Fritzi

The Place
Fritzi
814 Traction Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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I remember when Give Up by the Postal Service came out.  I was a sophomore in high school.  It was before winter formal.  That particular winter formal was to be a rare triumph for me in the romance department.  I took one of the prettiest and most popular girls in the freshman class.  Unfortunately, as it turned out 1) I wasn’t very attractive (please indulge my optimistic use of the past tense), 2) she was out of my league, 3) I’m inveterately and painfully awkward, and 4) teenagers are a heartless sort.

The result: she bolted as soon as we arrived, and spent the entire evening with confident, attractive junior alpha males who played sports and got bad grades.  Meanwhile, I, the archetypal beta male, sat on a bench staring into a swimming pool, waiting for high school to end, and playing various tracks from Give Up in my head to pass the time. This admittedly depressing scene was interrupted when I was rescued by my friend David and his date Sara (incidentally, about halfway through “Clark Gable”).

I still wonder why that album came into my head, especially considering my tortured relationship with it.  I hated to like Give Up.  See, some Death Cab for Cutie fans were nervous when Give Up dropped (these were the Sub Pop days, when Death Cab fans were less numerous and more proprietary than today’s breed).  Publicly, we worried side projects portend artistic restlessness, or worse, stagnation, that they threaten to reveal a beloved artist reduced to repackaging old ideas instead of presenting new ones.

Privately though, we’d admit that our real issue wasn’t artistic; it was that side projects have the whiff of infidelity.  Death Cab fans liked to envision Ben Gibbard poring over ragged spiral notebooks scribbling the lyrics to the next “A Lack Of Color,” not seeking new modes of expression.  Him having another band felt like a betrayal.

What an odd feeling. It’s not as if I didn’t love Ben Gibbard just because Give Up came out.  It’s just that the release of Give Up made me face all facets of that love, even the ugly ones: affection, loyalty, fear (of change and of loss), comfort, complacency, possessiveness, jealousy.  The only thing more frightening than watching someone you love change is the prospect of getting left behind somewhere along the way.  So I listened, with layered trepidation.

I find these feelings have survived in me, and they resurfaced again recently when Neal Fraser diverted his attention from Redbird to give Fritzi the full sit-down restaurant treatment.  When Fritzi became something more than a whimsical pop-up or a window at Arts District Brewing, that familiar proprietary jealousy, that envious dogma of mine, was impossible to escape, even though culinary side projects often work out just fine.

The Order: Fritzi Burger

The Price: $11.50

The Burger
Maybe you’ve never heard of Fritzi.  It would be hard to fault you, actually.  It first surfaced as a pop-up, then soft-opened as a practically nameless take-out window nestled in a corner of Arts District Brewing, where everyone from the merely buzzed to the blacked out could partake in some high-class, high-carb hangover prophylaxis.  The only signage to speak of was a large marquee above the window that glowingly admonished all passers-by: “DON’T FORGET TO EAT.”

By the time Fritzi actually opened a dining room directly next door to Arts District Brewing (serviced by the same kitchen as the take-out window; the two spaces are less adjacent than they are interlocked), it would have been easy to not notice.  There was almost no fanfare; besides, we’d been eating off that menu for months.

But Fritzi commands attention.  It is the brainchild of Neal Fraser, who ranks among the most deadly serious chefs in the city.  The fare is fast-food inspired and fundamentally uncomplicated.With quintessentially Arts District pretentiousness (i.e., trying far too hard to project a laid-back, industrial Bohemian charm), Fritzi will tell you they serve “artisanal nosh.”  That means no of-the-moment crudo, no robust and hearty braised goat gemelli, and – sadly – no peri-eponymous (I can’t resist making the epunymous joke) tray of veal.

Nothing here is a signature dish.  This is an off-duty project, a glimpse at what Neal Fraser might make at a cookout – nothing too high-minded…but, well, he’s still Neal Fraser.  As such, expect sophisticated, subtly reimagined classics.

The Fritzi Burger is, for lack of a better term, so Fraser.  Each component of the conventional burger is rethought, elevated.  This burger offers a hybrid patty (Nueske bacon and beef) that is given ample (viz., nine hours) sous vide time; a generous smear of Fontina fondue which offers a gooey, honeyed nuttiness; a sweet Calabrese relish with a whisperingly slow-hot finish; a fresh salve of mild thousand island; and iceberg lettuce to add cooling textural contrast.

