HiHo Cheeseburger

The Place
IMG_20180411_214711

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

Meatzilla!

The Place
Meatzilla!
646 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014

IMG_1507
Dip your toe into the internet musings about Meatzilla, and you likely will find yourself annoyed.  The exclamatory nomenclature.  The burger with a pepperoni pizza bun.  The unshakable feeling that everything about the place was conceived with a smirk.  Indeed, even without the deviant punctuation, the name itself is really an etude in hipster snark. There’s very little in the reportage about this place that would inspire any reasonable person to take it seriously.

Most of this stuff had escaped me when DJ, a partner in my office, told me he had it on good authority that Meatzilla made the best burger in Downtown Los Angeles.  Now, having waxed adoring on a different downtown burger myself, I felt predictably compelled to investigate.  So I headed over to Meatzilla with Bret and Greg.  It’s a shack on Main Street, a pretty barebones affair, with a cramped kitchen, a whiteboard menu, stacks of soda boxes filling a side doorway, and a playlist like a Tarantino soundtrack. If they’re trying to project the image of hustling newcomers just trying to make it, it’s coming off gangbusters.  Think Steinbeck repurposed for the Snapchat generation.  Okay, that might be overstating the point a bit, but you get the idea.

The Order: Beef! Beef!

The Price: $9.50

The Burger
The whole concept of the place may seem tongue-in-cheek and affected, but the fare on offer is far from it.  While there are some experimental items on the menu to be sure, Meatzilla is conceptually a purist’s burger joint, whose bread and butter is no-frills, beef-forward presentations redolent more of summer cookout than a hipster Thanksgiving.

The Beef! Beef!, for instance, features two absolutely mammoth patties with discs of housemade pickles about the diameter of a nickel laid sporadically on top, along with tangy white onion.  A thick primordial ooze of cheese – Muenster on one patty and American on the other – drips from the meat.  You might mistake it for a runny fried egg (which you can add, by the way, for a buck fifty).  A generous – but not excessive – helping of Sriracha ketchup films both buns.  And that’s it.  No lettuce, no tomato, none of the other standard garnishes.

The beef is flavorful and surprisingly not overwhelming.  It was a hair overcooked, and while that normally wouldn’t be an issue, when there’s this much beef, there’s a smaller margin for error.  The pickles were utterly exceptional though, perfectly sour and with a healthy snap to them.  The onions were similarly well integrated, soaked in ketchup, and smartly kept raw to add more crunch and tang to complement the massive amounts of beef.  The ketchup was not overpowering, offering a nice sweet-hot undertone to each bite without being too assertive.  The cheese was a coup: gooey, rich, and indulgent, it gave every bite a sumptuous, smooth warmth.

All these garnishes, though, were just complementary though.  While Burgerlords and In-N-Out seek to harmonize all the ingredients into a coherent, synthesized whole in which all the components cooperate to create something larger than the sum of its parts, Meatzilla is, true to its name, a beef-first and beef-last kind of enterprise.  If, at Burgerlords, the burger is an orchestra in which the meat is just one instrument, at Meatzilla, the beef is the soloist, with other instruments there to add color and texture, but never to command your attention.

So is this the best burger in Los Angeles?  I guess that depends.  This burger is not a work of art.  But I left my meal with a pretty clear understanding of why someone might fall in love with it.  If you think a burger should be an unapologetically beef-focused dish, Meatzilla will appeal to you.  They’re about beef.  Not about buns (though the bun holds up impressively here, even if it isn’t the most dynamic component of the burger), or garnishes, or balance, or anything else.  But beef.

What’s more, there’s a sentimentality inherent in this dish.  Meatzilla has the sort of unbalanced charm that will take you back to the backyard cookouts with friends you only distantly remember from a washed-out photograph.  The smell of the grill would waft over and intermix with the harsh scent of chlorinated water.  It’s the burger you ate before you cared that soda was bad for you.  It’s the burger you ate before you started obsessing over calorie counts and carbohydrates.  It’s the burger that would buckle a paper plate.  It’s the burger you ate before you became a well-heeled culinary connoisseur and forgot how to enjoy something unsophisticated.  It’s the burger you ate when you cared more that your food was fun rather than an immaculately curated art project, when it didn’t matter if a dish wasn’t a perfectly manicured harmony of flavors and textures.

