Haché

The Place
Haché (pronounced ah-shay)
3319 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
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Depending on your affinity for the classics, you may have heard about Desert Trip, a music festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio (home also to the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival).  Unlike conventional festivals, Desert Trip offered a lean lineup of classic rock luminaries: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Roger Waters, and The Who.  No industry neophytes here to soundtrack day-drinking; this was a headliners-only affair.

Almost immediately, this festival drew the derision of sneering millennials, likely still coming down from a tour in the Sahara Tent at Coachella (you know, artistically discerning social critics like these).  They called Desert Trip “Oldchella,” an incisive, hyper-literate critique of the low-energy sort who enjoys music festivals that feature musical instruments instead of computers vomiting out spleen-rupturing bass.

It’s tempting to conclude that there is a youthful condescension among our generation toward anything we regard as a relic of the past, a sort of reflexive regard for modernity, a respect based on nothing but the fact that a thing emerged from the sea of narcissistic home recorders and YouTube amateurs to seize some measure of notoriety.  That view maximizes convenience, but we often fail to see its fundamental flaws, fail to recognize that not all good things go viral, and not all things that go viral are good.

I have neither the time nor mind to attempt to unpack what animates this elevation of new over old, but I’m no less convinced that it exists.  I also wonder if that’s the reason people feel the need to present Haché as something that it isn’t.  See, if you are inclined to poke around Google prior to going to Haché, you might be misled.  Internet commentators have woven a web of half-truths about this place, for whatever reason. It’s not a dive; it’s rustic, they say.  It’s a French-inspired and bistroesque, they say.  They serve steak sandwiches, they say.  Don’t call them burgers, they say.

You’ll note, once you arrive and have ordered, that the above statements range from “pretty” to “categorically” wrong.  It is a dive.  There is nearly nothing in the cramped patio and sticky high-tops that is redolent of the breezy bistro you might have imagined.  The mesh window at which you order,and the t-shirt clad hipster that brings you your burger don’t evoke a Parisian bistro where sighing poets scribble elegies as much as a Bostonian Irish pub where townies punch out graduate students.

By the looks of it, this is a place you’ve been a hundred times before.  This is your dad’s dive bar.  There is no real attempt at novelty here.  This is Desert Trip, not the Sahara Tent.  It is more Steve Miller than Steve Aoki.  You get the point.  Regardless, Haché has been on my radar for a while.  Finally after much cajoling – guilting? – from my dear friend Greg, I met him, Bret and Alex there to try a burger.  Or a haché.  Or a steak sandwich.  Or whatever you might want to call it.

 

 

The Order: Karma Burger

The Price: $5.95

The Burger
Whatever Haché isn’t, it is, in many ways, essentially Silver Lake.  There is a winsome haggardness to the place.  You walk in feeling as though you have stumbled into the middle of a carefully structured, meticulously curated collapse.  A middle-aged man in a quarter-zip fleece sits near the corner, his beer barely dented, half-heartedly watching the Seahawks lose.  A young man with an undercut checks his phone compulsively, casting the occasional furtive glance doorward to see if whoever is meeting him has arrived yet.

The thought might occur to you that this is the least affected crowd that has ever gathered on Sunset Boulevard.  And sure, that may have something to do with the fact that it’s a rainy Sunday in Los Angeles, but it felt appropriate for this place.  There’s an agelessly genuine quality to Haché.  It’s not a place out of time, it’s a place without a time.  That may not make sense, but it’s as clearly as I can state it.

Of course, you don’t come to Haché for the atmosphere (at least, I don’t know why you would, with both Café Stella and Winsome a stone’s throw away).  You come for the hachés.  They are billed as French-style steak sandwiches.  Haché, of course, doesn’t call them steak sandwiches.  Depending on what part of the menu your eye darts to first, you’ll see them called hachés or burgers.  In point of fact, they’re burgers with patties made of ground sirloin steak.

That ground Angus sirloin patty is swathed in a weblike loose-weave blanket of American cheese and topped a leaf or two of bracing lettuce, a couple discs of vermillion tomato, translucent halos of red onion, and a thin glaze of Karma sauce, which tastes like a mashup of Thousand Islands and harissa-spiked mayonnaise on a hearty, earthy cracked wheat bun.

While the sirloin patty is often framed as something new and different, it really is more an attempt to elevate a classical form.  It renders the patty less greasy, more inherently flavorful, cleaner than its brisket or chuck cousins.  It is noticeably fresh, albeit a shade overcooked.  The seasoning – on the outside of the patty only – cannot fully compensate for the fact that the patty is too well-done.  Since the meat on the inside of the patty remains unseasoned, once you’ve broken through the outer crust, there isn’t much beneath it in the way of flavor.

The other garnishes are fresh, well-proportioned, subtle.  The onions, though raw, are not too sharp, offering a gentle pinpricking sting.  The lettuce is parchment-delicate, not crisp, not wilted and chewy.  The tomato is bright and succulent, a burst of freshness to wash over the finish of each bite.  And the sauce has a whisper of heat amid the creamy cool of the stuff, leaving a lingering suggestion of slow spice.