The patty is a masterstroke, a subtle, intensely flavorful execution of an idea that sounds excellent in theory but often is butchered grotesquely in practice.  The Nueske bacon imparts a smoky, marbled dimension to the beef, evoking the faintest thoughts of a Texan barbecue pit.  The fondue creates a sumptuous, almost silken coating around the patty, mild and comforting.  Both sauces are excellent, and work well enough in concert with one another.  They offer a few redundant notes, but ultimately elevate the entire experience.  I was glad for the lettuce, if only because it offered a bit of complexity in a burger that otherwise verges on textural monotony.

While Fraser excels in reimagining individual ingredients, he sometimes almost loses sight of the forest for the trees.  It’s fine to reshape each piece of a puzzle, especially if you improve each one; but change them enough, and they won’t fit together.

In the case of the Fritzi Burger, that’s just a distant threat – this burger hangs together well, never veering into incoherence.  But it also is a mildly unsettling dish, because – as a whole – it doesn’t always feel completely intentional.  But existential niggling aside, this burger is stellar, not to be missed, and yet another shining example in a litany of Neal Fraser’s innovative genius.

Ultimately, no matter how rabid a Death Cab fan I was, I listened to Give Up.  I couldn’t help myself.  In my more honest moments, I recognize it as a superior product to solidly (maybe conservatively) 85% of Death Cab for Cutie’s oeuvre.  But even short of that admission, I know I put aside my feelings of betrayal on behalf of Gibbard’s bandmates because I wanted to understand what was compelling enough to divert his creative focus.  I didn’t really listen because I wanted to.  I listened because I had to.

So if you felt similar vicarious betrayal when Chef Fraser took time away from Redbird to launch Fritzi, you probably also feel a similar morbid curiosity regarding what Fritzi is all about.  Succumb to it.  This burger may not be better than 85% of the menu at Redbird, but it is too good to be missed owing to proprietary hipster envy.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.40 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 8.90 / 10.00

Total: 91.10 / 100.00

Petit Trois

The Place
Petit Trois
718 North Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038

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I was talking to my friend Peter last week about Petit Trois.  He went there with his wife recently, and ordered the omelette.  I’m not sure Peter is an omelette connoisseur, but he certainly is an educated enthusiast.  Anyway after a few bites of their omelette – a facially pedestrian offering with nothing more Boursin (yes, from the box) pepper cheese and a dusting of chives  – his wife asked if it was the best omelette he’s ever had.  “No,” he replied, “it’s the first omelette I’ve ever had.”

That’s what makes Ludo Lefebvre special.  His strength is not so much in wildly innovative concepts (though one trip to Trois Mec will show you he’s no slouch in that regard), but rather in expression.  Whatever the concept, from veal belly with crispy artichoke on down to a double cheeseburger, Lefebvre cannot be matched in execution.  Each dish is prepared with such skill and care, that his food has the potential to transcend quality and establish itself in your mind as an archetype of what a certain dish should be like.

Ludo Lefebvre is the rare chef who can make a simple dish feel definitional.  Not every dish achieves it, but when one does, you feel it, and to describe it is really just to speak normatively about how every dish of that kind ought to taste.  I’ll stop short of saying that his best offerings are infused with the intent of the divine, but the thought occurred to me.

The Order: Big Mec

The Price: $18

The Burger
Even if the name Petit Trois isn’t immediately familiar to you, you likely know more about it than you realize.  It’s the daughter restaurant of Trois Mec, at which reservations are famously difficult to secure, but which offers among the finest tasting menus in the city.  Petit Trois, then is an approximately Le Comptoir-sized appendage to its venerable – albeit only marginally larger – parent.  Though the restaurants have markedly different personalities, they share more than a wall; they have a common creative nucleus: Ludo Lefebvre teams with Los Angeles culinary power pair Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (the minds behind Animal, Son of a Gun, and Jon & Vinny’s) on these two gems tucked away in a strip mall behind a gas station.  Don’t let the understated location fool you, though – this part of mid-city is a culinary hotspot.  Just across the street is the mighty, higher-profile Mozzaplex, where Nancy Silverton et. al. have been slinging really important food for decades.

