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The Original Tops Burger in Pasadena had their 60th anniversary party this weekend.  To celebrate their success the restaurant sold their Tops Special Burger for 60 cents. Who could say no to that? So I hopped in the car on Saturday morning to check it out. The line to get in wound around the building, but it moved really quickly. The kitchen was moving at a frenzied pace trying to cook up burgers in time with demand. The poor guys looked like Sisyphus pushing a rock up that godforsaken hill. Every time they got close to completing their mission, they would be swamped with more orders. 

From here on out I must warn you. This review will be skewed. My meal cost $1.33 (I got a drink) and I’m a very cheap woman. If something costs next to nothing I will love it even more. I love all of my free t-shirts more than the ones I’ve bought. I love every free meal I’ve ever gotten more than the ones I paid for. So, apologies in advance for what come next. It was the best damn 60 cent burger I’ve ever had. The Tops Special consists of a quarter pound beef patty with a thick layer of iceberg lettuce, tomato, sweet red onion, dill pickle and homemade Thousand Island dressing topped with pastrami, mustard and American cheese. It’s a whole lot of flavors piled high and then wrapped snuggly in wax paper sheath.

Would I pay $6.49 for it though? Well, that depends on the circumstances. Is it 3am? Then yes. (They close at 11pm.) Are we in a truck stop in the middle of Missouri? Then I would be super stoked that we managed to find a burger this good, but because we’re in a city that is densely packed with good burgers, probably not. That being said, would I pay a couple bucks more for their pastrami sandwich? Absolutely, unquestionably, yes. The superstar of the burger was far and away the pastrami on top. The salty meaty goodness was divine with the mustard and completely eclipsed the burger patty. The burger itself seemed like an afterthought compared to its toppings. It wasn’t a pastrami burger. It was a pastrami melt with a burger that got lost in the middle of it. It was the Beyonce in the middle of Destiny’s Child. You knew right away who the star was.

-Molly Bergen

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Happy accidents. How cool are they? Can you imagine being the first person to accidentally heat your dried corn until it exploded, or spill a bit of rennet in your warm milk and watch it thicken? Even the non-world-altering ones are terrific; like finding an un-cashed check that is bigger than anything you ever thought you’d forget about, or getting rained out of an outdoor adventure only to have a more awesome time with Netflix and a snuggle buddy. I love them, and to me, today’s burger was a happy accident.

King’s Row is a Gastropub in Pasadena that not only had I never visited before this week, I had never heard of it. Since this blog’s inception, there has been a spreadsheet separated by Hood, listing all the places that deserve my time, money, thoughts, and subsequent metabolic strain. Molly and I both visit it regularly to add new spots as we hear of them or they occur to us, as well as to shop for each week’s culinary quest. (If you have a recommendation, holler: hoodburger@gmail.com). I was supposed to review Father’s Office this week, which, if you haven’t heard is very frequently mentioned among the L.A. burger scene’s fan favorites. I have only been once since moving to California, to the location in Culver City, at which the hostess was SUCH a bitch I can hardly remember what the food tasted like. I’m a sucker for good service, and equally appalled when it is terrible. I digress. The Santa Monica (and original) Father’s Office was on the agenda but I was in Pasadena pumpkin shopping and just didn’t have time for the drive. So- I consulted the list. “King’s Row,” started back at me from my phone. Though I recall those two words residing in the Pasadena column since the beginning of this blog, I have never heard anyone talk about this place. I Google it, and come to find a very bland and uninformative website. $5 happy hour burger with no description. Not looking good. I call Molly. Me: “Hey so is this a place that you want to cover, because I didn’t add it to our list… No? …You’ve never heard of it either? Huh. …Random suggestion from a forgotten friend. Alright well I’m going. Let’s hope it doesn’t suck.”

