Kogi BBQ

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It’s hard to not love Roy Choi.  Kogi BBQ, his brainchild, set the stage for chefs to gain prominence without navigating venture capital weirdness (and the attendant sacrifices in culinary integrity) to secure the immense resources needed to open a brick and mortar restaurant.  Food trucks allow chefs to serve you the food they want to serve you, rather than having to spar with the deep pockets that keep the lights on.

From the trunk of a truck plastered with more stickers than a graying hippie’s Volkswagen, Roy Choi started slinging whatever the hell he wanted.  Most loved it.  Some didn’t.  But even his detractors will admit (some more grudgingly than others) that his food is — if nothing else — interesting, honest, and original.

Some complain that food trucks are like the Internet in that they remove the talent filter that previously existed in the culinary world, which (apparently) ensured a certain level of quality.  It was bad enough that any asshole with a laptop and a hunger pang can pretend to be a food critic.  Now we have to suffer dilettante chefs too?

On balance, though, that view is as wrong with respect to food as it is as applied to information.  It’s nice that food fell from the ivory tower and landed in a strip mall.  Sure, caveat emptor is a much more current creed now that there are literally thousands of places that no reputable outlet will have written about.  You’ve got to dig through a lot of trash to find treasure.  But that’s not such a bad thing; nothing worth having ever came easily.

I’m digressing.  This isn’t a meditation on the merits vel non of food trucks.  It’s about Kogi BBQ.  Roy Choi’s relentless creativity led him to expand the menu at Kogi (the kimchi quesadilla is a revelation, but also a full-frontal gastrointestinal assault).  Eventually, the menu expanded to include a burger, and my interest was piqued.  I went on a solo venture and checked it out.

The Place
Kogi BBQ
Location varies — see website for details.

The Order: “Pacman” Burger

The Price: $8

The Burger
First things first.  Don’t call it a burger.

The Pacman Burger is named after Manny Pacquiao, and that’s fitting.  Manny Pacquiao doesn’t look like a boxer.  In fact, if I hadn’t seen him punch people in the face with such precision, skill, and dogged determination, I wouldn’t believe he was  a boxer just by looking at him (that might be racist and size-ist, but I’m a small brown man too, and nobody mistakes me for the second coming of Sugar Ray Leonard).

Similarly, the Pacman Burger isn’t really a burger at all.  It’s a self-styled “mashup,” a sandwich consisting of a gallimaufry of fiercely flavorful ingredients.  Front and center, a trio of meats: the outlet’s signature short rib, spicy pork, and spicy citrus chicken.  Rather than being alloyed and compressed into a patty, chunks of each meat sit nestled in a mélange of sauces (salsa roja, salsa verde, sesame mayo, and cilantro onion lime relish) along with cheese and chicharrones, all of this between two (sadly throwaway) sesame buns.

Each bite is a different experience.  The various components of the frenetic assortment of ingredients exist in different proportions throughout the sandwich.  Every square inch, then, features its own unique balance.  That keeps things interesting, but robs the burger of coherence.  It’s hard to come away with a strong impression about what you ate.

What’s more, these various ingredients don’t always balance one another well.  It’s like the Wild West.  The relish and the chicken duplicate the citrus, overloading the palate with acid when they are front and center.  The meats are all distinctive, but compete with one another.  The salsa roja and salsa verde are mostly redundant.  The jack and cheddar cheese mix would be a nice touch, but for the fact that any subtlety it might otherwise impart is impossible to discern in the gustatory monsoon.

Trying to isolate one of these ingredients and assess its impact on the burger is like trying to slow dance at a rave.  And maybe comparing this burger to a rave is apt: some will enjoy the frenzy and the disorientation.  Others will not be taken by the bright lights, loud noises, and disparate elements in close contact.  I wouldn’t say anything is out of place here.  It probably is closer to the mark to say that this burger lacks a sense of place altogether.

All of Choi’s passions collide in a messy, imperfect, chaotic, innovative, oppressively flavorful, challenging, and sometimes frustrating meal.  It really is a “mashup.”  It unites recognizable but arguably disparate and incompatible elements — each a technically worthy creation in its own respective right — and forces them to coexist.  It also forces us to accept that coexistence, even if it doesn’t align with our preferences.

It certainly isn’t arbitrary.  Like a mashup, there’s a harmony beneath all the noise, and it isn’t there by accident.  Even so, there are a few inconveniently inescapable facts about mashups.  First, sometimes the dissonance crowds out the harmony.  Second, sometimes the component parts get in each others’ way instead of working together to make something more.  And third, even if the synergy works, it doesn’t follow that the synthesis is better than its components were on their own.

In this case, the burger falls prey to those first two problems.  There’s just too much going on here to give the burger a consistent taste.  With so many ingredients filling the same role (three meats, four sauces, two cheese), none of them get a chance to interact meaningfully.  To paraphrase the bard, if the burger’s a stage and all the ingredients are merely players, then here, we have like more than one actor playing the same role, and everyone is screaming their lines at the same time.

That said, it isn’t surprising that Roy Choi would make a burger like this; it’s a giant middle finger in the face of convention, and it emanates from the same fundamental principles – truth, abundance, innovation, chaos – that make Kogi so successful.  Choi is, as always, selling what he wants to sell.  It’s less clear that what he’s selling is worth buying, but that’s our choice to make (I’d advise you to redirect your funds to Kogi’s other, worthier offerings), and I doubt he would have it any other way.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.10 / 10.00
Value: 8.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.50 / 10.00
Bun: 6.00 / 10.00
Patty: 5.80 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.30 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 69.40 / 100.00

Dudley Market

The Place
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Dudley Market
9 Dudley Avenue
Venice, CA 90291

Reservations: 424.744.8060
Bar: Beer and wine only

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Price: $16 (before tax)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 88.90 / 100.00