Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SmithHouse Tap & Grill -- Los Angeles, CA

10351 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

SmithHouse had opened a scant 5 days prior to this review, and I liked the idea of getting there first to review their burger. I imagined that they would have worked out the service kinks over the weekend. SmithHouse was a pub-style joint with lots of brick work and rustic touches, throughout. The tap wall was impressive with about 120 beers. There was also a full bar. Valet parking was free and very convenient. I attempted to get some information about the burger from my server, and I quickly learned that the front-of-house staff had not been clued in by the kitchen as to the components of the burgers. This was odd, since burgers comprised 25% of the menu. A member of the kitchen staff was summoned, and I learned a little more.  Very little...much about the burgers at SmithHouse was kept it goes. I dutifully ordered the SmithHouse Burger, as suggested by the member of the kitchen staff with whom I spoke. Since no one could or would share the cuts of beef with me, I went with the safe choice of a Medium cooking temperature. My burger arrived in about 10 minutes.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The bespoke beef blend was derived from Vintage cattle. Vintage cattle are like heirloom produce. The beef tasted heavily of dry aging as it was most heavy on the funk. In fact, it was funky enough to mask most other flavors associated with the beef component of a cheeseburger. It was a 30% fat blend, so it was greasy enough to cause a little stomach discomfort on the ride home. The blend tasted like Brisket, Sirloin, and Short Rib, but I was only guessing. The blend was pre-ground to medium coarse and delivered to SmithHouse. The bite was decidedly steaky and firm in texture. There was a fair amount of blood, but that oppressive funk obscured any minerality that would have come from the blood.

The Seasoning: The exterior of the thickish, 7-ounce burger patty was salted as it cooked...heavily salted. That seasoning, coupled with the marrow/Parmesan spread, which topped the burger, delivered an explosively and excessively salty bite. It was salty enough to make the roof of my mouth itch. This was not the sort of burger that I could get more than half of down.

The Sear: SmithHouse seared the heck out of that burger. By "seared" I really meant "charred." SmithHouse delivered a charred burger. The sear was crisp and deep, but it was also bitter since the surface was blackened with shiny carbon.

The Preparation: The mysterious blend of Vintage ground beef was hand-formed during morning prep at SmithHouse. The 7-ounce, hand-formed patties were created with just the right pressure to deliver a firm and juicy mouth feel. I ordered Medium, and I got a competent Medium. It appeared that the burger had been grilled and then finished (immolated) under a broiler.

The Cheese: I could have gone with Cheddar, but I followed the chef's recommendation and ordered my burger with the marrow/Parmesan spread. MISTAKE! While the marrow was rich, hearty, and decadent, this spread was overwhelmingly and unpleasantly salty.

The Bun: The seeded brioche was prepared specifically and solely for Smith House by an un-named vendor. Honestly, I wouldn't have wanted to be named as the baker that provided that bun. The bun was DRY. The bun carried a sweetness somewhere between a doughnut and a scone. The bun was mealy almost to the point of grittiness. The bun was very rich. Additionally, the bun was heavily buttered and under-toasted. I resorted to eating the burger without the bun, but without the cloying sweetness there was nothing to counter the crushing saltiness. The bun was a very poor match for the burger. That bun was a very poor match for any burger.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: The dry bun dominated the beef at SmithHouse.

The Fries: The peel-off fries were cut in house. They were competently crisped in vegetable oil, and drizzled with truffle oil and dusted with Parmesan cheese. However, the fries were not salted, so that they were oddly bland in comparison to the overly salty burger. The fries did have delicious creamy centers, though.

The Toppings: The SmithHouse Burger came with very finely shredded Iceberg lettuce. This was an odd choice, since it tasted like nothing, and it developed a mushy texture within seconds of entering the mouth. The pickles, however, were mild, sweet, crisp, and delicious. The burger came with an herb aioli, which was relatively sweet. I just couldn't justify smearing even more fat onto oily burger and oily bun.

The Value: The SmithHouse Burger was $14. This was a burger that I found difficult to get past the 25% mark. I ate half, but that was a stretch. I was uncomfortable during the drive home as a result of eating even that much.

The SmithHouse Burger was one of the most overwrought burgers that I have ever sampled. Perhaps an amuse bouche portion would have been more appropriate. Otherwise, this was a case of too much:
  • Too much salt
  • Too much funk
  • Too much fat
  • Too much butter
  • Too much sweet
  • Too much char
The signature SmithHouse Burger was likely the chef's idea of taking a burger to an 11, but it simply took a lot of good elements and amplified each of them to the point where they were each overwhelming in their own right and at the same time. I brought back half of my burger to the office for Fat Bruce Lee to sample. He was actually on a diet, so he tore into the burger. He took a reckless and gluttonous 1/4 burger bite, and he regretted it almost instantly. He was really taken aback by the sweetness, dryness, and mealiness of the bun. He too found the salt and char to be over the top and unpleasant. He threw the second half away..I repeat...Fat Bruce Lee did not finish even half of this burger. This was truly unfortunate--SmithHouse was within walking distance of our world headquarters, and it would have been nice to have a truly excellent burger so close.

Burger Review : Far too much of a many, ordinarily, good things were combined into a sub-par burger at SmithHouse Tap & Grill.

Rating...2 Bites

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Patty Wagon -- Los Angeles, CA


Happy Meal and I intended to check out The Big Burger in Carson earlier in the day, after visiting the Aquarium of the Pacific, but I couldn't find the place. Happy Meal and I ended up at Jack In The Box-- it didn't warrant a real review.  Besides, I noted that Patty Wagon was going to be on the West Side of Los Angeles that evening, so all was not lost.
This from the Patty Wagon site "...We are passionate about providing healthy, sustainable, delicious and flavorful beef.  All of our animals are exclusively pasture raised in Teton Valley, Idaho.  Unlike animals raised in factory farms, our cattle are never fed grain or anything else unnatural to their diet.  They are never given any steroids, growth hormones or antibiotics.  Our cattle live naturally, on green pastures, which means we are able to provide beef that tastes the way nature intended!..."

