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

The Habit Burger Grill

The Place
The Habit Burger Grill
Various Locations

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Image courtesy of TripAdvisor

You may remember The Habit made waves a couple years back.  Playing the role of dark horse to perfection, the Santa Barbara-based West Coast mainstay placed first in Consumer Reports’ fast-food survey, beating out other local heroes like In-N-Out (spoiler alert: that’s unvarnished sacrilege), and larger outlets like Steak ‘n Shake and Smashburger.

Now obviously, it’s far from clear that you, I, or anyone else should trust or defer to the culinary preferences of people who only got a say because they subscribe to Consumer Reports (like, consider how many people you know who subscribe to Consumer Reports).  Having said that, the people surveyed ate almost 100,000 meals between them.  So if nothing else, there’s a good amount of data behind this survey.

For a burger chain you’ve probably never heard of, the Habit is quite an old mainstay.  It was founded in 1969, and has since steadily expanded throughout California, creeping into Arizona and Utah as well.  It migrated east into New Jersey recently too, but it’s still definitely a child of the West.  With thanks to Juno for making it possible, Bret and I took five from work to grab this old standard for lunch.

The Order: Double Charburger with Cheese

The Price: $4.95

The Burger
For such a well-established outfit, The Habit certainly has escaped widespread attention or acclaim.  That might have something to do with its sort of silly branding (their truck invites you to “Get up in [their] grill” – see what they did there?), or the fact that it just sort of feels like a shoddy fast casual restaurant.

Far from the heaven-white, spit-shined gleam of an In-N-Out burger, the hidden gem illicitness of a Burgerlords, or even the ruddy and unvarnished appeal of the Oinkster, The Habit’s brick and mortar spots have all the charm of, like, a T.G.I. Friday’s.  You’ll find them nestled in shopping blocks, flanked by, say, a Nordstrom Rack and HomeGoods.  It’s almost impossible to take seriously, especially for a well-heeled foodie type.  One expects servers with pique polos covered in buttons, fried onions fashioned into crisp flowers, seafood from oceans unknown, and steaks whose origin is impossible to discern.

At first blush, you might be struck by what feels like a too-expansive menu, replete with salads nobody ought ever order, an odd albacore sandwich that is just strange enough to intrigue (but not intriguing enough to order), and some curious sides (tempura green beans, anyone?).  While it’s probably true that the menu would benefit from a good editorial trim, there is enough weirdness on this menu to suggest an undercurrent of sophisticated curiosity that might make this burger worth trying.

Readily, I will admit my anticipatory scorn was building heavily as I approached this burger.  In a swell of self-congratulatory elitism, I prepared to dismiss the Consumer Reports survey result as just some sampling tomfoolery, reflecting the unsophisticated preferences of some culinary neophytes who lack the time, mind, or means to frequent the truly good restaurants.

Sadly, this is not (entirely) a redemption narrative.  I was undoubtedly being unfair (and a big jerk) in my preconceptions about The Habit.  That survey was, after all, just a survey about fast food.  But in aid of crystalline clarity, let me state this unequivocally: this is not the best burger – fast food or otherwise – in this city, let alone the country.  It is, however, a well (not perfectly) executed Californian classic, certainly much better than you might expect from the kitschy look of the place.

Envision a slightly heftier, meatier iteration of the (still comfortably superior) Double-Double with a worse bun, and you’re in the Habit’s airspace.  The bun is a simple white bread bun with the lightest kiss of sweetness.  It was slightly dry but adsorbent enough to keep things from getting messy.  The lettuce was  shredded, flirting with the mayonnaise and the pickles hidden below, creating a piquant and crisp cushion to anchor the whole flavor profile of the burger.  The tomato wasn’t exactly market-fresh, but gave a juicy enough punch.  The caramelized onions were a nice touch, sweet and sharp on the tongue without being too soupy (though they were a bit stringy and hard to eat).

The Habit distinguishes itself – for better or worse  – in the size of the patties.  They are massive crisped discs of beef, with slabs of melted cheese draped over them like fire blankets.  They are big enough to decisively take center stage in the flavor profile of this burger without completely drowning out the other ingredients.  True to the burger’s name, they have a solid char, which gives a distant savory bitterness to the front-end of every bite.  Sadly, they’re also a bit overcooked, which dries them out a fair amount.  What the patties bring to the table in flavor, then, is sort of ruined by their textural deficiencies.  And given their sheer size, these faults are tough to ignore, and aren’t really balanced by the burger’s other virtues.