This burger is a nod to the classics.  It is different, but it’s not revolutionary.  Not forced.  It’s organic, tried and true.  Some might think that is something for which to apologize.  They might try and frame this to highlight some gimmick that might capture your attention.  They might try and make this sound like something it’s not just to make it sound fresh.  They might be tempted to swap out the resplendent Telecaster for a Korg.  They should resist that temptation.  Drum machines have no soul.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.70 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 9.20 / 10.00
Value: 10.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.10 / 10.00
Patty: 8.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.20 / 10.00
Balance: 8.60 / 10.00

Total: 85.30 / 100.00

Shake Shack

The Place
Shake Shack
8520 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

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If you never caught the new (like, that new new) Star Wars movie, then you missed out on Kylo Ren, the most angst-addled villain to grace the silver screen in quite some time (you may know him better as the darkest-skinned – but still white, of course – person on Girls).  See, Kylo Ren is angsty because he wants very badly to be compared favorably to Darth Vader.  He wants to be the next Darth Vader.  So he acts and talks the part.  He commands with unforgiving brutality.  He wears the mask that changes his voice, even though he doesn’t need it.  Think of his relationship with Darth Vader as being kind of like Rivers Cuomo’s relationship with Buddy Holly.

And much like Cuomo, he just isn’t quite as special as his idol.  Deep, withering suspicions – that he’s ultimately just a pale imitation of the thing he strives to be – roil in him.  They consume him.  And most of all, they make him hate the character in the film who he recognizes as truly special, truly significant.  She achieves everything he’s worked so hard for, and she doesn’t even have to try.

It’s a common trope in our world and our folklore: the figure who longs to be a feature of history, but really is just a footnote.  These are people with lofty aspirations to emulate and evoke truly monumental figures, but ultimately, they are undone by their inability to recognize that the mere imitation of an act or a sound may not – and probably will not – capture the subtleties and complexities that exist beneath it.  What I mean is, Kylo Ren choking a person out as part of his WWDVD? mentality is quite different from what animated Darth Vader – namely, living at the nexus between guilt and doubt and rage.

Similarly, putting together a burger that features some of the same ingredients as those featured on the best chain burger money can buy doesn’t guarantee that you’ll best In-N-Out.  And so, in a swaggering and expansive outpost on Santa Monica Boulevard, Shake Shack joins the ranks of these reductive imitators, clamoring for attention and plaudits, begging for favorable comparisons to a great institution.

Shake Shack is the latest in a long line of burger chains that demand to be compared to In-N-Out.  It is a chain that builds buzz via sophomoric articles like this.  Never mind that the two are in no way comparable.  The one is an international chain with an expansive menu (including three different burgers, seasonal/weekly/monthly/whateverly flavors of ice cream, bespoke craft beer, Abita root beer on tap, Cold Stone Creamery style concretes), the other is willfully limited.  The one is surprisingly expensive, the other almost guilt-inducingly cheap.

But the comparison is being made.  So if you drive by Shake Shack, you will see crowds of impossibly cool West Hollywood types: New York imports with trendy haircuts; t-shirts featuring a sneering slogan or maybe a reference they only almost understand; shadowed and lined eyes drooping under the weight of their contempt for the world, smiling with half their face as they post a link from a blog about an article they haven’t read about a study they haven’t read but which reinforces the fact that everyone who disagrees with their particular opinion on their particular cause celebre du jour (based on exhaustive review of numerous blog posts like this) is ill-informed and probably malicious.

These are people bound together by fibrous, almost extant strands of supercilious energy, people who are fueled not by the Krebs cycle like the rest of us, but by the knowledge of their superiority.  And even for these walking superlatives, the need to know if Shake Shack really is better than In-N-Out is so pressing, so dire, that it can wrest them from the urgent business of being better than you.

I went with my parents and Kelsey.  Because while I may not be cool, I am the purveyor of a publication about burgers in Los Angeles, so I’m drawn to trendy burger spots like a fly to a turd.

The Order: Shack Burger

The Price: $5.29 (not including fries or drink)

The Burger
Roughly speaking, I think there are two types of people who might argue that Shake Shack is better than In-N-Out: the first are the reflexively contrarian naysayers.  These are people who don’t have particularly strong or well-developed feelings about In-N-Out (or any alternative), but dislike its ubiquitous appeal and enjoy the idea that their opinion is challenging and controversial.  Then there are people who need New York to be better at everything (rather than just better at being bigger and smellier).  I’ve talked about this phenomenon at some length before.

