Miro

The Place
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Miro

888 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90017

Reservations: 213.988.8880
Bar: Full bar (plus this…gracious)

The weird thing about modern urban renaissances – well, one of the weird things – is that they all have an inflection point.  Before that point, things are cheap, and gems are hard to find.  And while it’s never entirely clear precisely when a given neighborhood reaches that point, after it is reached it matters less how good your chilaquiles or fatty tuna or octopus salad or burger or whatever is, and more how good your relationship with your investors is.  Take Ari Taymor’s iconic and beloved Alma: shuttered in spite of fawning praise from critics and customers alike.

I don’t mean to hate on rich folks funding restaurants (to the contrary – keep them coming), but even the most successful restaurateurs have their ups and downs.  What’s more, when investors define a restaurant’s identity, sometimes the focus can shift from the meat to marketing.  When image starts to trump the product on the plate, places run into trouble.  This tends to happen more as neighborhoods gentrify and it becomes harder for people to open restaurants without investor backing.  Tricky business.

Which brings us to Miro, an aggressively trendy new restaurant, which seems to cater to downtown power brokers who yearn to be farm-to-table foodies.  Reclaimed wood abounds, the servers have hair and vests pulled straight from the roaring 20s, and the menu is a sprawling exploration of current food scene obsessions.  Don’t have time to get the crudo at Wolf and the house-cured charcuterie at Chi Spacca?  Can’t pencil in time for craft cocktails at The Fiscal Agent and garganelli at Union?  Not a moment to spare for biscuits at the Hart and the Hunter and the pork chop at Salt’s Cure?  No problem – come to Miro and get it all.  To call it the refuge of the dilettante might be a little harsh (especially in light of the fact that it has the best whiskey bar in California, which is a connoisseur’s paradise), but it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either.

Anyway, one entry on Miro’s – ahem – *diverse* menu was a burger.  Johnny and I took some summer associates for lunch, and I tried it on the firm’s dime.  Is Miro the first sign that Downtown Los Angeles has passed its inflection point?

The Order: Grass-fed burger

The Price: $15

The Burger
The burger really embodies what Miro is trying to do – for better and worse.  Onion jam and bacon (made in-house!) are ostensible pride points, but they are lost in the shuffle.  You may detect a whisper of one or the other amid the bitter, charred swirl of the flavor profile, but only just a whisper, and it will not overwhelm you.  The bacon was cut thick into slabs, fatty and without taste.  The onion jam was so difficult to detect that I’m not even certain it was there at all.  Same with the aioli and cheese, while we’re on the topic.  Much of what is on this burger is swallowed by two ingredients: the arugula and the beef.

The grass-fed patty is well-intentioned but overcooked.  It’s big enough; easily a third of a pound, and with a promising, estimably charred crust.  But it is cooked well past medium until brittle and bland.  There is some residual juice left to keep things from getting too dry, but unfortunately, the final product is even less flavorful than the grass on which the poor cow subsisted.  To cook a patty that much, you have to justify it with a blend of meats.  Miro failed to do so, leaving us with little more than fancied up chuck, which doesn’t forgive overcooking.

Grass-fed though the patty may have been, the fine folks in the kitchen at Miro seem to have felt it was starved for roughage.  At least, that’s the most plausible explanation for the Chugach-worth of arugula (one supposes, a ham-fisted tip of the cap to Father’s Office) asymmetrically heaped atop the patty.  It spills out of one end of the bun like a Kardashian out of an Herve Leger dress that’s one size too small, and is barely present at all on the other end.  If all it did was add a (too-heavy) dose of  fresh bitterness to the burger, it wouldn’t be so bad.  But in this case, it masked the remainder of the flavors at work, obfuscating an otherwise intriguing suite of ingredients.

