Umami Burger x Impossible Foods

The Place
Umami Burger
738 East 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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If you work in a reasonably woke corporate environment (or a not-at-all woke corporate environment doing its best imitation of a woke corporate environment), you’ve probably heard something about implicit social cognition (it’s more commonly referred to as unconscious bias, but I actually prefer the former term.  Anyway).  According to UCSF, these are extra-conscious formed perceptions about groups of people that “stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.”

I admit that this idea is probably most usefully deployed to explain human interactions, but actually, I don’t think it’s cabined to our views about people.  I think these kinds of categorizations apply to our feelings about everything–like food.  It’s why your one friend inexplicably avoids okra in spite of having never eaten it.  Or why your significant other refuses to countenance egg white in his cocktails.  Or why your sister refuses to try the red velvet from that vegan bakery.  Or why your cousin won’t eat at Gracias Madre.

We all have our biases, built over decades, brick by seemingly-unrelated brick.  The sum total of our experiences is a flawed whole, a view of the world through a lens that’s necessarily cracked.  Or convex.  Or smudged.  Or something.  Point is, the very act of being an individual means operating with incomplete information.  Even absent malice, the manner in which we examine the world is informed by our inevitable lack of information.  Or our inevitably incomplete or skewed perspective.  It’s what our venerable former Secretary of Defense termed the “Unknown Unknowns.”

This, I suppose, is why I wouldn’t try a specific Known Unknown, viz., the Impossible Burger at Umami Burger, for so long, despite having been urged to do so by numerous people.  I could never quite articulate a rational reason why I’d never tried it.  Eventually, my refusal to give it a shot was distilled down to a prejudice against meatless burgers.

Sunday afternoon, then, can serve as living proof that the tides of progress are inexorable.  It was then, after all, that I faced up to my prejudice, went to Umami Burger in the Arts District, and tried the Impossible Burger.  The woke architects of my spiritual improvement?  Kelsey and her mother.  Who else?

The Order: The Impossible Burger

The Price: $16

The Burger
Most prejudices are not well-founded.  If, however, you share my (roiling) prejudice against meatless burgers, though, you know this specific prejudice is the exception to that rule.  The essential feature of a great burger is that juxtaposition between charred skin and juicy meat.  It’s the foundation stone for a dish, the central appeal of which is textural contrasts.  Smooth sauces; silky cheese; juicy, explosive meat; crisp, parchment-like lettuce; the burst of juicy tomatoes; and an airy bun all exist together in one unified whole.

The epicenter of that textural mix, the one constant, is the patty.  No matter how many different burgers you try, what makes them all burgers is the presence of that meaty anchor.  It needn’t be beef, but it needs to be charred on the outside and juicy on the inside.  Most meatless patties fail because they don’t provide both of those features.  They may be crisp on the outside, but then they’re lifeless inside.  Or maybe they’re moist inside, but then they can’t offer that grill-crisped shell.

So, if you ever breathlessly have protested, “A meatless burger is not a burger,” then you understand that you aren’t making a crassly presented judgment on the relative values of two objectively coequal members of a category; to the contrary, you’re making a definitional claim, namely, that a burger needs a patty that is charred and juicy.  Meatless patties aren’t charred and juicy (at best, customarily, they’re one or the other).  It would follow a burger built around a meatless patty isn’t a burger at all; it’s just a, like, fried lentil sandwich or something.

Tempting as it is to venture further down the “What is a burger?” rabbit hole, I’ll spare you.  Suffice it to say, the Impossible Burger complicates the calculus a great deal.  The patty is made of a proprietary blend of…well, not-meat things (wheat, coconut oil, and other not-meats; the precise mix is, apparently, a secret).  The idea is that it’s a legitimate alternative to meat (it even looks like beef before you cook it) from a taste and texture standpoint, but without the nasty ecological impact that attends the production of meat.

The flagship ingredient is heme.  Without getting too esoteric, heme is an iron-laden porphyrin (a class of organic molecule).  Its most famous work is in hemoglobin–that stuff in your blood that carries oxygen.  A lesser-known work in its oeuvre is that it’s a big part of what makes meat…meat.  You can find heme in all living things.  You may wonder how such a compound wound up in a “meatless” burger.  The answer is that the heme used in the Impossible Burger is generated by introducing the gene in soybeans that encodes the heme protein into yeast, and–

I can feel myself losing you.  Okay.  I’ll just dish on the burger.

The presentation, I think, is meant to highlight just how meat-like this patty is.  Two Impossible burger patties are smothered in American cheese, caramelized onions, mustard, spread, pickles, lettuce, and tomato.  If that sounds utterly conventional, it is; and that’s precisely the point.  The goal here is to challenge the eater to distinguish this in a meaningful way from what you flipped off a grill with a spatula and slapped between sponge buns with a careless spray of mustard and ketchup and whatever garnishes you could snatch on the way to the cooler to grab a Coke.

