The L.A. Weekly Burger Battles

I owe Shannon for the tip on this one. She managed to reach me through the thick, noxious, mind-altering fog of bar exam preparation (which is also what I’m offering by way of an excuse for the lack of reviews lately), and apprise me of something of which I was shamefully unaware.

So apparently, LA Weekly is running a burger bracket. They’ve put sixteen burgers in Los Angeles into categories (“divisions”), and they’re putting them up in a head-to-head, winner-advances tournament. It’s not clear how they chose these sixteen burgers. There were some on the list that really didn’t belong, and others that were undoubtedly snubbed. The first round is over, and here are a few quick thoughts heading into Round Two (the “elite eight”):

  • Ledlow beating out Belcampo Meat Co. is the most ridiculous miscarriage of justice since, well, this. Or this. Or this. Or this. God, that last one really hurt.
  • Actually, the whole “Fancy” bracket kind of sucks. Not only were both matchups incorrectly decided, those burgers decidedly, well, just aren’t that fancy. Though I suppose fancy is relative.
  • It’s not clear what the “New School” Bracket actually is, considering some of those places have been around longer than, say, Ledlow, and are decidedly classic burgers (I’m thinking the Oinkster).
  • I don’t know how these sixteen burgers got their feet in the door. This is arbitrary as shit.
  • If the final is anything besides In-N-Out v. Plan Check, this bracket is a crime on par with…well, this. Which isn’t to say that Plan Check should even be in the final, because…ugh, where do I even start?

Now, your humble correspondent was snubbed for an invitation to judge the competition. I’m as perplexed as you are. However, I’ve decided to do the next best thing and offer you my suggested votes for the next round. Do with this information what you will.

Fancy Division: Pick Petit Trois (because you can’t pick Belcampo (because Gillian Ferguson’s tastebuds apparently are less functional than the cuff buttons on an rented tuxedo)).

New School Division: Go with Plan Check. Neither of these places really represent the best of what I think of as “New School” burgers in Los Angeles, but it’s the better of the two.

L.A. Originals Division: Close, but it’s got to be Father’s Office. But the even closer call would be “Which of these places offers a more unpleasant dining experience?” That’s a genuine toss-up.

Fast Food Division: If you have to ask, we’re obviously not in one another’s lives. It’s In-N-Out. By a marathon of country miles, it’s In-N-Out.

This is one to watch closely. In the meantime, you definitely should go do your civic duty.

The Oinkster

IMG_3201This one will be near and dear to some of you. The Oinkster has a special place in the hearts of many here in the City of Angels. But that has almost nothing to do with the burger they serve. Most people love the Eagle Rock powerhouse for its house-cured pastrami (which, I admit, drool), or its unbelievably slowly slow roasted pulled pork, or its singular milkshakes (I’m still unsure what ube is*, but it’s weirdly compelling) which feature local favorite Fosselman’s ice cream – by the way, if you haven’t had Fosselman’s ice cream and you live in Los Angeles, you’re nothing short of a monster…a silly, silly monster.

For still others, the love is more undifferentiated; they just kind of vibe with Andre Guerrero’s “slow fast food” gestalt. They like that he’s a legit culinary force who knows how to slum it with style. And who can blame them? The Michelin-recognized mind behind Max and Señor Fred is famously restless, but has the versatility to carry it off. His every swing of the bat, it seems, is a home run.

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to love about the Oinkster. So much so, that the burger kind of gets lost in the shuffle. And so, in spite of supposedly having one of the best burgers in the city, relatively few people have actually had it. It’s like, the best burger no one has ever had. Kind of poetic. But anyway. I was at a loose end this weekend, so I made the drive to Eagle Rock and got the burger. After all, if the venerable LAist says it’s one of L.A.’s best, you can consider me on notice.

*I know. Ube is purple yam. I have Wikipedia too. God, it’s called dramatic license, guys.

The Place
The Oinkster
2005 Colorado Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90041

The Order: Classic 1/3-pound burger (with Gruyere cheese), Belgian fries, Coke.

The Price: $6.50 (burger); $3.25 (fries); $2.00 (Coke) – pre-tax.

The Burger
Let’s start with basic anatomy. The burger comes on an idiosyncratically flimsy white bread bun (which proves problematic – stay tuned). The patty is stellar: six ounces of fresh-ground, tightly packed Nebraska Angus beef, and it’s topped with house-made Thousand Island, pickles, raw white onions, lettuce, and two hefty slices of tomato. The cheese options are American or Cheddar (for an additional $0.75) or Gruyere (for an extra $1.50).

The patty is a juicy, beautiful medium rare. As juicy and flavorful as it is though, it holds together impressively. This probably is due to the fact that a) it’s really well-pressed, and b) it’s really well-grilled. The outside is a crispy, just-charred-enough umami crust that contains the pink, gently cooked beef on the inside. Leaving some pink in the patty allows the flavor of the beef to really shine through. It’s six ounces of really strong stuff, and is a worthy focal point of this – or any – burger. The earthy, nutty Gruyere complemented the beef beautifully. It was $1.50 well spent.

The Thousand Island is another high point. It’s a tangy little number, clearly made with In-N-Out’s famous and enigmatic spread in mind. To be sure, many have tried to reverse engineer that spread (myself included), and precious few have succeeded (myself decidedly not included). Oinkster’s attempt is as admirable as any I’ve yet had. Having said that, it’s thinner and runnier than In-N-Out’s spread. This makes the burger quite a bit messier; by the time I got halfway through, the sauce had completely soaked through the bun.

From there, things deteriorated (literally and figuratively). The toppings were good, if not great. They weren’t some sad, undifferentiated, flavorless mass, but they also didn’t stand boldly on their own. The whole was more than the sum of its parts – except I mean that pejoratively. The garnishes were awkwardly codependent; the sharpness of the onions yielded timidly to the sourness of the pickles, which itself leaned, exhausted, on the watery crunch of the lettuce. So while all the toppings were all present enough to get noticed, none was particularly flavorful in its own right. They gave little flashes of flavor that faded out faster than Gotye did from mainstream recognition (which was real sad by the way; he’s a talented cat).

The even bigger problem here was that the burger wasn’t very well built. By the time I had  run out of patty, the tomatoes were herniating out of the back of the bun like a couple of slipped discs. The pickles had long since gone to plate. The lettuce and onions were hanging on for dear life. The bottom bun had been completely corroded away by an acid wash of Thousand Island. The burger wasn’t just messy, it was structurally unsound. Near the end, if I had put a brown robe on the burger, it would have looked like when Obi-Wan Kenobi…well, you know.

This burger tasted good. The beef was delicious. The sauce was good but inconvenient. But it was a colossal pain in the ass to eat. The toppings were not so great. As a result, the burger itself was imbalanced. I don’t know. It was kind of like watching Scent of a Woman: unbelievably good leading man, but with just a weak sauce supporting cast (Chris O’Donnell, if you’re reading this, the answer is yes…I did just compare you to flaccid lettuce…sorry). It was – in more ways than one – sloppy. While certainly nothing to scoff at, when I go back to the Oinkster, it’ll be for the pastrami.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.60 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.20 / 10.00
Bun: 4.00 / 10.00
Patty: 9.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.90 / 10.00
Balance: 8.30 / 10.00

Total: 76.20 / 100.00