The goal of this piece, though, is not to take up the issue with either group.  In point of fact, I prefer not to entertain the comparison at all.  As I mentioned before, these restaurants are different enough that the comparison itself is more than a little spurious.  Shake Shack is a peri-industrial hipster chic millennial iteration of a soda fountain, whereas In-N-Out begins and ends as a burger stand out of time, a relic of its founding age.  Another reason behind my rejection of a comparative discussion – and I smirk as I type this – is that these two products are not in the same league.

Shake Shack’s offering features an oversalted, overcooked patty, watery tomato, heat-wilted lettuce, and insipid Thousand Island (Shack sauce) between two feeble, infirm, too-doughy potato buns (this actually surprised me, because I remembered the buns being much better when I first tried Shake Shack in Washington, D.C.).  The entire presentation is a pittance, a burger so small it barely qualifies as a burger.  You will not savor every bite, and after you finish, you will wonder why you waited in line for so long with all those impossibly self-obsessed trendchasers and paid more than double the cost of a Double-Double for it.

If in Shake Shack you were hoping to find The Chirping Crickets, you’ll have to settle for Raditude.  If you were hoping for Luke’s father, you’ll have to settle for Leia’s emo brat.  Shake Shack talks the talk.  It’s high on swagger and hype, but it’s little more than a well-appointed disappointment.  This restaurant doesn’t deliver a product worth mentioning in the same sentence as In-N-Out, let alone comparing to it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 7.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.90 / 10.o0
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.40 / 100.00

Fritzi

The Place
Fritzi
814 Traction Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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I remember when Give Up by the Postal Service came out.  I was a sophomore in high school.  It was before winter formal.  That particular winter formal was to be a rare triumph for me in the romance department.  I took one of the prettiest and most popular girls in the freshman class.  Unfortunately, as it turned out 1) I wasn’t very attractive (please indulge my optimistic use of the past tense), 2) she was out of my league, 3) I’m inveterately and painfully awkward, and 4) teenagers are a heartless sort.

The result: she bolted as soon as we arrived, and spent the entire evening with confident, attractive junior alpha males who played sports and got bad grades.  Meanwhile, I, the archetypal beta male, sat on a bench staring into a swimming pool, waiting for high school to end, and playing various tracks from Give Up in my head to pass the time. This admittedly depressing scene was interrupted when I was rescued by my friend David and his date Sara (incidentally, about halfway through “Clark Gable”).

I still wonder why that album came into my head, especially considering my tortured relationship with it.  I hated to like Give Up.  See, some Death Cab for Cutie fans were nervous when Give Up dropped (these were the Sub Pop days, when Death Cab fans were less numerous and more proprietary than today’s breed).  Publicly, we worried side projects portend artistic restlessness, or worse, stagnation, that they threaten to reveal a beloved artist reduced to repackaging old ideas instead of presenting new ones.

Privately though, we’d admit that our real issue wasn’t artistic; it was that side projects have the whiff of infidelity.  Death Cab fans liked to envision Ben Gibbard poring over ragged spiral notebooks scribbling the lyrics to the next “A Lack Of Color,” not seeking new modes of expression.  Him having another band felt like a betrayal.

What an odd feeling. It’s not as if I didn’t love Ben Gibbard just because Give Up came out.  It’s just that the release of Give Up made me face all facets of that love, even the ugly ones: affection, loyalty, fear (of change and of loss), comfort, complacency, possessiveness, jealousy.  The only thing more frightening than watching someone you love change is the prospect of getting left behind somewhere along the way.  So I listened, with layered trepidation.

I find these feelings have survived in me, and they resurfaced again recently when Neal Fraser diverted his attention from Redbird to give Fritzi the full sit-down restaurant treatment.  When Fritzi became something more than a whimsical pop-up or a window at Arts District Brewing, that familiar proprietary jealousy, that envious dogma of mine, was impossible to escape, even though culinary side projects often work out just fine.

The Order: Fritzi Burger

The Price: $11.50

The Burger
Maybe you’ve never heard of Fritzi.  It would be hard to fault you, actually.  It first surfaced as a pop-up, then soft-opened as a practically nameless take-out window nestled in a corner of Arts District Brewing, where everyone from the merely buzzed to the blacked out could partake in some high-class, high-carb hangover prophylaxis.  The only signage to speak of was a large marquee above the window that glowingly admonished all passers-by: “DON’T FORGET TO EAT.”

By the time Fritzi actually opened a dining room directly next door to Arts District Brewing (serviced by the same kitchen as the take-out window; the two spaces are less adjacent than they are interlocked), it would have been easy to not notice.  There was almost no fanfare; besides, we’d been eating off that menu for months.

But Fritzi commands attention.  It is the brainchild of Neal Fraser, who ranks among the most deadly serious chefs in the city.  The fare is fast-food inspired and fundamentally uncomplicated.With quintessentially Arts District pretentiousness (i.e., trying far too hard to project a laid-back, industrial Bohemian charm), Fritzi will tell you they serve “artisanal nosh.”  That means no of-the-moment crudo, no robust and hearty braised goat gemelli, and – sadly – no peri-eponymous (I can’t resist making the epunymous joke) tray of veal.

