HiHo Cheeseburger

The Place
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HiHo Cheeseburger
1320 2nd Street, Suite B
Santa Monica, CA 90401

I know.  It’s been a while.  The last article I started to write for this Project was in October.  I remember the exact day; it was immediately after Justin Turner did this.  I tried to put my feelings into words that night, to no avail.  I got swept up in the frenzy of October baseball.  The hope.  I fell in love with the possibility that 2017 might just be the Dodgers’ year.

Then this happened.

And then this happened.

And now this is happening.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s this.

All of which has made me feel approximately like this.

Now, I’m not saying the serial and crushing failure of Dodger baseball and the casual, inevitable hopelessness of Kings hockey are the most pressing problems of our time. Surely neither is.  But they sure can take it out of you.  I guess my point is, it can be exhausting to love something.  I’m not sure it explains my silence here.  Maybe nothing can.  Maybe an explanation isn’t necessary.

Whatever it was that took me away from this, though, one simple idea brought me back: life is too short not to seize the things that bring you joy and keep them close.

That was probably too heavy for a blog about cheeseburgers.  But it was a couple weeks ago, spending a night at HiHo Cheeseburger with my better half (of whom I haven’t been seeing enough lately) that it hit me.  It’s good to be with people you love doing things you love.  So I’m back to say a few words about HiHo Cheeseburger.  With a little good-natured pedantry on the front end.

The Order: Double HiHo Cheeseburger

The Price: $6.95

The Burger
I’ve eaten some great burgers in the past few months.  I resolve to write about all of them in turn.  But it took something like HiHo Cheeseburger to bring me back.

When you think and write about cheeseburgers, you’re often faced with dishes that are presented as elevated iterations of a classic form.  Los Angeles as a food scene is obsessively colloquial.  The culinary consciousness here is not, by and large, predisposed to traditionalist haute cuisine.  Rather, it is about cultural reflection, comfort, familiarity.  The food in this town is an expressive modality, a way for chefs to give you a window through which you can see who they are and where they come from, not merely what they can do.

It may sound a little high-brow, but it’s really the opposite.  Food in Los Angeles is a way for chefs to connect with the rest of us.  You’re not going to get a glimpse into a fancy culinary school; you’re meant to get a glimpse into someone’s childhood dining room.  What makes food here truly exceptional (rather than just some cute nostalgic exercise) is that those classic dishes are re-imagined with beautiful, leveled-up ingredients.

To wit, all the patties at HiHo Cheeseburger are 100% grass-fed Wagyu beef from First Light collective–sustainably raised, totally free of all hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs.  Laugh all you want at how cartoonishly L.A. that is; it tastes better.  The beef elevates what fundamentally is an unabashed photocopy of a Double-Double (right down to the mustard grilling of the patties) to something memorable.  The quality of the meat makes up for the slightly less-inspired seasoning on the patty.

Other elements of the Double-Double are referenced obliquely, for better and worse. The piquant onion jam admirably replaces the animal style minced onions and Thousand Island.  The brioche bun is a step down from its sponge analogue, though it’s tough to take serious issue with it.  The pickles, made in house, are exceptional: sweet, sharp, and snappy but also, delightfully, a hair thicker than you might expect, nicely rounding out the homage to the Baldwin Park O.G.

Regular readers will know I have no issue with people riffing on In-N-Out, especially if it’s done well.  HiHo Cheeseburger riffs on In-N-Out quite well.  And at $6.95, it’s an extremely high value proposition: you’ll have ample room in your wallet to give the Straus milkshakes or the banana cream pie a spin (and wash it down with a beer if you’re trying to drown your latest Los Angeles sports-induced sorrow).

HiHo doesn’t seek to elevate the concept of the cheeseburger.  Just the execution.  And in doing so, it embodies a lot of what is great about food in Los Angeles: it takes an iconic dish and pays respectful homage to it.  If you’re like me, eating here will remind you of why you love living here.  In spite of the Dodgers.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.80 / 10.00
Freshness: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 6.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.70 / 10.00

Overall: 91.30 / 100.00

Meatzilla!