A few days ago, the LA Food Editor of Urban Dig (Danielle Lehman), asked me if there was a way to generally tell if a burger was going to be mediocre. I shared my discovery that if the staff was clueless about the burger, then that lack of communication within the organization often translated into weak chow.

My point being, I was unable to learn anything about the beef in the burgers at the Patty Wagon truck other than the fact that it was from ground up, grass-fed cattle. This lack of pride spilled over into other areas...the chalk menu boards were smudged and, in places, illegible, and other parts of the descriptive signage were missing. Still, I soldiered on and ordered a couple of the mini burgers--Patty Wagon only sold mini burgers. I ordered a Classic for $2.75 (25 cents extra for a mini slice of Cheddar) and a Mood Indigo ($3.75). An order of fries would have been an additonal $3.50--I was not interested in pushing my total past the 10 buck mark considering that the patties were about 2 ounces each. I am not a $10 quarter pounder guy. My order was up in about 10 minutes.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: Patty Wagon sourced their beef from an unnamed farm in Idaho, and I guessed that this may have also been one of the farms in the expanding Niman Ranch network. Still the cattle were raised in the shadow of the Tetons. "Teton" means "breast", and those are generally a source of goodness and happiness. The beef arrived coarsely pre-ground from the source. While the crew at Patty Wagon was unable to name the cut of beef in the burgers, I was leaning toward Sirloin, and I pegged the fat content at around 12%. The burger patty was pretty strongly beefy. It carried a hefty note of funk--this was a little too strong for the 2 1/4 ounce patty.  That funk stuck with me overly long on the ride home. The mouth feel was firm and dry like over-cooked steak. Finally, there was a strong minerality to the bite, which was characteristic of Sirloin. The Classic burger patty was dry...really dry, and that was unfortunate, because the flavor was there.

I also tried the Mood Indigo mini burger. The menu was confusing, since it indicated that I was to expect a "mini hamburger with blue cheese, Niman Ranch bacon, sauteed mushrooms and onions served on a toasted ciabatta." All of those typos were a faithful transcription of the Patty Wagon menu. Anyway, my Mood Indigo was lacking bacon, and a conversation with the crew revealed that they had pre-cooked the bacon and had mixed that into the beef. I certainly couldn't taste the bacon, but the Mood Indigo burger patty was much moister and a little more savory. It also lacked the steak-like character of the Classic.

The Seasoning: I tasted a faint trace of salt on the exterior of my mini burgers.

The Sear: The diminutive patties received a lackluster sear. While, it would have been possible to get a good sear on a small patty, it would have also required very high temperatures. That would have caused the cramped food truck kitchen to be uncomfortably hot.

The Preparation: The patties were prepped in the morning. The small burgers were hand-formed with sufficient pressure to keep them together, but they were not over-manipulated to the point of chewiness. The thin, flat burgers were cooked to an indisputable Well Done. The burgers were cooked on a moderately hot, gas-fired, flat top.

The Cheese: Both the Cheddar and the Bleu were mild and only moderately savory. Neither cheese contributed to the dishes in a meaningful way.

The Bun: The tiny brioche, which bore the Classic burger was typically sweet and on the dry side. The top was brushed with oil, and that was bothersome. Ladies and Gentlemen--the point of the bun is to keep the grease off of one's fingers. If I wanted greasy fingers, I would have ordered a bunless it goes. The ciabiatta that sandwiched the Mood Indigo burger was terrific. It had all of the pillowy, moist, neutral goodness of a fresh potato roll. Neither bun was properly toasted, so neither bun delivered a much-needed crispness to the bite.

The Toppings: The tomato slice was pornographically moist and red--it was delicious. Sadly, the Romaine lettuce leaf was  a little black and rotten around the edges. I requested a fresh leaf, and it took quite a long time to locate a suitable one. I assumed that Patty Wagon had taken delivery of a bunch of bad Romaine, and they were sorting through the stock to find a suitable piece. Accordingly, I did not taste the Romaine lettuce. The sautéed onions and mushrooms on the Mood Indigo were savory and well-prepared. These toppings conferred some much-welcomed moisture to the bite.

The Fries: I did not order fries, but other folks around me did. The fries were ribbon-cut. This meant that the flat fries came out very crisp. They were salted with sea salt after being cooked to a deep golden brown.

The Value: I spent $6.75 on a couple of 2 ounce cheeseburgers of nominal quality. I did leave full. The value was about average at Patty Wagon.

The schtick at Patty Wagon was mini burgers. Mini burgers tend to be dry. Patty Wagon's mini burgers followed that trend. Patty Wagon served up burgers that were close to being good, but quality control issues and some over-cooking took these burgers from pretty good to merely OK.

Burger Review : The Patty Wagon truck used some exceptional beef in their mini burgers. If the management were to educate the staff regarding the ingredients, there might be some additional pride in the preparation.

Rating...3 Bites

Monday, August 22, 2011

Burger Joint -- San Francisco, CA

Multiple locations in San Francisco...this review is of the airport (SFO) location

Fat Bruce Lee and I were on our way back to Los Angeles, and we spotted Burger Joint on the concourse of the Virgin Terminal at SFO. Jackpot! The menu promised the following: "...meats that are humanely and sustainably raised on family farms and ranches..........tasty meals made with the best and freshest local ingredients..." That looked promising, so I ordered a 1/3 pound cheeseburger ($9.75) and an order of fries ($3.95). That was about $14 for a burger and fries, but it was the airport, so prices were bound to be jacked up. My cheeseburger was ready to pick up at the counter in about 8 minutes.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The burger patty was the San Francisco-standard pre-ground, 80:20, Niman Ranch Chuck. The patties were firm but not chewy. The flavor was strongly beefy with no hint of aging. The patty was satisfyingly juicy, and it had just a hint of char from the gas-fired grill. The beef was fresh enough, that I caught a little mineral flavor from the blood in the patty. The beef was a better than average at Burger Joint.

The Seasoning: The exterior of my burger patty was dusted with an appropriate amount of salt to complement the beefy flavors.

