Grill ‘Em All

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

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

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

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

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

The Price: $12

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 84.40 / 100.00

The Bowery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 91.90 / 100.00

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.