Having said all that, I can understand why the Habit would have gotten itself something of a following.  It’s an undeniably excellent deal at the price point – value-wise, it definitely falls in the same category as In-N-Out.  And it probably deserves to be slotted in with that class of burgers that are “slightly better than fast food” but “not really gourmet.”  And it handily beat out my elitist preconceptions.  But you should quickly disabuse yourself of the notion that the Habit can lay a finger to In-N-Out.  I have mulled over that result for a good long time, and have come no closer to a colorable explanation for it.  But the fact remains that while I may never understand how the Habit beats out In-N-Out in the minds of the Consumer Reports readership, it isn’t difficult to understand the restaurant’s appeal.  It may be overblown, but it isn’t undeserved.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.40 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.00 / 10.00

Value: 9.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 7.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.50 / 10.00
Balance: 8.40 / 10.00

Total: 83.00 / 100.00

The Top Ten (November 1, 2016)

The passage of Halloween means that the holidays are upon us.   That means it’s time to engage in behavior that makes you feel deeply guilty at season’s end.  What better way to do that than by checking out the brand new, and thoroughly shaken-up, top ten burgers in Los Angeles?

  1. Petit Trois (95.70 / 100.00)
  2. Burgerlords (93.20 / 100.00)
  3. In-N-Out Burger (93.00 / 100.00
  4. The Bowery (91.90 / 100.00)
  5. Fritzi (91.10 / 100.00)
  6. Plan Check Kitchen + Bar (Bleuprint) (90.70 / 100.00)
  7. Super Burger (90.00 / 100.00)
  8. Plan Check Kitchen + Bar (Plan Check Burger) (89.80 / 100.00)
  9. Dudley Market (88.90 / 100.00)
  10. The Flintridge Proper (88.70 / 100.00)

Get out there – these burgers aren’t going to eat themselves.  And happy holidays.

Shake Shack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Order: Shack Burger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 70.40 / 100.00

Tyler’s Burgers

The Place

Tyler’s Burgers
149 South Indian Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA 92262

No reservations
Bar: Beer and wine
Cash only

You’re eight years old, maybe nine.  It’s the height of summer—say, early July?  You’ve settled comfortably into your vacation, and your dreaded return to school is not yet on the radar.  You can’t really tell the days apart; they blend together into an undifferentiated mass of weekdays and weekends and friends and sunburns and beach days and day trips and sun-warmed pools.  You bask in the delicious swelter of the long summer days.  You feel invincible, ageless.

On one of those days, a day quite literally like every other early July day, your parents take you to a cookout at a friend’s house.  You walk into your friend’s backyard, grass brushing against the sides of your feet left bare by your sandals.  You hear laughter and beer cans opening.  You smell freshly-cut grass soaked in lemonade spills and sprinkler spray, the delicate cloud of sweet summer sweat, chlorinated water, and—above all—the smell of smoke, charcoal, and crackling grilled meat.

Hold that picture for a moment.

Diana Diamico started a restaurant based on that kind of picture.  Two decades ago, she set up shop in a sixty year-old building on the main drag in Palm Springs.  It used to be a Greyhound Bus depot.  Her goal was to recreate a burger that her mother used to sling way back when at a burger stand on the boardwalk in Venice Beach.  That burger, so firmly rooted in Diamico’s memories of childhood, “became the foundation of knowing the difference between mediocrity and the best.”  It also became the foundation stone of her business.

Diamico’s burger, then, is a nod to the past, to a time when things felt—were?—simpler.  Maybe that’s an excessively romantic way to think about a burger (especially if you’re one of those cynical millennial types), but nostalgia is a powerful emotion.  It affects not only what we like, but also—not least in the case of Diamico—what we do.  Tyler’s is a business built on memories.  It’s also been held that you can’t get a better burger in Palm Springs.  Well, Kelsey and I were out there for the long weekend, so we went to give it a try.

The Order: Cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger

The Price: $8 (cheeseburger), $9.50 (bacon cheeseburger)

The Burgers
It might seem odd that I’m reviewing two burgers at once—and it’s true; usually I don’t do that.  But these two offerings weren’t different enough to merit separate reviews.  If you’re like me, your instincts would guide you towards ordering the bacon cheeseburger, because bacon.  Now, while it’s hard to say that ordering the bacon cheeseburger is flat out misguided (especially if you’re into that sort of thing), I can’t endorse it.  To my mind, the bacon is more of a distraction than a complement here—albeit a delicious, delicious distraction (especially if you’re into that sort of thing).  But that isn’t an indictment of the bacon cheeseburger so much as it is a veneration of the standard cheeseburger.  I think the order is the regular cheeseburger with American cheese and grilled onions.  Hold the tomato for bonus points (I had it on the bacon cheeseburger, and it didn’t add much).