So you won’t taste the subtle interplay between still-melting cheese and bacon drippings.  You won’t taste the sweet matrix of onion jam flirting with the creamy aioli.  You won’t even get to enjoy how the delicious – if slightly dry – bun holds it all together.  You’ll get overcooked meat and an impenetrable thicket of arugula.  For all this burger’s ambitions, it winds up being a poorly executed, unbalanced affair, where the two most pedestrian ingredients outshine the more interesting – though, admittedly, a bit try-hard – additions.

The burger reflects the restaurant that serves it.  A lot of sizzle without much steak.  Miro is swanky, modern, eclectic, and has all the features you’d expect to find in a trendy, delicious restaurant.  Similarly, the burger looks great and features a slew of really of-the-moment ingredients.  Ultimately, though, it just doesn’t deliver.  It looks better than it is.  It’s too trendy for its own good.  It puts image above execution. Is this a portent of things to come in Downtown? Hopefully and probably not.  But it’s hardly encouraging.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 6.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.50 / 10.00
Value: 5.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.40 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.00 / 10.00
Balance: 6.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.90 / 100.00 

The Top Ten (April 12, 2016)

I haven’t updated this list since October, and there has been considerable shake-up since then.  At the risk of being behind the times, here are the top ten burgers I’ve written about so far.

  1. Burgerlords (93.20 / 100.00)
  2. In-N-Out (93.00 / 100.00)
  3. The Bowery (91.90 / 100.00)
  4. Super Burger (90.00 / 100.00)
  5. Plan Check Kitchen + Bar (89.80 / 100.00)
  6. Dudley Market (88.90 / 100.00)
  7. The Flintridge Proper (88.70 / 100.00)
  8. Republique (88.20 / 100.00)
  9. TIE: ERB and Badmaash (88.10 / 100.00)

Stay tuned, clearly.  More changes are basically a sure thing.  After all, as you may have read on the label of a pair of Volcom Stone pants you had in sixth grade, “The Only Constant Is Change.”

Dudley Market

The Place
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Dudley Market
9 Dudley Avenue
Venice, CA 90291

Reservations: 424.744.8060
Bar: Beer and wine only

Sunday was a difficult day.  Not in the sense that it was a strenuous day.  Just because it reminded me of the tortured relationship I maintain with Venice.

When I lived on the East Coast, Venice pretty nearly captured everything I missed about home.  The sun’s rays so bright you swear you can see resplendent gold blades against the implausibly blue sky.  The heat of those rays on your skin tempered by the ocean breeze.  The way that breeze that picks up and swirls stray grains of sand.  The way that sand manages to get between your toes, even when you’ve worn shoes.   The seemingly anti-gravitational lean of palm trees in the briny air.  All the beautiful people walking down sidewalks peering into the windows of high-end boutiques, passing through the aromatic clouds drifting up and over from food trucks idling on the blacktop.

And speaking of food,  Venice has long been a culinary center in Los Angeles.  The Tasting Kitchen and Gjelina, by now, are old news (but still newsworthy).  More recently, veteran culinary icons (Josiah Citrin) and young upstarts (Top Chef winner Nyesha Arrington) have laid down roots there as well.

The TL;DR version of all that is that there’s a lot to love in Venice: weather, sunshine, the beach, and delicious food.  For a time, I was dead-set on living in Venice upon returning to Los Angeles.

After that drooling paean, what, you ask, makes my relationship with Venice “tortured?”

Because, before eating a quite-good brunch at the charming Dudley Market, you have to proceed through a gauntlet of challenges that Venice lays before all those who come to share in its beachside bounty.  First, you have to park.  Basically, that amounts to crawling through labyrinthine side streets and alleys, doing your damndest to not commit a tort against one of the actually psychotic cyclists swerving in and out of your path.  As you do, you’ll be flanked on one side by side streets running perpendicular to you, all packed with cars, and on the other side by totally vacant beachside lots charging a cash-only $20 flat rate – a rate that frugality and mulish pride won’t let you pay.