Roughly speaking, Petit Trois is a French lunch counter.  Reservations are not accepted, and the menu is a cheesy, framed and laminated piece of printer paper.  They serve comfort food which oozes with nostalgic sentimentality (for instance, every Sunday, Ludo Lefebvre – continuing a family tradition – does a chicken roast, where a half chicken is offered atop mirepoix, a bed of rough-cut vegetables redolent of a French country table).  The dishes are, in concept, often childishly simple.  Confit-fried chicken with bitter-cool frisée.  The aforementioned omelette has a flavor profile simple enough not to overwhelm my five year-old niece, but a subtle, buttery complexity that would floor just about anyone.

The cheeseburger is similar.  The name is a tip of the cap to an iconic – though hardly estimable – progenitor, and the inspiration, weirdly enough, is discernible.  The Big Mec is a double cheeseburger featuring two patties, Tillamook cheddar, all utterly drenched in Russian mayonnaise and house-made bordelaise sauce jammed between two brioche buns.  This burger is a study in messy decadence.  It bleeds sauce over its edges like a fountain.  The bottom bun is coated with the two sauces but somehow not soggy, and incredibly, never even threatens disintegration.

The concept here is to unify simplicity and excess.  At first blush, that might seem paradoxical, but it works in practice.  This burger is decadent without being overwrought.  It takes simple ideas and presents them in a maximalist fashion.  It is the culinary equivalent of “Untitled,” the first song off Interpol’s debut, Turn On the Bright Lights.  In that song, Paul Banks repeatedly intones the promissory phrase, “I will surprise you sometime, I’ll come around,” amid a swirling, sparkling, ever-rising torrent of Stratocaster.  There isn’t much to it; but it’s arresting because the same idea, the same brief, haunting, beautiful motif, is pounded into your head so many times.  That approach informs this dish as well.  Of course, the concept would be nothing without execution.  The Big Mec is executed masterfully.

The cheese is perfectly melted but still decidedly solid – it has heft and mass.  And it’s Tillamook, so it’s approachable: sharp and flavorful without being too overpowering.  The patties are stellar, massive things.  Charred on the outside, pink on the inside, irrepressibly juicy and thick.  They absorb only some of the ocean of sauce, but it’s enough to subtly change the flavor of the meat.

At bottom, this burger is about the sauces.  And really, it’s about the bordelaise.  The Russian mayonnaise is piquant, fresh, and just creamy enough, but it is utterly overshadowed by its companion.  The bordelaise at Petit Trois is made with red wine and veal stock and mounted with foie gras (usually, the mount is butter).  It is astounding.  It teeters on the boundary between boozy and acidic, like wine a few atoms away from oxidation.  But it is given shape, depth, and balance by the foie gras mount.  In the end, everything about it feels decadently intentional.  It is the most challenging, but also the most comforting, bordelaise you’ll likely ever taste.  It is smooth but also sharp, mellow but also bright.  It is also just about omnipresent in this burger…and you’ll still want more.  It also creates a beautiful, natural mash-up with the Russian mayonnaise – so natural, in fact, that the sauces feel more coextensive than cooperative.

You’ll ravenously devour this plate of food.  Your hands and teeth will drip with oxblood bordelaise and Russian mayonnaise the color of cooked salmon.  You will do violence to this burger.  The taste of the sauces will linger in your mouth long after you finish.  You will be exhausted, you will be panting.  You will look down at the plate, full to the gills, and you will ache for more.  You’ll see the pool of what’s left of the two sauces, intermixed, looking like a Woolnaugh endpaper, and you’ll wish it wasn’t over.

This is a cheeseburger.  Other things we previously might have known as cheeseburgers do not deserve the privilege of sharing a categorical identity with this dish.  It is the archetypal burger:  comforting, rich, indulgent, decadent, massive, messy, meaty, subtle, warming, unpretentious but refined, accessible, filling, and utterly delicious.

Make no mistake: This is as indispensable an eating experience as the critically acclaimed tasting menu across the wall.  If you have not yet eaten this cheeseburger, it may well be argued that you have never eaten a cheeseburger at all.  The Big Mec at Petit Trois is nothing short of a masterpiece.  Drive quickly, order quickly, but eat slowly.  After all, this will be your first cheeseburger – you should savor it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 10.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.90 / 10.00
Bun: 9.90 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 10.00 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 95.70 / 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

Pharo’s Burgers

I was going to have a snappy photo of the bacon cheeseburger from Pharo’s Burgers. Then some dudes threw me into a pool, and my phone’s soul exploded. As a result, no picture, just a link to some other dude’s picture, which I can assure you is a faithful rendering.

