored the profile of the burger, complementing the beef gorgeously. The roasted jalapeño was delicately hot, bringing a subtle flavorful undertone and an enchanting, creeping spice to the finish of each bite. The sauce was sweet but sassy; it had the gentlest kick, and paired especially well with the jalapeño and bacon.

The remarkable thing about this place is that, whatever assortment of toppings you choose, the burger you get will be perfectly balanced. They have chosen their ingredient selections like a well-planned wardrobe; everything matches everything else. They are masters of proportion; they know how the ingredients operate in context, and so they know how to assemble them in any combination. That said, getting that perfect arrangement of toppings may cost you: at a buck each, they really can make this burger a pretty expensive experience.

Now, my borderline-cannibalistic hunger may have had something to do with it, and it may be averred that my objectivity is buckling under the weight of tradition. But conspiracy theories aside, this is a damn good meal. The Bowery claims to have the best burger in Los Angeles, and I can tell you: it’s not a ridiculous claim.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 7.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.30 / 10.00
Bun: 9.40 / 10.00
Patty: 9.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.90 / 10.00

Total: 91.90 / 100.00

Pharo’s Burgers

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

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

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

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

The Order: Bacon Cheeseburger

The Price: $5.95

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 74.20 / 100.00

Belcampo Meat Co.

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My generation can be pretty annoying. Among our most grating tendencies is our penchant for armchair activism. Facebook and Twitter let us feel like we’re participating despite being totally passive. And the anonymity of being insulated from actual accountability by our keyboards and screens allow us to – quite literally – join the mob and feel morally righteous as we participate in the destruction of the lives of total strangers.

And yet, for all our hashtag campaigns, article sharing, perennial outrage, and cause bandwagons, most of us actually don’t contribute (or know) anything. Worse still, so many of us mistake all that shit for actually having a positive impact (“I’m raising awareness so that ‘we as a society'” – read: other people – “can make positive changes”).

Why do I bring this up? Because I want to emphasize just how refreshing it is when activism actually manifests itself in concrete action. Belcampo Meat Co. cares about the humane treatment of animals in the food industry. Instead of sharing a bunch of PETA articles on their Facebook and then going back to watching cat videos, they opened a restaurant that embodies the principles they espouse. Belcampo sources all the meat you purchase, order, and/or eat from their own farm. They have total control over how the animals are treated. Accordingly, they strive to ensure the animals are raised and processed in a humane way. Their definition of “free range” isn’t “Oh, yeah, we give them five square feet of fenced-in space and they can totally see grass on a clear day, maybe.”

Shit, this was a really roundabout way to make a simple point. Somewhere, my sophomore year English teacher probably is shivering. And giving me a terrible grade. If you’re reading this, Mrs. Holmgren, I’m sorry (but you should at least be happy that I haven’t used the passive voice). But not sorry enough to delete it. After all, it felt good to write, and sometimes, you just have to call your generation out on its shit. Also, sorry for saying “shit”.

Anyway. Now that I’ve told you how cool Belcampo (and how shitty everyone else) is, let’s talk about the burger. Shanil, Very On-Time Kevin, and I headed over to Grand Central Market to try their eponymous burger.

The Place
Belcampo Meat Co. @ Grand Central Market
317 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: Belcampo Burger

The Price: $12.50

The Burger
The unique thing about Belcampo is how they have a controlling hand in every stage of the process – from raising the meat to grilling the patty. You could probably make a pretty solid case that this institutional coherence gives them a better instinct for how to prepare their meat – the more you know about the meat, the more capably you can deal with it. Or at least, that’s a claim colorable enough for me to believe. And then write.

Regardless of the why or the how, one thing is certain: This burger is conceived and built to showcase the meat – five and a half ounces of what Belcampo calls their “premium grind” – whatever it is, it’s grass-fed, dry-aged, and impressive. Coating the top of the patty is a thin, waxy film of white cheddar. Next, a stewy tangle of bittersweet caramelized onions under a thatch of heat-wilted lettuce, capped off with the also-mysterious “house sauce”.

Unfortunately, the focus on meat comes at the expense of all the other ingredients. The lettuce is sad and limp. The sauce is largely unassertive (though admittedly, not offensive). The cheese is mild and creamy, but timid. The bun nominally is brioche, but really it’s just a glorified sesame bun.

These supporting cast members come together to create a backdrop that one might regard as banal. The thing is, though, it seems like this is an intentional flavor milieu in which to present the patty. The other ingredients allow the patty to shine. In the context of the burger as a whole, the ingredients come off less as boring and more as appropriately unobtrusive. They stay out of the way so the patty can really emerge.