The Place
Meatzilla!
646 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014

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Dip your toe into the internet musings about Meatzilla, and you likely will find yourself annoyed.  The exclamatory nomenclature.  The burger with a pepperoni pizza bun.  The unshakable feeling that everything about the place was conceived with a smirk.  Indeed, even without the deviant punctuation, the name itself is really an etude in hipster snark. There’s very little in the reportage about this place that would inspire any reasonable person to take it seriously.

Most of this stuff had escaped me when DJ, a partner in my office, told me he had it on good authority that Meatzilla made the best burger in Downtown Los Angeles.  Now, having waxed adoring on a different downtown burger myself, I felt predictably compelled to investigate.  So I headed over to Meatzilla with Bret and Greg.  It’s a shack on Main Street, a pretty barebones affair, with a cramped kitchen, a whiteboard menu, stacks of soda boxes filling a side doorway, and a playlist like a Tarantino soundtrack. If they’re trying to project the image of hustling newcomers just trying to make it, it’s coming off gangbusters.  Think Steinbeck repurposed for the Snapchat generation.  Okay, that might be overstating the point a bit, but you get the idea.

The Order: Beef! Beef!

The Price: $9.50

The Burger
The whole concept of the place may seem tongue-in-cheek and affected, but the fare on offer is far from it.  While there are some experimental items on the menu to be sure, Meatzilla is conceptually a purist’s burger joint, whose bread and butter is no-frills, beef-forward presentations redolent more of summer cookout than a hipster Thanksgiving.

The Beef! Beef!, for instance, features two absolutely mammoth patties with discs of housemade pickles about the diameter of a nickel laid sporadically on top, along with tangy white onion.  A thick primordial ooze of cheese – Muenster on one patty and American on the other – drips from the meat.  You might mistake it for a runny fried egg (which you can add, by the way, for a buck fifty).  A generous – but not excessive – helping of Sriracha ketchup films both buns.  And that’s it.  No lettuce, no tomato, none of the other standard garnishes.

The beef is flavorful and surprisingly not overwhelming.  It was a hair overcooked, and while that normally wouldn’t be an issue, when there’s this much beef, there’s a smaller margin for error.  The pickles were utterly exceptional though, perfectly sour and with a healthy snap to them.  The onions were similarly well integrated, soaked in ketchup, and smartly kept raw to add more crunch and tang to complement the massive amounts of beef.  The ketchup was not overpowering, offering a nice sweet-hot undertone to each bite without being too assertive.  The cheese was a coup: gooey, rich, and indulgent, it gave every bite a sumptuous, smooth warmth.

All these garnishes, though, were just complementary though.  While Burgerlords and In-N-Out seek to harmonize all the ingredients into a coherent, synthesized whole in which all the components cooperate to create something larger than the sum of its parts, Meatzilla is, true to its name, a beef-first and beef-last kind of enterprise.  If, at Burgerlords, the burger is an orchestra in which the meat is just one instrument, at Meatzilla, the beef is the soloist, with other instruments there to add color and texture, but never to command your attention.

So is this the best burger in Los Angeles?  I guess that depends.  This burger is not a work of art.  But I left my meal with a pretty clear understanding of why someone might fall in love with it.  If you think a burger should be an unapologetically beef-focused dish, Meatzilla will appeal to you.  They’re about beef.  Not about buns (though the bun holds up impressively here, even if it isn’t the most dynamic component of the burger), or garnishes, or balance, or anything else.  But beef.

What’s more, there’s a sentimentality inherent in this dish.  Meatzilla has the sort of unbalanced charm that will take you back to the backyard cookouts with friends you only distantly remember from a washed-out photograph.  The smell of the grill would waft over and intermix with the harsh scent of chlorinated water.  It’s the burger you ate before you cared that soda was bad for you.  It’s the burger you ate before you started obsessing over calorie counts and carbohydrates.  It’s the burger that would buckle a paper plate.  It’s the burger you ate before you became a well-heeled culinary connoisseur and forgot how to enjoy something unsophisticated.  It’s the burger you ate when you cared more that your food was fun rather than an immaculately curated art project, when it didn’t matter if a dish wasn’t a perfectly manicured harmony of flavors and textures.