There are some places you just don’t really ever check out, and don’t really hear much about either. That cool movie theatre that only plays old movies in the town where you went to college. The hike in Malibu with all those amazing views. That one coffee shop that serves coffee drinks in mason jars and makes that delicious sandwich with the prosciutto. The Warhol exhibit at that museum on the other side of town. The BodyWorks exhibit at the California Science Center. Encino.

File Pharo’s Burgers under that category. I was born and raised in Pasadena, but nobody mentioned it was any good. I never really heard about it, and I never really cared to explore it…so I never did. Recently, though, my friend Jackson told me to check it out. He goes there quite often and swore by it. What the hell, right? So yesterday, Kevin, Shanil, and I went to give it a try.

The Place
Pharo’s Burgers
1129 North Garfield Avenue
Alhambra, CA 91801

The Order: Bacon Cheeseburger

The Price: $5.95

The Burger
If you haven’t heard about this place, honestly, it’s probably because there isn’t much to say. And that’s not entirely a pejorative; Pharo’s Burgers keeps it simple. This burger is about as unfussy as it gets: a heap of shredded lettuce steeped in weakly tangy Thousand Island, a slightly jaundiced (but juicy enough) disc of tomato, a thin sheet of not-very-melted cheese, a quarter-pound chuck patty, and several strips of crumpled bacon.

Each ingredient played its role admirably, filling a very specific niche in the burger’s flavor profile. The Thousand Islands had a meek tang to it that brightened the coppice of lettuce a bit. The tomato was not of the finest caliber, mushier than it was firm. The patty was overcooked (likely intentionally so), char-broiled well past medium. The bacon was salty and crisp, providing the intended depth of flavor and textural variety, but not much more than that.

I don’t know; it was a bacon cheeseburger. Nothing felt misplaced or misguided, but nothing felt inspired. Everything here has been done before: It has been done better, and it has been done worse. It’s hard to be anything but frustratingly noncommittal. I imagine it is a little maddening to read a review that fails to adopt a firm stance – sorry – but this burger does not lend itself to roiling passion. It’s a competently executed but largely uninteresting offering. Pharo’s Burgers puts out a dish that is impossible to love or to hate. It is a place and a burger to which you will not object to returning…if prompted.

But some places, you just don’t really ever check out.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.40 / 10.00
Value: 8.30 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 5.00 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.10 / 10.00
Balance: 8.30 / 10.00

Total: 74.20 / 100.00

Belcampo Meat Co.

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My generation can be pretty annoying. Among our most grating tendencies is our penchant for armchair activism. Facebook and Twitter let us feel like we’re participating despite being totally passive. And the anonymity of being insulated from actual accountability by our keyboards and screens allow us to – quite literally – join the mob and feel morally righteous as we participate in the destruction of the lives of total strangers.

And yet, for all our hashtag campaigns, article sharing, perennial outrage, and cause bandwagons, most of us actually don’t contribute (or know) anything. Worse still, so many of us mistake all that shit for actually having a positive impact (“I’m raising awareness so that ‘we as a society'” – read: other people – “can make positive changes”).

Why do I bring this up? Because I want to emphasize just how refreshing it is when activism actually manifests itself in concrete action. Belcampo Meat Co. cares about the humane treatment of animals in the food industry. Instead of sharing a bunch of PETA articles on their Facebook and then going back to watching cat videos, they opened a restaurant that embodies the principles they espouse. Belcampo sources all the meat you purchase, order, and/or eat from their own farm. They have total control over how the animals are treated. Accordingly, they strive to ensure the animals are raised and processed in a humane way. Their definition of “free range” isn’t “Oh, yeah, we give them five square feet of fenced-in space and they can totally see grass on a clear day, maybe.”

Shit, this was a really roundabout way to make a simple point. Somewhere, my sophomore year English teacher probably is shivering. And giving me a terrible grade. If you’re reading this, Mrs. Holmgren, I’m sorry (but you should at least be happy that I haven’t used the passive voice). But not sorry enough to delete it. After all, it felt good to write, and sometimes, you just have to call your generation out on its shit. Also, sorry for saying “shit”.