Nothing here is a signature dish.  This is an off-duty project, a glimpse at what Neal Fraser might make at a cookout – nothing too high-minded…but, well, he’s still Neal Fraser.  As such, expect sophisticated, subtly reimagined classics.

The Fritzi Burger is, for lack of a better term, so Fraser.  Each component of the conventional burger is rethought, elevated.  This burger offers a hybrid patty (Nueske bacon and beef) that is given ample (viz., nine hours) sous vide time; a generous smear of Fontina fondue which offers a gooey, honeyed nuttiness; a sweet Calabrese relish with a whisperingly slow-hot finish; a fresh salve of mild thousand island; and iceberg lettuce to add cooling textural contrast.

The patty is a masterstroke, a subtle, intensely flavorful execution of an idea that sounds excellent in theory but often is butchered grotesquely in practice.  The Nueske bacon imparts a smoky, marbled dimension to the beef, evoking the faintest thoughts of a Texan barbecue pit.  The fondue creates a sumptuous, almost silken coating around the patty, mild and comforting.  Both sauces are excellent, and work well enough in concert with one another.  They offer a few redundant notes, but ultimately elevate the entire experience.  I was glad for the lettuce, if only because it offered a bit of complexity in a burger that otherwise verges on textural monotony.

While Fraser excels in reimagining individual ingredients, he sometimes almost loses sight of the forest for the trees.  It’s fine to reshape each piece of a puzzle, especially if you improve each one; but change them enough, and they won’t fit together.

In the case of the Fritzi Burger, that’s just a distant threat – this burger hangs together well, never veering into incoherence.  But it also is a mildly unsettling dish, because – as a whole – it doesn’t always feel completely intentional.  But existential niggling aside, this burger is stellar, not to be missed, and yet another shining example in a litany of Neal Fraser’s innovative genius.

Ultimately, no matter how rabid a Death Cab fan I was, I listened to Give Up.  I couldn’t help myself.  In my more honest moments, I recognize it as a superior product to solidly (maybe conservatively) 85% of Death Cab for Cutie’s oeuvre.  But even short of that admission, I know I put aside my feelings of betrayal on behalf of Gibbard’s bandmates because I wanted to understand what was compelling enough to divert his creative focus.  I didn’t really listen because I wanted to.  I listened because I had to.

So if you felt similar vicarious betrayal when Chef Fraser took time away from Redbird to launch Fritzi, you probably also feel a similar morbid curiosity regarding what Fritzi is all about.  Succumb to it.  This burger may not be better than 85% of the menu at Redbird, but it is too good to be missed owing to proprietary hipster envy.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.40 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 8.90 / 10.00

Total: 91.10 / 100.00

République

The Place
624 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
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It’s hard to find two places more serious about brunch than New York and Los Angeles. Without getting tangled in the weeds about who does brunch “better” – God help us all if we go a-tumbling down that rabbit hole – République on La Brea will give you a pretty good window into how Los Angeles does brunch. Oddly enough, the mid-city/Miracle Mile area is kind of a perfect cross-section of the city. It’s the rare part of town that is just far enough west that the most intrepid west-LA types will venture over if the brunch is sufficiently alluring. And it’s just far enough east that Silver Lake hipsters will muster up a couple shits to give, throw on their circular-framed sunglasses and/or wide-brim hats and get out.

To the extent that you don’t see how mid-city itself can be that alluring, by now it should be pretty clear that République has established itself as being worth a trip from just about anywhere. An expansive space with a skylight ceiling, Walter Mantzke’s spot doesn’t look like much from the outside. The restaurant’s austere logo is painted onto the concrete in black and white. The only reason this place might catch your eye is that – especially on Sundays – there’s a hell of a line outside.

It’s also been held that République whips up a burger that is “criminally underrated.” Consider my interest piqued. McKenna and I went to check it out. Undeterred by her last encounter with eggs, she ordered a croque madame. Because I’m a colossal francophobe, I judged her aggressively and ordered a burger. We (okay, mainly I) aggressively judged people like this. Proper usage of the words “who” and “whom” was discussed – and when I say “discussed,” of course, I mean explained. By me. And this.

The Order: Dry-Aged Beef Burger, medium rare

The Price: $15

The Burger
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As I ate this burger, a couple things dawned on me. First, messy things are made more satisfying to eat by the very fact of their messiness. Now I see what those Carl’s Jr. ads are getting at (still no official word on why they exclusively feature sexually attractive, scantily clad women). Second – and more directly relevant here – I’m a real sucker for the classics.

Admittedly, a night watching YouTube videos with my friend Andy will reveal this penchant pretty decisively. I mean, in the past couple of weeks, I have sat in silent reverence and watched the music video to “Free Fallin'”. In its entirety. Without a scintilla of irony. Brief sidenote: if you understand why that’s funny, you’re almost undoubtedly more of an insufferable piece of shit than you realize.

