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.

The Tasting Kitchen

IMG_3169The Tasting Kitchen is a Venice mainstay. It’s grown up from its humble beginnings of handwritten menus and a perennially exhausted but always good-natured staff. It bears mentioning at the outset that while a lot of things have changed (for the better, I might add) about Casey Lane’s shop, the service remains absolutely top-notch. Our experience was pretty fantastic (except for an awkward incident with a waiter getting a little snappy with a busboy within earshot of our table).

ANYWAY. The Tasting Kitchen probably is best-known (aptly) for its tasting menu, but its burger has been a quiet staple on the menu for a while now, and I felt compelled to investigate. Rob and I went there on a bro-date, and when we weren’t too busy falling embarrassingly in love with one of the servers there, we ate the burger.

The Place
The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Venice, CA 90291

The Order: BCC Burger (braised bacon, chile chutney, cheddar), French Fries, Japanese Goldrush (Nikka Malt, lemon, honey).

The Price: $17 for the burger and fries. $16 for the cocktail.

The Burger
The Tasting Kitchen’s bill of fare features a diverse array of dishes, running the gamut from traditional (they do a pretty straightforward, slow-hot bucatini all’amatriciana) to more adventurous (grill-charred octopus with earthy Roman beans and brash ‘nduja). Their burger would probably best be characterized as non-traditional. It eschews the conventional toppings in favor of a more minimal approach, but each topping seems to be tailored to bring maximal flavor. Besides the cheese and the (substantial) patty, there are only two things between the rustic buns: a thick, all-business slab of braised bacon and a roasted chile chutney. An unobtrusive aioli was served on the side.

After a little bit of a wait to get things started, there wasn’t much time between courses. The burger came out just after our appetizers had settled. The meat was of obvious quality, and was well-prepped for cooking. The patty was thick and juicy. My main complaint is similar to the one I expressed about the patty on the griddled cheeseburger at Ledlow: it was way undercooked. The meat was essentially rare, and with a patty of that size, two problems result. First, the bottom bun got soaked through – especially since it was much thinner than its counterpart on top. Second, being so undercooked, the meat didn’t cohere well, and the patty kind of fell apart on us while we ate. It tasted good enough, but it wasn’t easy to eat.

The chile chutney was a brave addition, and was given serious prominence. It was smoky and rich, but without a lot of other flavors to complement it, it sort of stuck out. Out there on its own, with nothing to blunt its fierce roasted boldness, it was sort of a lonely renegade on the burger’s flavor profile. The braised bacon, however, was a masterstroke. It was a thick slab of pig, salty and rich, but gorgeously marbled and decadent. It didn’t blend particularly well with the chiles, unfortunately. Had the chutney been a little sweeter (like one customarily would expect chutney to be), it would have played beautifully off the flavor of the bacon. As it was, the burger featured two toppings – one fine, one fabulous – that didn’t quite mesh together. Adding the aioli didn’t achieve much. It cut the richness of the bacon a bit, and didn’t blend particularly well with the chutney. Frankly, the sauce didn’t seem tailor-made for the burger. It went better with the French fries (which, for the record, were stellar).

The bun was great. It evoked a sourdough, being far less eggy than a brioche. The bottom bun was a little thin, which drew extra attention to the fact that the patty was undercooked. Saturated with juices and blood from the beef, it quickly got soggy and flimsy, like wet paper, and lost a lot of its delightful texture. It was a shame, because it was, on its own, quite a wonderfully-crafted bun.

Much like the restaurant itself, the burger featured a wide variety of flavors coexisting side-by-side. That’s cool, but it’s also kind of the problem with the dish. The ingredients didn’t come together in such a way that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The BCC burger presents a few different textures and tastes, but the union doesn’t feel necessary or inevitable. It’s far from conventional, but that alone didn’t make it unforgettable.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 6.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.90 / 10.00

Total: 80.80 / 100.00

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