Anyway. Now that I’ve told you how cool Belcampo (and how shitty everyone else) is, let’s talk about the burger. Shanil, Very On-Time Kevin, and I headed over to Grand Central Market to try their eponymous burger.

The Place
Belcampo Meat Co. @ Grand Central Market
317 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: Belcampo Burger

The Price: $12.50

The Burger
The unique thing about Belcampo is how they have a controlling hand in every stage of the process – from raising the meat to grilling the patty. You could probably make a pretty solid case that this institutional coherence gives them a better instinct for how to prepare their meat – the more you know about the meat, the more capably you can deal with it. Or at least, that’s a claim colorable enough for me to believe. And then write.

Regardless of the why or the how, one thing is certain: This burger is conceived and built to showcase the meat – five and a half ounces of what Belcampo calls their “premium grind” – whatever it is, it’s grass-fed, dry-aged, and impressive. Coating the top of the patty is a thin, waxy film of white cheddar. Next, a stewy tangle of bittersweet caramelized onions under a thatch of heat-wilted lettuce, capped off with the also-mysterious “house sauce”.

Unfortunately, the focus on meat comes at the expense of all the other ingredients. The lettuce is sad and limp. The sauce is largely unassertive (though admittedly, not offensive). The cheese is mild and creamy, but timid. The bun nominally is brioche, but really it’s just a glorified sesame bun.

These supporting cast members come together to create a backdrop that one might regard as banal. The thing is, though, it seems like this is an intentional flavor milieu in which to present the patty. The other ingredients allow the patty to shine. In the context of the burger as a whole, the ingredients come off less as boring and more as appropriately unobtrusive. They stay out of the way so the patty can really emerge.

And emerge it does. It’s complex, absurdly fresh, flavorful, moist, and delicious. This is seriously – like, seriously – high-quality meat. The result, on the whole, is quite surprising. This is a purist’s burger – a butcher’s burger. It is a beef-centric dish. Nothing else is particularly present because nothing else particularly matters. This burger was not designed to be an ensemble piece. It’s a character study, a solo performance. It’s a burger carried not by solid contributions from every piece, but from the superstardom of the main component.

So Belcampo is not just to be credited with putting their ideology into practice (as opposed to just tweeting about it). They’re due praise for the product. They have produced beef that is good enough by itself to justify coming back to this place for another burger. Next time, hopefully the burger won’t trigger a massive, long-winded missive.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.30 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.30 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.80 / 10.00
Bun: 7.60 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.60 / 10.00
Balance: 8.50 / 10.00

Total: 85.20 / 100.00

Pie ‘N Burger

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Everyone on Yelp went here after Pie ‘N Burger was featured on Food Network as the third best burger in the country. Needless to say, it got a ton of hate from the insufferable masses (“Whatever, it’s not that good. I’ve definitely had better…I won’t name a better place right now, because that would require me being constructive and actually hazarding an affirmative opinion, but I totally could if I wanted to, because I know a lot about food. Find me on Instagram!”).

I don’t trust Yelp, and I’d respectfully submit that you shouldn’t either. In the main, it’s a morally bankrupt market distortion factory. No, seriously. But like actually though. But the real problem (or well, the other problem besides Jeremy Stoppelman doing his best Frank Costello impression) is that Yelp is really just full of people with shitty opinions. People who depend on someone else’s interface to get exposure for their crappy opinions. People who lack the courage to just run a failing blog.

Right, I’m done shitting on Yelp. For the moment. But it does suck. So there.

Okay, I’m really done. Promise.

Anyway. For those of us who grew up in Pasadena, Pie ‘N Burger isn’t that place we read about last week and rushed to so we could look discerning by posting about how overrated it is. It’s a place we grew up with. A place we went to on occasion. A place we liked, but with which we weren’t obsessed. I went to school literally blocks away. It’s familiar. Look, I’m trying to establish editorial credibility. Just let me have this.

So yeah. Kevin, Shanil, and I stopped off this morning for a breakfast of burgers and a shared pecan sweet bun (yes, shared).

