Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wolfgang's Steakhouse -- Revisited -- Beverly Hills, CA

445 North Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

One of our favorite burgers in LA was in the rotation for another look. Wolfgang's Steakhouse had been both a hit and a miss last year.  Fat Bruce Lee, ChiBurger, and I wanted to see how things were, burgerwise, this year. Things were phenomenally good, my friends! This was the Wolfgang's that we fell in gustatory love with last year. We snacked on the warm bread that arrived prior to our meals and waited about 10 minutes for our trio of $13.95 cheeseburgers with onion rings and fries to arrive...it was love at first bite.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: At Wolfgang's Steakhouse, Sirloin was only thing in the burger blend. This Sirloin was dry-aged in an on-site, salt-tiled locker. The beef was ground fresh daily. This was a crime scene of a burger. It was remarkably juicy, rich, beefy, and it was dense with complex steak and mineral flavors from the Sirloin and blood. A mild, aged funk carried throughout the entire bite. This was likely due to them cutting aged steak fat into the grind. The beef was utterly delicious. It was a tender steak on a bun.

The Seasoning: The salty seasoning on the exterior of the half pound burger patties was just right. The seasoning enhanced the natural deliciousness of the Sirloin without drawing attention away from the juicy beef.

The Sear: I requested that they cook the patties on the hottest part of the griddle/flat-top so that our burgers would receive a good sear. Chef Cid obliged this request, and our burgers came out with a crisp sear. The sear was flavorful, and it served to amplify the flavors and textures of the terrific beef.

The Preparation: The Sirloin was ground fresh daily to Medium Coarse. The ground steak was then left alone until a burger was ordered. The beef was then formed into thick patties and griddled to the desired cooking temperature. We all ordered Med-Rare, and that is what we received. There was absolutely nothing wrong with this burger. It was also massive. The patty weighed in somewhere around 10 ounces.

The Cheese: The burger did not need cheese, but I had mine with a slice of American, and the melted cheese provided a wonderful addition to the firm mouth feel provided by the beef.  The cheese got it to extra-delicious.

The Bun: The BreadBar bun was chewy, moist, and fresh. This was a seeded, standard hamburger bun. It was nicely toasted, so that it provided a little crunch to complement the moist beef. The bottom bun competently soaked up the copious juices.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: In spite of the daunting size of the burger and the fact that the meat overlapped the sides of the bun, the meat to bun ratio was dead on. It just worked.

The Fries And Rings: The thick, long steakhouse fries were earthy and well-crisped even though they were 1/3 inch rather than the standard 1/4 inch in thickness. The white onion, hand-breaded rings were sweet and crisp. Both the fries and the rings were perfectly seasoned.

The Toppings: The tomato slices were wonderfully ripe and bursting with hearty tomato flavor. The slab of iceberg lettuce was fresh and crisp.

The Value: It was about 14 bucks for two meals worth of delicious cheeseburger. I brought half of mine back to the world headquarters, and it was devoured by one of the minions....he pronounced it to be amazing.  Chi Burger ate his second half within an hour of the first.

Wolfgang's Steakhouse served up a burger, which you should not miss out on. It was truly perfect. It was a clean, honest, no-frills, steakhouse burger, which was perfectly executed and perfectly delicious--it was a masterpiece. When our waiter asked if we would like to see the dessert menu, Fat Bruce Lee replied, "We already had dessert." He was right.  I would caution anyone wishing to try this fantastic dish to call ahead to make certain that Chef Cid Gonzalez is on hand...on both occasions where Chef Cid has prepared my burger, it has been a knockout.

Burger Review : GO TO WOLFGANG'S STEAKHOUSE...do it soon. The burger was amazing. This was one of the best burgers in LA in terms of flavor, quality, and preparation.

Rating...5 Bites

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hook Burger Bistro -- Oxnard, CA

1811 N Rose Avenue
Oxnard, CA 93036

It was Saturday night, and Happy Meal and I found ourselves in Oxnard, CA. Naturally, we sought out the best reviewed burger joint in town. Hook Burger Bistro was well liked by the reviewers on Yelp and Urbanspoon--really well liked. This was the upscale, fast-casual offering by Habit Burger Grill founders Brent and Bruce Reichard. They were going for "fine dining on a bun"--that was from their website. This location also served wine and beer. Parking was free and plentiful in the strip mall lot. The process was to queue up, place an order with the cashier after making a selection from the video screen/menu, find a table, and wait for the meal to arrive. We ordered a couple of the Prime Burgers ($4.75) with cheese ($.75--weak), fries, and a couple of drinks (soft drink and a shake) for a pre-tax total of $19.15. The drinks arrived within 2 minutes--the fries arrived within 3 minutes--the burgers were at our table in 4 minutes. They were fast! The term  "bistro" was taken by the French from the Russian "bistra", which means.....fast. Hook Burger Bistro embraced the concept of speedy service with abandon. I am sad to report that the speed came at the cost of everything else.

There was a real issue with cleanliness. The stainless steel baskets that bore our burgers, and the plates that our toppings arrived on, were dirty. The undersides of the baskets and plates were gummy, greasy, and covered with bits of food. This was utterly unpleasant. It appeared that rather than running the service items through a dishwasher or a sink, the top surfaces of these items were simply wiped down. I was thankful that there was no silverware and that the beverages arrived in disposable cups.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The burgers were 5 ounces of USDA Prime Chuck. The patties had a satisfying beefy flavor, but that was the entirety of what the beef brought to the table. The 80:20 Chuck arrived pre-ground. The beef had just enough moisture to avoid dryness, but it was, by no means, juicy.

The Seasoning: The thin burger patties were very lightly salted on the grill/griddle, and there was no seasoning in the blend. The seasoning was barely noticeable on the palate.

The Sear: In spite of being over-cooked, the sear was only half present on our cheeseburgers. The burgers appeared to have been first grilled and then seared on the flat-top. There was a faint hint of carbon from the bit of char that was present on the patties.