To be sure; you will be able to taste the difference.  There are stronger notes of mushroom in this burger than you’d note in a beef patty.  But you also probably won’t dispute that this is, undoubtedly, a burger.  Calling it a “carnivore’s dream” might be something of a stretch, but it’s miles away from being a carnivore’s nightmare.  The impression it leaves is more like a beef burger than a Gardenburger: There is char.  The patty is juicy.  It is flavorful.  And (this is, after all, still Umami Burger) it is overcooked.

And again, because this is Umami Burger, the garnishes are largely uninspired, the miso-mustard tries hard but won’t lay you flat, and the spread lacks piquancy.  The bun is just a hair shy of being too dry for comfort.  The whole thing doesn’t sing; it just kind of murmurs unobtrusively.  But you don’t care about all that.  You know all that.  What you want to know is whether the patty is worth trying.  The answer is a resounding yes.

If you’re anything like me, your aversion to trying this burger is the product of prejudice rather than judgment.  It likely emanates from a feeling that meatless alternatives aren’t alternatives at all; they’re just an aggravating failed imitation from people who have made a reasonable choice to not eat meat, but then show an unreasonable unwillingness to stay in their proverbial lane.  But the Impossible Burger isn’t just the product of vegan FOMO.  It’s the product of an impulse for ecologically responsible consumption.  And vegan FOMO.

Whatever its genesis, the product has some merit and deserves attention.  Is the Impossible Burger as good as a beef patty?  No.  But unlike its meatless forebears, that’s a question worth asking.  Time to get woke.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.50 / 10.00
Freshness: 8.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 7.80 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 8.80 / 10.00

Total: 84.90 / 100.00

Errata: Cassell’s Hamburgers

There is a line in Sophocles’ Antigone that has stuck with me.  It is a scene in which Creon seeks Teiresias’ advice regarding whether or not to free Antigone.  Teiresias tells the ruler, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil.  The only crime is pride.”  Now, I haven’t imprisoned my niece to reinforce gender roles or intemperately deployed the power of government in the context of familial conflict.  Nor have I forsaken the bonds of marital and paternal love to preserve an imagined or preferred political order.  But I like to think Teiresias’s advice is more generally applicable.  Because, you know, parables.  Right?

Anyway.  As I’ve accrued some modicum of experience in my life, I’ve had occasion to look on my past with a more critical eye.  By an large, I’m proud of the way I conducted myself.  But there are exceptions.  When one cannot or does not act to rectify past errors – to “repair the evil” – those exceptions have a way of blooming into regrets.

Having just hit a milestone, agewise, I think the time is right to come clean about an error I made early in this project.  I went with Greg and Lemi to Koreatown’s Cassell’s Hamburgers, a bustling diner nestled in the first floor of the Hotel Normandie.  I talked about how I didn’t feel as though Christian Page was reaching his potential with the burger he offered.

 

That review is, quite literally, the only one I look back on and regret.  I like to think (perhaps self-indulgently) the evaluations presented on this Project range anywhere from eminently fair to downright authoritative.  The Cassell’s review marks the lone occasion where I deviated from basing my judgment on the food on the plate.  So, in the spirit of not committing the only crime, I went back to Cassell’s with Kelsey, Kristen, Nikhil, and Tracy.  And now, I’m back before you with my proverbial hat in hand, to give Cassell’s the reconsideration it deserves.

The Burger
The chuck-brisket patty was even better than I remembered.  Flavorful, tender, and rich, it burst with juicy personality, courtesy to that nearly 70 year-old crossfire broiler.  The garnishes were as fresh as I remember.  Everything was as it was on my prior visits.  I won’t regurgitate here what I’ve written before.  If you want to read it, follow the link above.  Besides, it’s not really my sense of the burger’s quality that has changed, per se.  There are a couple of things about that review, though, that bother me.

The first problem is that I docked the burger for not “hitting its potential.”  In addition to being a maddeningly vague and subjective feeling that I struggled then (and struggle now) to justify, it’s just kind of irrelevant.  There’s not a dish that’s been cooked that couldn’t be improved somehow.  We can’t judge dishes (or anything, for that matter) on the basis of what it could have been.  We have to look, first and last, a what a thing is.  That matters more.  And what Cassell’s is, is a delicious burger–one of the best in the city.

The second problem isn’t one I could have anticipated as I penned the review initially, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Cassell’s stacks up much more formidably than I expected against the other burgers I’ve had since.  When people ask me what the best burgers in the city are, this one always comes to mind.  That’s got to count for something.