And emerge it does. It’s complex, absurdly fresh, flavorful, moist, and delicious. This is seriously – like, seriously – high-quality meat. The result, on the whole, is quite surprising. This is a purist’s burger – a butcher’s burger. It is a beef-centric dish. Nothing else is particularly present because nothing else particularly matters. This burger was not designed to be an ensemble piece. It’s a character study, a solo performance. It’s a burger carried not by solid contributions from every piece, but from the superstardom of the main component.

So Belcampo is not just to be credited with putting their ideology into practice (as opposed to just tweeting about it). They’re due praise for the product. They have produced beef that is good enough by itself to justify coming back to this place for another burger. Next time, hopefully the burger won’t trigger a massive, long-winded missive.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.30 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.30 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.80 / 10.00
Bun: 7.60 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.60 / 10.00
Balance: 8.50 / 10.00

Total: 85.20 / 100.00

Eggslut

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Let’s get this out of the way at the outset: You are going to have to get past the fact that Eggslut is kind of an affected and gimmicky name. Do that, and you’ll come to appreciate that it’s a) kind of apt, and b) kind of clever, and c) kind of funny. But more importantly, Alvin Cailan’s egg-centric eatery on the Broadway side of Grand Central Market serves really balanced, carefully conceived dishes.

Some people will sardonically argue that the business plan seems to be, “Hey, we like Iron Chef and eggs, so let’s just combine them.” Strictly speaking, that’s not wrong. But it’s also incomplete. There’s a lot more going on here. Cailan and company strive to serve innovative twists on familiar comfort food. They strive to offer food that is innovative and inclusive. In practice, the innovation generally consists of, “Hey, what stuff might taste good with eggs?” But behind each dish is deceptively thoughtful composition. You’d make a mistake to think this place is just a bunch of hipsters or bros chuckling while they just put eggs on shit that doesn’t normally have eggs on it.

Shanil and I went to check it out. Kevin was supposed to come, but he was busy being disgustingly late. By the time he showed up to order, my food had digested, and they had raised and slaughtered another cow to make his burger.

The Place
Eggslut @ Grand Central Market
317 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: Cheeseburger

The Price: $9.00 (before tax)

The Burger
Eggslut’s burger clearly was conceived with lots of love and respect for the institution of the burger. The focus is on high quality ingredients, simplicity, and complementary flavors. The egg is not intended to be the centerpiece of the burger. Prepared over-medium, it’s meant to be runny but not messy, to offer a textural contrast and some delightful, yolky flavor. And, all else being equal, it did that. As an absolute matter, the egg could not have been prepared better.

The real highlight of this burger, though, is the pickles. The interaction between the copious sweet pickle chips and the creamy egg yolk was nothing short of astonishing. It was the single most compelling ingredient pairing I’ve encountered since the Project got started. It completely justifies the spartan collection of ingredients found on this burger. Initially, when I looked at the description of the burger on the menu, I wondered why there wasn’t more going on.

Then, two things happened: First, I saw that you can add bacon and avocado. But given Eggslut’s generally judicious approach to ingredient inclusion, I chose not to. They include what needs to be included; I decided to order it like they suggested, not how they allowed. Second (and more importantly), I took a bite, and understood that the utterly symphonic collaboration between these two ingredients was more than enough to carry the water for this burger. The absence of sauce was not a deficiency, but an exercise in laudable restraint.

So if I’m going to register one complaint (and I am), it’s not really that the egg is scandalously slutty, it’s that the beef is kind of a prude (yes, I’ve tastelessly bought into the coarse foundational metaphor, but the general point holds). The patty is a paper-thin wafer of wagyu beef. High quality stuff, to be sure, but there’s so little of it that it makes not a gustatory dent. In one sense, I get it; there’s no way you could charge nine bucks for a beef with, say, a six-ounce wagyu patty. But the relentless pursuit of value sacrifices too much; this tastes like someone just put one brioche bun on either ear and thought really hard about wagyu beef. My point is that the patty is really small.

So while the complementary ingredients are beautifully – perhaps perfectly – balanced, this dish doesn’t feel like a burger; it feels like a sandwich. Someone forgot about the patty here, and it’s a damn shame, because this burger would be something really special were it a little better balanced. I imagined what it would be like if the egg yolk dripped and soaked into the patty, flirting with well-seasoned, flavorful, juicy beef. What a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy. But sadly, that’s all it is – a fantasy. What Eggslut has given us is an unfinished, unbalanced symphony, an almost-masterpiece that ends up making an impression more for what it could be than for what it actually is.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.20 / 10.00
Value: 8.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.30 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.80 / 10.00
Bun: 9.30 / 10.00
Patty: 6.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Balance: 5.60 / 10.00

Total: 83.70 / 100.00

Pie ‘N Burger

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

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

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

Okay, I’m really done. Promise.

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

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

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

The Order: Cheeseburger

The Price: $11.45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 87.10 / 100.00