The L.A. Weekly Burger Battles

I owe Shannon for the tip on this one. She managed to reach me through the thick, noxious, mind-altering fog of bar exam preparation (which is also what I’m offering by way of an excuse for the lack of reviews lately), and apprise me of something of which I was shamefully unaware.

So apparently, LA Weekly is running a burger bracket. They’ve put sixteen burgers in Los Angeles into categories (“divisions”), and they’re putting them up in a head-to-head, winner-advances tournament. It’s not clear how they chose these sixteen burgers. There were some on the list that really didn’t belong, and others that were undoubtedly snubbed. The first round is over, and here are a few quick thoughts heading into Round Two (the “elite eight”):

  • Ledlow beating out Belcampo Meat Co. is the most ridiculous miscarriage of justice since, well, this. Or this. Or this. Or this. God, that last one really hurt.
  • Actually, the whole “Fancy” bracket kind of sucks. Not only were both matchups incorrectly decided, those burgers decidedly, well, just aren’t that fancy. Though I suppose fancy is relative.
  • It’s not clear what the “New School” Bracket actually is, considering some of those places have been around longer than, say, Ledlow, and are decidedly classic burgers (I’m thinking the Oinkster).
  • I don’t know how these sixteen burgers got their feet in the door. This is arbitrary as shit.
  • If the final is anything besides In-N-Out v. Plan Check, this bracket is a crime on par with…well, this. Which isn’t to say that Plan Check should even be in the final, because…ugh, where do I even start?

Now, your humble correspondent was snubbed for an invitation to judge the competition. I’m as perplexed as you are. However, I’ve decided to do the next best thing and offer you my suggested votes for the next round. Do with this information what you will.

Fancy Division: Pick Petit Trois (because you can’t pick Belcampo (because Gillian Ferguson’s tastebuds apparently are less functional than the cuff buttons on an rented tuxedo)).

New School Division: Go with Plan Check. Neither of these places really represent the best of what I think of as “New School” burgers in Los Angeles, but it’s the better of the two.

L.A. Originals Division: Close, but it’s got to be Father’s Office. But the even closer call would be “Which of these places offers a more unpleasant dining experience?” That’s a genuine toss-up.

Fast Food Division: If you have to ask, we’re obviously not in one another’s lives. It’s In-N-Out. By a marathon of country miles, it’s In-N-Out.

This is one to watch closely. In the meantime, you definitely should go do your civic duty.

Super Burger

IMG_3289To our wild and crazy generation, Hidden in Plain View describes a (very intense, vaguely scary, definitely bad) post-hardcore band from New Jersey. But in the age of Yelp and Urbanspoon and countless food blogs purveyed by narcissistic, self-obsessed foodies screaming ignored into the aether of the interwebs (WHO NEEDS THEM, AM I RIGHT), the phrase has kind of lost its currency in the culinary world.

One thing that kind of sucks about the electronic age is that the thrill of discovery is blunted by its inevitability. It’s refreshing, then, when a truly magnificent place slips through the e-cracks and manages to escape your attention. Then, you hear about it from an actual human being, you go there and discover a place to which you know you will return countless times in the future, and it feels pretty remarkable. It’s nice to actually find something, rather than just passively accumulating and half-processing information.

My friend Andy told me about Super Burger. His experience there left him pleasantly shocked. Because here’s the thing: This place has been around forever – like, seriously, decades – but has managed to escape the detection of anyone in our social circle (and my friends and I are not disinterested in burgers, in case you’d not noticed). I was skeptical going in; between the internet grapevine and my own deep roots in Pasadena, it was nothing short of inconceivable that I would have failed to hear about a place this good.

So we went. I got an avocado bacon cheeseburger. We agreed that Serena Williams is a) the finest individual athlete in America who isn’t named Michael Phelps, b) that she makes it nearly impossible to like her in spite of that fact, and c) lots of people who don’t like her are probably just uncomfortable seeing a minority succeed at what has so traditionally been a “white sport.” And we also agreed that the writing about her heading into the U.S. Open is going to be insufferable. Because ESPN. And we also agreed that Bill Simmons seems dangerously close to becoming a citizen (or at least a permanent resident) of Whiny Bitch Victim Complex Town.

What can I say? It was a productive lunch.

The Place
Super Burger
458 N Altadena Drive
Pasadena, CA 91107

The Order: Avocado Bacon Cheeseburger, Coke.

The Price: $8.95 (approximately)

The Burger
After my first bite, the thought that occurred to me was, “How the hell did I miss this?”

There are lots of different ways to categorize burgers, but patty size is a useful way. Some places – In-N-Out pops to mind – feature thin patties. They maximize surface area and season their meat really well. Then, there are what I think of as pub-style burgers, with thicker patties that depend more heavily on the flavor of the meat and the grill.