I get it.  It’s not like I’ve imprisoned one of my nieces.  There has been no mortal sin committed here.  It’s not as though I got drunk on power and perpetrated some monstrous act of megalomania.  I just docked a burger a couple points unfairly.  But a mistake is a mistake, and if this Project is to be worth relying on, you all have to know you can trust me to recognize my mistakes and correct them as they arise.  The only crime is pride.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 9.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.50 / 10.00
Patty: 9.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.40 / 10.00

Total: 91.20 / 100.00

Sawyer

The Place
Sawyer
3709 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
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If you asked someone with little or no knowledge of Los Angeles to describe Sunday brunch here, she might paint a picture that looks a lot like Sawyer.  Sunlight would stream through a constantly open window fronting Sunset Boulevard, filling the place with golden warmth.  It would splash onto the face of the bright bar whose tiles evoke what you might find in the breezy colonnade of a Mediterranean – or maybe Aegean? – villa.  To heighten the charm of it all, there would be a snug little patio out back, with a few tables, a fireplace, strings of unlit lights (“You should see them at dinner,” the host assures us).

That impossibly bright sunlight would bathe the crowd of diners, all trying very hard to look as if they weren’t trying hard.  The men would sit, NIck Fouquet hats balanced on golden locks, henleys unbuttoned to there, draining Peroni from glasses that look too much like jars.  Across from them would be ladies in vintage everything, wrists cocked, a glass of rosé balanced just so in their hands, nursing avocado toast with whisper thin discs of radish scattered atop.  Everyone would be wearing sunglasses.  Everyone would be beautiful.

The food would be typical Los Angeles brunch fare: the aforementioned ubiquitous avocado toast.  Something with quinoa and kale.  Mexican inspired items (here, shrimp tacos and a breakfast burrito).  Chicken and waffles.  A breakfast sandwich.  And, of course, a burger.

Granted, this person might not know to paint Kelsey and me into her picture.  Unless, I suppose, she envisioned Los Angeles as a place where wonderful girls like Kelsey voluntarily spend their birthday with burger-obsessed nerds.  In which case, perhaps you’d find us painted into that idyllic scene right where we were today, at a corner table relishing the superlative people-watching Silver Lake generally (and Sawyer specifically) has on offer, and discussing whether Fear of God jeans would be worth the investment (the verdict: likely not), and contemplating the finer points of the Sawyer Burger.

The Order: Sawyer Burger (added bacon and avocado)

The Price: $18 ($14 base, optional additions (sunny side up egg, bacon, and/or avocado) $2 each)

The Burger
First, a quick overview of the presentation: between seeded rolls is a hefty patty, cooked medium (per our server’s recommendation) and thinly filmed with Grafton cheddar.  The meat sits atop a single piece of lettuce about the size of a catalpa leaf. On top of the patty is a splash of tomato relish that looks like it came off the end of Jackson Pollock’s brush.  The bacon and avocado were added last.

It’s the kind of burger you might expect from a restaurant focused on seafood.  That’s not really a ringing endorsement off the bat, I realize, but for what it’s worth, it’s more a comment on the approach to this dish than it is one on its quality.

The patty is the burger’s greatest weakness.  The seasoning was ham-fisted, unsophisticated, and excessive, creating a constant peppery undercurrent to every bite that was more annoying than charming (probably because of the lack of a subtle complementary flavor).  The texture of the beef might perhaps best be characterized as “unsettling.”  It’s hard to describe, but also decidedly…well, wrong.  Whereas one might expect a beef patty to have a certain coarse crumble to it, Sawyer’s patty had an off-putting, sticky coherence to it.  When cut, the patty looked – and tasted – downright raw in some places.

The cheddar may as well not have been there.  Indeed, I almost forgot it had been included in the first instance as I ate it.  It added no texture, no taste, no contrast, nothing.  A true disappointment, especially considering the excellent Vermont cheese on offer.  The lettuce was unwieldy and far too large, seemingly there more for artistic reasons than culinary ones.  The bun was a soggy, tasteless mess, soaked before I even took a bite, and disintegrating like Lot’s wife once I laid hands on it.

The tomato relish was a theoretically interesting presentation, but based on the taste, I suspect that “relish” is being used more as an impressive label than a reflection of reality.  It was pulverized tomato, a halfhearted, uninspired stew that merely impersonated a culinary flourish.  In point of fact, the relish did nothing but soak the buns into oblivion, making the whole enterprise much messier than it needed to be.  As even casual readers of this publication know (and yes, I’m indulging in the rank fiction that I may have another kind of reader), I’m not averse to getting my hands dirty, but it’s got to be in service of something.