The last word is that while it’s hard for me to say this is downtown’s best burger, it’s hard to argue it isn’t either.  It’s a strange, unsettled feeling I left with, but it’s a feeling that is pulling me back to Meatzilla for another visit.  Which, at bottom, is all that matters, I guess.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.60 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.50 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.90 / 10.00
Balance: 7.90 / 10.00

Total: 84.60 / 100.00

Errata: Cassell’s Hamburgers

There is a line in Sophocles’ Antigone that has stuck with me.  It is a scene in which Creon seeks Teiresias’ advice regarding whether or not to free Antigone.  Teiresias tells the ruler, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil.  The only crime is pride.”  Now, I haven’t imprisoned my niece to reinforce gender roles or intemperately deployed the power of government in the context of familial conflict.  Nor have I forsaken the bonds of marital and paternal love to preserve an imagined or preferred political order.  But I like to think Teiresias’s advice is more generally applicable.  Because, you know, parables.  Right?

Anyway.  As I’ve accrued some modicum of experience in my life, I’ve had occasion to look on my past with a more critical eye.  By an large, I’m proud of the way I conducted myself.  But there are exceptions.  When one cannot or does not act to rectify past errors – to “repair the evil” – those exceptions have a way of blooming into regrets.

Having just hit a milestone, agewise, I think the time is right to come clean about an error I made early in this project.  I went with Greg and Lemi to Koreatown’s Cassell’s Hamburgers, a bustling diner nestled in the first floor of the Hotel Normandie.  I talked about how I didn’t feel as though Christian Page was reaching his potential with the burger he offered.

 

That review is, quite literally, the only one I look back on and regret.  I like to think (perhaps self-indulgently) the evaluations presented on this Project range anywhere from eminently fair to downright authoritative.  The Cassell’s review marks the lone occasion where I deviated from basing my judgment on the food on the plate.  So, in the spirit of not committing the only crime, I went back to Cassell’s with Kelsey, Kristen, Nikhil, and Tracy.  And now, I’m back before you with my proverbial hat in hand, to give Cassell’s the reconsideration it deserves.

The Burger
The chuck-brisket patty was even better than I remembered.  Flavorful, tender, and rich, it burst with juicy personality, courtesy to that nearly 70 year-old crossfire broiler.  The garnishes were as fresh as I remember.  Everything was as it was on my prior visits.  I won’t regurgitate here what I’ve written before.  If you want to read it, follow the link above.  Besides, it’s not really my sense of the burger’s quality that has changed, per se.  There are a couple of things about that review, though, that bother me.

The first problem is that I docked the burger for not “hitting its potential.”  In addition to being a maddeningly vague and subjective feeling that I struggled then (and struggle now) to justify, it’s just kind of irrelevant.  There’s not a dish that’s been cooked that couldn’t be improved somehow.  We can’t judge dishes (or anything, for that matter) on the basis of what it could have been.  We have to look, first and last, a what a thing is.  That matters more.  And what Cassell’s is, is a delicious burger–one of the best in the city.

The second problem isn’t one I could have anticipated as I penned the review initially, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Cassell’s stacks up much more formidably than I expected against the other burgers I’ve had since.  When people ask me what the best burgers in the city are, this one always comes to mind.  That’s got to count for something.