I suppose that’s really neither here nor there. République is a “fancy” restaurant. Most “fancy” restaurants fall into the trap of unnecessarily embellishing their burgers in a “fancy” way. Oh, what? Yeah, no, that isn’t white cheddar. In the first place, it’s way too crumbly to be white cheddar, but it’s actually pule. Pule? You haven’t heard of it? Yeah, no, most people haven’t. It’s actually a Serbian cheese made from donkey milk. Yeah, it costs almost $2000 per pound. I know, that’s why we charge $57 for this burger. You’ll really like it. You know, if you can like, you know, appreciate it.

République sidesteps that problem pretty effectively by adopting a tried and true formula and not changing it. At all. In any regard. The focus is not on reinvention of the wheel for its own sake. Rather, Mantzke et al. emphasize execution. They want this burger to evoke memories of backyard barbecues, with bright sun, casually charred burgers, impossibly fresh garnishes, and an absence of pretension that emanates not from laziness, but from a joyful reverence for the classic formulation of the dish.

And that brings me back to the classics. See, kids? That’s called closing the loop.

What I really appreciate about this burger is that there is so little to tell. The beef is dry-aged and utterly astonishing (they recommend it medium rare – you should listen). The garnishes are of the highest quality and freshness, especially the indulgent, meaty discs of tomato. The bun is a sunny brioche peppered with poppy seeds – delicious, but it did not take very long for it to soak through and start disintegrating. The grilled onions add a creeping, silvery sweetness without dominating the flavor profile of the burger. The Thousand Island imparts a gentle, foundational buzz of tangy flavor to each bite.

The inspiration for this burger, pretty plainly, is In-N-Out Burger. And while it certainly goes blow-for-blow as far as freshness and ingredient quality is concerned, the patty is more massive and central. It’s got more thickness and heft than a Double Double, which means, the flavor of the meat overwhelms any pretreatment of the patty (whereas, at In-N-Out, the charred sweetness of the beef is complemented beautifully by the pre-grill seasoning).

It’s not entirely fair to compare République to In-N-Out in the way you might be tempted to do so. The different approach to patty structure alone makes the comparison a pretty fraught one. But the commitment to freshness, execution, consistency, and – above all – simplicity is the same. And its high praise to tell you that this burger, in those ways, evoked the Californian burger titan. But, I’ll be damned if it didn’t.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.70 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.70 / 10.00
Value: 8.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.00 / 10.00

Total: 88.20 / 100.00

LABP x PHL: Village Whiskey

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It is conceivable that, if there is a heaven, it resembles Village Whiskey.

I’m hesitant to wax theological here; that’s a horrendously fraught enterprise, and I doubt many of you would like what I had to say. To be clear, though, I’m not saying Village Whiskey is necessarily a perfect place. But it does have a lot of the trappings of a perfect place: a robust, whiskey-focused drink selection; a menu composed by a talented chef, José Garces (the centerpiece of which is a burger); and a vibrant, friendly atmosphere that is the perfect complement to good company. And milkshakes. It’s hard to imagine heaven without milkshakes.

This is a restaurant that is proud of its burger. I went with Kevin, Rumi, and Alexis to see if that pride is misplaced. It was a busy evening: I took selfies with two random girls for them to send to their friends on Snapchat. Alexis broke a glass in rage because she drinks slowly. And between the two of them, Kevin and Rumi can’t match my check-paying skills and sneakiness. And we ate.

The Place
Village Whiskey
118 South 20th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

The Order: Village Burger, medium rare, with cheddar, bacon, avocado, and caramelized onions

The Price: $22.50 ($13 base; $2.50 for cheddar, $3.00 for bacon, $2.50 for avocado, $1.50 for caramelized onions)

The Burger
The patty is eight ounces of farm-raised Maine Angus beef, impressively juicy and roughly packed into a small puck. It’s got the hallmark structural imperfection and asymmetry of a patty that was assembled by hand. The cheddar forms a nutty glaze over the top of the beef, bleeding over the sides and into the natural crannies in the patty. The patty is balanced atop thin blades of avocado. Beams of bacon shoot out the sides of the burger like exposed girders. Anchoring it all is a slice of tomato and a couple leaves of Bibb lettuce and a thin drizzle of Thousand Island.

The customizable burger is a tricky endeavor, and it’s hard to know how to evaluate it. After all, it leaves a lot in the hands of the consumer (and therefore, out of the hands of the chef). On the other hand, it places the onus on the restaurant to provide a burger of consistent quality no matter what ingredients they’re given. Oftentimes, diners don’t know how to thoughtfully assemble ingredients and instead opt to just choose a bunch of stuff they like. By offering a relatively diverse and challenging selection of additions, Village Whiskey places a lot of trust in their customers and their kitchen staff to make everything work.