Not to harp on it, but the relish really captures my sense that this burger was a seafood restaurant’s burger.  Relishes, often work on fish as a means by which to complement the flaky, buttery flesh of the catch (as a trip to basically any hotel restaurant in Hawai’i would prove conclusively), but they’re less inherently at home on a burger.  Burgers generally benefit from the presence of a true sauce.  If you’re going to add a relish or a jam, fine, but it should have a purpose that comes across in every bite.  This slurried, nascent pico de gallo did not achieve that.

This burger is not without positives.  Like so many college electives, the bacon and avocado were the most pleasant aspects of this experience, largely because they were the least challenging.  The former was thick and savory, cooked to a pleasant, succulent crisp.  The wedges of avocado were rich and buttery, playing well – if predictably – with the bacon.  But again, these garnishes stood largely alone.  And it’s telling that the optional elements of the burger were its strongest elements.

Another issue is the sheer structure of this dish.  It is so large, so unwieldy, that I never at any point got a bite with all the ingredients in it.  In addition to being frustrating, it makes the burger an incoherent experiential jumble with no real arc.  I daresay, $18 is quite a dear sum to fork over for such a burger like this, which is as poorly conceived as it is executed.

I’m not saying a seafood restaurant can’t make a good burger.  I am sort of saying that you can’t approach a burger like you’d approach seafood, and just hope that you can let people throw some bacon and avocado on it and forgive all your sins.  The team at Sawyer has created a burger in a Mahi Mahi fillet’s body.  Idyllic atmosphere aside, this burger is a miss.  Come for the ambience, maybe stay for the smoked trout salad?  This is, after all, a seafood restaurant.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.00 / 10.00
Value: 6.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.10 / 10.00
Bun: 6.80 / 10.00
Patty: 5.10 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.00 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 66.30 / 100.00

The Habit Burger Grill

The Place
The Habit Burger Grill
Various Locations

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Image courtesy of TripAdvisor

You may remember The Habit made waves a couple years back.  Playing the role of dark horse to perfection, the Santa Barbara-based West Coast mainstay placed first in Consumer Reports’ fast-food survey, beating out other local heroes like In-N-Out (spoiler alert: that’s unvarnished sacrilege), and larger outlets like Steak ‘n Shake and Smashburger.

Now obviously, it’s far from clear that you, I, or anyone else should trust or defer to the culinary preferences of people who only got a say because they subscribe to Consumer Reports (like, consider how many people you know who subscribe to Consumer Reports).  Having said that, the people surveyed ate almost 100,000 meals between them.  So if nothing else, there’s a good amount of data behind this survey.

For a burger chain you’ve probably never heard of, the Habit is quite an old mainstay.  It was founded in 1969, and has since steadily expanded throughout California, creeping into Arizona and Utah as well.  It migrated east into New Jersey recently too, but it’s still definitely a child of the West.  With thanks to Juno for making it possible, Bret and I took five from work to grab this old standard for lunch.

The Order: Double Charburger with Cheese

The Price: $4.95

The Burger
For such a well-established outfit, The Habit certainly has escaped widespread attention or acclaim.  That might have something to do with its sort of silly branding (their truck invites you to “Get up in [their] grill” – see what they did there?), or the fact that it just sort of feels like a shoddy fast casual restaurant.

Far from the heaven-white, spit-shined gleam of an In-N-Out burger, the hidden gem illicitness of a Burgerlords, or even the ruddy and unvarnished appeal of the Oinkster, The Habit’s brick and mortar spots have all the charm of, like, a T.G.I. Friday’s.  You’ll find them nestled in shopping blocks, flanked by, say, a Nordstrom Rack and HomeGoods.  It’s almost impossible to take seriously, especially for a well-heeled foodie type.  One expects servers with pique polos covered in buttons, fried onions fashioned into crisp flowers, seafood from oceans unknown, and steaks whose origin is impossible to discern.

At first blush, you might be struck by what feels like a too-expansive menu, replete with salads nobody ought ever order, an odd albacore sandwich that is just strange enough to intrigue (but not intriguing enough to order), and some curious sides (tempura green beans, anyone?).  While it’s probably true that the menu would benefit from a good editorial trim, there is enough weirdness on this menu to suggest an undercurrent of sophisticated curiosity that might make this burger worth trying.

Readily, I will admit my anticipatory scorn was building heavily as I approached this burger.  In a swell of self-congratulatory elitism, I prepared to dismiss the Consumer Reports survey result as just some sampling tomfoolery, reflecting the unsophisticated preferences of some culinary neophytes who lack the time, mind, or means to frequent the truly good restaurants.