The Preparation: At one time, Hook Burger Bistro ground their own beef and cut their own fries. The manager informed me that these practices slowed things down, so the beef arrived pre-ground, and the fries showed up frozen in bags. The patties were uniform and thin, so it was safe to assume that the burgers arrived pre-formed. The burgers were cooked to Well-Done rather than the Medium, which had been requested. I was informed that they automatically cooked their burgers to Medium unless otherwise requested. The fact that the burgers were aggressively over-cooked was puzzling, since Medium was the default at this restaurant. Still, the cooking process melted all of the collagen in the beef, so at least it developed some flavor.

The Cheese: The American cheese was completely lost due to the dryish, stale bun.

The Bun: According to the manager, the brioche buns were sourced from Puritan Bakery. Their website suggested that the buns were sourced fresh daily from Ethnic Bakery in Santa Barbara, CA. The buns were on wrong side of stale. The top bun of my cheeseburger had a leathery crust and was relatively dry throughout. The bottom bun was on the hard side. It peeled away the top half of the top bun to try and get a sense of the dish with a proper bun. The buns were mildly toasted and neutral in flavor. Had they not been leathery and dry, they probably would have been fine.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: The stale bun dominated the thin burger patty, and it made the cheese completely moot.

The Fries: Oof. It was no wonder that the fries arrived so swiftly. They were under-cooked. As a result they were pale and rubbery. They were also dramatically under-seasoned.

The Toppings: The garlicky pickles were crisp and delicious. The tomato slices were of average quality. The Iceberg lettuce was shredded.

The Value: Weak.

The burgers at Hook Burger Bistro were in the backyard barbecue range in terms of flavor. Sadly, the plates and baskets were dirty; the buns were stale; the fries were undercooked; the burgers were cooked too hard. Happy Meal liked his shake, though. This was a failed attempt where fast food attempted to reach for upscale. I would have been happy to wait a few extra minutes for clean plates and food that was prepped in house. The Reichards should have stopped with the perfectly adequate burgers at the Habit Burger Grill chain. I have never been tempted to update my vaccinations after a trip to a Habit Burger Grill. Fine dining on a bun did not happen at Hook Burger Bistro...that would have required actual fresh ingredients and clean plates.

Burger Review : The burgers tasted fine, but the cleanliness issues and poor preparation made this a "never again" experience.

Rating...2 Bites

Friday, May 27, 2011

San Francisco Saloon Co. -- Los Angeles, CA

11501 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064

Today was the fifth straight day of burgers. Even though Fat Bruce Lee had pronounced this to be burger week, he gave up. He made some lame excuse involving chest pains and numbness in his left arm...whatever. I persuaded Jr. BurgerBuster, Bad JuJu, to join me on today's review. 

We settled on San Francisco Saloon Co. in West LA. We chose it for no better reason than it was close, and we had seen some positive Yelp reviews.  Parking was plentiful along the street, and we found immediate seating in the bar area (full bar). The menu was simple  and dominated by burgers. We ordered two of the SF Burgers with American cheese and fries at $9.50 apiece. The cheeseburgers arrived at our table within 8 minutes of ordering.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: Certified 100% Angus Chuck was what they were serving up at San Francisco Saloon Co. The freshly ground, 80:20 beef was juicy and a little on the oily side. The burger presented a pleasant note of carbon from the mild char off of the grill--the char was not present in the taste. It was flavorful with beef to begin the bite and iron at the finish. The iron taste in the beef was relatively strong, but the other ingredients served to mute this harsh note. The bite was toothsome without being rubbery. There were a few bits of connective tissue in the beef, but that was the price paid for in-house ground beef.

The Seasoning: There was no seasoning in the beef, but the kitchen did apply a dash of salt to the exterior of each patty as it was grilling. The seasoning was perfectly adequate, and it served to give the mild beef a boost in intensity.

The Sear: The 6-ounce burger patties were relatively thin, and they were cooked on a gas grill, so it would have been nearly impossible to get a proper sear without a very hot griddle. The grill marks provided a little sear and some carbon, but certainly not enough to deliver any interesting shifts in flavor or texture.

The Preparation: San Francisco Saloon Co. was actually grinding the Chuck while we were on the premises. It was that fresh! The 6-ounce patties appeared to have been cut with a mold to create their near perfect roundness and flatness. We had requested that the cheeseburgers be cooked to Medium, but they came out Med-Well. Still, the burgers were juicy. The burger patties were only turned once while on the grill--this was the appropriate way to cook burgers.

The Cheese: The American cheese closely resembled thick slices of Velveeta, and this actually worked on these burgers. The melted "cheese" was sticky and gooey, and it served to moisten an otherwise dryish bun. Also, the umami notes in the cheese served to round out the beef and iron notes from the patty.  

The Bun: The bun was a dryish, well-toasted, seeded, standard, hamburger bun. The bun, by itself, would have been unsatisfying, but the juicy beef and extra gooey cheese filled in where the bun was lacking.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: This was just fine.

The Fries: The fries were a let-down. The fries were cut in-house, and they were short and skinny. There was a dearth of salt, so the fries were bland. Additionally, they were undercooked, so they ended up being pale and a little doughy. The fries were a pass.

The Value: It was $9.50 for a decent cheeseburger and a plate of fries. The value was fine but not great at  San Francisco Saloon Co.

The whole of the cheeseburger at San Francisco Saloon Co. was truly greater than the sum of its meat, bun, and cheese. Each of the component parts was lacking in certain aspects, but, when combined, the parts combined into a satisfying burger.

Burger Review : This was a slightly better than average burger for an average price.

Rating...3 Bites

Thursday, May 26, 2011

MVP's Grill and Patio -- Long Beach, CA

3701 E 4th St
Long Beach, CA 90803

Fat Bruce Lee and I had heard from a couple of sources that MVP's was the burger to try when in Long Beach, CA, and we had cause to be in Long Beach, CA. MVP's was also a Yelp darling. Parking was free on the street. MVP's was another of those classic, California, burger stands.  MVP's was actually in the middle of the front yard of one of the homes that lined the street. We stepped up to the window, ordered a couple of meals--cash only, and waited about 15 minutes for our cheeseburgers. At MVP's the cheeseburger combo (1/3 pound cheeseburger, large beverage, and an order of fries) was 7 bucks. The double cheeseburger was a dollar more, and Fat Bruce Lee has always been a sucker for a deal, so he ordered the 2/3 pound double cheeseburger combo.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: This was 80:20 Chuck. The beef was moderately juicy, and it was not greasy. It was beefy, and it had just a touch of aged flavor and scent. The beef was completely fine. It was not exceptional in any aspect. The beef provided a resilient bite without being chewy.