I get it.  It’s not like I’ve imprisoned one of my nieces.  There has been no mortal sin committed here.  It’s not as though I got drunk on power and perpetrated some monstrous act of megalomania.  I just docked a burger a couple points unfairly.  But a mistake is a mistake, and if this Project is to be worth relying on, you all have to know you can trust me to recognize my mistakes and correct them as they arise.  The only crime is pride.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 9.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.50 / 10.00
Patty: 9.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.40 / 10.00

Total: 91.20 / 100.00

Sawyer

The Place
Sawyer
3709 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
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If you asked someone with little or no knowledge of Los Angeles to describe Sunday brunch here, she might paint a picture that looks a lot like Sawyer.  Sunlight would stream through a constantly open window fronting Sunset Boulevard, filling the place with golden warmth.  It would splash onto the face of the bright bar whose tiles evoke what you might find in the breezy colonnade of a Mediterranean – or maybe Aegean? – villa.  To heighten the charm of it all, there would be a snug little patio out back, with a few tables, a fireplace, strings of unlit lights (“You should see them at dinner,” the host assures us).

That impossibly bright sunlight would bathe the crowd of diners, all trying very hard to look as if they weren’t trying hard.  The men would sit, NIck Fouquet hats balanced on golden locks, henleys unbuttoned to there, draining Peroni from glasses that look too much like jars.  Across from them would be ladies in vintage everything, wrists cocked, a glass of rosé balanced just so in their hands, nursing avocado toast with whisper thin discs of radish scattered atop.  Everyone would be wearing sunglasses.  Everyone would be beautiful.

The food would be typical Los Angeles brunch fare: the aforementioned ubiquitous avocado toast.  Something with quinoa and kale.  Mexican inspired items (here, shrimp tacos and a breakfast burrito).  Chicken and waffles.  A breakfast sandwich.  And, of course, a burger.

Granted, this person might not know to paint Kelsey and me into her picture.  Unless, I suppose, she envisioned Los Angeles as a place where wonderful girls like Kelsey voluntarily spend their birthday with burger-obsessed nerds.  In which case, perhaps you’d find us painted into that idyllic scene right where we were today, at a corner table relishing the superlative people-watching Silver Lake generally (and Sawyer specifically) has on offer, and discussing whether Fear of God jeans would be worth the investment (the verdict: likely not), and contemplating the finer points of the Sawyer Burger.

The Order: Sawyer Burger (added bacon and avocado)

The Price: $18 ($14 base, optional additions (sunny side up egg, bacon, and/or avocado) $2 each)

The Burger
First, a quick overview of the presentation: between seeded rolls is a hefty patty, cooked medium (per our server’s recommendation) and thinly filmed with Grafton cheddar.  The meat sits atop a single piece of lettuce about the size of a catalpa leaf. On top of the patty is a splash of tomato relish that looks like it came off the end of Jackson Pollock’s brush.  The bacon and avocado were added last.

It’s the kind of burger you might expect from a restaurant focused on seafood.  That’s not really a ringing endorsement off the bat, I realize, but for what it’s worth, it’s more a comment on the approach to this dish than it is one on its quality.

The patty is the burger’s greatest weakness.  The seasoning was ham-fisted, unsophisticated, and excessive, creating a constant peppery undercurrent to every bite that was more annoying than charming (probably because of the lack of a subtle complementary flavor).  The texture of the beef might perhaps best be characterized as “unsettling.”  It’s hard to describe, but also decidedly…well, wrong.  Whereas one might expect a beef patty to have a certain coarse crumble to it, Sawyer’s patty had an off-putting, sticky coherence to it.  When cut, the patty looked – and tasted – downright raw in some places.

The cheddar may as well not have been there.  Indeed, I almost forgot it had been included in the first instance as I ate it.  It added no texture, no taste, no contrast, nothing.  A true disappointment, especially considering the excellent Vermont cheese on offer.  The lettuce was unwieldy and far too large, seemingly there more for artistic reasons than culinary ones.  The bun was a soggy, tasteless mess, soaked before I even took a bite, and disintegrating like Lot’s wife once I laid hands on it.