Sadly, this is not (entirely) a redemption narrative.  I was undoubtedly being unfair (and a big jerk) in my preconceptions about The Habit.  That survey was, after all, just a survey about fast food.  But in aid of crystalline clarity, let me state this unequivocally: this is not the best burger – fast food or otherwise – in this city, let alone the country.  It is, however, a well (not perfectly) executed Californian classic, certainly much better than you might expect from the kitschy look of the place.

Envision a slightly heftier, meatier iteration of the (still comfortably superior) Double-Double with a worse bun, and you’re in the Habit’s airspace.  The bun is a simple white bread bun with the lightest kiss of sweetness.  It was slightly dry but adsorbent enough to keep things from getting messy.  The lettuce was  shredded, flirting with the mayonnaise and the pickles hidden below, creating a piquant and crisp cushion to anchor the whole flavor profile of the burger.  The tomato wasn’t exactly market-fresh, but gave a juicy enough punch.  The caramelized onions were a nice touch, sweet and sharp on the tongue without being too soupy (though they were a bit stringy and hard to eat).

The Habit distinguishes itself – for better or worse  – in the size of the patties.  They are massive crisped discs of beef, with slabs of melted cheese draped over them like fire blankets.  They are big enough to decisively take center stage in the flavor profile of this burger without completely drowning out the other ingredients.  True to the burger’s name, they have a solid char, which gives a distant savory bitterness to the front-end of every bite.  Sadly, they’re also a bit overcooked, which dries them out a fair amount.  What the patties bring to the table in flavor, then, is sort of ruined by their textural deficiencies.  And given their sheer size, these faults are tough to ignore, and aren’t really balanced by the burger’s other virtues.

Having said all that, I can understand why the Habit would have gotten itself something of a following.  It’s an undeniably excellent deal at the price point – value-wise, it definitely falls in the same category as In-N-Out.  And it probably deserves to be slotted in with that class of burgers that are “slightly better than fast food” but “not really gourmet.”  And it handily beat out my elitist preconceptions.  But you should quickly disabuse yourself of the notion that the Habit can lay a finger to In-N-Out.  I have mulled over that result for a good long time, and have come no closer to a colorable explanation for it.  But the fact remains that while I may never understand how the Habit beats out In-N-Out in the minds of the Consumer Reports readership, it isn’t difficult to understand the restaurant’s appeal.  It may be overblown, but it isn’t undeserved.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.40 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.00 / 10.00

Value: 9.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 7.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.50 / 10.00
Balance: 8.40 / 10.00

Total: 83.00 / 100.00

Haché

The Place
Haché (pronounced ah-shay)
3319 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
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Depending on your affinity for the classics, you may have heard about Desert Trip, a music festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio (home also to the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival).  Unlike conventional festivals, Desert Trip offered a lean lineup of classic rock luminaries: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Roger Waters, and The Who.  No industry neophytes here to soundtrack day-drinking; this was a headliners-only affair.

Almost immediately, this festival drew the derision of sneering millennials, likely still coming down from a tour in the Sahara Tent at Coachella (you know, artistically discerning social critics like these).  They called Desert Trip “Oldchella,” an incisive, hyper-literate critique of the low-energy sort who enjoys music festivals that feature musical instruments instead of computers vomiting out spleen-rupturing bass.

It’s tempting to conclude that there is a youthful condescension among our generation toward anything we regard as a relic of the past, a sort of reflexive regard for modernity, a respect based on nothing but the fact that a thing emerged from the sea of narcissistic home recorders and YouTube amateurs to seize some measure of notoriety.  That view maximizes convenience, but we often fail to see its fundamental flaws, fail to recognize that not all good things go viral, and not all things that go viral are good.

I have neither the time nor mind to attempt to unpack what animates this elevation of new over old, but I’m no less convinced that it exists.  I also wonder if that’s the reason people feel the need to present Haché as something that it isn’t.  See, if you are inclined to poke around Google prior to going to Haché, you might be misled.  Internet commentators have woven a web of half-truths about this place, for whatever reason. It’s not a dive; it’s rustic, they say.  It’s a French-inspired and bistroesque, they say.  They serve steak sandwiches, they say.  Don’t call them burgers, they say.

You’ll note, once you arrive and have ordered, that the above statements range from “pretty” to “categorically” wrong.  It is a dive.  There is nearly nothing in the cramped patio and sticky high-tops that is redolent of the breezy bistro you might have imagined.  The mesh window at which you order,and the t-shirt clad hipster that brings you your burger don’t evoke a Parisian bistro where sighing poets scribble elegies as much as a Bostonian Irish pub where townies punch out graduate students.