It’s nice that as a fallback, the default garnishes are limited and fresh, the Thousand Island is unobtrusive and a mostly textural element, and the beef is very precisely cooked. This sets up a strong foundation upon which the other ingredients can interact more comfortably. My selection was relatively uncomplicated, with the bacon-avocado combination doing the heavy lifting. The smokiness of the bacon was mellowed nicely by the creamy avocado. Lurking under it all, the caramelized onions were sweet and tangy, harmonizing nicely with the Thousand Island.

So yes, this is a well-balanced burger, and it’s also pretty big — but you pay for it. At $22.50, it’s one of the most expensive burgers I’ve yet eaten. Candidly, it doesn’t completely live up to its price tag, but it’s still pretty good and really satisfying (I came medium hungry and didn’t even come close to finishing this monster). And as expensive as it is, I’d recommend it. My advice: round out the experience with some duck fat fries and a whiskey cocktail (or two), then finish with a vanilla bourbon milkshake. It’ll run you quite a few bucks, but you’ll leave full, happy, and maybe even a little buzzed.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.80 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90  /10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.20 / 10.00
Balance: 9.20 / 10.00

Total: 86.90 / 100.00

Pharo’s Burgers

I was going to have a snappy photo of the bacon cheeseburger from Pharo’s Burgers. Then some dudes threw me into a pool, and my phone’s soul exploded. As a result, no picture, just a link to some other dude’s picture, which I can assure you is a faithful rendering.

There are some places you just don’t really ever check out, and don’t really hear much about either. That cool movie theatre that only plays old movies in the town where you went to college. The hike in Malibu with all those amazing views. That one coffee shop that serves coffee drinks in mason jars and makes that delicious sandwich with the prosciutto. The Warhol exhibit at that museum on the other side of town. The BodyWorks exhibit at the California Science Center. Encino.

File Pharo’s Burgers under that category. I was born and raised in Pasadena, but nobody mentioned it was any good. I never really heard about it, and I never really cared to explore it…so I never did. Recently, though, my friend Jackson told me to check it out. He goes there quite often and swore by it. What the hell, right? So yesterday, Kevin, Shanil, and I went to give it a try.

The Place
Pharo’s Burgers
1129 North Garfield Avenue
Alhambra, CA 91801

The Order: Bacon Cheeseburger

The Price: $5.95

The Burger
If you haven’t heard about this place, honestly, it’s probably because there isn’t much to say. And that’s not entirely a pejorative; Pharo’s Burgers keeps it simple. This burger is about as unfussy as it gets: a heap of shredded lettuce steeped in weakly tangy Thousand Island, a slightly jaundiced (but juicy enough) disc of tomato, a thin sheet of not-very-melted cheese, a quarter-pound chuck patty, and several strips of crumpled bacon.

Each ingredient played its role admirably, filling a very specific niche in the burger’s flavor profile. The Thousand Islands had a meek tang to it that brightened the coppice of lettuce a bit. The tomato was not of the finest caliber, mushier than it was firm. The patty was overcooked (likely intentionally so), char-broiled well past medium. The bacon was salty and crisp, providing the intended depth of flavor and textural variety, but not much more than that.

I don’t know; it was a bacon cheeseburger. Nothing felt misplaced or misguided, but nothing felt inspired. Everything here has been done before: It has been done better, and it has been done worse. It’s hard to be anything but frustratingly noncommittal. I imagine it is a little maddening to read a review that fails to adopt a firm stance – sorry – but this burger does not lend itself to roiling passion. It’s a competently executed but largely uninteresting offering. Pharo’s Burgers puts out a dish that is impossible to love or to hate. It is a place and a burger to which you will not object to returning…if prompted.

But some places, you just don’t really ever check out.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.40 / 10.00
Value: 8.30 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 5.00 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.10 / 10.00
Balance: 8.30 / 10.00

Total: 74.20 / 100.00

Pie ‘N Burger

IMG_3364
Everyone on Yelp went here after Pie ‘N Burger was featured on Food Network as the third best burger in the country. Needless to say, it got a ton of hate from the insufferable masses (“Whatever, it’s not that good. I’ve definitely had better…I won’t name a better place right now, because that would require me being constructive and actually hazarding an affirmative opinion, but I totally could if I wanted to, because I know a lot about food. Find me on Instagram!”).

I don’t trust Yelp, and I’d respectfully submit that you shouldn’t either. In the main, it’s a morally bankrupt market distortion factory. No, seriously. But like actually though. But the real problem (or well, the other problem besides Jeremy Stoppelman doing his best Frank Costello impression) is that Yelp is really just full of people with shitty opinions. People who depend on someone else’s interface to get exposure for their crappy opinions. People who lack the courage to just run a failing blog.

Right, I’m done shitting on Yelp. For the moment. But it does suck. So there.

Okay, I’m really done. Promise.

Anyway. For those of us who grew up in Pasadena, Pie ‘N Burger isn’t that place we read about last week and rushed to so we could look discerning by posting about how overrated it is. It’s a place we grew up with. A place we went to on occasion. A place we liked, but with which we weren’t obsessed. I went to school literally blocks away. It’s familiar. Look, I’m trying to establish editorial credibility. Just let me have this.