The tomato relish was a theoretically interesting presentation, but based on the taste, I suspect that “relish” is being used more as an impressive label than a reflection of reality.  It was pulverized tomato, a halfhearted, uninspired stew that merely impersonated a culinary flourish.  In point of fact, the relish did nothing but soak the buns into oblivion, making the whole enterprise much messier than it needed to be.  As even casual readers of this publication know (and yes, I’m indulging in the rank fiction that I may have another kind of reader), I’m not averse to getting my hands dirty, but it’s got to be in service of something.

Not to harp on it, but the relish really captures my sense that this burger was a seafood restaurant’s burger.  Relishes, often work on fish as a means by which to complement the flaky, buttery flesh of the catch (as a trip to basically any hotel restaurant in Hawai’i would prove conclusively), but they’re less inherently at home on a burger.  Burgers generally benefit from the presence of a true sauce.  If you’re going to add a relish or a jam, fine, but it should have a purpose that comes across in every bite.  This slurried, nascent pico de gallo did not achieve that.

This burger is not without positives.  Like so many college electives, the bacon and avocado were the most pleasant aspects of this experience, largely because they were the least challenging.  The former was thick and savory, cooked to a pleasant, succulent crisp.  The wedges of avocado were rich and buttery, playing well – if predictably – with the bacon.  But again, these garnishes stood largely alone.  And it’s telling that the optional elements of the burger were its strongest elements.

Another issue is the sheer structure of this dish.  It is so large, so unwieldy, that I never at any point got a bite with all the ingredients in it.  In addition to being frustrating, it makes the burger an incoherent experiential jumble with no real arc.  I daresay, $18 is quite a dear sum to fork over for such a burger like this, which is as poorly conceived as it is executed.

I’m not saying a seafood restaurant can’t make a good burger.  I am sort of saying that you can’t approach a burger like you’d approach seafood, and just hope that you can let people throw some bacon and avocado on it and forgive all your sins.  The team at Sawyer has created a burger in a Mahi Mahi fillet’s body.  Idyllic atmosphere aside, this burger is a miss.  Come for the ambience, maybe stay for the smoked trout salad?  This is, after all, a seafood restaurant.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.00 / 10.00
Value: 6.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.10 / 10.00
Bun: 6.80 / 10.00
Patty: 5.10 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.00 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 66.30 / 100.00

The Pub at Golden Road Brewery

The Place
The Pub at Golden Road Brewery
5410 West San Fernando Road
Los Angeles, CA 90039

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Nestled in the crook of the 134 and 5 freeways, maybe you saw the violent azure of the Golden Road Brewery, a cartoonish oasis in that weird part of town that’s not quite Glendale, not quite Burbank, not quite Atwater.  Maybe you heard about it after a Golden Road brewpub popped up at Grand Central Market or Dodger Stadium (thanks, Anheuser-Busch InBev).  Maybe you wanted to know whether Los Angeles actually does craft beer.  It really doesn’t matter much, once you’re here.

Maybe you lacked the foresight to take an Uber, in which case you’ll stubbornly scan the nearby streets for a (scarce) parking spot before wisely throwing in the towel and paying for the valet.  But what’s waiting for you in this Smurf-hued warehouse (next to two others – one red, one yellow) is one of the more singular spaces in the city.  A massive brewpub, serving close to two dozen beers, fully equipped with a (wood) ping-pong table and a (sheet metal) cornhole, Golden Road initially seems like something of an adult playground.

But then you’ll notice an area more closely resembling an actual playground, and you’ll see servers adeptly dodging the swerving, sprinting toddlers that abound in this place, roaming free as if in a Chuck-E-Cheese’s.  After a few minutes, you realize this is actually a family space, a place for a thirty-something to find echoes of a social life she thought she’d lost after getting a time-consuming job, setting down roots, paying a mortgage, and all that.  It’s a place to gather.  A place where buzzed fathers can play ping-pong with their kids.  It’s simultaneously heartwarming, disconcerting, charming, concerning, and profoundly odd.