The Place
Pie ‘N Burger
913 East California Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91106

The Order: Cheeseburger

The Price: $11.45

The Burger
Pie ‘N Burger is younger than In-N-Out by fifteen years, but you’d never guess that after stepping inside. From the Formica countertops to the clientele, this place is old. It doesn’t have the slick, spit-shined aura of efficiency you find at In-N-Out. But then, that’s not really the vibe they’re going for at Michael Osborn’s Pasadena staple. No, Pie ‘N Burger focuses on food. That focus comes largely at the expense of, well, everything else: you know, things like ambience, modernity, attentiveness, thorough dishwashing, and basic human friendliness.

Needless to say, Kevin, Shanil, and I were the slickest, youngest, most debonair things in the room. Which may or may not surprise you depending on your estimation of us (be gentle). In spite of that, it took a minute (or eight) until the server deigned to come over and take our order. Once she did, though, things moved pretty quickly. The burgers came out wrapped in wax paper. The severely, wonderfully charred patty (I ballpark it at a third of a pound, but it may well have been heftier than that) herniated out from between the buns, a yellow film of cheese still melting on top. Short, thin introns of grilled onion swam in a sumptuous pink matrix of creamy, tangy, house-made Thousand Island. Besides that, there were a few pickles and basically an entire lettuce patch.

The patty is absolutely excellent. The exterior is blackened into a delicious, savory crust containing the surprisingly juicy, flavorful interior. It’s arguably a touch overcooked, but only enough to offend personal preference, not enough to compromise the objective quality of the burger. By which I mean I like a burger a little more rare, but this patty wasn’t cooked to the point of dryness. There was plenty of flavor remaining to satisfy.

The grilled onions were another highlight. Left to stew in Thousand Island, the flavors interacted beautifully, creating a cool, wonderful complement to the patty. The flavors were linked nicely by the shared grill flavor, but otherwise brought different personalities to the burger: the patty was crackling and savory, the sauce cool and sweet. The pickles picked up where the Thousand Island left off, adding a fresh, sour little snap. The buns were standard white, but toasted until their rims were black. This gave them a nice crispiness at the edges, but it softened as you went in, giving the burger a kind of textural arc.

Weirdly, all three of us shared the same major gripe: the lettuce. Don’t get me wrong, it was fresh, crisp, and wonderful. But there was just way, way, way too much of it. By the time I’d eaten all the beef, there was still a pretty enormous amount of lettuce (and bun, for that matter) left. The sheer magnitude of lettuce upset the balance of the burger, and was by far its weakest attribute. On the bright side, it wasn’t a depressing, wilted mess.

So don’t let the absurdly shitty service or the old-timey vibe fool you. Pie ‘N Burger is a standard for a reason. They make a damn good burger. It may not be the third best burger in the country, but it’s also much better than you might guess if all you did was read the propaganda on shitty Yelp. It is definitely worthy of recognition, and of your time. If you find yourself hungry for a burger in Pasadena, this is a compelling option.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.30 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 87.10 / 100.00

Original Tommy’s

IMG_3362
A couple of weeks ago, I saw Blue Streak was on television. I was twelve when that movie came out, and I loved that shit. I saw it in the theater twice. I bought it on DVD and watched it until I could talk along with every scene. I remember how hard I laughed when Martin Lawrence got really sassy with FBI agents, how hilariously awkward Luke Wilson is, how cramp-inducingly funny it was when Dave Chapelle showed a bunch of drug dealers how he “pulled somebody’s guts out through their ass, and their eyes fell out.” So came on, I was thrilled. Here was a movie that I loved when I was a kid. I figured it had held up as well as all the other movies I loved around that time: Tommy Boy, Happy Gilmore, and Billy Madison, just to name a few.

But it hasn’t. At all. It really is a hopelessly unfunny movie. It’s dated. It’s trite. It’s badly written. It’s disgracefully acted. The plot is an absolute throwaway. And while I’m not prepared to completely freak out about it, the lesson is clear: Sometimes, the things you love just don’t hold up.

Yesterday, Shanil and I went to Tommy’s for lunch. This was a place I always loved as a kid. I think you can kind of see where I’m going with this.

The Place
Original Tommy’s
2575 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90057

The Order: Double cheeseburger (no tomato), fries, large Coke

The Price: $7.95

The Burger
In 1946, Tommy Koufax opened up this shack at the corner of Beverly and Rampart. It didn’t (and doesn’t) look like much, but it’s since grown into a little Los Angeles empire. It’s older than In-N-Out, and more exclusively a Los Angeles institution. More than 50 million people have enjoyed Tommy’s signature chili-drenched burgers in the seven decades since Tommy’s first opened its doors.