The Seasoning: MVP's hit the burgers with just the right amount of salt and pepper to carry the patty beyond the single note of beef from the Chuck.

MVP's Double Cheeseburger
The Sear: They applied a reasonable sear to the unevenly flat patties. The sear was dark and crisp on the portions of the patty, which made contact with the hot griddle. The sear was satisfying.

The Preparation: The 1/3 pound, hand-formed, irregular, flat patties were created with moderate pressure. The burgers were cooked to a juicy enough Well-Done on a hot flat-top. The cooking process rendered enough of the fat out of the beef to avoid gut bomb status. 

The Cheese: MVP's did not skimp on the American cheese. Every patty received two slices. That means that Fat Bruce Lee had four on his double cheeseburger. That was 400 calories from just the cheese. The cheese melted over the burgers as the heat from the patty worked its way through the dish. For the single cheeseburger, 2 slices made sense, since the Chuck did not provide any complexity in terms of flavor. The American cheese filled in with savory, mineral, and umami notes. Fat Bruce Lee found the 4 slices all at once was too much even for him.

The Bun: The bun was a competent, standard, white, seeded, toasted, un-buttered, hamburger bun. The bun was simply a means to convey beef and cheese to mouth. It was generally invisible on the palate, and the texture was pleasantly chewy and soft.

The Meat to Bun Ratio: This was a little skewed toward the bun.  The same bun was used for both the single and double burgers, and the ratio seemed perfect for the gluttonous, over-sized portion.

The Fries: The fries were the par-cooked and frozen in a bag variety. MVP's provided at least a full pound of fries with their combo meals. They offered them salted or Cajun seasoned. Either way, they applied just the right amount of seasoning to the well-browned, crisp fries. They were just fine.

The Value: No one was able to finish their food. Most of the tasty fries went uneaten, and Fat Bruce Lee relented at the 60% mark on his double cheeseburger. The value was good.

While MVP's did not serve up an amazing burger, they did serve up a fine burger for a fair price. The extra cheese on every burger was a nice touch. I plan on taking Happy Meal (my youngster) there the next time that we visit The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

Burger Review : A good burger at a very good price was enjoyed at MVP's Grill and Patio.

Rating...3 Bites

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Master Burger -- Los Angeles, CA

4419 S Western Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90062

Fat Bruce Lee declared this to be burger week--one burger review/day.  On this day, Master Burger had made its way to the top of the review candidates. We strapped on the jet packs, and we made our way to the Jefferson Park neighborhood to sample a burger, which had consistently been on top ten lists of LA burgers for several years.

Master Burger was a classic, LA burger stand: it was cash only at a walk-up window; wait for your number to be called; get your bag of food from a separate window; consume burgers at a small selection of outdoor tables.  Master Burger also served hot wings, steak sandwiches, and a variety of Mexican dishes. We arrived just before noon, so we narrowly avoided getting bogged down in the crowd that gathered shortly after the 12 o'clock mark. Even so, our orders took about 20 minutes to prepare. We ordered two Master Burger combos with cheese. That came out to $11.00 for two 1/2 pound cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, and two soft drinks. $5.50 apiece for lunch was a great price.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: This was 80:20 Chuck. The beef was flavorful and just moist enough. It was cooked through, so the beef flavors were well-developed. There was also a pleasant end-note of funk, which briefly lingered on the palate. A large portion of the fat rendered off during the cooking process, so these burgers were not greasy.

The Seasoning: The seasoning was heavily applied to the burger patties while they were cooking. It was a peppery Lawry's seasoning salt-type blend. This was applied a little too generously, and the seasoning dominated the flavors.

The Sear: The sear on the cheeseburgers at Master Burger was tremendous. It was dark, thick, crunchy, and flavorful without being charred. The sear was a real high point of this burger.

The Preparation: The Chuck was hand-formed into thick, irregular patties and cooked to Well-Done on a very hot flat-top. The patties were formed with enough pressure to make them firm, but the burgers were not chewy.

The Cheese: The thick slice of American cheese melted into crevices of the well-seared burger patty and completely fused the top bun to the burger. I found the burger salty enough that the cheese only provided a bit of texture. Others in my group found that the the cheese really came through--they must have had a little more cheese on their burgers or a little less salt.

The Bun: The bun was lightly toasted. It was a squishy, moist, yeasty, unseeded, standard hamburger bun. The bun was completely adequate.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: It was just right.

The Fries: The fries were unexceptional. They arrived at Master Burger frozen in bags. These were peel-off, 1/4 square, stick fries. They were very average, and the were served in an oil stained, brown, paper bag. Seasoning... a shaker of seasoning salt was chained to the counter, so seasoning was poured in the bag, and then one shook the bag to evenly disperse the seasoning throughout the generous portion. The fries were not crisp.

The Value: It was $5.50 for a tasty, one half pound burger with a gang of fries and a 16 ounce drink. The value was excellent.

I liked the burger at Master Burger. In spite of it being over-seasoned, it was darn good. The sear was amazing and the value even more amazing. I had a 1/2 pound Chuck burger with so-so fries at Rustic Canyon a few night prior for 18 bucks. Master Burger served up a burger prepared with similar ingredients for less than a third of the price--parking was free--the beverage was included--the sear was amazing--and it was far less greasy at Master Burger. I finished my cheeseburger from Master Burger--I didn't plan on it, but I just didn't want to stop. I only ate half of the Rustic Canyon burger, and the excess fat still gave me a mild stomach ache. Oh, Master Burger also accepted food stamps, so the neighborhood was a little rougher than Rustic Canyon's Santa Monica location.

Burger Review : A better than average burger sear with too much seasoning at a WAY better than average price at Master Burger. If they dialed back the seasoning, this would be better. Still, I would return for this burger.