Then you get out of your car (after displaying an embarrassing lack of parallel parking acumen for a crowd of dead-eyed, unwashed, and dreadlocked white people), and you’re forced to really see Venice.  Sun-bronzed hippies, carelessly half-naked, leaning against the walls of grubby and overpriced apartment buildings, weirdly unaffected by the strange funk the beach breeze carries from nearby dumpsters.  Hungover bros speeding down those alleys in their fathers’ leased Teslas.  Bottle blondes in garish $600 sunglasses from last season, oozing a petulant, practiced apathy through bar-battered bangs.  Tourists, drenched in sweat and marveling at the spectacle of all these disparate demographics coexisting seamlessly.  And even if you’re a native, you’ll find yourself marveling at it too.  It’s staggering, stereotypically Californian, and a little gross.

But Venice is like an old friend.  She may occasionally annoy or disgust, but it doesn’t take much to remind you of why you love her and are lucky to have her around.  As pissed as I was about parking, and about feeling like a millennial Frogger dodging $100,000 electric cars, it all melted away when I felt that breeze come in off the Pacific .  Any residual impatience was obliterated when I took the first sip of Dudley Market’s stellar espresso milkshake with the beach at my back.

I didn’t go for the milkshake, of course.  Kelsey and I stopped in at Jesse Barber’s new spot to try the Burger Diane.

The Order: Burger Diane (beef/pork patty,  gruyere, melted onions, greens, dijon, mushroom, and pickles on sourdough hybrid).

You might ask yourself, “Why is it called a Burger Diane?”  It’s likely a play on steak Diane, which is a filet mignon in a mushroom and Dijon mustard-based sauce (there’s more to it than that, like heavy cream and brandy or something, I think; but this isn’t Delmonico’s and I’m not Emeril Lagasse).

The Price: $16 (before tax)

The Burger
Jesse Barber worked at Barnyard before, and it shows.  Dudley Market emphasizes the use of high quality, local, seasonal ingredients above haute-cuisine technique.  The espresso milkshake features housemade ice cream, which gets its high protein content from the biodynamic duck eggs (from Moorpark) they use to make it.  The greens that flanked our burger (some also made their way onto it, actually) were obsessively fresh, drizzled only in lemon juice and oil.  The bacon is from a pig that was butchered less than a week ago in-shop.  It’s all very L.A.

The burger is built around a patty that is about 60% beef and 40% bacon.  It’s cooked just barely on the rare side of medium (there’s no pink). My worry was that the beef would be overcooked to ensure the pork was cooked through, which would give rise to a dry patty  with very little personality on the front end, with pork fat and salt dominating the finish.

My worries were misplaced.  The beef was cooked through but still juicy, and the pork was subtle, adding salty complexity without overwhelming things.  I did not leave Dudley Market convinced that the hybrid patty is a better approach than just cooking an all-beef patty medium rare and putting bacon on top of it, but I am convinced that I was wrong to think you can’t build a good burger around a hybrid patty.  You can.  Barber has.

The bun is what our server called a “sourdough hybrid,” grilled and pressed into flat discs, dusted with poppy seeds and salt flakes.  The crust is buttery and crisp, while the inside maintains the unmistakable just-dry-enough sponginess of sourdough.

The highlight of this burger, though – even more than the estimable patty – was the interplay between the gruyere cheese and the mushrooms.  The gruyere is sweet and nutty, tangling nicely with meaty, bold mushroom.  The pairing is formidable, and it hits hard early.  Less than halfway through the first bite, these two ingredients alone make it clear that this burger is not for the faint of heart.

The cheese and mushrooms are an earthy, complex overture to the surprisingly graceful and tasteful mash-up of beef and bacon that follows.  Just as the savor reaches its climax – at the moment when it’s all about to get a bit too “forest floor and barnyard gore” for good taste – the pickles emerge as if out of nowhere, bright but not too briny, offering a little kick of acid to clean everything up, the ideal prelude to the sweet, mustardy finish.

Only the melted onions, cooked even past the point of caramelized sweetness, seem superfluous; they lurk like emo kids at lunch, hidden from the rest of the flavor profile.  That’s a disappointing but hardly damning flaw in an otherwise superb preparation, as well-balanced as it is creative.