The Sear: The burger patty took on a moderate sear from the grill. The 1/3 pound patty was relatively thin, so a proper sear would have been a bit miraculous. The hint of char created an interesting flavor, which generally made up for the lack of a solid sear.

The Preparation: The burger patties were freshly formed during morning prep. The evenly round patties were pressed, by hand, into molds with a medium pressure. The grind was medium, and my burger was cooked to a juicy Med-Well. The gas-fired grill at Burger Joint's open kitchen was appropriately hot to cook their burgers quickly but without causing too many flare-ups.

The Cheese: Burger Joint offered a nice variety of cheeses, but I went with reliable American cheese. This was nicely melted, and it rounded out the flavor profile and mouth feel with the usual umami, salt, and creaminess.

The Bun: This was a standard, seeded, white hamburger bun. The bun was nominally toasted, but it offered no crunch. The bun was fresh, moist, yeasty, and barely sweet. The bun stayed out of the way.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: This was spot on. The soft bun compressed perfectly.

The Toppings: The Romaine lettuce and the tomato slices were fresh and flavorful.

The Fries: The thick-cut fries were prepped in-house, and they were cooked in peanut oil. The peel-on fries came out hot, crisp, and golden brown. The fries were not seasoned thoroughly enough, but they did taste strongly of earthy potato flavors.

The Value: A cheeseburger and fries at Burger Joint was $14. While this was an airport burger, the value was meager. The patty was a slim 1/3 pound, and the fries were well over-priced.

The cheeseburger at Burger Joint was surprisingly good for airport fare. The amount of prep, which occurred on site contributed to the quality of the burger and the sides. I would note that the chicken breast sandwich was bone dry. All told, one could do far worse than Burger Joint.

Burger Review : Burger Joint served up one of the best burgers that I have ever tried in an airport. It was pricey but a darn good burger.

Rating...4 Bites

Friday, August 19, 2011

Roam Artisan Burgers -- San Francisco, CA

1785 Union Street 
San Francisco CA 94123

Roam Artisan Burgers was located directly next door to The Brick Yard on Russian Hill in San Francisco, CA. The Brick Yard was Brick in years past, and Brick served up a remarkably simple and delicious cheeseburger. It was my hope that the cheeseburger gods had conferred the torch of awesomeness one door down. This from the Roam website. "From pasture to plate, Roam Artisan Burgers offers delicious burgers, sides, shakes and sodas crafted from fresh quality ingredients that have been carefully sourced from a select group of purveyors."

Fat Bruce Lee and I ordered a couple of the 4-ounce The Classic burgers ($5.99) with cheese ($1 extra). The Russet Fries were $2.99. We ordered a single serving of these, as well. All told, a cheeseburger and fries at Roam Artisan Burgers was $10. We ordered at the register and waited about 15 minutes for our order to arrive. Sadly, my burger was slathered in the house sauce on the first attempt. I had asked that this be served on the side. I returned my burger to the counter, and waited an additional 15 minutes for a refire. This was ridiculous, since a refire should take precedence rather than start at the back of the line. By the time my burger arrived, my party had all but completed their meals leaving me to rush as they watched. 

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: I was not able to discuss the beef with the staff, since it was lunch time, and I did not want to slow down the line. I took them at their word that the beef was sourced locally and that the beef was 100% grass-fed. That led me to believe that this was our old friend, Niman Ranch Chuck. The smallish patty delivered a hefty dose of beef flavor, and it was very juicy. I pegged the fat content at the standard 20%. There was no funk, so it was safe to assume that the beef was fresh or, at the most, wet aged.  The bite was firm but not chewy. The beef was solid in the burger at Roam Artisan Burgers.
The Seasoning: Oof. My burger was heavily salted. It was salted to the point of the seasoning being a distraction. The salt was on the verge of being overwhelming. Honestly, I had already waited 30 minutes for a 4 ounce burger, and I didn't want to wait any longer. There was a little pepper in the mix, but that was masked by the salt.

The Sear: The sear was only faintly present. The burger patty had the appearance of having been steamed rather than cooked on a properly hot flat top. I assumed that the kitchen covered the burgers to make them cook faster. This rubbery wetness was present on all 4 burgers at the table. This was a tragic error, because by keeping the surface temperature low, it robbed the burger of the flavor and textural benefits of the Malliard reaction. Frying the burger rather than steaming it would have created the proper and crusty sear that the tasty beef and I both deserved. 

The Preparation: The burger patty was cooked on a gas-fired flat top to a pink and juicy Medium. The patties were tender and juicy. It seemed fair to assume that Roam Artisan Burgers took daily delivery of freshly ground Chuck from their supplier. The patties were formed from beef ground at a medium setting, and I would have guessed that the burgers were formed during morning prep. The beef tasted suspiciously like what I have tried on the previous evening at Super Duper Burgers. Super Duper used freshly ground, Niman Ranch Chuck. Super Duper just cooked it faster and better for a lower price...and they served up a bigger burger.  Like Super Duper Burger, Roam also used the Strauss Organic Soft Serve, which was splendid.
The Cheese: The Aged White Cheddar was salty, rich, and full of umami. It was also unmelted. This was frustrating when I considered the 30-minute wait for that over-salted, steamed burger with unmelted cheese.

The Bun: The bun was a yeasty, chewy, dense, heavily seeded, burger bun with an absolutely fantastic texture. Unfortunately, it was only weakly toasted, so it did not benefit from proper preparation. The flavor was great, but the texture was lacking.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: Perfect.

The Fries: We sampled the Russet Fries, and they were properly cooked, full of flavor, and nicely seasoned with salt and parsley. They were par cooked, so the crispness was there. The fries tasted like they had been cooked in fresh canola oil.

The Toppings: The Bibb lettuce and tomato slices were both fresh, juicy, and delicious. The BBQ sauce, which I had on the side was tangy, and it tasted strongly of molasses. I liked that with the fries.

The Value: At Roam Artisan Burgers, the price for a smallish burger, fries and soda was in the $14 range. That meant that the value was weak for such a small portion of slow-to-the-table and sloppily prepared food.