The last word is that while it’s hard for me to say this is downtown’s best burger, it’s hard to argue it isn’t either.  It’s a strange, unsettled feeling I left with, but it’s a feeling that is pulling me back to Meatzilla for another visit.  Which, at bottom, is all that matters, I guess.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.60 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.50 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.90 / 10.00
Balance: 7.90 / 10.00

Total: 84.60 / 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

The Habit Burger Grill

The Place
The Habit Burger Grill
Various Locations

combo
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
img_1676

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

The York

The Place
The York
5018 York Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90042
img_0674It feels like October has been all about the Chicago Cubs and their date with destiny.  They’re the latest beneficiary (see also 2004 Red Sox, 2010 Giants, 1998 Jay-Z) of the special treatment we give to baseball teams that are awful for long enough.  After over a century of losing, the Cubs – finally – are good.  And like the Red Sox, the Giants, and Jay-Z before them, the entire nation (but for we select few who don’t share the impulse for alacritous bandwagoneering) will love them until they finally win.  Then we’ll revile them for doing the very thing we hoped they’d do all along.  To be a “lovable loser,” you have to keep losing.

I watched the final innings of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at The York, which was a Highland Park mainstay long before Highland Park was cool.  It’s a vaulting industrial space, where Edison bulbs throw barely enough light on roughly erased chalkboards sporting the menu of the day, and onto the carmine bricks behind.  The one television is located inconveniently at the back end of the bar, obscured by something from almost any angle.  It was there that I watched Adrián González smack a game-tying single, and then shortly thereafter, Miguel Montero be spoon-fed a hanging slider with the bases loaded.

Much like the Cubs, the York has established itself as a good-natured neighborhood standard.  And much like the Cubs, it’s kind of hard to see what all the fuss is about.  Besides the cool (but imitable) vibe, the cocktails are weak, the food is fine, and the staff just mostly competent.  The clientele is a weird mashup of young fathers and old bachelors, thirty-somethings all.  It’s as if the York is the last place where those two demographics can meet and remember times not too many years ago, when their lives looked more alike.

Kristen, Tristan, Peter, Shahin, Kelsey and I took a trip to the York for dinner to catch the end of the baseball game before going to Creep LA, which – spoiler alert – was basically me paying $53.50 to be called “daddy” by an emo kid in lingerie and then locked in a closet the size of a moving box (with two other people, one of whom, blessedly, was Kelsey) by a small man in yoga pants.

The Order: Cheddar Burger, medium rare

The Price: $15

The Burger
The York’s burger is served on Bread Bar brioche, a heavily marbled sirloin and chuck hybrid patty, rocket (which, more or less, is hipster for “arugula,” which, more or less, is douchebag for “bitter spinach”), harissa aioli (harissa being a North/West-African chili paste that you may have run into at Moun-Of-Tunis, Koutoubia, or a similar spot), and pickled onion.  And cheddar, obviously.

Just by reading that list of ingredients, you may have the impression that there’s a lot – potentially too much – going on here.  That was my concern going in, too.  Imagine my surprise, then, when the burger actually wound up being strangely tame on the palette.  There was no pinching bitterness from the flaccid arugula, no astringent sourness from the too-soupy onions, no blunted bite from the aioli.  Everything got mixed together, reduced into some tasteless primordial ooze, the culinary equivalent of Cage’s 4’33”.  And to top it all off, there wasn’t even the buttery, eggy, cloudlike sweetness you would expect from the brioche (though this had more to do with the fact that it tasted a day old than any fault of poor Bread Bar’s) it was crumbly and Gobi-dry.

And that’s a shame, considering the patty was quite well-conceived.  Heavily marbled and a well-executed medium rare (evenly rouge-hued and barely bloody), the flavor was rich, the texture hardy and coarse.  It was crisped on the outside, but retained its juiciness exceptionally well.  Just like Charlize Theron in The Devil’s Advocate, it deserved a better supporting cast (instead, we got Shouty Al and dead-eyes Keanu; I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a metaphor or not).