So yeah. Kevin, Shanil, and I stopped off this morning for a breakfast of burgers and a shared pecan sweet bun (yes, shared).

The Place
Pie ‘N Burger
913 East California Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91106

The Order: Cheeseburger

The Price: $11.45

The Burger
Pie ‘N Burger is younger than In-N-Out by fifteen years, but you’d never guess that after stepping inside. From the Formica countertops to the clientele, this place is old. It doesn’t have the slick, spit-shined aura of efficiency you find at In-N-Out. But then, that’s not really the vibe they’re going for at Michael Osborn’s Pasadena staple. No, Pie ‘N Burger focuses on food. That focus comes largely at the expense of, well, everything else: you know, things like ambience, modernity, attentiveness, thorough dishwashing, and basic human friendliness.

Needless to say, Kevin, Shanil, and I were the slickest, youngest, most debonair things in the room. Which may or may not surprise you depending on your estimation of us (be gentle). In spite of that, it took a minute (or eight) until the server deigned to come over and take our order. Once she did, though, things moved pretty quickly. The burgers came out wrapped in wax paper. The severely, wonderfully charred patty (I ballpark it at a third of a pound, but it may well have been heftier than that) herniated out from between the buns, a yellow film of cheese still melting on top. Short, thin introns of grilled onion swam in a sumptuous pink matrix of creamy, tangy, house-made Thousand Island. Besides that, there were a few pickles and basically an entire lettuce patch.

The patty is absolutely excellent. The exterior is blackened into a delicious, savory crust containing the surprisingly juicy, flavorful interior. It’s arguably a touch overcooked, but only enough to offend personal preference, not enough to compromise the objective quality of the burger. By which I mean I like a burger a little more rare, but this patty wasn’t cooked to the point of dryness. There was plenty of flavor remaining to satisfy.

The grilled onions were another highlight. Left to stew in Thousand Island, the flavors interacted beautifully, creating a cool, wonderful complement to the patty. The flavors were linked nicely by the shared grill flavor, but otherwise brought different personalities to the burger: the patty was crackling and savory, the sauce cool and sweet. The pickles picked up where the Thousand Island left off, adding a fresh, sour little snap. The buns were standard white, but toasted until their rims were black. This gave them a nice crispiness at the edges, but it softened as you went in, giving the burger a kind of textural arc.

Weirdly, all three of us shared the same major gripe: the lettuce. Don’t get me wrong, it was fresh, crisp, and wonderful. But there was just way, way, way too much of it. By the time I’d eaten all the beef, there was still a pretty enormous amount of lettuce (and bun, for that matter) left. The sheer magnitude of lettuce upset the balance of the burger, and was by far its weakest attribute. On the bright side, it wasn’t a depressing, wilted mess.

So don’t let the absurdly shitty service or the old-timey vibe fool you. Pie ‘N Burger is a standard for a reason. They make a damn good burger. It may not be the third best burger in the country, but it’s also much better than you might guess if all you did was read the propaganda on shitty Yelp. It is definitely worthy of recognition, and of your time. If you find yourself hungry for a burger in Pasadena, this is a compelling option.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.30 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 87.10 / 100.00

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

Cassell’s Hamburgers

IMG_3183Al Cassell founded Cassell’s back in 1948. The idea was a hamburger stand that stuck to the basics; the original menu consisted of nothing but burgers, a patty melt, and a couple sandwiches. Since reopening in Koreatown less than a year ago, Christian Page has expanded the menu a bit (now you can get breakfast, some pie, a house-made soda, or a cocktail). For the most part though, this place has stayed true to its founder’s vision: a focus on burgers and a commitment to quality.

I went with Greg and Lemi to check out the new, hipster-friendly, mod-diner iteration of Cassell’s on the ground floor of the Hotel Normandie, and see how this burger stacked up.

The Place
Cassell’s
3600 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90020

The Order: Cheeseburger (Swiss Cheese, tomato, lettuce, pickle, red onion, nitrate free bacon, avocado, cooked medium rare (server recommendation)); Saint Archer IPA, Vanilla Coke (I was at a diner; how could I not?).

The Price: $13.49 (burger); $3.50 (Coke); $7.00 (IPA).

The Burger
Process matters at Cassell’s. So does tradition. That’s why they use the same grinder to grind the meat every day, the same press to make the patties, and the same crossfire broiler that Al Cassell himself used to fire up burgers all those decades ago.

Besides that, the burger’s personality hasn’t really changed, even if it’s been updated for modern usage. This is, at bottom, a diner burger. The base model comes with nothing more than meat on a bun (with cheese, if you order it). Lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, and Thousand Islands dressing are included on the side – add as much or as little as you want – and you can (for a fee) add nitrate-free bacon, avocado, a fried egg, or grilled onions. Mine came to me with avocado (because I’m Californian) and bacon (because I’m a human being). I added one (perfectly-sized) piece of lettuce, three pickle chips, one slice of tomato – deep red, firm and juicy – and three concentric rings of red onion, as well as a thin glaze of Thousand Island on the top bun.