The ingredients and pricing at Roam Artisan Burgers set the stage for a world-class burgers. The preparation and execution at Roam Artisan Burgers was comparable to what one might expect from a fast food burger chain. The flavors were great. In fairness, after the meal, the cashier did come to the table and provide a gift card to comp my burger since my meal arrived as my companions were finishing theirs. In the end, I missed Brick more than ever. I also appreciated Super Duper all the more.

Burger Review : Great ingredients, but I would suggest trying Roam Artisan Burgers during non-peak hours. The burger, while delicious, was haphazardly prepared. It seemed like the kitchen staff was dealing with being chased by hornets while preparing my meal.

Rating...4 Bites (4.5 Bites with a sear, melted cheese, and a timely delivery)

LarkCreekSteak -- San Francisco, CA

Westfield® San Francisco Centre
845 Market Street, 4th Floor, Ste 402
San Francisco, CA 94103


Fat Bruce Lee and I were visiting San Francisco for a conference, and we scheduled a lunch meeting at LarkCreekSteak. I had seen a particularly stunning review on the SeriousEats site, and I wanted to see if LarkCreekSteak was in the business of delivering consistent excellence. I quickly discovered that there was a fair amount of inaccuracy in the review, which I had read. As a result, the LarkCreekSteak burger failed to live up to the hype. Don't believe everything you read...unless you read it here. We ordered up a couple of the Steakburgers at $13.95 each ($15.45 with a slice of cheese), and the burgers came with some hand-cut fries. We waited about 20 minutes for our cheeseburgers to arrive. I did send my top bun back, since the brioche was very nearly hollow.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The burger beef was a combination of freshly ground, wet-aged cuts of both Filet Mignon and NY Strip. Wet-aged beef in a 15 dollar burger at a steak house? Sigh. The burger patty weighed in at 8 ounces. The beef was very loosely packed and ground at a setting in the medium range. This resulted in an overly loose mouth feel. The burger beef offered up no resistance. In fact, the unmelted cheese was more toothsome than the loose (nearly mealy) beef. The flavor of the beef was beefy, but it offered no trace of that characteristic steak house funk. There were tame notes of minerality, which belied the premium cuts. The beef was moderately juicy, and the fat content was in the 20% range. The beef tasted fine, but it was well below what one would expect of a steak house. I did not seek out the source of the was not sufficiently interesting to warrant further investigation.

The Seasoning: The beef blend was unseasoned. The burger patties were liberally seasoned with freshly ground salt just prior to being placed on the wood grill. The seasoning was appropriate, but certainly not interesting. I had hoped for a proprietary steak house blend of seasonings.

The Sear: The sear on our burgers was nominal. The wide grates of the grill applied a moderate, partial sear, but that sear was so thin that it was barely discernible to the palate. Sadly, the review, which I had read, really zeroed in on a magnificent sear. That sear was simply not present when we visited.

The Preparation: The burger patties at LarkCreekSteak were formed from freshly ground beef during morning prep. The looseness of the patties indicated that these were truly freshly formed. Unfortunately, not enough pressure was applied during that process to create a sufficiently firm bite. The lack of sear, and the fact that the patties were turned three times on the grill, suggested that there was little burger cooking talent present in the kitchen on the day of our visit. What was really disappointing was that the almond wood-fired grill imparted absolutely no flavor of char or smoke to the dish. The grate on the grill was positioned too high above the coals. To the credit of the kitchen, the request for Med-Rare was honored.

The Cheese: We went with the Aged Gruyere, and this was a disappointing cheese. It was not smooth, creamy, nutty, or buttery. The unmelted Gruyere was simply a little salty. It ended up being on the leathery side, and it sweated a fair amount of oil. I was astonished that a steak house didn't finish the dish under a broiler to ensure that the cheese would be properly melted.

The Bun: The bun at LarkCreekSteak was solid. It was a seeded, brioche-style bun from PANoRAMA in Marin, CA. The bun was only barely sweet. It was yeasty, firm, and moist. It was not sufficiently toasted to bring additional texture to the party, but it was competent at absorbing stray juices from the burger patty.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: Perfect.

The Fries: The thick, square cut steak fries were wonderful. They were par-cooked in canola oil and finished in the same. The fries were cut in house and cooked to a pale, but perfectly crisp, finish. The fries were hearty, creamy, and rich with fresh, earthy, potato flavors. The fries were the winner on the plate.

The Toppings: Both the Bibb lettuce and the sliced tomato were fresh and delicious.

The Value: Meh. The value was on the weak side at LarkCreekSteak. The $1.50 upcharge for unmelted cheese on a 14 buck burger was insulting. The wet-aged beef checked most of the boxes in terms of flavor, but it lacked sufficient punch. The preparation was weak, and as a result, the mildly seared, loosely packed burgers leaned towards dull.

LarkCreekSteak had all of the elements in place to deliver a spectacular burger. LarkCreekSteak did not deliver a spectacular burger.

Burger Review : LarkCreekSteak checked off the obligatory "burger box" on their menu with a slightly above average tasting burger, which was prepared in a lackluster fashion.

Rating....3 Bites

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Neri's Curbside Cravings -- Los Angeles, CA


Happy Meal and I had just finished up our delicious Bratwursts at Steingarten L.A. We were on our way home to clean up and then head off to see the dinosaur exhibit at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. As we approached home, I noticed the Neri's Curbside Cravings truck. That truck had been on my list of places to try, and this was my moment. I performed a U-turn of questionable legality and deposited the car in the No Parking zone next to the food truck with Happy Meal strapped in to take the fall in case the cops showed up. The truck was catering a private event, and it was not actually open to the public. In harmonious concert, the forces of Capitalism and my devastating good looks quickly worked past that formality, and I was allowed to order the Tapa Burger. The Tapa Burger was described as a grilled marinated beef patty, topped with cilantro, tomato and egg, on a bed of a special mango-bell pepper slaw with garlic aioli spread ($6.00). Since Neri's Curbside Cravings specialized in Filipino fare, I broke with tradition, and I ordered the burger exactly as described. My burger was ready in about 12 minutes. I decided to eat it at home, which was only about a minute away from the truck's location. 

