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.

Ledlow

Displaying IMG_3154.JPGJosef Centeno rightly has become kind of a local celebrity in Downtown Los Angeles. Over the past few years, he has been opening new restaurants at a furious pace, and has established himself as the preeminent culinary personality in the neighborhood. Between Main and Los Angeles, 4th Street essentially belongs to him. The fantastic young trio of Bäco Mercat, Bar Amá, and Orsa & Winston is deservedly beloved by critic and consumer alike – GQ’s Alan Richman hailed Bäco Mercat as the ninth-best restaurant in America in 2013.

Ledlow is the newest addition to the group. It offers American small-plate fare that emphasizes simplicity, preparation, and ingredient quality. They offer gently modernized iterations of familiar dishes – their deviled eggs and Tasso ham is among their most popular dishes; it takes the workhorse ham and eggs and softens the edges with tarragon and cornichon. THis place has already generated enormous buzz – including a coveted review from Jonathan Gold, and it’s easy to see why. The small plates are simple, fresh, beautifully prepared, balanced, flavorful, and just complex enough to be interesting without getting too zany.

The cheeseburger is one of the most popular items on the menu. My companion Shannon and I put it to the test.

The Place
Ledlow
400 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: Griddled Cheeseburger and Fries (single), Rye Smile (rye, lemon, maraschino, ginger, soda)

The Price: $14 (excluding tax) for the burger, $12 (excluding tax) for the cocktail.

The Burger
The burger is pretty consistent with Ledlow’s governing philosophy. Rather than challenging the eater by piling on surprising ingredients, Ledlow’s attempts to offer the most sophisticated version of a classic dish. As such, the changes to the traditional diner cheeseburger are, at least nominally, minimal. In a quietly irreverent move, a poppy seed bun replaces the traditional sesame seed bun. Cheddar and American cheeses are melted together on the patty. A Dijon and garlic aioli is the lone condiment. Besides that, only lettuce, pickle, and red onions accompany one four-ounce patty (for an extra $2, diners can get an extra four-ounce patty; an extra $4 will get you a triple).

Sadly, Ledlow’s offering is much better in theory than in practice. While the conception is just fine, the execution was sloppy. When the burger finally did come out (and it took some time), we were disappointed to find the ingredients were unbalanced and the burger did not hang together well. A single, fiercely curling (and maddeningly isosceles) triangle of lettuce was almost exclusively on one side of the burger. Though crisp and fresh, it was too present on one half of the burger, and barely there on the other.

Ledlow’s menu expressly says they prepare their burgers “cooked through.” This begs the question of what constitutes “rare” there, considering our burger was red – not pink – on the inside. While there certainly is nothing wrong with rare meat in general, beef as rare as this is difficult to justify in a burger. The bun was also problematic: it was dry and grainy in the middle, and soggy where it met the contents of the burger.

This burger’s fatal flaw, however, was balance. The assembly of the burger highlighted all of its flaws. The ingredients all fought to get to the front of the flavor profile rather than complementing one another. In the end, the onions and the aioli won out (to the detriment of the burger). They completely dominated the burger; every bite was totally overrun by the sharpness of the onions and Dijon on the front-end, which gave way to a garlicky finish.

Sadly, this really ended up masking some of the burger’s virtues. For instance, even though the golden alloy of cheeses was a subtle touch that really actually did add some complexity and dimension, it was essentially impossible to taste in the midst of the nuclear winter of aioli and onion. Moreover, we couldn’t discern how (or even if) the patty was seasoned (the fact that it was way undercooked likely didn’t help, since the overabundance of juices masked whatever gasping residue of seasoning survived the gustatory onslaught of the onions and sauce).

There are a couple of potential fixes here (I’m not sure how accommodating the restaurant would be of requests like these or how effective they might be, but it certainly is worth a shot). Most obvious would be to order the aioli on the side, and remove a few of the onions prior to diving in. Next, ask for your burger to be cooked medium to medium-well. If they tell you the burger will be cooked through, ask them to go a even shade further on the well-done end than they normally would. Finally, the burger comes with a little tub of ketchup for the French fries (which, parenthetically, were delicious). Add a little. The burger’s flavor profile would have benefited a lot from the sweetness that ketchup imparts. It might have blunted the harsh front-end flavors that made the burger tough to enjoy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the other food Shannon and I had while at Ledlow was delicious. Creamy deviled eggs wedded beautifully with indulgent strips of leathery Tasso ham and misty tarragon, all anchored by perfectly proportioned potatoes, which added just enough starch to keep the dish grounded. It was easy to see why this is another of Ledlow’s signature dishes. Their vegetable crudités also looked stunning, a long piece of wood bearing various and sundry fruits and vegetables – some raw and some sumptuously grill-blackened. The dishes here are brave for their simplicity. It is all about preparation and quality here. When Ledlow hits, it hits hard and memorably. Unfortunately, the burger was simply disappointing.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.10 / 10.00
Value: 6.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 4.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.40 / 10.00
Bun: 6.50 / 10.00
Patty: 7.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.60 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 64.00 / 100.00