I remember, as a kid, piling into the car with my brothers and parents and driving out to Tommy’s. We’d return home with a big box full of cheeseburgers, chili-cheese fries, icy sodas, and sweet-hot yellow peppers (when they didn’t forget to give them to us, which they usually did). Looking back, it was one of my favorite family traditions (besides Disneyland, which is my runaway favorite). I don’t remember much from those drives, but I never will forget the excitement, the eager and expectant relish with which I unwrapped those burgers. Tommy’s was among my favorite youthful indulgences.

Admittedly, I haven’t been to this place in quite some time. My brothers and I grew up (you’ll notice I did not say we “matured”). They have lives and families of their own now. They’re making new traditions, which is super cool. But as I pulled into the drive-thru at Tommy’s yesterday, I couldn’t help flashing back to those days, and I got absolutely demolished by a wave of sentimentality. When I unwrapped my burger, I was suffused with those old, familiar childlike expectations, back before I was the cynical, narcissistic malcontent with a shitty personality and a cloudy disposition.

Then I unwrapped it. And I was like, “Wait, I used to look forward to this?”

It’s really not appetizing to look at. The burger itself is two waifish, overcooked patties blanketed in cheddar, which is itself slathered with a pasty, semi-solid block of chili that’s really more the consistency of refried beans. It’s rounded out by ebullient diced raw white onions, snappy pickles, and some good old-fashioned yellow mustard. All of this is wedged between buns as limp and lifeless as an unusually lazy sloth. Who is asleep. And drunk.

Let’s talk about that chili first. It’s not how I remember. You’re not talking about chili that’s going to drip everywhere, spilling off the burger in that tantalizing way that it does when the sexy ladies on the Carl’s Jr. commercials take their seductively greedy bites. No, this is something closer to a brick of chili. It looks solid, and has the consistency of a paste. It tastes convincing (and good) enough, but there’s an unreality about it – a kind of textural creepiness – that’s a little off-putting. If I want astronaut food, I’ll ask my friend Courtney to get me some of that freeze-dried ice cream shit (explanation: Courtney works for NASA; though in all honesty, she’d probably tell me to stop talking crazy and get some real food, albeit preferably without the side of catastrophically annoying Asian kids).

But anyway.

While the chili is the centerpiece of the burger, it’s the other toppings that really surprise, and end up making a stronger statement to this burger’s credit. The onions are as sharp and sweet as a honey-dipped knife. The pickles are firm and sour, with that satisfying snap. These toppings provide good textural and flavor contrast. And frankly, it’s nice to see someone outside of a baseball stadium still has love for yellow mustard. I like yellow mustard, dammit. In this age of favoring gruyere over cheddar, of making complex and fancy-ass umami alloys of different types of beef, of conflating “classic” and “boring,” I find this steadfast adherence to tradition (which almost certainly is the product of laziness and a lack of creativity rather than any kind of worthy sentiment) refreshing. And it’s good, in an unabashedly sophomoric kind of way.

So here’s the point: young Pra’s unbridled love for Tommy’s was not justified. Old Pra is sager in this regard (though admittedly, Old Pra misdirects his affection in other ways – see, e.g., my latest ex-girlfriend…*shiver*). Old Pra recognizes that the chili isn’t very good. The beef is not good. This burger just isn’t as good as I remember it being. I started wondering, “Shit, was I as wrong about Tommy’s as I was about Blue Streak?” My happy childhood memories were threatening to crumble around me.

But then I got my shit together and thought about it a little more. Unlike Blue Streak, I wasn’t totally wrong about Tommy’s. This burger doesn’t suck. The garnishes add charm and surprising complexity. The chili isn’t earth-shattering, but then again, a) it’s still chili, and b) it’s a little unrealistic to expect Mike Stevens-level shit on a burger that costs eight bucks (with fries and a drink). The beef isn’t good either, but there’s enough going on to obfuscate that fact and make the overall experience pretty damn worthwhile – the whole exceeds the sum of the parts, and all that. So I guess this burger actually is less like Blue Streak and more like Disneyland. Sure, it’s less majestic and awe-inspiring than it was when I was a kid, but that’s not going to stop me from going. Because it’s still pretty damn good.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 8.80 / 10.00

Total: 82.60 / 100.00

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