In-N-Out sets the bar for the thin patty burger. It’s a benchmark. Now, I haven’t eaten at Super Burger enough to be conclusive about this, but let me tell you one thing. This is the best short-order burger I have eaten at any place not called In-N-Out. I think the most telling thing here is that I would frame this review by comparing this place to In-N-Out.

The patty is a roughshod, hand-packed monster, probably weighing in at no less than a half-pound. There’s no short rib or brisket anywhere near this thing – it’s a budget burger – but somehow, it manages to be juicy, intensely flavorful, and delicious. The bun is wholesale. The lettuce and tomato are throwaways, the Thousand Island adds a necessary tangy punch but is otherwise unremarkable. The onions are just fine but should probably have been grilled (I’d imagine they’d have done this had I asked). The cheese is firmly B-plus stuff. The action happens with the four massive wedges of astonishingly fresh, firm, flavorful avocado and the perfectly crisp, sumptuously undulating strips of bacon. The interplay between this and the ever surprising beef is nothing short of astounding. Seriously.

Another point: Conventional wisdom will direct you to get the teriyaki burger. I have it on good authority that you should ignore the conventional wisdom. I can tell you that the avocado bacon cheeseburger is, by fast food standards, revelatory. Sure, it’s not a gourmet, grass-fed, organic, dry-aged situation. But over the decades that Super Burger has sat on that corner, leaning into a residential neighborhood, they apparently have perfected their craft. If In-N-Out sets the bar for the thin patty burger, Super Burger may well set the bar for the pub style burger.

I could wax superlative about this place for a while. I could tell you how you have to haul ass to Pasadena (and then keep driving east once you get to the cool part). I could Come Full Circle and tell you how this burger reminded me how good it feels to really discover a new place without the crutch of the Internet, or how this burger is like the Serena Williams of pub-style burgers, only without the shitty attitude (or reactionary racist blowback). And all that is true. But in all honesty, this is just a completely delicious burger that you should eat whenever you have a chance but are short on time.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.50 / 10.00
Value: 9.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 9.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.80 / 10.00

Total: 90.00 / 100.00

In-N-Out Burger

Displaying IMG_3137.JPGIf we’re being honest with ourselves, this saga could only have started here. Since taking Baldwin Park by storm in 1948, In-N-Out has become a staple of life in California. Over the years, it has achieved nationwide fame, even being the subject of an extended, gushing soliloquy by a starstruck Anthony Bourdain. In-N-Out Burger is what most people in Los Angeles think of when they hear the word hamburger. The Los Angeles burger scene started at In-N-Out Burger. It is only fitting, then, that the Los Angeles Burger Project starts there as well.

The Place:
In-N-Out Burger
310 N. Harvey Drive
Glendale, CA 91206

The Order (pictured above): Double-Double (mustard fried, no tomato, onions, extra toast on the bun); French fries, Coke.

Price: $7.41 (including tax).

The Burger
What can I write that most of you don’t already know? In-N-Out has mastered the art of the burger, and executes fresh (never frozen), impossibly consistent masterpieces thousands of times daily. The strength of this burger is in its simplicity. The cheese is melted and gooey without being messy. Wonderfully fresh and crisp lettuce and onions give the burger textural complexity. The lettuce is especially praiseworthy: never wilted, in spite of its proximity to freshly-grilled meat and melted cheese. The spread is tangy without being overpowering.

You could make a pretty strong case that the bun is the strongest element of the burger. Perfectly sized, perfectly absorbent, perfectly toasted, this bun has just enough independent flavor to influence the taste profile of the burger without dominating it. While many gourmet burgers feature a buttery brioche, In-N-Out’s bun is more traditional, but perfectly suited to the fresh simplicity of the offering.

Ultimately though, the meat is the marquee feature. The immaculately seasoned patties are juicy and perfectly cooked – just far enough past medium rare to preserve the meat’s natural flavor and juiciness, while also avoiding being messy or bloody (though, if you prefer a bit more blood and a bit less structure, you are free to request that the meat be medium rare). Notes of crackling fried mustard lingers under the delicate char. The thin patties provide a greater seasoned surface area, which gives the meat much more depth of flavor than a brutish, thick patty might.

In-N-Out is perhaps most impressive, though, for its consistency. This is a restaurant that has never compromised on its core values of making fresh, delicious food. Their commitment is evident in their consistently delicious and perfectly prepared burgers. Pull up to an In-N-Out Burger in the middle of nowhere, and you can be damn certain that you will get the same phenomenal product you would get from them in the heart of Los Angeles.

In-N-Out is not the place to go if you are looking for an inventive, boundary-pushing burger. Their menu is small, their ingredients limited, and their focus narrow. They make no effort to reinvent the wheel. They have a winning formula, and they stick to it. The food here will not challenge you. It will not surprise you. But it is also much more than just a known quantity. In-N-Out never wanted to redefine the burger. They just wanted to master it. And that, they have achieved in spades.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.70 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.80 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 10.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.70 / 10.00
Patty: 9.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.10 / 10.00

Total: 93.00 / 100.00