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The beef was surprisingly good--I had been expecting Chuck up until my first bite. Defying my expectations, this burger was strongly beefy, and it carried a firm note of iron. A follow-up call confirmed my suspicion that Neri's Curbside Cravings was rocking something more premium than Chuck. The were using Sirloin--bless them. It got better. They marinated the Sirloin for 2 days in a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and garlic. After leaving the marinade, the beef was ground (in-house) and formed into patties for the day. The resulting bite was flavorful, juicy, lean, and so very tender. The loosely packed, tender Sirloin very nearly melted in the mouth. When I tried this burger, I was not hungry. In spite of that, I had difficulty putting that delicious ground steak sandwich down. My guess was that the Tapa Burger was named for the seasoning/marinating process, although tapa, generally refers to dried or cured meat.

The Seasoning: I couldn't detect additional seasoning on the exterior of the patty, but it was so flavorful from the marinade, that additional seasoning would have been unnecessary. 

The Sear: BOOM!  Neri's Curbside Cravings applied a remarkably crisp sear to the thick, 8-ounce patty. The sear remained crisp throughout while I was enjoying the burger. Keep in mind that my burger was topped with a ton of wet stuff, so retaining crispness was quite a feat.

The Preparation: The preparation of my burger was flawless. The beef was ground at a medium coarse setting. The burger was cooked to about Medium without me making any special requests. The flat-top/griddle in the back of that food truck must have been cranked up about as high as it could go. I appreciated that, because this imparted a crisp sear without over-cooking the burger patty. The beef was formed into patties with a gentle touch, so the proteins did not bind together to create chewiness.

The Cheese: I didn't see any cheese on the menu, and I didn't ask for any. This was a burger that I didn't want to tweak too much, since I was not well-versed in the cuisine.

The Bun: Neri's Curbside Cravings baked their own buns. The bun was actually a Pan de Sel. This was a delicately sweet roll. It was fresh, moist, and very well toasted. The bottom bun did eventually become overwhelmed by the juicy beef, but this was a small price to pay for juicy, marinated Sirloin.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: This was spot on. There was never a moment where I was aware of any breadiness.

The Toppings: This was where the burger went from really good to great. 

  • The mangoes and bell peppers for the slaw were cut julienne-style in-house. This slaw was like a delicate and crunchy sunomono. It was cut finely enough that it easily compressed when bitten. I would have eaten the slaw as a side, too. It was delicious. 
  • They slipped some lettuce, carrots, and red onion into the mix. It was all perfectly fresh and crisp.
  • The tomato slice blended into the background, but it provided some fill for the texture of the slaw. 
  • I rarely order my burgers with egg on top, but in this case, I am glad that I let it all happen. The egg was cooked Over-Medium, and it just worked. I suppose a burger with so much vegetation almost required an additional protein to balance out the bite. 
  • There was a garlic aioli in there somewhere, but it was subtle enough to blend into the background.
The Fries: No fries...chips. I was fine with that.

The Value: 6 bucks for a half-pound Sirloin burger. The beef was marinated for 48 hours and ground in-house. The bun was baked in house, and the bun was something of a rarity. The slaw was prepared in-house. The assemblage was absolutely delicious. The value was very good for the Tapa Burger at Neri's Curbside Cravings. Also, this food managed to wipe away my bad Filipino burger memories from Jollibee.

Burger Review : If you see this truck....STOP and get a burger. If you have just eaten, it will not matter. Stop and try the Tapa Burger from the Neri's Curbside Cravings truck.

Rating...5 Bites

Friday, August 12, 2011

Hearty Deli -- Los Angeles, CA

1618 Corinth Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Fat Bruce Lee, Chi Burger, Special Guest, and I were all feeling that gnawing sensation in the pits of our stomachs, and only a cheeseburger was going to satisfy that hunger. I had noticed a number of happy and satisfied reviews for Hearty Deli, and I wanted to count myself as part of that group. Hearty Deli boasted really low prices, and an inexpensive go-to joint...well, who wouldn't want that?  There was plenty of metered parking on the street, and we experienced a wait time of zero minutes and zero seconds, since we were the only ones there at noon on a Friday. We were too dumb to get the hint, so we ordered away.  Our burgers were ready in about 4 minutes. We waited for our meals at the small collection of tables near the order window.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: Blah. The burger patties were so thin that they became convex (or concave--depending upon one's perspective) as they cooked on the griddle. This was California Burgers all over again. The sub-4 ounce patties were bland, dry, rubbery and only slightly beefy. The beef was clearly pre-formed, and I assumed that it was 80:20 Chuck.

The Seasoning: The was no seasoning.

The Sear: The hot griddle put a sear on the cheese side of the Frisbee-like patty, but the concave side was unseared in the center.

The Preparation: The kitchen at Hearty Deli was swift, and they delivered our meals with great efficiency. The burgers were cooked to an aggressive Well-Done. The beef was ground very finely prior to being machine-formed in a factory far away.

The Cheese: The single slice of American cheese on my burger was properly melted, and it was able to contribute moisture, salt, and a little umami to the bite.

The Bun: The standard, seeded, hamburger bun was fresh, moist, neutral, and quite thoroughly toasted. The bun was moist enough to compensate for the dry beef. The cheese helped, too.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: The bun was a little ahead of the beef but not by much.

The Fries: The peel-off, previously frozen fries were served unseasoned, but there was a shaker of seasoned salt at the pickup window. The fries were brown and crisp. Unfortunately, the oil in which they were cooked was a little rancid, and the fries picked up that unpleasant flavor.

The Toppings: The Iceberg lettuce was fresh, and the tomato slices were red, ripe, and juicy.

The Value: It was $4.80 for a single cheeseburger combo, which included fries and a large drink. The value was good at Hearty Deli.

I had hoped to declare Hearty Deli as my inexpensive, go-to burger joint. That did not happen. Hearty Deli served up a slightly below average burger at a great price. The chicken teriyaki breakfast burrito looked pretty intriguing, though.

