The Oinkster

IMG_3201This one will be near and dear to some of you. The Oinkster has a special place in the hearts of many here in the City of Angels. But that has almost nothing to do with the burger they serve. Most people love the Eagle Rock powerhouse for its house-cured pastrami (which, I admit, drool), or its unbelievably slowly slow roasted pulled pork, or its singular milkshakes (I’m still unsure what ube is*, but it’s weirdly compelling) which feature local favorite Fosselman’s ice cream – by the way, if you haven’t had Fosselman’s ice cream and you live in Los Angeles, you’re nothing short of a monster…a silly, silly monster.

For still others, the love is more undifferentiated; they just kind of vibe with Andre Guerrero’s “slow fast food” gestalt. They like that he’s a legit culinary force who knows how to slum it with style. And who can blame them? The Michelin-recognized mind behind Max and Señor Fred is famously restless, but has the versatility to carry it off. His every swing of the bat, it seems, is a home run.

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to love about the Oinkster. So much so, that the burger kind of gets lost in the shuffle. And so, in spite of supposedly having one of the best burgers in the city, relatively few people have actually had it. It’s like, the best burger no one has ever had. Kind of poetic. But anyway. I was at a loose end this weekend, so I made the drive to Eagle Rock and got the burger. After all, if the venerable LAist says it’s one of L.A.’s best, you can consider me on notice.

*I know. Ube is purple yam. I have Wikipedia too. God, it’s called dramatic license, guys.

The Place
The Oinkster
2005 Colorado Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90041

The Order: Classic 1/3-pound burger (with Gruyere cheese), Belgian fries, Coke.

The Price: $6.50 (burger); $3.25 (fries); $2.00 (Coke) – pre-tax.

The Burger
Let’s start with basic anatomy. The burger comes on an idiosyncratically flimsy white bread bun (which proves problematic – stay tuned). The patty is stellar: six ounces of fresh-ground, tightly packed Nebraska Angus beef, and it’s topped with house-made Thousand Island, pickles, raw white onions, lettuce, and two hefty slices of tomato. The cheese options are American or Cheddar (for an additional $0.75) or Gruyere (for an extra $1.50).

The patty is a juicy, beautiful medium rare. As juicy and flavorful as it is though, it holds together impressively. This probably is due to the fact that a) it’s really well-pressed, and b) it’s really well-grilled. The outside is a crispy, just-charred-enough umami crust that contains the pink, gently cooked beef on the inside. Leaving some pink in the patty allows the flavor of the beef to really shine through. It’s six ounces of really strong stuff, and is a worthy focal point of this – or any – burger. The earthy, nutty Gruyere complemented the beef beautifully. It was $1.50 well spent.

The Thousand Island is another high point. It’s a tangy little number, clearly made with In-N-Out’s famous and enigmatic spread in mind. To be sure, many have tried to reverse engineer that spread (myself included), and precious few have succeeded (myself decidedly not included). Oinkster’s attempt is as admirable as any I’ve yet had. Having said that, it’s thinner and runnier than In-N-Out’s spread. This makes the burger quite a bit messier; by the time I got halfway through, the sauce had completely soaked through the bun.

From there, things deteriorated (literally and figuratively). The toppings were good, if not great. They weren’t some sad, undifferentiated, flavorless mass, but they also didn’t stand boldly on their own. The whole was more than the sum of its parts – except I mean that pejoratively. The garnishes were awkwardly codependent; the sharpness of the onions yielded timidly to the sourness of the pickles, which itself leaned, exhausted, on the watery crunch of the lettuce. So while all the toppings were all present enough to get noticed, none was particularly flavorful in its own right. They gave little flashes of flavor that faded out faster than Gotye did from mainstream recognition (which was real sad by the way; he’s a talented cat).

The even bigger problem here was that the burger wasn’t very well built. By the time I had  run out of patty, the tomatoes were herniating out of the back of the bun like a couple of slipped discs. The pickles had long since gone to plate. The lettuce and onions were hanging on for dear life. The bottom bun had been completely corroded away by an acid wash of Thousand Island. The burger wasn’t just messy, it was structurally unsound. Near the end, if I had put a brown robe on the burger, it would have looked like when Obi-Wan Kenobi…well, you know.

This burger tasted good. The beef was delicious. The sauce was good but inconvenient. But it was a colossal pain in the ass to eat. The toppings were not so great. As a result, the burger itself was imbalanced. I don’t know. It was kind of like watching Scent of a Woman: unbelievably good leading man, but with just a weak sauce supporting cast (Chris O’Donnell, if you’re reading this, the answer is yes…I did just compare you to flaccid lettuce…sorry). It was – in more ways than one – sloppy. While certainly nothing to scoff at, when I go back to the Oinkster, it’ll be for the pastrami.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.60 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.20 / 10.00
Bun: 4.00 / 10.00
Patty: 9.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.90 / 10.00
Balance: 8.30 / 10.00

Total: 76.20 / 100.00

Badmaash

IMG_3176Badmaash is weird. Walk in, and there’s a wall of wine corks on your left, behind which a lily-white hostess in leather shorts and white leather sneakers guides you to your table, which is backed by a wall of panels ranging in hue from aubergine to bright pink. You sit down on the orange leather bench, and you look at the menu, which features, on the top right corner, a thoroughly goofy-looking Indian supervillain. Or something. And you think, “This is weird.”