Rating: 3 Bites

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

3 Square Café + Bakery -- Venice, CA

1121 Abbot Kinney
Venice, CA 90291

Fat Bruce Lee and I had a lunch meeting, and that meant that we had the opportunity to try a new burger with a client. On this day we chose 3 Square Café.  This was the post-Röckenwagner establishment that  Hans Röckenwagner opened to serve simple food.  What I took away was that 3 Square Café was serving over-priced, low-quality food to an established fan base. Not to skip too far ahead, but this was the first burger that managed to get Fat Bruce Lee angry.

We ordered three of the $12.50 beef Pretzel Burgers. The burgers took a little over 20 minutes to arrive. It was not worth the wait. Ready...Set...Terrible!

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The beef came to 3 Square Café pre-ground, and it was ground far too finely. The 100% Angus beef blend was 20% fat, 10% Sirloin, and the remainder was Chuck. The burger was an 8 ounce patty. The beef was dismally bland and oily.  It tasted of nothing--no beef--no aging--no blood--no minerals. The texture was nearly invisible due to the dry bun and the fine grind. The only flavor that managed to come through from the beef was bitter carbon from the grill marks. I ordered my cheeseburger with no caramelized onions, but the kitchen put them on the burger anyway. I heard our server instruct the kitchen to fix that oversight. Rather than providing a non-onion flavored patty, they simply removed the onions from the patty and then flipped it over, so that I wouldn't see this. I noticed, the beef tasted of onions--sloppy. If you take a close look at the photo, which shows the sear on the patty, you will notice a bit of the onion still stuck to the beef and onion juice on the bottom bun. To make matters worse, the beef was far too dry to counter the bready, dry bun. The fine grind allowed far too many of the juices to escape the beef.

The Seasoning: The beef blend was bland and unseasoned. The exterior of the patty was also bland--there was no seasoning on the burger with the exception of the unwanted onion residue.

The Sear: The grill was hot enough to char rather than sear the beef.

The Preparation: The finely pre-ground beef was pressed into round burger molds. This was evidenced by the straight, flat sides of the uniformly round patties. The patties were 8 ounces each. 3 Square Café cooked the burgers on a too hot, wide-grated, gas-fired grill. The preparation was completely soulless and without regard for flavor. The kitchen served bland, unseasoned burgers. The kitchen did cook the beef to the Medium, which I requested.

The Cheese: Swiss Cheese was what this burger came with. The cheese contributed nothing. The cheese was mild, dry, and uninteresting.

The Bun: The hook was the house-made pretzel bun. I am a German, ex-fat kid, and I know my way around a pretzel. A good, fresh pretzel is a thing of beauty. Yeasty, chewy, moist, and salty are what I look for in a pretzel. In the case of the pretzel bun at 3 Square Café, what I had to work with was dry and salty. The salt was a welcome addition to the nearly flavorless beef.  The bun looked like a pretzel with the rock salt and the dark finish, and that was where the flattering similarities stopped. The dry bun in concert with the dry cheese and the dryish beef made the dish impossible for myself or our guest to finish. Fat Bruce Lee heroically unhinged his jaw and took down this dry monster like a snake swallowing an egg.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: It was impossible to tell. Neither was sufficiently palatable to distinguish the correct ratio.

The Fries: The thin, shoestring fries were fantastic! The cut in-house, peel-on, skinny fries were perfectly cooked and seasoned. They were wonderfully crisp.

The Toppings: The Roma tomato slices were on the mealy side, and the choice of green was a slab of iceberg lettuce. The toppings were decidedly non-premium in spite of the premium price tag.  Oh, the "Diet Coke" was actually Diet RC or some such off brand--unpleasant.

One of the minions upon whom I inflicted the half portion that I took back to the office described this cheeseburger as "grade school cafeteria quality". He spiked it in the trash after two bites.  Fat Bruce Lee was simply incensed, "That was a joke. I can't believe they put that on a plate an served it." Our guest quipped, "What's dryer than a pretzel stick? A Pretzel burger."

Burger Review : Nein, danke! 3 Square Café served up an over-priced, bland, dry burger. It was like eating a German train schedule...it was precise, dry, and joyless.

Rating...1 Bite

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rustic Canyon -- Santa Monica, CA

1119 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Rustic Canyon had been enjoying great burger reviews for some time, and Monday night was burger night. Fat Bruce Lee and I decided to sample the burger to see if it lived up to the hype. It did not.
The Burger with all of the toppings

We found parking on the street, but a valet service was also available, since parking in Santa Monica was generally problematic. We spoke with the manager to determine what sort of beef was in the burgers. We asked if it was Chuck or something more premium. He assured us that the beef was Clod rather than Chuck. Clod is another word for Chuck, so we were about to sample some 18 buck, wet-aged Chuck from Niman Ranch. This was sort of like the staff at Comme Ça telling us that the beef was "Single Cut Shoulder Steak."  That also meant Chuck. The most telling line from the Wikipedia entry on Beef Clod was this one: "It is often served in institutional cafeterias due to its low price and the fact that it is easily mass cooked in dishes such as soups, lasagna, and gruel." If  "institutional" and "gruel" did not win you over, then this is probably not the burger for you. Don't get me wrong...fresh and properly prepared Niman Ranch Chuck was glorious in the hands of Super Duper in San Francisco. We ordered our meals, and about 15 minutes later the cheeseburgers arrived.

The burger served plain.  Note the heavily toasted top bun.
The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The Clod/Chuck led with a powerful and delicious beef note. It was very rich in collagen, and when that melted, it created a wallop of beef flavor. That initial flavor was followed up with nothing. There was no blood, no mineral, and only the faintest hint of aging. That is the common issue with using Chuck and only Chuck--there is no depth of flavor, and this was certainly the case with this burger. The beef was also obnoxiously oily--it probably had a fat content in the 25% range. It was also juicy, but the greasiness far outweighed the juiciness. The beef was loosely packed and created a very tender bite. It was very easy to set this oily burger aside after only eating half. The problem with LA restaurants serving pre-ground, Niman Ranch Chuck has been that most of the flavor was lost along the way. Niman Ranch is a long drive from Los Angeles, and the beef has consistently suffered in quality.

The Seasoning: The interior of the 8 ounce, ground Chuck patties was not seasoned, so the interior was relatively bland. The exterior was perfectly salted, and this complemented the beefy flavor of the burger.