Were I predisposed to being snarky, I’d say the good news is that the burger York was only the third-most unpleasant thing that happened to me that night.  But since I am miles above snark and the solicitation of cheap laughs, I’ll leave it at this: Notwithstanding all the neighborhood affection, all the history, all the prescient neo-industrial decor, the York’s burger left a bad taste in my mouth.  Maybe not quite as bitter and caustic as Miguel Montero left, not quite as parched and salty as being locked in that closet, but the fact that those three things are part of the same conversation probably tells you all you need to know.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.20 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.10 / 10.00
Value: 6.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 8.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.80 / 10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.30 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 73.80 / 100.00

Petit Trois

The Place
Petit Trois
718 North Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038

image
I was talking to my friend Peter last week about Petit Trois.  He went there with his wife recently, and ordered the omelette.  I’m not sure Peter is an omelette connoisseur, but he certainly is an educated enthusiast.  Anyway after a few bites of their omelette – a facially pedestrian offering with nothing more Boursin (yes, from the box) pepper cheese and a dusting of chives  – his wife asked if it was the best omelette he’s ever had.  “No,” he replied, “it’s the first omelette I’ve ever had.”

That’s what makes Ludo Lefebvre special.  His strength is not so much in wildly innovative concepts (though one trip to Trois Mec will show you he’s no slouch in that regard), but rather in expression.  Whatever the concept, from veal belly with crispy artichoke on down to a double cheeseburger, Lefebvre cannot be matched in execution.  Each dish is prepared with such skill and care, that his food has the potential to transcend quality and establish itself in your mind as an archetype of what a certain dish should be like.

Ludo Lefebvre is the rare chef who can make a simple dish feel definitional.  Not every dish achieves it, but when one does, you feel it, and to describe it is really just to speak normatively about how every dish of that kind ought to taste.  I’ll stop short of saying that his best offerings are infused with the intent of the divine, but the thought occurred to me.

The Order: Big Mec

The Price: $18

The Burger
Even if the name Petit Trois isn’t immediately familiar to you, you likely know more about it than you realize.  It’s the daughter restaurant of Trois Mec, at which reservations are famously difficult to secure, but which offers among the finest tasting menus in the city.  Petit Trois, then is an approximately Le Comptoir-sized appendage to its venerable – albeit only marginally larger – parent.  Though the restaurants have markedly different personalities, they share more than a wall; they have a common creative nucleus: Ludo Lefebvre teams with Los Angeles culinary power pair Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (the minds behind Animal, Son of a Gun, and Jon & Vinny’s) on these two gems tucked away in a strip mall behind a gas station.  Don’t let the understated location fool you, though – this part of mid-city is a culinary hotspot.  Just across the street is the mighty, higher-profile Mozzaplex, where Nancy Silverton et. al. have been slinging really important food for decades.

Roughly speaking, Petit Trois is a French lunch counter.  Reservations are not accepted, and the menu is a cheesy, framed and laminated piece of printer paper.  They serve comfort food which oozes with nostalgic sentimentality (for instance, every Sunday, Ludo Lefebvre – continuing a family tradition – does a chicken roast, where a half chicken is offered atop mirepoix, a bed of rough-cut vegetables redolent of a French country table).  The dishes are, in concept, often childishly simple.  Confit-fried chicken with bitter-cool frisée.  The aforementioned omelette has a flavor profile simple enough not to overwhelm my five year-old niece, but a subtle, buttery complexity that would floor just about anyone.

The cheeseburger is similar.  The name is a tip of the cap to an iconic – though hardly estimable – progenitor, and the inspiration, weirdly enough, is discernible.  The Big Mec is a double cheeseburger featuring two patties, Tillamook cheddar, all utterly drenched in Russian mayonnaise and house-made bordelaise sauce jammed between two brioche buns.  This burger is a study in messy decadence.  It bleeds sauce over its edges like a fountain.  The bottom bun is coated with the two sauces but somehow not soggy, and incredibly, never even threatens disintegration.

The concept here is to unify simplicity and excess.  At first blush, that might seem paradoxical, but it works in practice.  This burger is decadent without being overwrought.  It takes simple ideas and presents them in a maximalist fashion.  It is the culinary equivalent of “Untitled,” the first song off Interpol’s debut, Turn On the Bright Lights.  In that song, Paul Banks repeatedly intones the promissory phrase, “I will surprise you sometime, I’ll come around,” amid a swirling, sparkling, ever-rising torrent of Stratocaster.  There isn’t much to it; but it’s arresting because the same idea, the same brief, haunting, beautiful motif, is pounded into your head so many times.  That approach informs this dish as well.  Of course, the concept would be nothing without execution.  The Big Mec is executed masterfully.