I guess Dudley Market is kind of a microcosm of Venice itself: There are aggravations – notably, slow service and steep prices – but on balance, there are more reasons to return than to stay away (but order with care, as the menu decidedly is not uniformly inspiring; the speck with burrata and balsamic was simple and arresting despite the absence of the advertised poached apple, but the crab louie was little more than an incoherent jumble of pleasant things).

Yes, you’ll need to budget a bit of time for your meal; this place isn’t exactly run with German efficiency (though if you have an enchanting companion and an espresso milkshake to keep you company while you wait, you won’t mind the wait so much).  And yes, the burger specifically – and Dudley Market more generally – is as overpriced as the surrounding real estate.  But unlike the surrounding real estate, there’s more to Dudley Market than a nice view and convenient beach access.    So stop in and try this burger.  Consider it one more reminder why you love Venice in spite of the fact that it’s so…Venice.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.40 / 10.00

Bun: 9.20 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.50 / 10.00
Balance: 9.00 / 10.00

Total: 88.90 / 100.00

Burgerlords

The Place
Burgerlords
943 North Broadway, #102
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Los Angeles is beautiful because no matter how well you know her, she keeps changing on you in subtle, unknowable ways. Just when I think I’ve got her figured out, I stop and look in time to see the sun hit her in a slightly different way. The only constant in my relationship with this town is that I love it. The reasons why I love it, though, like me, are always changing.

I could go into a big long thing about it, but that’s kind of what love is, isn’t it? Watching someone change – and changing yourself – but staying connected? Because eventually you learn to think of change not as the disappearance of the old, but the discovery of something new. And that’s how, after years and decades of marriage, people wake up together just as fiercely in love as they were on the morning after their wedding.

Or something. Gracious, don’t take my word for it; I know way more about burgers than love.

Here’s my point. My favorite thing about this project is that, no matter how exhaustively I research, no matter how much I think I know, there’s always a surprise just around the corner. A comment made in passing by an acquaintance. An almost-hidden spot that makes me double take (and maybe almost rear-end someone) driving down Broadway. A recommendation from someone I’d written off as a dilettante. A remark from someone who’s just trying to revive a conversation.

Two weeks ago, I didn’t know Burgerlords existed, even though it’s practically in my back yard. Now, I’m sitting here with the empty box in front of me, the wrapping still soggy with thousand islands, the fast fading smell of the best french fries I’ve ever eaten and a truly remarkable burger lingering like a cloud above my coffee table, writing about it. God, I love this city.

Here’s all you need to know by way of background: Burgerlords is the brainchild of the actual children of Andre Guerrero, who you know because he’s the guy behind the Oinkster. It used to be the name of an insanely popular Tumblr run by the same dudes. Now, it’s a restaurant hidden in a corner of Chinatown where it would never occur to you to head for food. Which is unfortunate for you. That’s why you read this, though.

The Order: Double Cheeseburger Combo

The Price: $10.00

The Burger
I’ll spare you the suspense. I know I haven’t eaten every burger in Los Angeles. But none of the ones I have eaten can beat this one. I won’t belabor that point too much. Instead, I’ll get to brass tacks.

This burger is quite obviously an homage to the Double-Double. And yes, living up to that progenitor is an audacious goal.

Obviously, this is a much smaller operation than In-N-Out. The Guerrero brothers have not proven that they can maintain quality in the face of expansion. But they have expressed no intention or ambition to expand. For now, Burgerlords is just a window in Chinatown that you can’t see from the street. When you go – and you must go – resist the temptation to try and see the future through that window. Instead, try and appreciate what’s in front of you. The burger being made with love, care, and respect. The sizzle and hiss of beef on burner. The crackle of frying potatoes. Focus on what’s there. It’s more than enough.