But you’ve heard about the spiced lamb burger from blogs and overzealous Yelpers, so you decide to give the place the benefit of the doubt. You peruse the rest of the menu, noting how this place, like so many others, feels a little gimmicky.

But you remember the adoring articles and comments, so you decide to give this place the benefit of the doubt. Then you eat, and you forget the weirdness. You have chicken tikka poutine, crispy fries drenched in gravy with flavorful chunks of chicken tikka, shredded cilantro, and gooey cheese curds. You get tandoori broccoli (a real show-stealer); the charred heads thirstily, delightfully soaking up the spicy tandoori sauce. There’s more traditional stuff too: chicken tikka masala (hit), lamb chops “chaampey” (miss – too much cumin), and butter chicken samosas (hit, but would have been an even bigger hit if they were crispier).

It’s a pretty good schtick they have going here. Sure, the place is a little kitschy and it probably is trying a little too hard, but a) this is Los Angeles; everyone’s trying too hard, and b) they’re deadly serious about food. And besides, you’ve heard this spiced lamb burger is “criminally underrated,” which piqued your curiosity, so you decide to give the place the benefit of the doubt and just try the damn burger.

The Place
Badmaash
108 W. 2nd Street, #104
Los Angeles, CA 90012

The Order: Spiced Lamb Burger

The Price: $13

The Burger
There’s a lot to talk about here, but the main takeaway is this: Go to Badmaash as soon as you can, and order this burger. It sounds like it’s a gimmick, placed on the menu to lend credibility to Badmaash’s self-styling as an Indian gastropub. In fact, it’s just an emblem of why the Indian gastropub thing is such a good idea.

The patty is free range lamb leg. They grind and spice it every day in house. The spices, while present and robust, never obscure the taste of the lamb underneath. That speaks to a more general point: As complex as this burger is, you will never forget that you are eating lamb. The unmistakable flavor stays with you through every bite. The meat itself was well-cooked, and even if it was a touch (and I really mean only the tiniest touch) too dry, the other toppings picked up the slack and added enough compensatory moisture for me not to care very much.

The garnishes were fantastic as well. Torn shards of iceberg lettuce and red onion separated the patty from the bottom bun, preventing soaking. A firm, juicy slice of roma tomato sat, atop the patty, drizzled capriciously (and generously) with spiced mayonnaise. Capping it all off was a mound of cilantro. Badmaash outsourced their burger bookends – their buns are brioche sourced from the legendary Los Angeles bakers at Breadbar.

If that sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. But like I said, the folks behind Badmaash are serious about food. Nothing here is unintentional. There are no accidents, and there is no excess. This burger is busy, but not frivolous. Brash, not impulsive. Robust, not impetuous. You get the point. The flavors combined symphonically, the cool, dull spiciness of the mayonnaise a logical follow-on to the chilly, juicy crunch of the lettuce, tomato, and the tangy, crisp onions. Beneath it all, the rich lamb, created a wonderful, quietly surprising foundation for the whole burger. The meat is the source of the complexity here. All the other toppings blend together as a coherent and complementary unit.

This burger was the perfect blend of fresh (the lamb patty, spiced mayo, and cilantro) with familiar (tomato, lettuce, and onion). Even without cheese, this burger was explosively flavorful and wonderfully texturally diverse.  And even though I prefer when restaurants make their buns in-house, I understand the decision to source the buns from Breadbar. Their stellar, buttery brioche really was a suitable container for this ICBM of flavor.

Above all, this burger is surprising. It deviates from tradition in the bravest way: by making a meaningful change to the patty, which is the fulcrum of any burger. And let’s be clear: this isn’t some chicken sandwich that derives its allure from the fact that it’s breaded and deep-fried. This is lamb, a meat with a very distinct flavor that is difficult to run away from. Rather than hide from it, though, Badmaash embraces it, skillfully assembling the flavor profile of the burger around the lamb. The rest of the dish, then, accommodates the lamb perfectly.

I will be back for this burger (and more of that chicken tikka poutine – my god). It is unlike any burger I’ve eaten. It is utterly unique, impeccably executed, and has a personality all its own. Like the restaurant itself, it may be too weird for some. But in a city full of people and restaurants who are trying way too hard to be weird for the sake of weirdness, Badmaash stands out for being weird because weird works.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.50 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 9.10 / 10.00

Total: 88.10 / 100.00