The cheese is perfectly melted but still decidedly solid – it has heft and mass.  And it’s Tillamook, so it’s approachable: sharp and flavorful without being too overpowering.  The patties are stellar, massive things.  Charred on the outside, pink on the inside, irrepressibly juicy and thick.  They absorb only some of the ocean of sauce, but it’s enough to subtly change the flavor of the meat.

At bottom, this burger is about the sauces.  And really, it’s about the bordelaise.  The Russian mayonnaise is piquant, fresh, and just creamy enough, but it is utterly overshadowed by its companion.  The bordelaise at Petit Trois is made with red wine and veal stock and mounted with foie gras (usually, the mount is butter).  It is astounding.  It teeters on the boundary between boozy and acidic, like wine a few atoms away from oxidation.  But it is given shape, depth, and balance by the foie gras mount.  In the end, everything about it feels decadently intentional.  It is the most challenging, but also the most comforting, bordelaise you’ll likely ever taste.  It is smooth but also sharp, mellow but also bright.  It is also just about omnipresent in this burger…and you’ll still want more.  It also creates a beautiful, natural mash-up with the Russian mayonnaise – so natural, in fact, that the sauces feel more coextensive than cooperative.

You’ll ravenously devour this plate of food.  Your hands and teeth will drip with oxblood bordelaise and Russian mayonnaise the color of cooked salmon.  You will do violence to this burger.  The taste of the sauces will linger in your mouth long after you finish.  You will be exhausted, you will be panting.  You will look down at the plate, full to the gills, and you will ache for more.  You’ll see the pool of what’s left of the two sauces, intermixed, looking like a Woolnaugh endpaper, and you’ll wish it wasn’t over.

This is a cheeseburger.  Other things we previously might have known as cheeseburgers do not deserve the privilege of sharing a categorical identity with this dish.  It is the archetypal burger:  comforting, rich, indulgent, decadent, massive, messy, meaty, subtle, warming, unpretentious but refined, accessible, filling, and utterly delicious.

Make no mistake: This is as indispensable an eating experience as the critically acclaimed tasting menu across the wall.  If you have not yet eaten this cheeseburger, it may well be argued that you have never eaten a cheeseburger at all.  The Big Mec at Petit Trois is nothing short of a masterpiece.  Drive quickly, order quickly, but eat slowly.  After all, this will be your first cheeseburger – you should savor it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 10.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.90 / 10.00
Bun: 9.90 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 10.00 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 95.70 / 100.00

Redbird

IMG_1334
I think about judgment day a lot.  Call it the end of the world, or the apocalypse, or whatever you want.  I think about it.  I think about when fire and brimstone rain down heavy and hot from skies that split like the seam of a too-small blazer.  When it turns out the Old Testament was right.  When God gets sick of all our shit and exacts vengeance on us for our innumerable sins.  When we all find out that we were fools to be cynical and supercilious.  When the joke, as it happens, was on us all along.  When it doesn’t matter whether we’ve found God, because he finds us.  When it doesn’t matter what we believe.  When nothing matters but the lives we’ve led.

When that day of reckoning comes, I hope I’m sitting at Redbird with the tar-black summer sky above me, a meal settling, the cold sting of a scotch and sherry cocktail lingering on my lips, waiting for my pavlova to arrive.  That’s not because Redbird is the best restaurant in this city, or even the fanciest.  It’s not because Neal Fraser is the best chef in the city (though he must be in any conversation on the topic).  But I can’t think of a better place to face the apocalypse (leaving aside the delicious irony of being condemned to an eternity alongside Dante’s most wanted while sitting in a repurposed rectory).

See, when it all ends, I want to be somewhere beautiful, and I want to be doing something delightful.  Redbird is the most beautiful place to eat in Los Angeles.  Bar none.  It also is one of the ten best restaurants in this city.  Its décor is as eclectic as its menu, which in turn is as eclectic as Los Angeles.  Fraser presents crudo with bright wedges of citrus and an adobe-red dusting of peppery togarashi; delicate, crisped slabs of Wyoming trout; a symphonic barbecued tofu (which, by the way, is dream-hauntingly good – better even than Sang Yoon’s resplendent chicory-coffee barbecue sauce-bathed Kurobuta pork ribs at Lukshon – whether or not you like tofu).  And he presents them all with such easy familiarity that you’ll forget how weird it is to find them all on the same menu.  Just like Los Angeles, in which so many different cultures and kinds live side by side.  It’s curated chaos, but to those of us who have been fortunate enough to really come to know it, its splendor is difficult to match.  The perfect place to watch it all end.