The patties are grass-fed beef. They call it their “tri-blend” without further elaboration. None is necessary. It has the hardiness of chuck, the sweet tenderness of short rib, and insinuates (without achieving, but come on, the thing is ten bucks) the complexity of Wagyu. It’s seasoned to utter perfection, with the seasoning bringing out the natural savor of the meat, amplifying rather than masking.

The bun is the most overt tip of the cap to In-N-Out. It matches its ancestor in spongy sweetness, and is the perfect bookend to this burger. The toppings are the weakest point; the lettuce is a little sad and wilted, the tomatoes are a bit watery. These are minor nits. The onions and cheese fare better, offering a personality and tastefully assertive flavor to contrast the anchoring umami undertones of the patty. The thousand island is the subtlest you’ll likely taste on a burger, but is the perfect, cooling counterpart to the beef and cheese.

As I read over the last couple paragraphs, which I’ve written and re-written, they don’t get the point across. It occurs to me now that there really is no getting the point across. These ingredients coalesce into something much more than the aggregation of their individual tastes. Just like a symphony is more than a bunch of instruments being played at the same time. There’s nothing special about this burger. But that’s what makes it so special.

There’s a line in 500 Days of Summer where one of the characters describes the girl of his dreams, and enumerates the many ways in which she is different from his girlfriend. Then he pauses, and says, “But Robin is better than the girl of my dreams – she’s real.”

I thought of that line while I was eating this burger. I could dream up an insane burger. One with foie gras, a bone marrow drip, St. Andre cheese, avocado, bacon, or any other number of exotic or indulgent ingredients. But dreams are dreams; they don’t necessarily reflect anything that would work in the waking world. Burgerlords hasn’t made the burger of my dreams. They’ve done something better. They’ve made what is to date the best burger I’ve ever had.

Burgerlords might not be good enough to make you fall in love with Los Angeles. It might not make you fall in love with burgers. (Although, if you didn’t love either of those two things, it’s not clear why you’re here reading this in the first instance.) But for those of us who already love either or both of those things, it’s a pretty damn good reminder of why.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.60 / 10.00
Value: 9.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.40 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 93.20 / 100.00

LABP x PHL: Village Whiskey

IMG_0258
It is conceivable that, if there is a heaven, it resembles Village Whiskey.

I’m hesitant to wax theological here; that’s a horrendously fraught enterprise, and I doubt many of you would like what I had to say. To be clear, though, I’m not saying Village Whiskey is necessarily a perfect place. But it does have a lot of the trappings of a perfect place: a robust, whiskey-focused drink selection; a menu composed by a talented chef, José Garces (the centerpiece of which is a burger); and a vibrant, friendly atmosphere that is the perfect complement to good company. And milkshakes. It’s hard to imagine heaven without milkshakes.

This is a restaurant that is proud of its burger. I went with Kevin, Rumi, and Alexis to see if that pride is misplaced. It was a busy evening: I took selfies with two random girls for them to send to their friends on Snapchat. Alexis broke a glass in rage because she drinks slowly. And between the two of them, Kevin and Rumi can’t match my check-paying skills and sneakiness. And we ate.

The Place
Village Whiskey
118 South 20th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

The Order: Village Burger, medium rare, with cheddar, bacon, avocado, and caramelized onions

The Price: $22.50 ($13 base; $2.50 for cheddar, $3.00 for bacon, $2.50 for avocado, $1.50 for caramelized onions)

The Burger
The patty is eight ounces of farm-raised Maine Angus beef, impressively juicy and roughly packed into a small puck. It’s got the hallmark structural imperfection and asymmetry of a patty that was assembled by hand. The cheddar forms a nutty glaze over the top of the beef, bleeding over the sides and into the natural crannies in the patty. The patty is balanced atop thin blades of avocado. Beams of bacon shoot out the sides of the burger like exposed girders. Anchoring it all is a slice of tomato and a couple leaves of Bibb lettuce and a thin drizzle of Thousand Island.