Go back to that picture in your head.  You’re at the barbecue and you’re handed a hastily arranged burger.  The garnishes are simple: an oozing sheet of American cheeese, crisp lettuce, bright pickles, succulent tomato, maybe some sweet, charmingly flaccid rings of grilled onion.  The sauces are conventional, unfussy: ketchup, yellow mustard, and a thin glaze of mayonnaise mixing into some unnamed but familiar metacondiment the color of a sunset.

Tyler’s has done a pretty good job of recreating that burger.  It’s not necessarily this burger that’s memorable.  It’s that it evokes really fond memories.  If you’re like me, this burger will around feelings of nostalgia in you. It’s the taste of a summer barbecue.  It’s the taste of being told to wait a half hour before swimming.  The patty is substantial – seven ounces at least.  Were I to complain that it was a touch overcooked, that would only be a matter of taste.  The outside of the patty is deliciously crackled by the flat top, the inside juicy and savory enough.  The sponge bun is the stuff of In-N-Out dreams, but slightly thicker.  That’s okay, given the thickness and heft of the patty.

The toppings are all solid, but the cheese is the standout.  It completely covers the patty in a thick, dripping sheet.  Swiss is an option, but I can’t imagine it topping the American I chose.  I’ll readily stipulate that American is perhaps the most sophomoric of all the cheeses, but my gracious, it was indulgent, rich, and creamy.  And for as unfussy an expression as this burger is, it was the ideal complement.  The grilled onions were a fabulous addition too, sweet and grill-burnt.  They sank into the quicksand-like cheese until the two almost infused one another.  Stellar stuff.

As I ate the cheeseburger (which, to bring it full circle, probably deserves the mantle of best burger in Palm Springs), I glanced over to the bar and saw a family sitting together, presumably on a Memorial Day vacation.  Their young son couldn’t have been older than ten.  He was holding his cheeseburger aloft when I looked, to eat a hanging disc of pickle.  He had ketchup on his face.  His hands were a mess.  His too-big blue t-shirt had escaped stains for the moment, but I found myself doubting that would last as I watched him attack his burger with the gleeful abandon that summer engenders in everyone of that age.  And as I bit back into my own burger with the neat and proper sobriety of adulthood, that age felt a little closer.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.60 / 10.00
Value: 9.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.50 / 10.00 

Total: 86.70 / 100.00

The Top Ten (April 12, 2016)

I haven’t updated this list since October, and there has been considerable shake-up since then.  At the risk of being behind the times, here are the top ten burgers I’ve written about so far.

  1. Burgerlords (93.20 / 100.00)
  2. In-N-Out (93.00 / 100.00)
  3. The Bowery (91.90 / 100.00)
  4. Super Burger (90.00 / 100.00)
  5. Plan Check Kitchen + Bar (89.80 / 100.00)
  6. Dudley Market (88.90 / 100.00)
  7. The Flintridge Proper (88.70 / 100.00)
  8. Republique (88.20 / 100.00)
  9. TIE: ERB and Badmaash (88.10 / 100.00)

Stay tuned, clearly.  More changes are basically a sure thing.  After all, as you may have read on the label of a pair of Volcom Stone pants you had in sixth grade, “The Only Constant Is Change.”

Burgerlords

The Place
Burgerlords
943 North Broadway, #102
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Los Angeles is beautiful because no matter how well you know her, she keeps changing on you in subtle, unknowable ways. Just when I think I’ve got her figured out, I stop and look in time to see the sun hit her in a slightly different way. The only constant in my relationship with this town is that I love it. The reasons why I love it, though, like me, are always changing.

I could go into a big long thing about it, but that’s kind of what love is, isn’t it? Watching someone change – and changing yourself – but staying connected? Because eventually you learn to think of change not as the disappearance of the old, but the discovery of something new. And that’s how, after years and decades of marriage, people wake up together just as fiercely in love as they were on the morning after their wedding.

Or something. Gracious, don’t take my word for it; I know way more about burgers than love.