After settling into the weirdness (or, depending on your proclivities, after a pint or two) you might notice the menu’s surprising bursts of sophistication.  One of the items featured is a burger, which bears the brewery’s name (albeit acronymally).  Sam, my guest of honor from Boston, his friend Brandon, Kelsey, and I went to try the burger (joined later by Nikhil the workaholic).  In a rare moment of social inhibition, I listened to Brandon criticize Dodger Stadium; but because we had just met, I refrained from releasing the full vitriolic flood of noble rage such heresy deserved.  Unsurprisingly, that choice has since left me in a fugue state perpetuated by paralytic, self-loathing regret.  It is, then, from the cusp of seething, shame-ravaged catatonia that I write this.  Brandon, if you’re reading, thanks a lot…and you’re welcome.

The Order: GRB Burger

The Price: $12.00

The Burger
The great thing about Golden Road beer, if you’ve not had it, is that it makes fresh presentations feel familiar.  Their Wolf Pup Session IPA – likely among the best session IPAs you’ll drink at the price point – is a playful, citrusy offering that embodies this interplay between familiar and challenging.  Tangy, sweet orange peel gives way to the crisp bitterness yielded by a litany of hops (the hard-charging bitterness of Simcoe providing a crackling backdrop for the complex acidity of Mosaic and a bunch of others that I don’t know nearly enough to name).

Anyway, the point here isn’t to showcase how little I know about beer.  It’s just to give you an idea of what Golden Road is all about.  Which brings us to the menu.  Fundamentally, this is bar food.  Pretzels, garlic fries, chips and guacamole, artichoke dip, and steak sandwiches are unsurprising fare to find on offer at a brewery.  But  read through more carefully, and you might conclude that these standard offerings are really just culinary ballast on a menu, there to allow for bursts of quirkiness.  Idiosyncratic items like a burger with a beet-centric patty, fried avocado tacos, a salmon sandwich with ginger lime slaw, and pulled pork verde are among the expressions that evidence an experimental itch.

The burger reflects that.  The first item of interest is the patty.  A blend of short-rib and rib-eye cooked pink, it’s gorgeous, complex, marbled, sweet.  It melts as you chew it.  It is an attention-grabbing centerpiece.  It dominates the news cycle of every bite.  It is a stand-alone item, an estimable entree in itself.  Its complexity of flavor allows it to reach out and connect with every other ingredient, giving the burger a balanced coherence, where everything seems put in place to complement the patty.

The other ingredients are high-minded classics.  The bacon is hazily savory, with only faint smokiness; it plays predictably nicely with the smooth, ruddy aged cheddar.  Caramelized onions impart singed sweetness.  Sun-dried tomatoes work surprisingly well, giving each bite welcome textural subtlety and mellow ripeness.  The remoulade is distantly piquant, pleasant enough but not arresting.  The bun, a straightforward brioche bun dusted with sesame and poppy seeds, is a sweet bookend to it all, with the seeds offering a lingering, complicated nuttiness.

Golden Road’s heart venerates the classics, but presents them in a cerebral, updated fashion.  That’s a fitting duality for a place that seems designed to let people slipping into middle age relive their youth, and put away a few pints while pretending their metabolisms are what they’ve always been.  At the risk of getting too misty-eyed in our analysis, let’s be clear: this is bar food, and bar food is bar food.  So I would discourage getting your hopes too high.  But, for those whose relationship with day drinking is something akin to, “These days, I feel worse and know better,” a GRB Burger and a Wolf Pup or three marks a nice escape from the new normal.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.90 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.70 / 10.00
Balance: 9.20 / 10.00

Total: 84.60 / 100.00

 

Manuela

The Place
Manuela (at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel)
907 East 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
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Having been a child at one point or another, you probably have at least a glancing familiarity with the indolence of the righteous.  Remember?  It would strike after you raked the leaves in the garden without being asked, you took out the trash sua sponte, you cleaned your plate and excused yourself to wash everyone else’s plates.  In that situation, if you were like a great many of us (I suppose I’m not speaking to the self-anointed paragons of virtue here, but then, I rarely am), you would perform that task with relish.  When your work was done and your good deed was discovered by an authority figure or other beneficiary, you would bask in the inevitable grateful praise was showered upon you.  What a thoughtful thing to have done!