The Sear: There was decent, broiled sear where they had melted the cheese, but the bottom of the patty was only lightly browned, and it had no crispness or hearty texture to it.

The Preparation: Rustic Canyon sourced their Niman Ranch Beef Chuck from Premier Meats, and Premier Meats also ground the beef to something between Medium and Fine.  The beef was gently formed into big, loose patties. The patties were griddled on a flat-top. Unfortunately, the burgers were cooked on the cool part of the flat-top so that the buns were better browned than the beef. Previously, the burgers were seared in cast iron skillets and finished under a broiler--time change. The burgers showed up somewhere between Med-Rare and Medium, which was fine for Chuck/Clod.

The Cheese: This was a sharp, salty Tillamook Cheddar. The Cheddar added some much needed bite to the otherwise one-note dish.

The Bun: The bun was a sweet, crumbly, and slightly dry brioche from a local deli. In the past this had been a Rockenwagner bun--times change. The dryness of the brioche played to the advantage of the dish, because it served to soak up the oil that was dripping from the burger patty. The sweetness played well against the salty seasoning. The top bun was HEAVILY toasted to a very satisfying crunch. That crunch partially filled in the void left by the unseared burger patty.

The Meat to Bun Ratio: This was fine.

The Fries: These were thick, hand-cut, peel-on fries, which had been browned in canola oil. They had not been crisped, though. A rice bran oil would have done the trick for these thick, earthy fries. The fries were properly seasoned with granulated salt.

The Toppings: The onion fondue, which I ordered on the side, was simply not a fondue. It was a pale onion compote, which tasted strongly (cloyingly) of honey. This was an odd choice for a burger topping as Fat Bruce Lee learned the hard way as he was scraping off the "fondue" after a single bite of his cheeseburger.  It was a proper compote, and it was suitable as a desert. The remoulade was a nicely tarted up tartar sauce, and it was good with the fries. The arugula--this was downright delicious. It had a nutty character that brought to mind the Allegria Salad at Allegria in Malibu--back when it was still there. I miss their Gorgonzola Cream Gnocchi.

The Value: It was 18 buck Chuck from a farm many, many hours away. The value was weak considering that there were burgers all over Los Angeles, which were made with premium beef cuts at half the price.

I would not return to Rustic Canyon for a burger. It was over-priced considering the quality of the ingredients and the average preparation skills that went into it. The burger was quite good, but it was certainly not excellent.

Burger Review : The burger at Rustic Canyon was better than average in terms of flavor but for a much higher than average cost. This burger was priced well above its value. They charged tourist trap prices to locals.  It was also as oily as I imagine Mike Sorrentino's hair to be on an average Saturday night. Like Comme Ça, it seemed that Rustic Canyon was coasting on its reputation, because the quality was simply not there.

Rating...3 Bites ... The poor value of this generally tasty but poorly seared burger dragged it down a full point.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Slater's 50/50 -- Anaheim, CA

6362 E Santa Ana Canyon Rd
Anaheim, CA 92807

Slater's 50/50 wasn't exactly on the way to anywhere, but I talked Happy Meal into taking a detour on the way from LA to Legoland with the promise of a milkshake. We found free parking in the strip mall lot where the large burger restaurant with full bar was located. Slater's 50/50 had an extensive beer menu, and it seemed that they had hired every friendly and attractive girl in Anaheim to work as a server or hostess. We were there to sample both the standard beef burger and the signature 50/50 Burger. The 50/50 Burger was half bacon and half beef.  This sounded just interesting enough to be great.  The concept at Slater's 50/50 was customization via a wide variety of high-quality ingredient choices.
  • 7 meat patties choices and 1 vegetarian patty choice
  • 4 bun choices
  • 13 cheese choices (1 included and $.50 for each additional)
  • 19 sauce choices (1 included and $.50 for each additional)
  • 21 standard topping choices (4 included and $.50 for each additional)
  • 14 premium topping choices ($1.00 each)
Meat, bun, cheese, sauce, and a single topping worked out to 165,984 basic burger combinations--by adding a single premium topping to the mix, the number of cheeseburger permutations soared to 2,323,776. I gave up trying to work out the numbers past this, since they offered up to 4 of the standard toppings with no additional charge. Slater's 50/50 also offered three patty sizes: 1/3 pound, 2/3 pound, and a full pound. Those were the post-cooking weights.

We ordered a couple of 1/3 pound burgers ($8.85)--one beef and one 50/50--on white brioche buns, with American cheese, a side of fries, and a shake for the youngster.  The fries (3.95) came out promptly, and the burgers came out in about 15 minutes.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: According to the manager, Slater's 50/50 used Sterling Silver Sirloin as the beef for their burgers. The beef was ground fresh daily. Accordingly, I ordered the beef burger Med-Rare. This should have been fantastic, but it fell utterly flat. The burger tasted not even faintly of beef. It did taste mildly of iron and aging, but that was it. The texture of the beef was just fine. The beef burger patties were gently formed, so the beef patty was toothsome.

In the case of the 50/50 burger patty, the beef contributed bulk to the bacony puck. They had to cook the 50/50 patty to Well-Done since they made the patty with ground, raw bacon (try not to think about it too much), and that was the only level of doneness that made sense. This created, effectively, a really big sausage patty. It was chewy, and since it was cooked over a gas grill, it had some char on it. The char and bacon flavors did not go together--the char was highly unwelcome. The ridiculously high fat content in this version of the burger made it a bona fide gut bomb. It was heavy on the bacon flavor, but I discovered that I like my bacon crisp rather than ground up and cooked into a firm, chewy, pinkish-centered patty.

The Seasoning: There was none. The beef was unseasoned before and after being formed into patties. The insipid beef was strongly in need of some help in the form of seasoning. On an awesome note, they did provide a shaker of bacon salt on every table. Bacon salt is one of the greatest inventions ever. You can't listen to bacon salt, but you can't eat an iPod.

The Sear: Slater's 50/50 got a pretty good sear on both the Med-Rare standard beef patty and the Well-Done 50/50 patty. The sear was for naught in both cases. The beef patty was so bland that the sear only served to provide a shift in texture. The mild char was fine on the beef burger, but not good when applied to the bacon patty. That just tasted like burnt bacon.

