HiHo Cheeseburger

The Place
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HiHo Cheeseburger
1320 2nd Street, Suite B
Santa Monica, CA 90401

I know.  It’s been a while.  The last article I started to write for this Project was in October.  I remember the exact day; it was immediately after Justin Turner did this.  I tried to put my feelings into words that night, to no avail.  I got swept up in the frenzy of October baseball.  The hope.  I fell in love with the possibility that 2017 might just be the Dodgers’ year.

Then this happened.

And then this happened.

And now this is happening.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s this.

All of which has made me feel approximately like this.

Now, I’m not saying the serial and crushing failure of Dodger baseball and the casual, inevitable hopelessness of Kings hockey are the most pressing problems of our time. Surely neither is.  But they sure can take it out of you.  I guess my point is, it can be exhausting to love something.  I’m not sure it explains my silence here.  Maybe nothing can.  Maybe an explanation isn’t necessary.

Whatever it was that took me away from this, though, one simple idea brought me back: life is too short not to seize the things that bring you joy and keep them close.

That was probably too heavy for a blog about cheeseburgers.  But it was a couple weeks ago, spending a night at HiHo Cheeseburger with my better half (of whom I haven’t been seeing enough lately) that it hit me.  It’s good to be with people you love doing things you love.  So I’m back to say a few words about HiHo Cheeseburger.  With a little good-natured pedantry on the front end.

The Order: Double HiHo Cheeseburger

The Price: $6.95

The Burger
I’ve eaten some great burgers in the past few months.  I resolve to write about all of them in turn.  But it took something like HiHo Cheeseburger to bring me back.

When you think and write about cheeseburgers, you’re often faced with dishes that are presented as elevated iterations of a classic form.  Los Angeles as a food scene is obsessively colloquial.  The culinary consciousness here is not, by and large, predisposed to traditionalist haute cuisine.  Rather, it is about cultural reflection, comfort, familiarity.  The food in this town is an expressive modality, a way for chefs to give you a window through which you can see who they are and where they come from, not merely what they can do.

It may sound a little high-brow, but it’s really the opposite.  Food in Los Angeles is a way for chefs to connect with the rest of us.  You’re not going to get a glimpse into a fancy culinary school; you’re meant to get a glimpse into someone’s childhood dining room.  What makes food here truly exceptional (rather than just some cute nostalgic exercise) is that those classic dishes are re-imagined with beautiful, leveled-up ingredients.

To wit, all the patties at HiHo Cheeseburger are 100% grass-fed Wagyu beef from First Light collective–sustainably raised, totally free of all hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs.  Laugh all you want at how cartoonishly L.A. that is; it tastes better.  The beef elevates what fundamentally is an unabashed photocopy of a Double-Double (right down to the mustard grilling of the patties) to something memorable.  The quality of the meat makes up for the slightly less-inspired seasoning on the patty.

Other elements of the Double-Double are referenced obliquely, for better and worse. The piquant onion jam admirably replaces the animal style minced onions and Thousand Island.  The brioche bun is a step down from its sponge analogue, though it’s tough to take serious issue with it.  The pickles, made in house, are exceptional: sweet, sharp, and snappy but also, delightfully, a hair thicker than you might expect, nicely rounding out the homage to the Baldwin Park O.G.

Regular readers will know I have no issue with people riffing on In-N-Out, especially if it’s done well.  HiHo Cheeseburger riffs on In-N-Out quite well.  And at $6.95, it’s an extremely high value proposition: you’ll have ample room in your wallet to give the Straus milkshakes or the banana cream pie a spin (and wash it down with a beer if you’re trying to drown your latest Los Angeles sports-induced sorrow).

HiHo doesn’t seek to elevate the concept of the cheeseburger.  Just the execution.  And in doing so, it embodies a lot of what is great about food in Los Angeles: it takes an iconic dish and pays respectful homage to it.  If you’re like me, eating here will remind you of why you love living here.  In spite of the Dodgers.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.80 / 10.00
Freshness: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 6.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.70 / 10.00

Overall: 91.30 / 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

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

LABP x PHL: Village Whiskey

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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