But after that, if you were anything like me, a sense of self-satisfied complacency would set in.  You had done a good deed, and you realized that the performance of such a deed insulated you against criticism for a time.  So you might stretch the rules regarding bedtime, or the brushing of teeth, or the cleaning of one’s room, or one of the other chores or tasks which customarily were expected of you.  And if, say, your mother reminded of these other obligations, you might not say anything, but you would be stunned that more could be expected of you.  You might think, or even grumble under your breath, “That trash didn’t take itself out, you know.”

Sometimes, going above and beyond the call of duty breeds a sense in many children (and an alarmingly high proportion of adults, actually, come to think of it) that they’ve established a line of credit, that they’ve been given a measure of goodwill, which they can use to counterbalance a certain measure of nonfeasance (or even malfeasance, depending on the optimistic boldness of the child in question).  Not, I suppose, unlike the adult who justifies three slices of pizza and a milkshake with twenty minutes at the gym.

I’ll get back to that in a minute.  In the meantime, let’s talk about Manuela.

Manuela is an airy, indoor-outdoor space in the sprawling new Arts District gallery, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, helmed by Soho House luminary Wes Whitsell.  Manuela’s cuisine is a curious blend of cuisines.  If you press me, I’ll tell you Manuela is fundamentally a southern restaurant (the presence of pimiento cheese, biscuits and gravy, grits, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and Carolina gold rice renders that conclusion inescapable), but with heavy touches of Tex-Mex (see, e.g., beet tostada and chilaquiles) and Californian influence (as evidenced by the general seasonally driven, farm-to-table vibe, and the food first / technique second simplicity of the dishes).

For a medium-term denizen of the American Southeast with a strong lingering affection therefor, I was drawn to the menu by its southern flair, which gave me a big-time kick of nostalgia.  But one of the most universally eye-catching items on the menu has got to be the deer burger.  It is that item that ultimately really commanded my attention.  Kelsey and I went to check it out.

The Order: Deer Burger, medium rare

The Price: $16.00

The Burger
The deer burger advertises itself as coming with “all the fixins” (seriously).  That means it’s an all-deer patty with strips of lettuce, beefy and deep-red tomato, and a healthy dollop of a sauce consisting of roughly equal parts mayonnaise and dijon mustard.  On the side are a couple rings of raw red onion and two pieces of pickle which aren’t long enough defensibly to be called “spears,” so think of them as “daggers.”  The burger is served on a milk bun (more on that later).

Right off the bat, there are two pretty remarkable – and unexpected – things in play here.  First, the patty is deer.  That gives it a gamey, richly marbled texture, and a musky, sweet roundness of flavor that beef could never provide.  They recommend it medium-rare, and for a patty of this size, that is the perfect recommendation.  This patty is substantial, pink, bloody enough, and genuinely complex and flavorful.  It is a stellar centerpiece.  I approached this dish with a suspicion that the deer patty may be a gimmick.  It may be, but it is a delicious one.

The second lovely oddity in play here is the bun.  A milk bun is a kind of roll native to Japan (Hokkaido, specifically).  Roux is used as a starter, and these things have the heft of brioche but consistency of cotton candy.  The poppyseed-dusted crust of the thing will look familiar enough, but the gossamer, cloudlike sweetness awaiting you after the first bite will surprise and delight you, I promise.

So, in giving us a succulent deer patty and a delicious and unique bun, Wes Whitsell took out the trash and washed the dishes without being asked.  Sadly, that’s where the virtue of this burger ends.  The sauce, an uninspired mustard-mayo combination, is pedestrian on the tongue.  The tomato is wilted and chewy, rather than fresh and juicy.  The lettuce is merely there, cut into wide strips and arranged thoughtlessly beneath the patty.