The standard beef burger at Slater's 50/50
The Preparation: They had a great process at Slater's 50/50. The various meats were ground (medium) fresh daily and set aside. When an order was placed, the kitchen staff weighed out the ground meat and hand-formed the patty just before placing in on the cast iron grates of the gas-fired grill. The burgers were only turned once, and the grill was hot enough to get a solid sear on the patties. This was simply a great way to cook cheeseburgers.

The Cheese: The American cheese was wonderfully melted over the burgers, and this fused the top buns to the patties. It was unfortunate that the competent cheese was utterly lost in the voluminous bun and the bland beef. In the case of the 50/50 Burger, the salty bacon and the bitter char neutralized the cheese's flavors.

The Bun: The white brioche, like all of the bun choices at Slater's 50/50, was sourced locally. This bun was pleasantly yeasty and sweet. It was tender, fresh, and moist. Additionally, it was buttered and really nicely toasted on the griddle. This created a very satisfying crunch. My sole issue with the bun was that it was that the top was oiled, and this created an oily feel in the hand.

The 50/50 Burger
The Meat To Bun Ratio: The big, pillowy brioche was simply far too large for the 1/3 pound burger. I did sample a few bites of each burger without the bottom bun--the ratio was perfect without the bottom bun. The brioche bun appeared to have been selected to handle the 2/3 pound patties.

The Fries: The fries were of the peel-off, par-cooked, frozen, and bagged variety. They were also fantastic. The fries were both perfectly cooked and perfectly salted. They were crisp and golden with wonderful creamy centers. I would have those fries again. Happy Meal strongly approved of the fries. The shake (Oreo) was a big hit with Happy Meal, as well.

The Value: The value was on the weak side. $9.00 for a 1/3 pound burger was a little steep. In this case, due to the blandness of the burger beef, the cost of the burger was particularly pricey.

I really, really wanted this to be an excellent cheeseburger. The ingredients were fresh and selected with care. The preparation, aside from the seasoning, was designed to turn out a world-class burger. Sadly, the perfection of the preparation and the resultant textures was nearly completely offset by the lack of flavor from the beef and seasoning. I'd like to think that this was an off day at Slater's 50/50. They had all of the difficult parts down pat!

Burger Review : A brilliantly prepared but bland burger was served at Slater's 50/50. If toppings are your thing, then this might be your place.

Rating...3 Bites

Friday, May 20, 2011

Upper West -- Santa Monica, CA

3321 Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 586-1111


Upper West was a New American cuisine spot, and the kitchen was headed up by Texan Nick Shipp. Nick earned his cooking chops in Texas, and later moved to LA to spend a few years working under Wolfgang Puck. Most recently Chef Shipp was heading up the brigade at Pete's Cafe' in downtown LA. It was my strong hope that a Texan chef would deliver an excellent burger. He did.

Upper West employed crowd sourcing to hone the menu. They started with a bunch of dishes, and they stuck with the ones that the clientele gravitated toward. Fortunately, The Burger was a big hit--they were turning out about 100 of these every day. Make reservations for dinner. By 8 p.m. there wasn't an open seat in the house. Parking...get lucky..get set for a walk...or use the valet service out front.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The beef blend in the burgers at Upper West was a proprietary and closely guarded house secret. Chef Shipp divulged that one component of the blend was corn fed Short Rib. The remainder was grass fed, and all of it was dry-aged. The beef was all natural and was fed no antibiotics. The meat arrived from the supplier in Omaha, NE, and it was ground fresh daily. The beef was wonderfully....beefy, and the texture of the blend had a satisfying steak feel to it. What was also present was the buttery complexity of what tasted like Brisket and the satisfying chewiness and grain of Sirloin. Regardless of the components of the blend, it worked nicely. The THICK, 8 ounce burger was juicy without being greasy. There was only the slightest hint of aging. Kudos to Chef Shipp for putting together a very thoughtful, hearty, and well-rounded bite of beef.

The Seasoning: The patties were formed daily just after the beef was ground, so there was no seasoning in the patties. The burgers were dusted with a kosher salt and pepper. I would have sworn that I caught a taste of a Worcestershire-style sauce in there, too, but that may have just been the beef juices mixing with the seasonings and a little of the cheese. The seasoning served to carefully complement the hearty beef flavors.

The Sear: The sear was appropriate for the steak heavy burgers.  In this case the sear was delivered in thick, crisp rows across the burger meat by the gas grill.  The center of the patty remained unseared, but this was because the patty was so juicy that the center could not get up to Maillard temperature--fully worth the trade-off. Upper West did have plans to shift to a wood-fired grill soon. A little smoke would have served to really put the already excellent burger patty over the top.

The Preparation: The beef was ground coarsely, formed loosely into thick patties, and left alone. The looseness of the patty allowed the various beef cuts in the grind to come through. My burger came out Med-Rare just as I ordered it. 

The Cheese: This was a Goat Cheese sourced from Palos Verdes. It was blended with roasted, pureed Pasilla peppers, and roasted garlic. The creamy cheese was applied as a spread to the bun, and it served to bind the other toppings in place. The cheese blend delivered a nice funk and a creamy texture, which played off of the buttery notes from the bun, and what tasted like Brisket in the beef blend.  Ordinarily, this would have been reaching a little too far, but in the case of the burger at Upper West, it just worked. The creamy texture of the cheese allowed the flavors to work their way into every bite. Chef Shipp managed to balance the flavors and textures so that the raw honesty of the quality beef came through while the gourmet ingredients managed to make themselves apparent and appreciated without drowning out the fundamental flavors of the dish.

The Bun: The toasted brioche came from Ca 'd'Oro bakery. It was buttered and toasted. The bun was tender, resilient, fresh, yeasty, and toothsome. The competent bun managed to contain the juicy beef without drawing focus away from it. The shiny brioche was not greasy to the touch, which was a huge plus.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: This was just right.