By the looks of it, this is a place you’ve been a hundred times before.  This is your dad’s dive bar.  There is no real attempt at novelty here.  This is Desert Trip, not the Sahara Tent.  It is more Steve Miller than Steve Aoki.  You get the point.  Regardless, Haché has been on my radar for a while.  Finally after much cajoling – guilting? – from my dear friend Greg, I met him, Bret and Alex there to try a burger.  Or a haché.  Or a steak sandwich.  Or whatever you might want to call it.

 

 

The Order: Karma Burger

The Price: $5.95

The Burger
Whatever Haché isn’t, it is, in many ways, essentially Silver Lake.  There is a winsome haggardness to the place.  You walk in feeling as though you have stumbled into the middle of a carefully structured, meticulously curated collapse.  A middle-aged man in a quarter-zip fleece sits near the corner, his beer barely dented, half-heartedly watching the Seahawks lose.  A young man with an undercut checks his phone compulsively, casting the occasional furtive glance doorward to see if whoever is meeting him has arrived yet.

The thought might occur to you that this is the least affected crowd that has ever gathered on Sunset Boulevard.  And sure, that may have something to do with the fact that it’s a rainy Sunday in Los Angeles, but it felt appropriate for this place.  There’s an agelessly genuine quality to Haché.  It’s not a place out of time, it’s a place without a time.  That may not make sense, but it’s as clearly as I can state it.

Of course, you don’t come to Haché for the atmosphere (at least, I don’t know why you would, with both Café Stella and Winsome a stone’s throw away).  You come for the hachés.  They are billed as French-style steak sandwiches.  Haché, of course, doesn’t call them steak sandwiches.  Depending on what part of the menu your eye darts to first, you’ll see them called hachés or burgers.  In point of fact, they’re burgers with patties made of ground sirloin steak.

That ground Angus sirloin patty is swathed in a weblike loose-weave blanket of American cheese and topped a leaf or two of bracing lettuce, a couple discs of vermillion tomato, translucent halos of red onion, and a thin glaze of Karma sauce, which tastes like a mashup of Thousand Islands and harissa-spiked mayonnaise on a hearty, earthy cracked wheat bun.

While the sirloin patty is often framed as something new and different, it really is more an attempt to elevate a classical form.  It renders the patty less greasy, more inherently flavorful, cleaner than its brisket or chuck cousins.  It is noticeably fresh, albeit a shade overcooked.  The seasoning – on the outside of the patty only – cannot fully compensate for the fact that the patty is too well-done.  Since the meat on the inside of the patty remains unseasoned, once you’ve broken through the outer crust, there isn’t much beneath it in the way of flavor.

The other garnishes are fresh, well-proportioned, subtle.  The onions, though raw, are not too sharp, offering a gentle pinpricking sting.  The lettuce is parchment-delicate, not crisp, not wilted and chewy.  The tomato is bright and succulent, a burst of freshness to wash over the finish of each bite.  And the sauce has a whisper of heat amid the creamy cool of the stuff, leaving a lingering suggestion of slow spice.

This burger is a nod to the classics.  It is different, but it’s not revolutionary.  Not forced.  It’s organic, tried and true.  Some might think that is something for which to apologize.  They might try and frame this to highlight some gimmick that might capture your attention.  They might try and make this sound like something it’s not just to make it sound fresh.  They might be tempted to swap out the resplendent Telecaster for a Korg.  They should resist that temptation.  Drum machines have no soul.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.70 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 9.20 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.10 / 10.00
Patty: 8.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.20 / 10.00
Balance: 8.60 / 10.00

Total: 85.30 / 100.00

Manuela

The Place
Manuela (at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel)
907 East 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
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Having been a child at one point or another, you probably have at least a glancing familiarity with the indolence of the righteous.  Remember?  It would strike after you raked the leaves in the garden without being asked, you took out the trash sua sponte, you cleaned your plate and excused yourself to wash everyone else’s plates.  In that situation, if you were like a great many of us (I suppose I’m not speaking to the self-anointed paragons of virtue here, but then, I rarely am), you would perform that task with relish.  When your work was done and your good deed was discovered by an authority figure or other beneficiary, you would bask in the inevitable grateful praise was showered upon you.  What a thoughtful thing to have done!

But after that, if you were anything like me, a sense of self-satisfied complacency would set in.  You had done a good deed, and you realized that the performance of such a deed insulated you against criticism for a time.  So you might stretch the rules regarding bedtime, or the brushing of teeth, or the cleaning of one’s room, or one of the other chores or tasks which customarily were expected of you.  And if, say, your mother reminded of these other obligations, you might not say anything, but you would be stunned that more could be expected of you.  You might think, or even grumble under your breath, “That trash didn’t take itself out, you know.”