The customizable burger is a tricky endeavor, and it’s hard to know how to evaluate it. After all, it leaves a lot in the hands of the consumer (and therefore, out of the hands of the chef). On the other hand, it places the onus on the restaurant to provide a burger of consistent quality no matter what ingredients they’re given. Oftentimes, diners don’t know how to thoughtfully assemble ingredients and instead opt to just choose a bunch of stuff they like. By offering a relatively diverse and challenging selection of additions, Village Whiskey places a lot of trust in their customers and their kitchen staff to make everything work.

It’s nice that as a fallback, the default garnishes are limited and fresh, the Thousand Island is unobtrusive and a mostly textural element, and the beef is very precisely cooked. This sets up a strong foundation upon which the other ingredients can interact more comfortably. My selection was relatively uncomplicated, with the bacon-avocado combination doing the heavy lifting. The smokiness of the bacon was mellowed nicely by the creamy avocado. Lurking under it all, the caramelized onions were sweet and tangy, harmonizing nicely with the Thousand Island.

So yes, this is a well-balanced burger, and it’s also pretty big — but you pay for it. At $22.50, it’s one of the most expensive burgers I’ve yet eaten. Candidly, it doesn’t completely live up to its price tag, but it’s still pretty good and really satisfying (I came medium hungry and didn’t even come close to finishing this monster). And as expensive as it is, I’d recommend it. My advice: round out the experience with some duck fat fries and a whiskey cocktail (or two), then finish with a vanilla bourbon milkshake. It’ll run you quite a few bucks, but you’ll leave full, happy, and maybe even a little buzzed.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.80 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90  /10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.20 / 10.00
Balance: 9.20 / 10.00

Total: 86.90 / 100.00

Messhall Kitchen

IMG_0025Before I start, a prefatory remark. I apologize for the long delay between posts. I have been busy being an enormous catch. File this under not-so-humble humblebrag. Point is, I’ve been too occupied reading internet comments about myself and looking longingly at my own picture to eat or write about burgers. Sorry not sorry. In related news: my being featured in that campaign hasn’t made women more attracted to me. At all.

ANYWAY. Let’s talk about Messhall.

For most people, Los Feliz triggers one of three thoughts:

Los Feliz Boulevard at rush hour is one of the most compelling pieces of proof of a malevolent God;

or

Do I pronounce it like the Spanish (Los “Fe-LEES”) or do I pronounce it like the transplants who live here say it (Los “FEE-liz”)?;

or

Oh, that’s a nice place to, like, raise a young family.

If you’re me, you also think of late nights with friends at House of Pies and the 101 Café after concerts at the Wiltern, but that’s because I’m a fat kid with a nostalgic streak. You might also think of Mexico City. Or Little Dom’s (whose burger this Project imminently will tackle). What you probably don’t think of is the flourishing restaurant scene. And why would you? Sure, Los Feliz is a cool part of Los Angeles, but it really hasn’t managed to produce a real blockbuster restaurant like Downtown, mid-city, or Silver Lake have. Unless you count Sqirl. Sqirl is good. Plus, saying you got brunch there makes you hip, plugged-in, and trendy. And you can sit with people who are too cool to go to Alcove (because, like, who even does that anymore?), but who want to wear their sunglasses while they take down their frittata, or seared polenta, or whatever.

(I actually like Sqirl, but targets don’t come much easier than their clientele.)

Listen, the point is the culinary pickings in Los Feliz are pretty slim. It’s not clear that Messhall Kitchen is aiming to change the culinary reputation of Los Feliz all by itself. But it’s safe to say that this place might augur a tectonic shift in the food scene here. Their menu offers quietly multicultural and just-inventive-enough takes on comfort foods. The sweet potato tamale weds sweet corn with slow-braised, drippy pork chile verde. The poutine features fries soggy after being slathered in short-rib and cheese curds. With time, places like Messhall could well change the culinary complexion of Los Feliz (interesting, because the co-owner, Bill Chait, owns Louise’s Trattoria, one of the most aggressively uninteresting culinary experiences you can have in Los Angeles County).