The Fries: On this occasion, I tried the Bleu Fries (Smoked Bacon and Bleu Cheese Fries), which were pure evil...in the best way.. As Nick Shipp called them, "Bar Crack". These were similar to poutine but made with Bleu cheese and bacon. They were ridiculously good, and they were nearly impossible to resist. These were not typical fries, since the sauce made them soggy, but they were delicious. Patrons of Pete's Cafe' followed Chef Shipp to Upper West in Santa Monica and demanded that these fries be on the menu.  After tasting them, it was easy to see why.

The Toppings: Upper West used an onion marmalade with balsamic vinegar.  After sampling the burger with nothing but meat, bun, and cheese, I added a little of the cold, sweet onion compote to my burger. The marmalade added just the right amount of sweet and sour to balance out the savory flavors from the seasoning and the pungent cheese spread. I recommend having this on the side so that you can add this sweet condiment to taste. The arugula was fresh, crisp, and added just a hint of bitter to work with the marmalade.

The Value: This was a $14 burger, and it was very good. The beef was extremely satisfying and it was a full half pound....so, two meals' worth. The value was....just fine.

In the end, this was a very solid and traditional tasting burger of very high quality. The beef was a superstar, and  the supporting cast of inventive, quality toppings all served to enhance the experience. For lack of a better word to describe this burger, it was Honest. I think this burger would have been equally delicious with a slice of melted American cheese of top. Chef Shipp confessed to sometimes eating his burgers in meat form only. The beef was that good.

Overview : Upper West served up a really fine, non-tradition/traditional-tasting cheeseburger.

Rating...5 Bites (rounded up from 4.5)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

M Street Kitchen -- Santa Monica, CA

2000 Main St.
Santa Monica, CA 90405

M Street Kitchen was formerly La Grande Orange.  La Grande Orange had its share of service-related issues, and I hoped to discover that these had been ironed out with whatever shake-up precipitated the name change. The menu looked substantially similar, the Cheeseburger, which previously went for $12 was still at that price.  I ordered the cheeseburger, and after about 15 minutes, it arrived.  It is important to note the the cleanliness and service issues from the previous issues not not resurface on this visit.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: This was Sirloin, and it was ground in-house. The burger was juicy without being greasy. The strong beef note from the Sirloin carried throughout the entire bite. There was a pleasant funk from the dry-aging process, but that scent did not translate into the flavor of the dish. The beef was excellent if only a little on the tame side.

The Seasoning: The beef was gently seasoned on the exterior of the burger patty. The blend did not appear to contain any seasoning.

The Sear: In spite of being grilled over White Oak, the sear was very poor--non-existent at the center of the patty. This was surprising, since the sear was marvelous at the time of the previous review.

The Preparation: The Sirloin was properly handled, so the bite was firm but not chewy. The beef was ground at a Medium setting. The 6-7 ounce patties were hand-formed to about 1/2 an inch in thickness. The burger was grilled to a juicy Med-Rare. Sadly, the sear was lacking, so the burger was lacking the depth of texture, which we look for.

The Cheese: This was the same tangy, shredded Cheddar that topped the burgers on the previous visit. This time, however, the cheese was not melted. The cool cheese served to chill the bun and the surface of the burger patty. Previously, M Street Kitchen had briefly melted the cheese under a broiler. That did not happen on this visit.

The Bun: The bun was markedly improved. It was a resilient, fresh, perfectly toasted, seeded burger bun from Melrose Baking Company.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: Perfect.

The Fries: The skinny fries were wonderfully crisp with just the right amount of sea salt to bring out the flavors.

The Toppings: The Iceberg Lettuce was shredded/soggy, and the tomato slice was on the mealy side.

The Value: The Value was average at M Street Kitchen. It was 12 bucks for a mostly good Sirloin burger.

M Street Kitchen delivered a much improved dining experience in terms of cleanliness and staff. It did seem that consistency continues to not be the strong suit. Overall the burger was good, but it was not quite excellent due to some easily remedied issues.

Burger Review : A better than average cheeseburger with a few minor issues. It was certainly better than the previous visit.

Rating...4 Bites
Really 3.5 due to the unmelted cheese, the weak sear, and the substandard toppings.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Reggie's Bistro -- Los Angeles Zoo, CA


It was Sunday, which meant it was time to take Happy Meal out to do something fun and educational. He chose the Los Angeles Zoo. I had been eying Reggie's Bistro every time that we had been to the zoo, since I noticed an Angus Burger on the menu, and today Happy Meal finally relented, and agreed to eat there.

Reggie's Grill was named for the alligator that swims in the pond directly across from the "quick service restaurant". I was keenly aware that trying to find quality food at a zoo was like trying to find quality food at an airport, but Reggie's Grill was an experiment. It was the first establishment in a U.S. zoo to serve made-to-order, gourmet meals on a year-round basis. 

I spoke with Dereek, who was running front of house at the small cafe--Dereek was very personable and most knowledgeable about the menu and the preparation of the food. Dereek indicated that all of the items on the menu were prepared to order, so Happy Meal ordered a Grilled Cheese, and I ordered the Reggie Burger for $10.95--10% with our Zoo Member discount. The eponymous burger came topped with arugula, tomato, Bleu cheese, and an onion compote. I asked for everything but the cheese to be served on the side. As usual Happy Meal did a better job ordering than I did.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef:  The burger patty at Reggie's Bistro was 8 ounces of Angus Chuck. The beef in my cheeseburger was aggressively and dramatically over-cooked. As a result, it was dry and rubbery. It has a nice beef flavor to it, and it was relatively lean. That leanness was probably due to the over-cooking, though. There was no trace of aging in the patty. Perhaps this burger would have been passable had it not been vulcanized and leaned on.

The Seasoning: There was no trace of seasoning in the blend or on the exterior of the patty.

The Sear: The irregular patty received a spotty sear around the edges in spite of being on the grill for far too long. Based on the rubbery texture, I assumed that the person manning the grill had put a lot of pressure on the beef as it cooked to squeeze out all of the juices. All that moisture steaming off would have kept the surface of the burger below the Maillard Reaction threshold of 310 degrees Fahrenheit, and this would explain why the burger was not browned.