Sometimes, going above and beyond the call of duty breeds a sense in many children (and an alarmingly high proportion of adults, actually, come to think of it) that they’ve established a line of credit, that they’ve been given a measure of goodwill, which they can use to counterbalance a certain measure of nonfeasance (or even malfeasance, depending on the optimistic boldness of the child in question).  Not, I suppose, unlike the adult who justifies three slices of pizza and a milkshake with twenty minutes at the gym.

I’ll get back to that in a minute.  In the meantime, let’s talk about Manuela.

Manuela is an airy, indoor-outdoor space in the sprawling new Arts District gallery, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, helmed by Soho House luminary Wes Whitsell.  Manuela’s cuisine is a curious blend of cuisines.  If you press me, I’ll tell you Manuela is fundamentally a southern restaurant (the presence of pimiento cheese, biscuits and gravy, grits, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and Carolina gold rice renders that conclusion inescapable), but with heavy touches of Tex-Mex (see, e.g., beet tostada and chilaquiles) and Californian influence (as evidenced by the general seasonally driven, farm-to-table vibe, and the food first / technique second simplicity of the dishes).

For a medium-term denizen of the American Southeast with a strong lingering affection therefor, I was drawn to the menu by its southern flair, which gave me a big-time kick of nostalgia.  But one of the most universally eye-catching items on the menu has got to be the deer burger.  It is that item that ultimately really commanded my attention.  Kelsey and I went to check it out.

The Order: Deer Burger, medium rare

The Price: $16.00

The Burger
The deer burger advertises itself as coming with “all the fixins” (seriously).  That means it’s an all-deer patty with strips of lettuce, beefy and deep-red tomato, and a healthy dollop of a sauce consisting of roughly equal parts mayonnaise and dijon mustard.  On the side are a couple rings of raw red onion and two pieces of pickle which aren’t long enough defensibly to be called “spears,” so think of them as “daggers.”  The burger is served on a milk bun (more on that later).

Right off the bat, there are two pretty remarkable – and unexpected – things in play here.  First, the patty is deer.  That gives it a gamey, richly marbled texture, and a musky, sweet roundness of flavor that beef could never provide.  They recommend it medium-rare, and for a patty of this size, that is the perfect recommendation.  This patty is substantial, pink, bloody enough, and genuinely complex and flavorful.  It is a stellar centerpiece.  I approached this dish with a suspicion that the deer patty may be a gimmick.  It may be, but it is a delicious one.

The second lovely oddity in play here is the bun.  A milk bun is a kind of roll native to Japan (Hokkaido, specifically).  Roux is used as a starter, and these things have the heft of brioche but consistency of cotton candy.  The poppyseed-dusted crust of the thing will look familiar enough, but the gossamer, cloudlike sweetness awaiting you after the first bite will surprise and delight you, I promise.

So, in giving us a succulent deer patty and a delicious and unique bun, Wes Whitsell took out the trash and washed the dishes without being asked.  Sadly, that’s where the virtue of this burger ends.  The sauce, an uninspired mustard-mayo combination, is pedestrian on the tongue.  The tomato is wilted and chewy, rather than fresh and juicy.  The lettuce is merely there, cut into wide strips and arranged thoughtlessly beneath the patty.

It is thus that Manuela’s burger, an offering with so much promise, falls victim to the indolence of the righteous.  By presenting a strong patty and an estimable bun, this burger expects us to forgive its shortcomings in every other respect.  Few would.  The garnishes don’t disappoint in a vacuum; they adversely affect the overall quality of the burger, giving the palate little in the way of evolution or longevity.  Each bite is a stagnant experience, failing to develop or provide the eater with any arc.  You’ll taste bun and meat, and then you’ll be left wondering what might have been if the garnishes were on par with the basics.

Manuela’s burger is a thing of almost staggering potential, but like so many promising but lazy children, it fails to live up to that potential.  Instead, it stands as a stark reminder that overachieving in some areas does not excuse shiftlessness in others.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.10 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 7.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.80 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.30 / 10.00
Bun: 10.00 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.90 / 10.00
Balance: 7.60 / 10.00

Total: 79.70 / 100.00

Shake Shack

The Place
Shake Shack
8520 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

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If you never caught the new (like, that new new) Star Wars movie, then you missed out on Kylo Ren, the most angst-addled villain to grace the silver screen in quite some time (you may know him better as the darkest-skinned – but still white, of course – person on Girls).  See, Kylo Ren is angsty because he wants very badly to be compared favorably to Darth Vader.  He wants to be the next Darth Vader.  So he acts and talks the part.  He commands with unforgiving brutality.  He wears the mask that changes his voice, even though he doesn’t need it.  Think of his relationship with Darth Vader as being kind of like Rivers Cuomo’s relationship with Buddy Holly.

