HiHo Cheeseburger

The Place
IMG_20180411_214711

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

Bottega Louie

The Place
Bottega Louie
700 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90017
Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 10.19.12 PM
Bottega Louie is utterly insane. For being in the middle of a just-okay section of Downtown (which, in spite of its current nascent renaissance, remains a just-okay enclave of Los Angeles), it’s so unbelievably scene, it almost defies belief. The quotient of Kim Kardashian wannabes is nothing short of astonishingly high. Over-conditioned bistre hair pulled back into impossibly tight ponytails that shine like dying stars. Designer dresses hug implausible bodily curvatures that veer out of the realm of sexual allure and wind up firmly ensconced in the realm of the creepily artificial. Plunging necklines reveal silicone fjords. Impossibly sour faces are caked in makeup that, by all appearances, was applied by their friend who just got fired from Sephora or something. Scythelike vermillion fingernails scrape against smartphone screens framing selfies.

So yeah. Bottega Louie kills it as far as atmosphere is concerned.

Seriously, what an odd mix of people. I wonder where they all come from. It’s not just people trying to pass as Kardashian cousins. It’s families. Elderly couples. Girls’ nights. Bros. And even a few dates. And the cohort of which I was a member – a group of newly minted lawyers fresh off our first day of work. Yes, this eclectic clientele truly is what parties are made of.

The Order: Hamburger (Wagyu, Bibb lettuce, Brandywine tomato, red onion, aioli; cheese added)

The Price: $16.00

The Burger
IMG_0565
I’ll admit it. I wanted the meatball sliders. So you might rightly aver that my heart wasn’t quite in this one. Or, if you were inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, you might say that this burger doesn’t really belong on this menu. The food here is basically Italian, with aberrational suggestions of Mexican (ceviche), Creole (crab beignets), and French (niçoise salad). As such, a burger is something of an incongruous item.

This one is a relatively straightforward presentation. The focus, at least nominally, seems to be the patty, so I’ll start there. Wagyu beef is coveted for its rich marbling and intense flavor. Maybe this patty had some of that going on, but it was cooked right out of it. Our server recommended it be ordered medium. This savaged the flavor right out of the patty, replacing whatever subtle richness the oleaginous unsaturated fat might have imparted with the milquetoast savor of chuck. Damn shame.

The toppings, in the aggregate, fared only slightly better. The lettuce was crisp enough, but too dry. The cheese was of the perfect consistency, but disappointingly unassertive. The aioli was far too brash, elbowing out the rest of the garnishes. To give you an idea of the flavor, imagine that someone screamed the word “garlic” into some mayonnaise. The onions were so unexceptional I almost forgot they were there. Only the tomatoes were memorable: rich, sunny, sweet, and juicy. But ultimately, they could not save this burger from itself. A combination of poor preparation and a vastly too-aggressive sauce doomed it.

The vision seems to be a burger that would be exceptional but understated, where a simple arrangement of excellent ingredients would harmonize to create a classed-up iteration of an American standard. At that, it fails. So in seeking to achieve dignified simplicity, this burger, with its atrociously assertive aioli, comes off about as classy and genuine as Kim Kardashian. Sadly, like many of the customers at this restaurant, this burger is just trying way too hard and achieving way too little. Tragically apropos.

Either way, I should have ordered the meatballs. Shit.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.50 / 10.00
Value: 6.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 5.20 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.00 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 4.50 / 10.00
Balance: 5.20 / 10.00

Total: 60.90 / 100.00

Eggslut

IMG_3376
Let’s get this out of the way at the outset: You are going to have to get past the fact that Eggslut is kind of an affected and gimmicky name. Do that, and you’ll come to appreciate that it’s a) kind of apt, and b) kind of clever, and c) kind of funny. But more importantly, Alvin Cailan’s egg-centric eatery on the Broadway side of Grand Central Market serves really balanced, carefully conceived dishes.

Some people will sardonically argue that the business plan seems to be, “Hey, we like Iron Chef and eggs, so let’s just combine them.” Strictly speaking, that’s not wrong. But it’s also incomplete. There’s a lot more going on here. Cailan and company strive to serve innovative twists on familiar comfort food. They strive to offer food that is innovative and inclusive. In practice, the innovation generally consists of, “Hey, what stuff might taste good with eggs?” But behind each dish is deceptively thoughtful composition. You’d make a mistake to think this place is just a bunch of hipsters or bros chuckling while they just put eggs on shit that doesn’t normally have eggs on it.

Shanil and I went to check it out. Kevin was supposed to come, but he was busy being disgustingly late. By the time he showed up to order, my food had digested, and they had raised and slaughtered another cow to make his burger.

The Place
Eggslut @ Grand Central Market
317 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: Cheeseburger

The Price: $9.00 (before tax)

The Burger
Eggslut’s burger clearly was conceived with lots of love and respect for the institution of the burger. The focus is on high quality ingredients, simplicity, and complementary flavors. The egg is not intended to be the centerpiece of the burger. Prepared over-medium, it’s meant to be runny but not messy, to offer a textural contrast and some delightful, yolky flavor. And, all else being equal, it did that. As an absolute matter, the egg could not have been prepared better.

The real highlight of this burger, though, is the pickles. The interaction between the copious sweet pickle chips and the creamy egg yolk was nothing short of astonishing. It was the single most compelling ingredient pairing I’ve encountered since the Project got started. It completely justifies the spartan collection of ingredients found on this burger. Initially, when I looked at the description of the burger on the menu, I wondered why there wasn’t more going on.

Then, two things happened: First, I saw that you can add bacon and avocado. But given Eggslut’s generally judicious approach to ingredient inclusion, I chose not to. They include what needs to be included; I decided to order it like they suggested, not how they allowed. Second (and more importantly), I took a bite, and understood that the utterly symphonic collaboration between these two ingredients was more than enough to carry the water for this burger. The absence of sauce was not a deficiency, but an exercise in laudable restraint.

So if I’m going to register one complaint (and I am), it’s not really that the egg is scandalously slutty, it’s that the beef is kind of a prude (yes, I’ve tastelessly bought into the coarse foundational metaphor, but the general point holds). The patty is a paper-thin wafer of wagyu beef. High quality stuff, to be sure, but there’s so little of it that it makes not a gustatory dent. In one sense, I get it; there’s no way you could charge nine bucks for a beef with, say, a six-ounce wagyu patty. But the relentless pursuit of value sacrifices too much; this tastes like someone just put one brioche bun on either ear and thought really hard about wagyu beef. My point is that the patty is really small.

So while the complementary ingredients are beautifully – perhaps perfectly – balanced, this dish doesn’t feel like a burger; it feels like a sandwich. Someone forgot about the patty here, and it’s a damn shame, because this burger would be something really special were it a little better balanced. I imagined what it would be like if the egg yolk dripped and soaked into the patty, flirting with well-seasoned, flavorful, juicy beef. What a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy. But sadly, that’s all it is – a fantasy. What Eggslut has given us is an unfinished, unbalanced symphony, an almost-masterpiece that ends up making an impression more for what it could be than for what it actually is.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.20 / 10.00
Value: 8.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.30 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.80 / 10.00
Bun: 9.30 / 10.00
Patty: 6.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.60 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Balance: 5.60 / 10.00

Total: 83.70 / 100.00