Wednesday was not the apocalypse, so Bret and I settled for lunch at Redbird.  It’s a perfect option for those who ache for a longer intermissio from the raw grind of the work day.  Fraser offers a slightly abbreviated version of his menu, including a prix fixe for the indecisive and slightly profligate, and a burger for … well, not least for the man who writes about burgers.

The Order: Prime Burger

The Price: $18

The Burger
This might be the burger for the end times.  See, if you happen to be jonesing for a burger when the fabric of the earth falls away and reveals the roiling inferno that lies behind it all, you won’t have time to let the marrow melt, or caramelize the onions, or pull any other high-cuisine moves.  You’ll have time to throw together a few ingredients – whatever is at hand – into the last burger you’ll ever eat.  Now, having said that, it’s the last burger you’ll ever eat.  And you’ll be damned if you’ll let it be pedestrian.  Even at the end of the world, you’ll have to compromise, to balance countervailing interests.

The Prime Burger at Redbird manages that. It is spartan in an indulgent kind of way, deceptively complex, intensely flavorful but stripped of pretense and unnecessary ornamentation.  This feels like the burger chefs will make when there is no one left to cook for.  If Howard Roark spent his life behind a grill instead of a drafting table, he would have aspired to create this burger.  It is the product of passion and craft.  Every ingredient serves a purpose.  Nothing is out of place.  The fact that it’s a crowd-pleaser?  That’s merely an externality.

The patty is pure Fraser: massive, marbled, loosely packed, pink and bloody.  It might be overwhelming, I guess, were it executed with anything less than perfect mastery.  But this is Neal Fraser, so it’s executed with nothing less than perfect mastery.  The remoulade is piquant, tart, and generously portioned (and why not?  You’ll want an extra scoop of sauce when the apocalypse is impending).  This sauce is a beautiful, rich, indulgent complement to the sumptuous, almost buttery, beef.  Aged cheddar drips like sap, so slowly that it forms an amorphous tendon that seems to connect patty to plate.  It’s creamy and thick, with a distant whispering sharpness.  There is a chile relish that adds a smoky sweetness (but almost no heat), and extra pickles to add more zip if you want them.

The bun is the burger’s weakest part.  A too-dry, too-thick brioche, it tasted a day old and was a bit too imposing for this burger.  The dryness of the thing wasn’t helped by the fact that it was flaked with sea salt.  It’s a noticeable imperfection, but the rest of the flavors are bold enough to compensate for it.  In the end, the burger hangs together impressively well in spite of a disappointing bun.  Besides, when judgment day comes, you probably won’t be too picky about the bun on your burger.

In case it isn’t abundantly clear, I liked this burger very much.  It’s big and brash, but is ultimately memorable for its relative simplicity.  It’s a really well-prepared, thoughtful offering.  It manages to achieve simultaneously simplicity and complexity, boldness and subtlety, immediacy and depth.  It’s a great burger.  Don’t wait until the end of the world to try it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 7.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.30 / 10.00
Bun: 6.80 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Balance: 9.30 / 10.00

Total: 88.20 / 100.00

Tyler’s Burgers

The Place

Tyler’s Burgers
149 South Indian Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA 92262

No reservations
Bar: Beer and wine
Cash only

You’re eight years old, maybe nine.  It’s the height of summer—say, early July?  You’ve settled comfortably into your vacation, and your dreaded return to school is not yet on the radar.  You can’t really tell the days apart; they blend together into an undifferentiated mass of weekdays and weekends and friends and sunburns and beach days and day trips and sun-warmed pools.  You bask in the delicious swelter of the long summer days.  You feel invincible, ageless.

On one of those days, a day quite literally like every other early July day, your parents take you to a cookout at a friend’s house.  You walk into your friend’s backyard, grass brushing against the sides of your feet left bare by your sandals.  You hear laughter and beer cans opening.  You smell freshly-cut grass soaked in lemonade spills and sprinkler spray, the delicate cloud of sweet summer sweat, chlorinated water, and—above all—the smell of smoke, charcoal, and crackling grilled meat.