Burger Review : A slightly below average burger at a good price.

Rating...3 Bites (2 Bites with a half point bonus for value)

California Burgers-- Azusa, CA

353 East Foothills Blvd
Azusa, CA 91702-2516

Azusa, CA...sure, why not?  I had a meeting in Azusa, CA. When I travel, I like to hit up the local burger spots. California Burgers was suggested as a good meeting place, so California Burgers it was. Parking was convenient and readily available in the ample lot, which surrounded the stand-alone restaurant. It was certainly a low-priced establishment.  I fed 4 people for about 26 bucks (before tip). Our meals arrived in about 8 minutes.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: Meh. The astonishingly thin burger patties had clearly been shipped to California Burgers in a frozen state. The cut was undoubtedly Chuck, and I assumed that it contained the standard 20% fat. The paper-thin burgers were rubbery, bland, and a little dry. The grill rendered off most of the fat from the 3.5 ounce patties. This further robbed them of moisture. The flavor was only mildly beefy.

The Seasoning: There was no seasoning.

The Sear: The gas-fired grill imparted some tame grill marks to the beef. The thin patties would have been impossible to sear properly without a ridiculously hot griddle.

The Preparation: The perfectly circular, mechanically formed, beef discs were uniform in every way. The beef was ground at a medium-fine setting, and the burgers were cooked to a rubbery Well-Done.

The Cheese: My burger came with a slice of melted American cheese. The cheese was not noticeable in terms of texture or flavor. The blandness and dryness of the dish completely cancelled out the goodness of the cheese.

The Bun: The bun was a bun, dryish, seeded, standard, hamburger bun. It was very nicely toasted, though. The toasted bun did provide a competent crunch. Sadly, this also served to further highlight the overall dryness of the dish.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: The big, dry bun dwarfed the anorexic burger patty.

The Fries: The fries were also previously frozen. The fries were properly cooked, and they were moderately crisp. They certainly lacked any earthy potato flavors, and they arrived unseasoned.

The Toppings: The Iceberg lettuce was shredded and fresh. The tomato slices were tough and under-ripe.

The Value: California Burgers charged a meager $4.69 for the Cheeseburger Combo. This included fries and a large beverage. While the food was bland and cheap, it was also filling. When I considered the low cost of the meal, the value was average. I assumed that this restaurant catered to a student crowd.

California Burgers in Azusa, CA did not serve up a burger that I would want to eat again. The ingredients were average to below average in quality, and the quality of preparation was nominal. The flavors...there were no flavors to really speak of.

Burger Review : Meh.

Rating...2 Bites

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Steingarten L.A. -- Revisited -- Los Angeles, CA

10543 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064

Fat Bruce Lee, Chi Burger, and I were idly hanging out at the world headquarters when the "red phone" rang. This could have meant one of two things. Either we were going to receive instructions to deploy the nukes, or one of the restaurants, which we had previously reviewed, was calling to ask us to re-sample an updated burger. Fortunately for all of us, it was the latter. Abbey Berookhim, Director of Operations, for Steingarten L.A. asked us to swing by and try their updated burger. On our previous visit, the bun was a major distraction, and the restaurant had finally settled on a new bun. They had already gone through 4 bun vendors prior to our last visit. Abbey was confident that the new bun from Melrose Bakery was a winner.

Previously, Mr. Berookhim had opened the downtown LA spot, Olive Tree, which catered school lunches and served the office crowd at lunch. Olive Tree went the way of the dinosaurs when the city of Los Angeles exercised imminent domain and forced the caterer off of the property to make way for a Cal Trans building.

The concept behind Steingarten L.A. was California Beer Garden. The hokey, pseudo-Teutonic caricatures of German Biergartens were played out, and Steingarten L.A. chose an updated, subdued path. Long tables, ample outdoor seating, a high retractable ceiling, an enormous selection of craft beers (120...20 on tap), and a sausage-packed menu (24 types) were all elements which substantiated the Biergarten concept. Lacking were cuckoo clocks, yodeling, dirndls, and lederhosen. As the son of FOB German parents, I found the environment refreshing and more in keeping with the Germany that I grew up with.

After about 10 minutes our cheeseburgers arrived.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The beef was identical to what we had tried on the previous visit. This was wet-aged, 90:10 Sirloin. This was an all-natural, grass-fed beef from IDB. The burger meat arrived pre-ground, and it was formed into 8-ounce patties each morning. These burgers were wonderfully beefy and juicy. The Sirloin  tasted of steak, blood, and minerals. There was a faint trace of aging. Steingarten L.A.'s beef was nearly perfect.

The Seasoning: As before, the exterior of the patties was perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper. This seasoning combined with the blood and juices of the ground Sirloin to create a wonderfully beefy and complex bite.

The Sear: The burgers were cooked on a very hot gas grill. The burgers picked up some grill marks, but a proper sear was not developed. In this case, the quality of the beef and the seasonings made up for the lack of sear.

The Preparation: The beef was delivered pre-ground at a medium setting. The fineness of the grind compensated perfectly for the lean beef. The mouth feel was lush--a difficult thing to accomplish with a low fat content. The burgers were formed by hand each morning and as needed throughout the day. The burgers were packed loosely and handled with care. As a result, the bite was very juicy and tender.  Our burgers came out perfectly Med-Rare. I was pleased to see that Steingarten L.A. used a broiler unit to melt the cheese evenly over the burger patties.

The Cheese: On this visit, I ordered my burger (Chef's Choice) with the Smoked Mozzarella. This was a happy choice. The Mozzarella was creamy, smoky, savory, and perfectly melted. The cheese rounded out the bite with smokiness and umami.

The Bun: The burger buns at Steingarten L.A. were delivered fresh daily by Melrose Baking Company. This was a French burger bun. The bun appeared a bit daunting, and it felt a little tough as I cut through it. Fortunately, when I bit into it, all of my concerns were allayed. The bun was an excellent match for the tender, juicy, burger patty. The skin of the bun was savory, and the interior was moist and yielding. The flavor was quite neutral. This bun was excellent in the area of juice retention. The bottom bun captured all of the juices from the burger patty, but it did not become sodden. The bun was also very nicely toasted, and it delivered some crunch to the party. We also sampled the soft pretzels...these were exceptional. The pretzels were glazed with a salty egg wash in lieu of the standard rock salt crust. This was a pleasantly refined departure from the standard.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: Perfect.