But Kevin, McAdoo, and I didn’t go to taste the ground floor of a sea change in the culinary profile of Los Feliz. We went to try Messhall’s vaunted burger. Well, and McAdoo was there to help defray the simmering perception that Kevin and I have a weird relationship (we aren’t dating).

The Place
Messhall Kitchen
4500 Los Feliz Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027

The Order: Mess Burger

The Price: $16 (before tax, includes fries)

The Burger
So okay, here’s a brief anatomical rundown of the burger. There’s a bun the size of North Dakota. Then, a substantial – say between one-third and one-half pound – patty drenched in what Messhall mysteriously dubs their “smokey sauce” (I’m resisting the impulse to make a crass joke about the forest fire safety bear), a sweet, runny, terra cotta condiment in which tangy belts of slow onion swim about. Crunchy discs of bread and butter pickles are also bathed in the sauce, but not enough to hide their charming, sweet and briny bite. A leathery sheet of nutty white cheddar is melted over the patty, almost to the point of liquidity.

If that sounds like a wonderful mix of flavors to you, I agree. Unfortunately, I can’t really report to you how they interact. The bun in this burger is so structurally dominant that it actually becomes physically intrusive. It is so enormous that, with every bite, it folds over and envelops the rest of the ingredients, masking their respective flavors and their interactions with one another. Whatever subtlety there is in this burger is completely obliterated by an overmassive bun that is kind of like a pushy salesman; it just won’t let anyone else get a word in.

In one sense, I get it: the patty is juicy and there is a lot of sauce on this burger. This bun avoids the problem of over-absorption and sogginess to which a less substantial bun might have been susceptible. But for God’s sake, there’s a happy medium in there somewhere. This was way over the top. Ultimately, I had to physically deconstruct this burger to actually taste the other ingredients. I removed the top bun and put it aside, and ate the burger open-faced with a fork and knife. Which made me look, well, not great.  And was pretty ridiculous. But I do what I have to do, damn it.

Anyway, the patty was very high quality. Our server confidently recommended that we order it rare, and the meat’s natural flavor could support that preparation. The sauce tasted fine but was poorly portioned; it crowded out the other flavors, such that everything else was muddied in a smokey-sweet haze. The pickles were present, but too inextricably linked to the sauce for their flavor to shine on its own. The onions were effectively lost in the soupy swirl of the sauce. The cheese complemented the rare beef well, providing a mellow counterpart to the assertive savor of the patty.

No one should be heard to criticize this burger for the quality of its ingredients. Even the fundamental ideas informing the assembly are sound. The problem is one of proportion. The burger is oversauced, but more importantly, features a bun that literally swallows the rest of the dish. The result is a dry, spongy front end to every bite that gives way to a muddle of ingredients too chewed-up to appreciate its individual components.

One more thing: this burger is very, very expensive. For sixteen bucks, I expect something truly memorable. In one sense, Messhall gave me that. I remember this burger, just not for the right reasons. I remember this burger because it’s bun got all up in my grill (literally), and didn’t let me taste anything else. I remember it because it tasted way too much like I was eating two uncharacteristically filling pieces of bread. I remember it because I actually thought, “Man, if I want a bunch of meat and shit wrapped in bread, I’ll eat a Hot Pocket. That takes three minutes, costs a few bucks, and I can do it in my sweats.” Not the right kind of memorable.

For now, I’ll reserve judgment as to whether Messhall portends a change in the culinary scene in Los Feliz. That’s a bigger question, one more effectively addressed by someone with a deeper knowledge than I. What I can tell you is this: this burger gets a lot of good ingredients together. The sauce is distinctive but also somehow familiar. There is real potential for something special here. But the experiment is botched due to its imbalance. So if Messhall does want to spearhead a change in the food future of Los Feliz, it probably won’t do it on the back of this burger, which is good – maybe even great – in concept, but just about average in execution.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.40 / 10.00
Value: 5.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.60 / 10.00
Bun: 4.10 / 10.00
Patty: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 4.00 / 10.00

Total: 75.90 / 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

Eggslut

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Let’s get this out of the way at the outset: You are going to have to get past the fact that Eggslut is kind of an affected and gimmicky name. Do that, and you’ll come to appreciate that it’s a) kind of apt, and b) kind of clever, and c) kind of funny. But more importantly, Alvin Cailan’s egg-centric eatery on the Broadway side of Grand Central Market serves really balanced, carefully conceived dishes.

