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

The Escondite

The Dr. Joyce Brothers
The Dr. Joyce Brothers
The Fat Albert
The Fat Albert

If you’re willing to take a spin to the kinda sketchy border of Little Tokyo and Skid Row, you’ll discover a few things: first, the dark side of gentrification; second, ample free street parking (the meters die at 6 pm!); and third, one of the weirdest dives I’ve yet been to in this town: The Escondite (which, aptly, is Spanish for “hideout”).

The first thing you notice when you walk into The Escondite is that it’s an eclectic spot. Deer antler chandeliers (fully outfitted with cheesy, fake-flickering, bright-orange electric candles) hang over the length of the bar. The back wall is wood-paneled and lined with vintage western posters, kind of evoking Bigfoot West in West L.A. Just near the entrance is a cramped stage tailor-made for a (probably pretty shitty) 80s cover band.

The next thing you’ll notice is that it’s decidedly a Chicago bar. The city flag hangs over the far end of the bar, and there are more Blackhawks banners and commemorations than you can shake a stick at (which – at least for someone with a distaste for the most boring iteration of evil – were pretty difficult to stomach). One almost expects to see a Rahm Emanuel staffer drafting menacing text messages, or a couple fat dudes getting drunk and loudly promising everyone that this year would be the Bears’ year, or a couple of hopelessly unwashed bros trying to hit on the bartender by yelling “GO CUBS” and offering limp-wristed high fives. Okay, so I actually saw all but one of those things.

But I digress.

I met up with Sergio to try a couple of their many (deeply insane) burgers. I walked in around 5:30. The place was still glowing from the Blackhawks tragic victory this Monday last. I muttered a few words that I won’t republish here (this is a family blog, after all), I slid into a booth, and I put my back to the wall. Facing the bar, staring ahead, I saw not one, but two Blackhawks banners hanging behind the row of taps. I muttered a tasteful variation of the same epithet I mentioned above. All I could think about was how Duncan Keith couldn’t seriously have won the Conn Smythe Trophy. All that team spirit…for such a horrible, soulless team? And this affront in the shadow of Staples Center? It was almost enough to make me lose my appetite. Almost.

But, I reminded myself, I wasn’t there to get sad about the fearsome, seemingly unstoppable expansion of hockey’s evil empire (help me, Tanner Pearson…you’re my only hope). I was there to eat a burger. So I put those deflating thoughts out of my head. Sergio and I each ordered one, and split them right down the middle.

The Place
The Escondite
410 Boyd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: One Dr. Joyce Brothers, one Fat Albert, Coke (for me), Diet Coke (for Sergio). Note: The Escondite does not allow substitutions.

The Price: $32.16, all told.

The Burger(s!)
Part One: The Dr. Joyce Brothers
The first burger was our server’s favorite. She self-identified as being into the “plainest stuff in the world.” The Dr. Joyce Brothers, she assured us, is the most accessible burger on the menu. A six-ounce patty with melted provolone cheese was rounded out with a lone (but substantial) tomato disc, a thicket of sprouts, wide slices of avocado, red onion, romaine lettuce, and a drizzle of Italian dressing on a buttery brioche bun.

To be fair, this one was as advertised: It was essentially the plainest thing ever. From beef to bun, nothing really stood out and took charge of the flavor profile. There were a variety of textures in play: crisp romaine, rich avocado, the wild tangle of the sprouts. This textural diversity was the only thing I could really grab onto with this burger. None of the toppings imparted any flavor. At all. For all its heft, the burger didn’t really pack a punch. The only thing that had much flavor at all was the Italian dressing, which was comprehensively lost beneath the din of bland, wiry sprouts and blunted by the avocado.