Here’s my point. My favorite thing about this project is that, no matter how exhaustively I research, no matter how much I think I know, there’s always a surprise just around the corner. A comment made in passing by an acquaintance. An almost-hidden spot that makes me double take (and maybe almost rear-end someone) driving down Broadway. A recommendation from someone I’d written off as a dilettante. A remark from someone who’s just trying to revive a conversation.

Two weeks ago, I didn’t know Burgerlords existed, even though it’s practically in my back yard. Now, I’m sitting here with the empty box in front of me, the wrapping still soggy with thousand islands, the fast fading smell of the best french fries I’ve ever eaten and a truly remarkable burger lingering like a cloud above my coffee table, writing about it. God, I love this city.

Here’s all you need to know by way of background: Burgerlords is the brainchild of the actual children of Andre Guerrero, who you know because he’s the guy behind the Oinkster. It used to be the name of an insanely popular Tumblr run by the same dudes. Now, it’s a restaurant hidden in a corner of Chinatown where it would never occur to you to head for food. Which is unfortunate for you. That’s why you read this, though.

The Order: Double Cheeseburger Combo

The Price: $10.00

The Burger
I’ll spare you the suspense. I know I haven’t eaten every burger in Los Angeles. But none of the ones I have eaten can beat this one. I won’t belabor that point too much. Instead, I’ll get to brass tacks.

This burger is quite obviously an homage to the Double-Double. And yes, living up to that progenitor is an audacious goal.

Obviously, this is a much smaller operation than In-N-Out. The Guerrero brothers have not proven that they can maintain quality in the face of expansion. But they have expressed no intention or ambition to expand. For now, Burgerlords is just a window in Chinatown that you can’t see from the street. When you go – and you must go – resist the temptation to try and see the future through that window. Instead, try and appreciate what’s in front of you. The burger being made with love, care, and respect. The sizzle and hiss of beef on burner. The crackle of frying potatoes. Focus on what’s there. It’s more than enough.

The patties are grass-fed beef. They call it their “tri-blend” without further elaboration. None is necessary. It has the hardiness of chuck, the sweet tenderness of short rib, and insinuates (without achieving, but come on, the thing is ten bucks) the complexity of Wagyu. It’s seasoned to utter perfection, with the seasoning bringing out the natural savor of the meat, amplifying rather than masking.

The bun is the most overt tip of the cap to In-N-Out. It matches its ancestor in spongy sweetness, and is the perfect bookend to this burger. The toppings are the weakest point; the lettuce is a little sad and wilted, the tomatoes are a bit watery. These are minor nits. The onions and cheese fare better, offering a personality and tastefully assertive flavor to contrast the anchoring umami undertones of the patty. The thousand island is the subtlest you’ll likely taste on a burger, but is the perfect, cooling counterpart to the beef and cheese.

As I read over the last couple paragraphs, which I’ve written and re-written, they don’t get the point across. It occurs to me now that there really is no getting the point across. These ingredients coalesce into something much more than the aggregation of their individual tastes. Just like a symphony is more than a bunch of instruments being played at the same time. There’s nothing special about this burger. But that’s what makes it so special.

There’s a line in 500 Days of Summer where one of the characters describes the girl of his dreams, and enumerates the many ways in which she is different from his girlfriend. Then he pauses, and says, “But Robin is better than the girl of my dreams – she’s real.”

I thought of that line while I was eating this burger. I could dream up an insane burger. One with foie gras, a bone marrow drip, St. Andre cheese, avocado, bacon, or any other number of exotic or indulgent ingredients. But dreams are dreams; they don’t necessarily reflect anything that would work in the waking world. Burgerlords hasn’t made the burger of my dreams. They’ve done something better. They’ve made what is to date the best burger I’ve ever had.

Burgerlords might not be good enough to make you fall in love with Los Angeles. It might not make you fall in love with burgers. (Although, if you didn’t love either of those two things, it’s not clear why you’re here reading this in the first instance.) But for those of us who already love either or both of those things, it’s a pretty damn good reminder of why.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.60 / 10.00
Value: 9.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.40 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 93.20 / 100.00

République

The Place
624 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 11.21.50 AM
It’s hard to find two places more serious about brunch than New York and Los Angeles. Without getting tangled in the weeds about who does brunch “better” – God help us all if we go a-tumbling down that rabbit hole – République on La Brea will give you a pretty good window into how Los Angeles does brunch. Oddly enough, the mid-city/Miracle Mile area is kind of a perfect cross-section of the city. It’s the rare part of town that is just far enough west that the most intrepid west-LA types will venture over if the brunch is sufficiently alluring. And it’s just far enough east that Silver Lake hipsters will muster up a couple shits to give, throw on their circular-framed sunglasses and/or wide-brim hats and get out.