The Fries: The fries were identical to what we had sampled on our previous visit.  The skinny fries were cut in-house, par-cooked, and dried prior to cooking in canola oil (soy oil upon request). The peel-on fries were delicious and perfectly seasoned. The Parmesan fries were even better. Steingarten L.A. used a premium, aged Parmesan, and it was splendid. Fat Bruce Lee was equally pleased with his choice of sweet potato fries.

The Toppings:  The Romaine lettuce was fresh and crisp, and the juicy, fresh tomato slices were lightly salted. The sauces all tasted authentically German. The curry sauce and mustards were exceptional. The bacon, which accompanied the Chef's Choice burger was crisp and meaty.

The Sausages: We had the opportunity to sample Steingarten's one-of-a-kind Alaskan Wild Salmon Sausage on a well-executed pretzel bun. This was quite good (in a fish cake sort of way), and it certainly had the merit of novelty. It was a rare treat to try a dish, which we had never before seen on a menu. It actually tasted healthy. Happy Meal and I returned a few days later to sample the Bratwurst ($6.50). The German sausages on the menu were picked up from a purveyor in Burbank. After we took our first bite, we appreciated why Steingarten L.A. selected that purveyor. The Bratwursts were splendid. Happy Meal just grunted with delight as he attacked his. The sausage was mild, juicy, and full of a kind or creamy goodness only found in exceptional Bratwurst. The German mustard matched the bite perfectly. I broke with tradition, and ordered mine on a pretzel bun. The salt-glazed bun was tender and chewy. I worked with the tender sausage. There were a variety of topping available, but I saw no need to tinker with perfection.

Beers: First, Chi Burger ordered something, which was heavy on the cherry flavor. It was a refreshing beer, which tasted like a slightly tarter version of a Berliner Weisse. This was one of my favorites from Berlin--a pint of sour, wheat beer with a shot of raspberry syrup. Bonus, one drank it using a straw! Next, Chi Burger sampled something called the Peach Belle. This was a peach beer blended with fresh peaches from a Japanese orchard. There was also an assortment of fresh herbs in the beverage. This was just like drinking a garden. I have never before tasted beer that seemed so healthy. Fat Bruce Lee was tempted to go for a run after two sips. The bar staff was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful when it came to the beer selection and pairings. With 120 beer choices, an expert staff took the guess work out of ordering the right beer.

The Value: It was $14 for the Chef's Choice burger, and the meal came with a generous portion of fries. I barely put a dent in mine. The value was quite good a Steingarten L.A. 

The beef at Steingarten L.A. was a superstar. The new bun was a perfect match. The cheeses, which we have tried, have all been solid. The fries were exceptional. The burger here was a solid winner. I was pleased that the restaurant was close to my home. If you don't want a burger, get one of the amazing Bratwursts.

Burger Review : A wonderfully flavorful and well-executed burger made from exceptional ingredients....all for a reasonable price.

Rating...5 Bites

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sauce On Hampton -- Revisited -- Venice, CA

259 B Hampton Dr., (2nd St.)
Venice, CA 90291

On a previous visit, Sauce On Hampton delivered a somewhat careless, but very promising, burger. We called ahead to make certain that the Chef/Owner, Sassan Rostamian, would be leading the kitchen. I had corresponded with the young chef, previously, and I was so impressed with his passion for food that I wanted to give him a second chance. Sassan was pronounced "Sauce On." This made the establishment's name a clever pun. Beyond that, Chef Sassan had an undergraduate degree in Chemistry, and his mother was/is a Dietitian. This promised to be an interesting burger.

Sauce On Hampton was all about healthy, organic, seasonal, and locally-sourced ingredients. Fresh/never frozen, organic meats and market fresh produce dominated the menu. When we arrived, the chef was just returning from the farmer's market with heirloom tomatoes and some intensely flavored Nectaplums--if you've never tried a Nectaplum, then you have been missing out. Fat Bruce Lee and I ordered a couple of the "Classic, done right" burgers. These came with Cheddar and Applewood Bacon for $10 each. All burgers at Sauce On Hampton also came with tomato, baby spinach, red onion, house-made aioli, a special sauce, and Dijon mustard. We ordered all of that on the side. While we waited the 10 or so minutes for the cheeseburgers to cook, the chef and I geeked out over burger preparation. I was pleased to learn that the burger also came as a wrap. The chef and I shared a passion for burgers in that form.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: The burger patty was 6.5 ounces of grass-fed, coarsely ground Chuck from Estancia Beef. The beef was ground locally at Premier Meats. The freshly ground beef was delivered fresh 6 times per week. The beef was wet-aged, and it had a fat content of 20%. On this visit, the beef delivered no notes of aging. It was nice and beefy, and it delivered a satisfying end note of minerals, which was unusual for Chuck. The burgers were satisfyingly juicy, and they had a nice flavor of carbon from the cast-iron griddle upon which they were cooked.

The Seasoning: The burgers were gently dusted with a salty seasoning blend when they hit the griddle. This seasoning was only applied to one side of the burger patties. I thought that I would miss the salt, but I did not. The burger was quite flavorful, and the Cheddar pulled through like a boss. The beef blend was not seasoned prior to cooking. 

The Sear: The sear was nice. The cast-iron griddle put a carbon-heavy sear on the fresh-tasting beef.

The Preparation: The burgers were cooked to the Medium, which we requested. The patties were prepped ahead, but only by a little. Generally, Sauce On Hampton pre-formed enough patties to get themselves halfway through lunch. This practice insured that the burgers did not sit around long enough to become chewy. It worked, and our burgers were juicy and toothsome. The chef was a pro, and he set the default for burger cooking to Medium. Med-Rare Chuck has always tended towards........blah.

