Love & Salt

The Place
Love & Salt
317 Manhattan Beach Boulevard
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266

Love & Salt
You probably can’t live in Manhattan Beach.  The prices are too high; the lifestyle is too idyllically Californian; the people are too beautiful for their age; the parking is too scarce.  Most importantly, perhaps, the quality restaurants are too few.  While higher dining options exist – M.B. Post, Fishing With Dynamite, and the subject of this review, Love & Salt – the culinary scene in Manhattan Beach would perhaps most aptly be characterized as “family friendly.”  Perfect if you like Pitfire Pizza, less so if your preferences skew toward street food, fusion or small plates.

But Manhattan Beach really does encapsulate the Southern California lifestyle, or at least what many people outside Southern California would imagine our lifestyle to be.  It’s mostly white, mostly rich, mostly sunny, mostly upscale, mostly clean, mostly successful, and mostly USC alumni.  It exemplifies the relaxed affluence that is more closely associated with Southern California than with anywhere else.  You’ll spot an off-puttingly muscular forty-something year old man strolling down Manhattan Beach Boulevard with impossibly adorable children, his bronze arms bursting from Rip Curl t-shirts, salt-and-pepper hair cut close, smiling through his Maui Jim sunglasses at the cards life dealt him.  And just when you think you might live a life like his one day, you see the glint of the alabaster dial on his $20,000 watch as it catches the sun just so, and you’ll remember that this is not your place.

In spite of being inaccessible, though, I can’t shake the feeling whenever I’m in Manhattan Beach that there’s something missing there (besides minorities, I mean).  It’s a city that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.  It’s beachy, it’s Californian, there’s a Marine Layer, and the schools are top-notch, sure, but it feels fundamentally anti-urban.  It’s oddly devoid of genuine culture.  It’s an ecosystem, not a city.

If you’re looking for a B(a)esha Rodell-approved break from the blocks upon blocks of suburban ennui (and you are lucky enough to find a parking spot), you might stop in at Michael Fiorelli’s Love & Salt.  Chef Michael Fiorelli’s food is described by the restaurant as Italian-inspired, but “with a California soul.”  It may be that soul animating the splash of salsa verde on the grilled octopus, or (depending on how forgiving you feel) the presence of gluten-free pasta.  Good-natured ribbing aside, the food here is good.  The cocktails are excellent as well.  It may not be the most innovative menu in the world, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.

One item for which Love & Salt has become quietly regarded is a burger, which was inspired neither by Italy nor the restaurant’s soul, but rather by a particularly intransigent regular customer who persisted in ordering a burger in spite of there not being one on the menu.  Chef Fiorelli finally relented and, using what ingredients he had on hand, he served what is now known as the Downlow Burger.  It recently received sterling plaudits from local tastemakers, so I predictably felt compelled to sample it.  In the spirit of its origins, the Downlow Burger remains off the menu (as in, on the down low) at dinner, but they make a limited run of twelve per day during weekend brunch.  Calling ahead to request a set-aside is advisable.  Kelsey, Kristen, Tristan and I did just that, and took in a Saturday brunch there.

The Order: the Downlow Burger

The Price: $16

The Burger
The Downlow Burger consists of two substantial black angus beef patties, fontina cheese, caramelized onions, housemade pickles, and a tomato aioli, all on brioche.  Probably the highest praise I can heap on this burger is that it presents like a cousin of Petit Trois.  It’s a saucy, paradoxical thing: minimalistic but indulgent, familiar but challenging, understated but brazen.  Like Ludo’s masterwork, it eschews typical garnishment in favor of fewer, bolder flavors, assembled purposefully to complement one another.

The beef is the anchor, and though it was overcooked (and therefore a touch gritty), it was juicy and bursting with savor that stabilized every bite.  The fontina cheese added a lightly botanical quality, while its fruit and nut notes seeped into the meat, giving it a subtle sweetness that interacted well with the caramelized onions, the residual tang of which, in turn, married nicely with the delicate sourness of the pickles.  The buns hold everything together, but don’t impress too much in their own right.

The really impressive choice here was the tomato aioli.  While the tomato flavor was the right call, ketchup would have been too ham-fisted, too obvious, too sharp, and it wouldn’t have fit in the context of this burger, which decidedly is aiming for gourmet status.  By presenting the tomato as an aioli, Fiorelli manages to present the right flavor, but with a softer touch.  It’s a really sophisticated, thoughtful, creative stroke, and it elevates this burger and preserves a balanced flavor profile.  It’s no bordelaise sauce mounted with foie gras, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 9.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.20 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.60 / 10.00

Total: 90.80 / 100.00

Meatzilla!