To the extent that you don’t see how mid-city itself can be that alluring, by now it should be pretty clear that République has established itself as being worth a trip from just about anywhere. An expansive space with a skylight ceiling, Walter Mantzke’s spot doesn’t look like much from the outside. The restaurant’s austere logo is painted onto the concrete in black and white. The only reason this place might catch your eye is that – especially on Sundays – there’s a hell of a line outside.

It’s also been held that République whips up a burger that is “criminally underrated.” Consider my interest piqued. McKenna and I went to check it out. Undeterred by her last encounter with eggs, she ordered a croque madame. Because I’m a colossal francophobe, I judged her aggressively and ordered a burger. We (okay, mainly I) aggressively judged people like this. Proper usage of the words “who” and “whom” was discussed – and when I say “discussed,” of course, I mean explained. By me. And this.

The Order: Dry-Aged Beef Burger, medium rare

The Price: $15

The Burger
IMG_0458
As I ate this burger, a couple things dawned on me. First, messy things are made more satisfying to eat by the very fact of their messiness. Now I see what those Carl’s Jr. ads are getting at (still no official word on why they exclusively feature sexually attractive, scantily clad women). Second – and more directly relevant here – I’m a real sucker for the classics.

Admittedly, a night watching YouTube videos with my friend Andy will reveal this penchant pretty decisively. I mean, in the past couple of weeks, I have sat in silent reverence and watched the music video to “Free Fallin'”. In its entirety. Without a scintilla of irony. Brief sidenote: if you understand why that’s funny, you’re almost undoubtedly more of an insufferable piece of shit than you realize.

I suppose that’s really neither here nor there. République is a “fancy” restaurant. Most “fancy” restaurants fall into the trap of unnecessarily embellishing their burgers in a “fancy” way. Oh, what? Yeah, no, that isn’t white cheddar. In the first place, it’s way too crumbly to be white cheddar, but it’s actually pule. Pule? You haven’t heard of it? Yeah, no, most people haven’t. It’s actually a Serbian cheese made from donkey milk. Yeah, it costs almost $2000 per pound. I know, that’s why we charge $57 for this burger. You’ll really like it. You know, if you can like, you know, appreciate it.

République sidesteps that problem pretty effectively by adopting a tried and true formula and not changing it. At all. In any regard. The focus is not on reinvention of the wheel for its own sake. Rather, Mantzke et al. emphasize execution. They want this burger to evoke memories of backyard barbecues, with bright sun, casually charred burgers, impossibly fresh garnishes, and an absence of pretension that emanates not from laziness, but from a joyful reverence for the classic formulation of the dish.

And that brings me back to the classics. See, kids? That’s called closing the loop.

What I really appreciate about this burger is that there is so little to tell. The beef is dry-aged and utterly astonishing (they recommend it medium rare – you should listen). The garnishes are of the highest quality and freshness, especially the indulgent, meaty discs of tomato. The bun is a sunny brioche peppered with poppy seeds – delicious, but it did not take very long for it to soak through and start disintegrating. The grilled onions add a creeping, silvery sweetness without dominating the flavor profile of the burger. The Thousand Island imparts a gentle, foundational buzz of tangy flavor to each bite.

The inspiration for this burger, pretty plainly, is In-N-Out Burger. And while it certainly goes blow-for-blow as far as freshness and ingredient quality is concerned, the patty is more massive and central. It’s got more thickness and heft than a Double Double, which means, the flavor of the meat overwhelms any pretreatment of the patty (whereas, at In-N-Out, the charred sweetness of the beef is complemented beautifully by the pre-grill seasoning).

It’s not entirely fair to compare République to In-N-Out in the way you might be tempted to do so. The different approach to patty structure alone makes the comparison a pretty fraught one. But the commitment to freshness, execution, consistency, and – above all – simplicity is the same. And its high praise to tell you that this burger, in those ways, evoked the Californian burger titan. But, I’ll be damned if it didn’t.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.70 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.70 / 10.00
Value: 8.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.00 / 10.00

Total: 88.20 / 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.