HiHo Cheeseburger

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

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

Then this happened.

And then this happened.

And now this is happening.

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

All of which has made me feel approximately like this.

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

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

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

The Order: Double HiHo Cheeseburger

The Price: $6.95

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: 91.30 / 100.00

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

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

ERB

The Place
Everson Royce Bar (ERB)
1936 7th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90021

I knew Everson Royce as a liquor store in Pasadena with a pretty good selection of whiskey and (apparently) a considerably better selection of wine. Today, it’s grown up into one of the trendiest bars in one of the trendiest neighborhoods (mine, incidentally – NBD but KBD) in Los Angeles. The façade is spartan: bare neon lights, buzzing, form the word “BAR” in white capitals. To the right of the threshold, a simple goal plaque bears the name of the bar and the year of its establishment — 2015.

Mozzaplex alumnus Matt Molina is the mind behind ERB’s menu. After a weirdly sudden (but evidently, not acrimonious) departure from the Mozza empire, Molina came here, to a scaled down bar-restaurant concept that is much less in the “high cuisine” category. From a tasteful mid-city icon with a voluminous wine list to a buzzing hipster hive with a menu section dedicated to boilermakers? Welcome to L.A.

Anyway, this burger has earned some pretty considerable hype. Nikhil, Bret, Shawn, and I went to give it a try.

The Order: Single Burger

The Price: $10

The Burger
Molina keeps it simple. The bun is buttered brioche. The patty is prime beef chuck overrun by decadent, soupy Tillamook that is something in between a topping and a sauce. There’s a thin film of a bright garlic aioli under the patty. It’s accompanied by a few wedges of dill pickle. All of the ingredients are expertly assembled and beautifully complementary. Operating at the curious nexus of minimalism and decadence, this burger is a surprising and satisfying offering.

The sweetness of the just-browned bun finishes with round notes of toasted butter that sidle up against the milky, sharp cheese before melting into the hardy, uncomplicated savor of the chuck. The aioli peeks out intermittently, not intrusive, but allowing it’s presence to be felt, and adding a subtle spark of creamy sharpness.

This might come as a surprise, but I won’t complain about the lack of toppings. There’s enough complexity in play here to keep your palate occupied from bite to bite. But when you offer a barebones presentation like this, it’s important not to cut corners on quality. Molina’s burger sidesteps the skimping issues that make Eggslut‘s burger a frustrating endeavor. The patty here is substantial enough to satisfy. The problem is in meat quality. For such a meat-centric offering, Molina asks a lot out of straight chuck. A more subtle – and yeah, maybe more indulgent – patty construction would have gone a long way towards making this burger something really special. You know, that or a few orders off the boilermaker menu.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 8.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.70 / 10.00
Patty: 7.80 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.30 / 10.00

Total: 88.10 / 100.00