Speaking of which, I never thought there was any such thing as “too much” avocado. But this burger might just have had too much avocado. And that’s not necessarily because of the avocado itself (far be it from me to blame avocado for anything – I’m not a heretic). It’s just that avocado is not much of a flavor centerpiece. It’s the perfect – perfect – complement. It adds a neutral textural matrix in which other flavors interact beautifully (think guacamole). It neutralizes harsh flavors well, allowing for more daring contrasts (like, say, my renowned grapefruit-habañero guacamole). Here though, it was left to pull all the weight, flavor-wise, and that’s just not what avocado is meant to do.

Our server recommended that we have the patty cooked medium. This was a true medium – very little pink, and you could really taste the grill. Sadly, it wasn’t much of a patty. It was six ounces of what tasted like regular old chuck – it was too insipid to be Angus, too dry to be brisket, not tender enough to be sirloin. While six ounces may not seem like much, it’s pretty noticeable when it’s not providing much in the way of flavor.

Oddly, the bun was the most interesting part of the burger. A complex brioche-esque thing, it had a sweet, front end that gave way nicely into a buttery finish. Light but not absorbent, it was pretty delicious. But otherwise, this burger was as bland and soulless as the 2015 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks: good on paper, but they ain’t got no heart. Suck it, Jonathan Toews.

Part Two: Fat Albert
This is where the action was. When I first had the idea for the burger project, it was stuff like this that I was excited to eat. Burgers that were devilishly weird, adventurous, brash, that had personality. The Escondite, then, is noteworthy for having delivered the first burger that really, honestly threw me for a loop.

Cards on the table: The Fat Albert is completely gross. Just unbelievably disgusting. Cool? Cool.

It features the same (vaguely depressing, very middling) provolone-coated six-ounce patty found on the Dr. Joyce Brothers. But this time, the patty has ample backup in the flavor department. Two strips of applewood smoked bacon are splayed out parallel atop the cheese. The cheese and bacon are the only toppings. Then the fun starts: the Fat Albert offers a liberal swirl of maple syrup. This mounting arterial nightmare is served on a glazed doughnut.

If the patty was problematic on the Dr. Joyce Brothers, it was because there was nothing to compensate for its lack of flavor. Here, that wasn’t as much of a problem. The bacon was smoky, salty, and crisp, fried to a crackling brick red. At the risk of sounding like a greedy piece of shit, two strips wasn’t really enough; about halfway into the burger, I realized I wasn’t going to get bacon in every bite, and let me tell you: that was a sad moment for me.

The savory and salty patty-bacon combo played nice with the mild, sweet provolone. But that was about the only subtlety here. The maple syrup and the glazed doughnut offered a fearlessly aggressive sweetness that went to war with the savory stuff in every bite. The opaque, sugary glaze from the doughnut melted from the heat of the meat and oozed onto the patty, settling in the space between strips of still-sizzling bacon.

This burger was weird. It was counterintuitive. It was astonishingly unhealthy. And it was hard to put down. To be clear, it is not something I could eat every day (assuming arguendo that my heart could sustain that kind of rampant abuse, which – obviously – it could not). But I’m glad I ate it today.

It kind of felt like a Chicagoan’s idea of what the typical Los Angeles native is like: adventurous, loud, and extroverted, with an exterior that’s just sweet enough to compensate for the fact that it’s a little boring on the inside. There isn’t much (besides the sultry provolone lurking coyly between bacon and beef) to talk about beyond the stark and obvious contrast between sweet (doughnut/syrup) and savory (beef/bacon/cheese). There are precious few intricacies lurking behind the big, showy (and, sure, delicious) contradiction that comes at you right up front.

And you know what? That’s actually okay. This burger isn’t meant to be complex. It’s a culinary fart joke: crude, juvenile, and obvious to the point of unsophistication. But you can’t help but love it a little bit.

The Ratings
Dr. Joyce Brothers
Flavor: 4.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 6.00 / 10.00
Value: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 4.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.50 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 5.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.10 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 61.10 / 100.00

Fat Albert
Flavor: 8.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 6.20 / 10.00
Value: 8.20 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.80 / 10.00
Bun: 9.10 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 8.80 / 10.00

Total: 83.40 / 100.00