There’s an important point to be made here. Cassell’s has some (not all) of the options (bacon, avocado, fried eggs) that have become standard fare at gourmet burger shops across the city. They are aware of and attentive – if perhaps a touch resistant – to the fact that people like to put lots of deviant shit on their burgers (deviant, that is, from the pre-Loving v. Virginia perspective of Al Cassell, so take it with a grain of salt). And sure, they’ll let you add the frills if you must (and I must), but those frills decidedly are not what they’re selling.

So what are they selling? Like I said, this is a diner burger. They’ve taken Al Cassell’s old formula and updated it in subtle ways. Some things haven’t changed – there’s only so much you can do to lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onions. But there are other areas where things have changed, and it’s pretty evident that these are the things about which Cassell’s is proudest – specifically, the bun and the meat.

This bodes well. Practically, it means Cassell’s doesn’t depend on novel toppings to prop up an otherwise shitty burger. They don’t want you saying, “Wow, this patty tastes like cardboard and raw quinoa, but is that kimchee?” You might say these are burger purists. They focus on the components that matter. The Parker House buns were crisp on the outside, but milky and buttery on the inside, a rich complement to the crunchy, fresh garnishes, and a worthy counterpart to the bold, juicy patty. They are light but hardy. They stayed dry without being heavy, and they were firm without being tough.

As for the patty, it’s pretty obvious that this thing is Page’s baby. It’s a 1/3 pound suspension of Colorado Angus chuck and brisket that makes Shake Shack look like Burger King. It was flavorful and bold, with the different meats imparting subtle differences in flavor and tone. At medium rare, it was perfectly cooked: delicately charred on the outside, with enough juicy personality inside to keep things interesting without making a mess.

A couple things stick out when you eat this burger. First, everything on it is absurdly fresh. The meat tastes like it was ground today. The lettuce is crisp and cool. The tomatoes are explosively juicy. Even the onions, had a sassy, crunchy tang. The pickles, sadly, got a little lost in the shuffle. They weren’t particularly sharp or sour, and as a result, ended up tasting more like cucumber on which someone had spilled vinegar. The Thousand Islands was similarly unexceptional. This may have had something to do with the fact that I didn’t add enough, but I tasted a bit off the blade of my knife, and it was insipid even outside the context of the burger.

The optional toppings were excellent. The cheese was a thin slice of Swiss that delicately melted over the patty. It added depth of flavor without being intrusive or sharp on the palate, and it had maintained enough solidity that it wasn’t stringy or stretchy. The bacon was thick cut and crisp, exactly how burger bacon should be. The avocado was generously portioned and perfectly ripe – which means it was firm, not flabby, smeary quasi-guacamole.

The interplay between bacon and avocado was, predictably, wonderful, especially since the former was perfectly prepared. The other garnishes were fresh and crisp enough to impart some actual gustatory interest, rather than just being “those things that are not meat and also slightly less hot than everything else.” The freshness of all the ingredients allowed their respective tastes to shine through, which gave the burger’s flavor profile layers, which revealed themselves in every bite. Presenting the garnishes on the side means you have total control over how dominant any one flavor will be – a pleasant intermissio from the presumptuous, peri-fascist paternalism of other burger places.

On the whole, the flavors in this burger balance well, but that’s to be expected when you employ such a tried and true formula. It’s hard to credit Cassell’s with executing a precarious balancing act with aplomb. They didn’t do that at all. Instead (and by design, mind you), they did a simple thing well. Rather than trying to buck convention, they embrace it. This is a unapologetically classic American hamburger. It is the kind of thing you would buy your tourist friends when they ask to eat American food.

Having said all that, here’s my gripe. I said before that these are burger purists. Maybe that’s true. The other possibility is that they’re a little risk-averse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this place is holding something back. The quality of the preparation led me to wonder if maybe the whole “mom-and-pop” schtick isn’t really just a cop-out, an excuse to not get creative and take risks. Because some decidedly modern culinary flourishes (most notably the patty) notwithstanding, this burger is a period piece. There is untapped creativity here. Page clearly is talented and inventive, but his burger, though very good, felt as though it was as unchallenging for him to conceive and execute as it was for me to eat and enjoy.

Now, part of me appreciates that. In a scene where everyone seems to be trying to do something shocking, it’s refreshing to eat a burger that’s just concerned with doing things right. But still, I feel like Page is capable of more that “just” a great diner burger. And as unfair as it may be, I think he could make a burger that is truly something special. This isn’t it. All this one is is really damn good. Which I guess I’m willing to settle for.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 7.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.70 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.20 / 10.00
Balance: 8.40 / 10.00

Total: 84.80 / 100.00