The Preparation: The hand-formed, flat, Medium-Coarsely ground patties were cooked to Well-Done and then some over a gas grill. I did request that all of the toppings be served on the side, but the onion "compote" arrived on top of the patty anyway. The onion layer acted as an insulator, so the Bleu cheese never got hot enough to melt.

The Cheese: Reggie's Bistro used Bleu cheese on the Reggie Burger. The tangy cheese would have added some much-needed salt to the unseasoned dish, but I didn't ever get far enough to judge that. Since the cheese arrived on a bed of onions, I simply removed those toppings as a single unit.

The Bun: This was a competent brioche, but it was freshly oiled, so it was greasy in the hand. I'm not sure who thought that was a good idea, but I blamed that little alligator. It seemed like the sort of thing that an alligator would do. The bun was moist, however.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: I only got through two bites, and Happy Meal took only one before he pronounced it awful. The beef was so dry that any bun would have won that battle.

The Fries: The fries were golden brown and well-crisped. Unfortunately, these fries arrived pre-cut and frozen in a bag. These particular fries had been treated, so that they had a high sodium content. Accordingly, Reggie's Bistro did not season their fries, since this would have made the sodium levels unconscionably high. The result was some very bland fries, since the brining/preservative treatment did not contribute any noticeable saltiness to this side dish.

The Toppings: The arugula and tomato were wonderfully fresh. The onion "compote" was not a compote at all. These were cool caramelized onions. A compote would have resembled an onion marmalade. It would have been sweet enough to be served as a dessert with sugar and other spices blended in during the cooking process. In this case, the sliced onions appeared to have been caramelized with oil and salt and set aside to be used as a luke-warm burger topping.

The Value: Happy Meal and I gave up on the Reggie Burger after a couple of bites, and Dereek was kind enough to comp the meal. Happy Meal truly enjoyed his grilled cheese sandwich. The value of the burger in the hands of the kitchen staff of the day that I visited was poor.

The front of house staff at Reggie's Bistro were terrific, and I would like to imagine that if they employed a similar caliber of staff in the kitchen, then the burger would be something worth ordering. On this visit, the burger was simply inedible. After we had finished up inside, I took Happy Meal over to Reggie's pond. After taunting Reggie for a few minutes--to get him riled up--I heaved Happy Meal into the agitated reptile's enclosure. It went on record as the most savage beating that an 8-year old boy has ever laid down on an alligator in captivity. I think Reggie understood what was going on and why.

Burger Review : The good ingredients were overpowered by poor preparation.

Rating...2 Bites

Friday, May 13, 2011

Billingsley's -- Los Angeles, CA

11326 West Pico Boulevard, 
Los Angeles, CA 90064-1704


Yes, that Billingsley. This was the steakhouse founded by the son of Barbara Billingsley (RIP), Leave It To Beaver's June Cleaver. She was funnier in Airplane. (at the 1:10 mark).

I had been driving by Billingsley's for months, and I had been meaning to drop in for a burger. I am a sucker for a straight-forward, steakhouse burger, and Billingsley's had that no-frills feel to it from the outside. Fat Bruce Lee and I arrived on a Friday at lunch time. Parking was free in the attached lot. The interior was all 60s/70s steakhouse. Burgundy booths and dim lighting. We ordered a couple of the standard burgers with cheese at $8.45 apiece. We waited for about 10 minutes for our food to be delivered by a very friendly waitress--I love it when they call me "honey"--I really do.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: Yes! At Billingsley's the beef was dry-aged sirloin, and it was ground in-house. The bite was rich with beef and mineral flavors. The blend was in the 80:20 range, and it was very juicy without being too greasy. The grind was a little too fine, and this took away from the firmness that one would expect from a Sirloin burger. Additionally, the fine grind caused the beef to yield quite a bit of excess juice, which saturated the bottom bun. The patty was 8 ounces of thick, hand-formed goodness. The funk from the aging was mild and lent a nice nose to the dish without detracting from the beefiness of the bite.

The Seasoning: The exterior of the patty was dusted with a fine salt blend. The seasoning was applied in just the right quantity and very evenly.

The Sear: Our server informed us that the burgers were cooked on a grill, but the evenness and depth of the sear led me to assume that a griddle was used in the cooking process. I did a little more digging later in the day to confirm my suspicions. Much like The Burger Kitchen, Billingsley's first grilled the burger patties, and then they were finished on the flat top. All that said, the sear was perfect. It was crisp, dark, flavorful, and even.

The Preparation: After grinding, the burger meat was handled properly. The beef was formed firmly into thick patties, and it was not over-manipulated. This created the tender yet firm mouth feel. Again, a less fine grind would have yielded a firmer, steakier, less wet burger, but it was excellent, nonetheless. As expected, a 50 year old steakhouse cooked the burgers to a perfect Med-Rare.

The Cheese: The American cheese was nicely melted over the burger thanks to a quick trip under the broiler.  The American cheese made its way into the bite and lent a salty creaminess that really rounded out the savory flavor profile.

The Bun: The double-toasted, mild, seeded, standard hamburger buns were sourced from Frisco Bakery. The bun was really not up to the task of handling a very juicy 1/2 pound patty of Med-Rare ground beef. The bottom bun was quickly saturated, and it become gooey. A Breadbar bun would have truly done this burger justice. Billingsley's also served burgers on French rolls, and I imagined that those rolls handled the juices more competently. We will put that hypothesis to the test on a return visit.

The Meat To Bun Ratio:  The meat won the battle, but not by much. We escaped with clean hands.

The Fries: The fries were of the frozen, pre-cut, shoestring variety. But.............they were darn good once cooked. The fries were golden, crisp, flavorful, and perfectly seasoned.

The Toppings: The slice of tomato that accompanied my burger was wonderfully ripe and flavorful. The iceberg was shredded, so that would have created some unwelcome additional moisture had I applied it to my burger....I did not.

The Value: Heck yeah!  Billingsley's charged us $8.45 for a 1/2 pound patty of perfectly cooked, ground Sirloin and a side of tasty fries. The value was good at Billingsley's.

After trying the burgers at Billingsley's it was not surprising that they had been around for over 50 years.

Burger Review : A really good, straight-forward, cleanly executed, steakhouse cheeseburger and a really good value were enjoyed at Billingsley's.

Rating...4 Bites

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