And much like Cuomo, he just isn’t quite as special as his idol.  Deep, withering suspicions – that he’s ultimately just a pale imitation of the thing he strives to be – roil in him.  They consume him.  And most of all, they make him hate the character in the film who he recognizes as truly special, truly significant.  She achieves everything he’s worked so hard for, and she doesn’t even have to try.

It’s a common trope in our world and our folklore: the figure who longs to be a feature of history, but really is just a footnote.  These are people with lofty aspirations to emulate and evoke truly monumental figures, but ultimately, they are undone by their inability to recognize that the mere imitation of an act or a sound may not – and probably will not – capture the subtleties and complexities that exist beneath it.  What I mean is, Kylo Ren choking a person out as part of his WWDVD? mentality is quite different from what animated Darth Vader – namely, living at the nexus between guilt and doubt and rage.

Similarly, putting together a burger that features some of the same ingredients as those featured on the best chain burger money can buy doesn’t guarantee that you’ll best In-N-Out.  And so, in a swaggering and expansive outpost on Santa Monica Boulevard, Shake Shack joins the ranks of these reductive imitators, clamoring for attention and plaudits, begging for favorable comparisons to a great institution.

Shake Shack is the latest in a long line of burger chains that demand to be compared to In-N-Out.  It is a chain that builds buzz via sophomoric articles like this.  Never mind that the two are in no way comparable.  The one is an international chain with an expansive menu (including three different burgers, seasonal/weekly/monthly/whateverly flavors of ice cream, bespoke craft beer, Abita root beer on tap, Cold Stone Creamery style concretes), the other is willfully limited.  The one is surprisingly expensive, the other almost guilt-inducingly cheap.

But the comparison is being made.  So if you drive by Shake Shack, you will see crowds of impossibly cool West Hollywood types: New York imports with trendy haircuts; t-shirts featuring a sneering slogan or maybe a reference they only almost understand; shadowed and lined eyes drooping under the weight of their contempt for the world, smiling with half their face as they post a link from a blog about an article they haven’t read about a study they haven’t read but which reinforces the fact that everyone who disagrees with their particular opinion on their particular cause celebre du jour (based on exhaustive review of numerous blog posts like this) is ill-informed and probably malicious.

These are people bound together by fibrous, almost extant strands of supercilious energy, people who are fueled not by the Krebs cycle like the rest of us, but by the knowledge of their superiority.  And even for these walking superlatives, the need to know if Shake Shack really is better than In-N-Out is so pressing, so dire, that it can wrest them from the urgent business of being better than you.

I went with my parents and Kelsey.  Because while I may not be cool, I am the purveyor of a publication about burgers in Los Angeles, so I’m drawn to trendy burger spots like a fly to a turd.

The Order: Shack Burger

The Price: $5.29 (not including fries or drink)

The Burger
Roughly speaking, I think there are two types of people who might argue that Shake Shack is better than In-N-Out: the first are the reflexively contrarian naysayers.  These are people who don’t have particularly strong or well-developed feelings about In-N-Out (or any alternative), but dislike its ubiquitous appeal and enjoy the idea that their opinion is challenging and controversial.  Then there are people who need New York to be better at everything (rather than just better at being bigger and smellier).  I’ve talked about this phenomenon at some length before.

The goal of this piece, though, is not to take up the issue with either group.  In point of fact, I prefer not to entertain the comparison at all.  As I mentioned before, these restaurants are different enough that the comparison itself is more than a little spurious.  Shake Shack is a peri-industrial hipster chic millennial iteration of a soda fountain, whereas In-N-Out begins and ends as a burger stand out of time, a relic of its founding age.  Another reason behind my rejection of a comparative discussion – and I smirk as I type this – is that these two products are not in the same league.

Shake Shack’s offering features an oversalted, overcooked patty, watery tomato, heat-wilted lettuce, and insipid Thousand Island (Shack sauce) between two feeble, infirm, too-doughy potato buns (this actually surprised me, because I remembered the buns being much better when I first tried Shake Shack in Washington, D.C.).  The entire presentation is a pittance, a burger so small it barely qualifies as a burger.  You will not savor every bite, and after you finish, you will wonder why you waited in line for so long with all those impossibly self-obsessed trendchasers and paid more than double the cost of a Double-Double for it.

If in Shake Shack you were hoping to find The Chirping Crickets, you’ll have to settle for Raditude.  If you were hoping for Luke’s father, you’ll have to settle for Leia’s emo brat.  Shake Shack talks the talk.  It’s high on swagger and hype, but it’s little more than a well-appointed disappointment.  This restaurant doesn’t deliver a product worth mentioning in the same sentence as In-N-Out, let alone comparing to it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 7.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.90 / 10.o0
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.40 / 100.00