Some people will sardonically argue that the business plan seems to be, “Hey, we like Iron Chef and eggs, so let’s just combine them.” Strictly speaking, that’s not wrong. But it’s also incomplete. There’s a lot more going on here. Cailan and company strive to serve innovative twists on familiar comfort food. They strive to offer food that is innovative and inclusive. In practice, the innovation generally consists of, “Hey, what stuff might taste good with eggs?” But behind each dish is deceptively thoughtful composition. You’d make a mistake to think this place is just a bunch of hipsters or bros chuckling while they just put eggs on shit that doesn’t normally have eggs on it.

Shanil and I went to check it out. Kevin was supposed to come, but he was busy being disgustingly late. By the time he showed up to order, my food had digested, and they had raised and slaughtered another cow to make his burger.

The Place
Eggslut @ Grand Central Market
317 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: Cheeseburger

The Price: $9.00 (before tax)

The Burger
Eggslut’s burger clearly was conceived with lots of love and respect for the institution of the burger. The focus is on high quality ingredients, simplicity, and complementary flavors. The egg is not intended to be the centerpiece of the burger. Prepared over-medium, it’s meant to be runny but not messy, to offer a textural contrast and some delightful, yolky flavor. And, all else being equal, it did that. As an absolute matter, the egg could not have been prepared better.

The real highlight of this burger, though, is the pickles. The interaction between the copious sweet pickle chips and the creamy egg yolk was nothing short of astonishing. It was the single most compelling ingredient pairing I’ve encountered since the Project got started. It completely justifies the spartan collection of ingredients found on this burger. Initially, when I looked at the description of the burger on the menu, I wondered why there wasn’t more going on.

Then, two things happened: First, I saw that you can add bacon and avocado. But given Eggslut’s generally judicious approach to ingredient inclusion, I chose not to. They include what needs to be included; I decided to order it like they suggested, not how they allowed. Second (and more importantly), I took a bite, and understood that the utterly symphonic collaboration between these two ingredients was more than enough to carry the water for this burger. The absence of sauce was not a deficiency, but an exercise in laudable restraint.

So if I’m going to register one complaint (and I am), it’s not really that the egg is scandalously slutty, it’s that the beef is kind of a prude (yes, I’ve tastelessly bought into the coarse foundational metaphor, but the general point holds). The patty is a paper-thin wafer of wagyu beef. High quality stuff, to be sure, but there’s so little of it that it makes not a gustatory dent. In one sense, I get it; there’s no way you could charge nine bucks for a beef with, say, a six-ounce wagyu patty. But the relentless pursuit of value sacrifices too much; this tastes like someone just put one brioche bun on either ear and thought really hard about wagyu beef. My point is that the patty is really small.

So while the complementary ingredients are beautifully – perhaps perfectly – balanced, this dish doesn’t feel like a burger; it feels like a sandwich. Someone forgot about the patty here, and it’s a damn shame, because this burger would be something really special were it a little better balanced. I imagined what it would be like if the egg yolk dripped and soaked into the patty, flirting with well-seasoned, flavorful, juicy beef. What a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy. But sadly, that’s all it is – a fantasy. What Eggslut has given us is an unfinished, unbalanced symphony, an almost-masterpiece that ends up making an impression more for what it could be than for what it actually is.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.20 / 10.00
Value: 8.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.30 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.80 / 10.00
Bun: 9.30 / 10.00
Patty: 6.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Balance: 5.60 / 10.00

Total: 83.70 / 100.00