The Cheese: The Cheddar, which topped the burger patties was perfectly melted, salty, and sharp. The cheese was melted under one of those burly, industrial broiling units known as a Salamander

The Bun: This was a whole wheat, oat-topped, mildly-toasted, bespoke burger bun. The bun was sourced with great care from a local bakery, which the chef kept a secret. The bun was hearty in flavor without being heavy or bready.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: This was spot on.

The Fries: No fries were on the menu at Sauce On Hampton. Fat Bruce Lee had the roasted potatoes, and I had the mixed green salad. I couldn't speak for the quality of the potatoes, but the salad was fantastic. Every bit of veg on the plate was absolutely phenomenal.

The Toppings: The baby spinach was ridiculously fresh, and it was quadruple washed to rinse away all traces of grit. The heirloom tomatoes were crimson, perfect, and rich with flavor.  The thick slices of apple wood-smoked bacon were delicious.
Sides: The chef was kind enough to bring out a flight of his roasted, whole heirloom tomatoes. If you don't want a burger, you still need to go to Sauce On Hampton to sample this culinary revelation. These juicy, firm, tender mouthfuls tasted more like roasted apricots than tomatoes. This alone was worth the trip.

We also a tried the Pluot Crumble. This was made from Flavor King pluots, and it was a delight. The hint of cinnamon caused the flavor to intensify to the point of forcing a grin to our faces. Chef Rostamian was a food geek, but he was especially a fruit geek.

The Value: $10 for a very good cheeseburger with some of the most amazing produce was a fine value at Sauce On Hampton. 

It was odd. After eating our cheeseburgers, Fat Bruce Lee and I felt we had just eaten a healthy meal. Sauce On Hampton delivered a lively, fresh, flavorful cheeseburger. I would strongly urge anyone to go there for the produce alone. Also, the chicken sandwich was HUGE. It was about 1/2 pound of fresh chicken breast on a bun with a pile of fresh greens.  

I also sampled the burger with all of the toppings, and when fully topped the burger was elevated a notch. The bacon and tomato slices filled in where the beef was lacking. This created a full-bodied, full-flavored bite. 

Burger Review : The burger at Sauce On Hampton was an example of the goodness, which occurs when superior ingredients are prepared by a skilled hand with an emphasis on fresh flavors. This was one of the few burgers, which we have sampled, that actually tasted healthy. I have to imagine that the chef's mother is proud of the nutritious dishes being prepared at her son's restaurant.

Rating...4 Bites (4.5 Bites with all of the toppings--this was a nearly perfect bite.)

The Melt (Wrap)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

S & W Country Diner -- Culver City, CA

9748 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

I had often looked wistfully at the facade of S & W Country Diner when Happy Meal and I were eating at the El Pollo Loco across the street. Happy Meal had never been game for trying the diner, and, as usual, the youngster proved to brighter than myself. Fat Bruce Lee and I had originally set out to try City Tavern, but they were in the middle of a film shoot there, and they didn't bother to update their website to warn off potential customers. Our backup burger was at Le Saint Amour, but they had recently nixed the burger from the menu. We are not good at taking hints. So, undeterred, we walked around the corner to S & W Country Diner. They had a selection of burgers on the menu, and at this point, we were quite hungry. We had already paid for metered parking on the street. Our cheeseburgers were ready in about 10 minutes.  Note: S & W Country Diner only takes cash.

The Burger Breakdown...

The Beef: At S & W Country Diner, the beef tasted and felt like a very low grade of fatty Chuck. The burger patty was a crumbly puck of flavorless, oily, connective tissue and amazingly flavorless beef. It had all of the appeal of a scab. The 1/3 pound burger was vaguely beefy, and that was the extend of the flavor. The beef was oily to a fault. We didn't really chew the beef, we simply mechanically separated the bits of connective tissue and choked them down. 

The Seasoning: There was none.

The Sear: The sear was remarkable. This was very much like the bland but epic sear, which we saw at the Steak 'n Shake in Las Vegas in July of this year. The sear provided crunch, but there was no flavor to bring out. It was all style and no substance.

The Preparation: After one bite of the burger, I had zero interest in learning about how S & W Country Diner prepared their burgers. I deduced that the irregularly shaped patties must have been formed by hand. It was also apparent that the burgers were cooked on a very hot flat top. The burgers were only 1/3 pound, so at least they were mercifully small. The burgers were cooked to Well Done.

The Cheese: S & W Country Diner used a very mild Cheddar on their cheeseburgers. The Cheddar was also nearly completely lacking in flavor. It was nicely melted, though.

The Bun: The bun was a big, soft, seeded, sweet, hamburger roll. It was a on the dry side, and it was unevenly toasted. I would have rather eaten the bun that the burger patty.

The Meat To Bun Ratio: The bun was too much for the small, bland, oily burger patty.

The Fries/Rings: Both arrived completely unseasoned. Neither were created in-house. The fries were competently cooked. The rings were breaded in corn meal and were then cooked hard enough to become satisfyingly dark and crunchy.

The Toppings: The Romaine lettuce was fresh and crisp. The tomato slice was delicious and juicy. The tomato was the best thing on the plate. Accordingly, the tomato slice was the only thing on the plate that I was inclined to finish.

The Value: The Cheeseburger Combo (1/3 pound burger, soft drink, and fries) was $7.95. Rings were an extra 75 cents. The value would have been fine, but the burgers were so sub-standard that any price would have been too high.

The staff at S & W Country Diner was efficient and friendly, and the place, while well worn, was a nice, little diner. Sadly, the burgers were utterly bland and made with what appeared to be a very low grade of beef.  I would not subject myself to a second cheeseburger at this establishment. To this date, we have yet to find a good cheeseburger in Culver City, CA. I dutifully brought back the uneaten half of my burger to The Burger Busters world headquarters, and none of the minions could get past the first bite.

Burger Review : The burger at S & W Country Diner was a study in oily blandness. Pass.

Rating...2 Bites (Fat Bruce Lee in true "human garbage disposal-style managed to finish his cheeseburger and fries.)

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