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

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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

Haché

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Order: Karma Burger

The Price: $5.95

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 85.30 / 100.00

Manuela

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Order: Deer Burger, medium rare

The Price: $16.00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 79.70 / 100.00

Sunny Spot

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The 405 freeway is maybe best described as a piece of hell that Los Angeles chose to annex in 1964.  It (along with bananas-high taxes) is the price we pay for living in a sun-soaked paradise: a throbbing vein of gridlock, on which – at the best of hours – brake lights pulse rhythmically.  Quite often though, it’s worse, and the string of red lights in front of you looks like a fluorescent snake if you squint.

For those who live in Los Angeles, the 405 is a conversation piece.  When I meet friends for a meal in Santa Monica or Venice, inevitably I will describe to them either a) what a tragedy the 405 is today, or b) how I skillfully, creatively managed to circumvent the 405.  These topics are staples of the conversational diet in this town.  And they make us an easy target.

I recently spent a Saturday morning – and part of the afternoon – on the 405, driving to brunch at Sunny Spot.  My interminable journey through the gridlock (which, in familiarly epic largesse, spilled indulgently back onto the 101) found me listening to Loveless on repeat and texting my friend Bret with my car in park (and just to completely embody the stereotype, I’ll share that I was between Getty Center and Sunset – nightmare).

Unless you live on the west side, you’ll have to endure some version of this drive to get to Sunny Spot.  When you arrive, you’ll find a classically Venice exercise: peeling turquoise paint on which the name of the restaurant boldly is emblazoned in coral-colored cursive (think the colors of the key at the San Antonio Spurs’ arena circa 2000), a meticulously curated shabby-chic beachside dive aesthetic.  It tries hard not to try hard.

You’ll likely have lost your reservation by the time you arrive (assuming you had the foresight and misplaced optimism to make one).  So you’ll have to wait among aspirant screenwriters and armchair critics; almost impressively basic young women with protein powder-dusted boyfriends following close behind; post-surf stoners, desperately hungry and wondering why they hath forsaken Taco Bell.

It goes without saying that a tiny proportion of guests will be talking to one another.  After all, to our generation, a meal with friends merely means sitting at a table with other people who are also glued to their Instagram feed.  True to form, you’ll see the patrons of the restaurant being alone together, side-by-side but absorbed in Pokémon Go or composing sarcastic YouTube comments or adding this “memory” to their Snapchat story or whatever the intimacy-killer du jour is.

You’ll try and push this depressing portrait of collaborative loneliness out of your head.  You’ll get a greyhound from one of the surprisingly attentive bartenders (you won’t get a Bloody Mary, because they aren’t fantastic here, and you won’t get a mimosa because mimosas are sort of silly).  You’ll steep in the charming, faux-rustic atmosphere of the place, the loose and warm summer shade.  If you’re the type, you’ll lovingly muss your hair and frame a selfie or two.  You’ll wait longer than you should for a table, and do your best not to wonder if it would be easier to get a table at Providence than here.  Then you’ll remember that you should relax; it’s the weekend, and the weekend was made for wasting time.

The Order: Double Cheeseburger

The Price: $15

The Burger
The reason I bring up the 405 and the whole look of Sunny Spot is because I have to talk about them to talk about this burger.

The 405 is not just a freeway.  Well, on the surface it is.  It’s a few lanes arranged in a predetermined path, peppered by ramps every few miles.  But dig deeper, think harder, and you might be surprised with what you realize.  The 405 forces us to confront the ironic truth that, to get somewhere, we have to accept going nowhere for a while.  It wrenches us from the stupefying, swipe-right torrent of instant and meaningless gratification that occupies so much of our time and thought.  It pulls us away from the relentlessly interconnected world and makes us confront our own thoughts.  It demands the one thing so many in this generation lack: patience.

My point is that the 405 isn’t what it seems on the surface, and if you think about it in the right way, you can understand how sitting in traffic actually is a blessing, an opportunity for growth and reflection that has become vanishingly rare as our world becomes a giant touchscreen.  At the very least, it can show you that often times, there’s more to things than what you might see from a cursory look.