It is thus that Manuela’s burger, an offering with so much promise, falls victim to the indolence of the righteous.  By presenting a strong patty and an estimable bun, this burger expects us to forgive its shortcomings in every other respect.  Few would.  The garnishes don’t disappoint in a vacuum; they adversely affect the overall quality of the burger, giving the palate little in the way of evolution or longevity.  Each bite is a stagnant experience, failing to develop or provide the eater with any arc.  You’ll taste bun and meat, and then you’ll be left wondering what might have been if the garnishes were on par with the basics.

Manuela’s burger is a thing of almost staggering potential, but like so many promising but lazy children, it fails to live up to that potential.  Instead, it stands as a stark reminder that overachieving in some areas does not excuse shiftlessness in others.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.10 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 7.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.80 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.30 / 10.00
Bun: 10.00 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.90 / 10.00
Balance: 7.60 / 10.00

Total: 79.70 / 100.00

Where it all started

The Chandrasoma Burger
The Chandrasoma Burger

Let’s be perfectly frank. It’s a little weird for one guy to be this obsessed with hamburgers. When I tell people about this site, many of them immediately want to know how I came to fall for burgers.

Like so many other obsessions, this one traces back to my childhood. My mother always has been the most gifted chef I know. She has an unparalleled culinary instinct. Her dishes, while consistently executed with surgical precision, have not lost their unstudied charm. She understands how flavors and textures interact, and this familiarity with food and spice has matured over years of cooking.

When I was a young pup, before my (now hard-charging) taste for Sri Lankan food had fully developed, my mother’s hamburgers were the ne plus ultra of culinary indulgence. I used to anticipate them with drooling eagerness. They were my first request whenever I was given the chance to choose what we ate for dinner. I would scarf them down as if I hadn’t seen food for weeks.

As time wore on, my appreciation for my mother’s Sri Lankan food deepened. I loved her complex biriyani. I could subsist for days on her simple, sweet-and-fiery pork curry, plated with creamy parippu (lentils) and potato curry. Her cashew curry remains the finest dish I have ever eaten. Between that and her decision to stop eating beef, we ate burgers less frequently.

Recently, however, my mother discovered ground bison, and returned to making burgers. And as I ate one last week, I realized that her burgers, in my mind, are the benchmark against which I judge all others. My mother’s burgers were the sparkplug for my love affair with the burger, and they’re still my favorite burger in Los Angeles (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Am I biased? Shit yes.

But make no mistake, this is a face-meltingly delicious burger. The bison patty is thick and pan-grilled, with chopped Serrano chiles packed into the meat like flavorful little land mines. Left to ruminate in its own juices as it cooks, the patty absorbs them and spits them back out to sizzle and surge back in. The meat takes on a powerful and crackling flavor that is enchanting and complex, but anchored by the tender sweetness of the bison. Atop the patty is crumbled pungent blue cheese hidden beneath a blanket of smooth melted cheddar.

Blades of incendiary red onion come next, just a few, just to add a little sharpness into the mix. On top of that is a massive solitary disc of green tomato that is alive with calm, sunny sweetness. Then there is avocado, perfectly fried bacon, hot pickles, a solitary pickled red chile, and – her signature – a copse of cilantro. All the vegetables are drizzled in salt, pepper, and sugar that has been suspended in a tart matrix of lemon juice. Oh, and house-made apple chutney. Yeah, I know. That’s a lot of delicious shit sandwiched between two jalapeño buns that she barely glazes with honey dijon mustard. And it works beautifully.

C’est ci bon.

The fact that I was raised on burgers like this should shed some light onto a) my abiding love of burgers, and b) my nefariously exacting standards regarding the same. I have my mother to thank for introducing me to this remarkable food, and for teaching me what it should taste like. You have her to thank for being subjected to the meandering and incoherent ramblings of the man she turned into an astonishingly narcissistic culinary sociopath.

My mother asked me not to rate this burger. But how could I not?

The Ratings
Flavor: 10.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 10.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 10.00 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 10.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 10.00 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 100.00 / 100.00

Yeah, I love the shit out of my mom. Get over it.