Hold that picture for a moment.

Diana Diamico started a restaurant based on that kind of picture.  Two decades ago, she set up shop in a sixty year-old building on the main drag in Palm Springs.  It used to be a Greyhound Bus depot.  Her goal was to recreate a burger that her mother used to sling way back when at a burger stand on the boardwalk in Venice Beach.  That burger, so firmly rooted in Diamico’s memories of childhood, “became the foundation of knowing the difference between mediocrity and the best.”  It also became the foundation stone of her business.

Diamico’s burger, then, is a nod to the past, to a time when things felt—were?—simpler.  Maybe that’s an excessively romantic way to think about a burger (especially if you’re one of those cynical millennial types), but nostalgia is a powerful emotion.  It affects not only what we like, but also—not least in the case of Diamico—what we do.  Tyler’s is a business built on memories.  It’s also been held that you can’t get a better burger in Palm Springs.  Well, Kelsey and I were out there for the long weekend, so we went to give it a try.

The Order: Cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger

The Price: $8 (cheeseburger), $9.50 (bacon cheeseburger)

The Burgers
It might seem odd that I’m reviewing two burgers at once—and it’s true; usually I don’t do that.  But these two offerings weren’t different enough to merit separate reviews.  If you’re like me, your instincts would guide you towards ordering the bacon cheeseburger, because bacon.  Now, while it’s hard to say that ordering the bacon cheeseburger is flat out misguided (especially if you’re into that sort of thing), I can’t endorse it.  To my mind, the bacon is more of a distraction than a complement here—albeit a delicious, delicious distraction (especially if you’re into that sort of thing).  But that isn’t an indictment of the bacon cheeseburger so much as it is a veneration of the standard cheeseburger.  I think the order is the regular cheeseburger with American cheese and grilled onions.  Hold the tomato for bonus points (I had it on the bacon cheeseburger, and it didn’t add much).

Go back to that picture in your head.  You’re at the barbecue and you’re handed a hastily arranged burger.  The garnishes are simple: an oozing sheet of American cheeese, crisp lettuce, bright pickles, succulent tomato, maybe some sweet, charmingly flaccid rings of grilled onion.  The sauces are conventional, unfussy: ketchup, yellow mustard, and a thin glaze of mayonnaise mixing into some unnamed but familiar metacondiment the color of a sunset.

Tyler’s has done a pretty good job of recreating that burger.  It’s not necessarily this burger that’s memorable.  It’s that it evokes really fond memories.  If you’re like me, this burger will around feelings of nostalgia in you. It’s the taste of a summer barbecue.  It’s the taste of being told to wait a half hour before swimming.  The patty is substantial – seven ounces at least.  Were I to complain that it was a touch overcooked, that would only be a matter of taste.  The outside of the patty is deliciously crackled by the flat top, the inside juicy and savory enough.  The sponge bun is the stuff of In-N-Out dreams, but slightly thicker.  That’s okay, given the thickness and heft of the patty.

The toppings are all solid, but the cheese is the standout.  It completely covers the patty in a thick, dripping sheet.  Swiss is an option, but I can’t imagine it topping the American I chose.  I’ll readily stipulate that American is perhaps the most sophomoric of all the cheeses, but my gracious, it was indulgent, rich, and creamy.  And for as unfussy an expression as this burger is, it was the ideal complement.  The grilled onions were a fabulous addition too, sweet and grill-burnt.  They sank into the quicksand-like cheese until the two almost infused one another.  Stellar stuff.

As I ate the cheeseburger (which, to bring it full circle, probably deserves the mantle of best burger in Palm Springs), I glanced over to the bar and saw a family sitting together, presumably on a Memorial Day vacation.  Their young son couldn’t have been older than ten.  He was holding his cheeseburger aloft when I looked, to eat a hanging disc of pickle.  He had ketchup on his face.  His hands were a mess.  His too-big blue t-shirt had escaped stains for the moment, but I found myself doubting that would last as I watched him attack his burger with the gleeful abandon that summer engenders in everyone of that age.  And as I bit back into my own burger with the neat and proper sobriety of adulthood, that age felt a little closer.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.60 / 10.00
Value: 9.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.50 / 10.00 

Total: 86.70 / 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