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

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