Sunny Spot is sort of like the 405 in that way.  If you weren’t looking all that hard, you’d see a beachy Venice restaurant with a gregarious color scheme.  You might miss the subtleties at play here.  Their brunch menu features standard items with haute tweaks.  Grana Padano in an otherwise unremarkable chop salad.  Crisp chicharron on the Cuban pork sandwich.  A sunny egg on the BLTA.

This is a place that quite clearly is trying to give you what you want in a way that’s better than you wanted.  They want to blend the familiar with the high-level.  It’s not just a beachside shack; it’s a place that is dedicated to the marked – if incremental – heightening of tastes.  This is admirable, and an especially tall order when your target audience is so often obsessed with the banal and unchallenging.

What I’m trying to get at here is the (weird, semantic) distinction between being complicated and being complex.  The 405 is complicated because it introduces logistical uncertainty in my life.  Because there are so many damn cars on it, I’m late for any plans that involve me taking the 405.  But the 405 is complex because it makes me feel something every time I’m on it, and exploring those feelings makes me think more deeply and more critically about the world around me and my interaction with it.

Sunny Spot itself is uncomplicated – it’s a simple enough formula of beautiful, precisely disheveled people and a milieu to match; but it’s complex because it seems to be at least attempting to subvert and refine the unsophisticated impulses of the very clientele to which the place – at least aesthetically – caters by subtly altering the familiar.

How does this distinction apply to burgers?  Well, it’s easy to make a burger complicated by fettering it with a slew of features.  But complexity isn’t about the number of variables in play; it’s about the depth of interaction between those variables, and it’s really about the way the thing makes you feel, what it arouses in you when you take a bite.  Sunny Spot rejects being complicated in hopes that it might achieve subtle complexity.

In eschewing all the traditional trappings, Sunny Spot is trying to challenge your preconceptions of what is indispensable on a burger.  Lettuce, tomato, ketchup: these are distractions.  Sunny Spot presents a burger with a spare flavor profile.  By reducing the number of ingredients, the goal seems to be to heighten subtle interactions rather than presenting an amalgam of various flavors.

This burger places two hefty patties smeared with American cheese front and center.  This centerpiece is rounded out with dijonnaise, pickles, and caramelized onions, all of which is sandwiched between two brioche buns.  Note that this hits every one of the basic taste triggers: sour (pickles), sweet (dijonnaise and onions), bitter (onions), salty (beef), and umami (beef and cheese).  This burger touches all the bases without giving too much of anything.

The good news is that this burger is efficiently conceived and executed.  It’s a competent exercise in lean construction.  But that’s all it is: just craft.  This burger clearly wants the diner to do the work of figuring out how these flavors are put together.  That doesn’t stop it from being good.  But it precludes greatness.

A great burger will give you a window into the mind of the person who made it.  It might even arouse memories, feelings, thoughts.  It will show you something or make you feel something.  The best food isn’t that which you can appreciate as a well-formed study in culinary craft.  It’s the food that enriches you somehow, connects with you individually, feels like it was made for you.  This burger will mean the same thing to everyone who eats it.  Few will abhor it, none will yearn for it once it’s gone.  It’s a pleasant, but eminently duplicable, experience.  As far as it goes, it’s great.  The problem is that it just doesn’t go all that far.

In this case, the distinction between complicated and complex is purely academic.  This burger is neither.  Relatively few ingredients interact in predictable, uninspired ways.  The beef and cheese overwhelm the flavor profile.  The brioche is a touch dry.  The dijonnaise and pickles are barely perceptible, so any subtle interaction between them is a whisper in a thunderstorm.  The onions are unevenly distributed on the patty, providing pockets of soupy bittersweetness.  None of this is offensive – in fact, the toppings themselves (especially the dijonnaise, oddly enough) are all quite good – but the ingredients simply stand side by side without ever cohering.  This is an orchestra tuning, not playing a symphony: the talent may be there, but the real show hasn’t started yet.

This burger was not made for you.  It was made for everyone.  It is always correct but never remarkable.  It will be good to everyone and great to no one.  Fairly, you may not care about the fine-grain distinctions between complicated and complex.  In that case, know this: you will neither regret ordering this burger nor crave it again.  But it won’t make you feel anything.  And it certainly won’t make you forget that drive.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.20 / 10.00
Value: 7.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 5.20 / 10.00
Creatvity/Style: 7.80 / 10.00
Bun: 7.80 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Balance: 7.30 / 10.00

Total: 79.20 / 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