I map to this place and park across the street from where my phone tells me it is without ever actually laying eyes on the building. Upon walking up and looking at addresses, I determine that I should be right there but all I see is a watch repair shop and an ice cream parlor. Above the single inset door that separates those 2 stores is a very simple and plain sign that says “King’s Row.” I walked right under it. The door opens to a long and dimly but beautifully lit corridor with loads of naked hanging bulbs each emiting the tiniest bit of light. The hall opens up into a huge nouveau-rustic pub, complete with an entire ceiling of skylight. Two moderately sized indoor rooms connect to a large outdoor patio, which on this day was packed. Unless you happen into the alley that the patio faces, you could walk right past King’s Row a thousand times without ever knowing it was there. Within seconds of seating ourselves a friendly waiter appeared out of thin air to let us know that we order from the bar, and that happy hour was upon us. Thanks dude. Now take me to your burger.

The part of the menu that I was able to access from my phone was only the happy hour menu (because I am a dummy and not because their website is inferior as it turns out), and featured nibbles such as cod cakes, wings, and grilled cheese. You can imagine my complete elation when I discovered that they also have a more formal burger than the mini $5 one (3 of them actually), and it is made from 21 day aged ground rib eye (as they all are). Be still my hard-working heart. I had the self-titled “Dry Aged Rib Eye Burger” in that it appeared to be the basic version. This burger featured an 8oz. (guessing) ground rib eye patty, seasoned to absolute perfection. There truly is no substitute for quality meat. This patty is adorned with St. Agur Bleu and White Cheddar cheeses, duck fat caramelized onions, arugula, lemon-garlic aioli on a ‘house bun.’ This burger was nearly perfect. The flavor of the meat was staggeringly delicious due to the aging, and strong enough that the loudness of the cheeses did not totally overpower. The onions were mild and rich, the aioli uniquely bright and surprisingly salty. The bun was like a rosemary dinner roll, and by being a little on the dry side constitutes the singular reason I can’t give the burger a 10.0. It stayed together as I ate it, each bite was as delightful as the one it succeeded, and the fries that come with it were almost as brag-worthy.  At $14 I expect a pretty fine meal, and King’s Row delivered in every measurable way.

I am definitely going back to this restaurant. Look at the whole menu. Based on the care given to the construction of the burger, I can imagine that every dish these folks serve is something to celebrate. The entire patio was alive with happy people drinking, laughing and merrily gorging on beautiful food. You could enjoy just going here and having a cocktail. Yet again, I find myself attracted to a place where grown ups go, and yet again, the joy of food outweighs the pains of aging. I hope to be so lucky as to stumble into a few more similarly incredible finds while this burger quest continues.

-Geoff Sawyer

On the corner of 5th and Spring St in the heart of downtown lies the The Alexandria Hotel. Nestled inside its lobby lies The Gorbals, home of the seven onion burger. The rest of the hotel has been converted into microlofts (shamefully small, hotel room sized apts), a bar called The Down and Out, and a few haunted ballrooms. The lobby is lined with photographs of starlets from the golden era of Hollywood that supposedly stayed there. There is something really eerie about being stared at by the ghosts of LA’s past while the present shuffles through the lobby in a drunken stupor. It’s almost as if they’re accusing you of letting the hotel fall into disrepair.

However once you’re through the heavy doors of the Gorbals a warm wave of relaxation takes over. Wooden tables lit by candlelight cover the floor of the small restaurant. The kitchen takes up the entire back wall and you can watch the chefs rush around frantically as they try and fill their orders.  As a dessert option you can buy the kitchen a round of beers for $10 and watch them drink. The bar is heavily stocked with creative cocktails, the favorites of the evening being the Desperate Housewife and It’s Bourbon, Honey, exotic wines and local beers.  On Thursday nights they have live music and it is not uncommon to have patrons dancing between tables.

The restaurant is owned by Ilan Hall (yes, Mister Top Chef Season 2). Named for the neighborhood in Glasgow, Scotland where his father grew up, the menu is a tribute to his heritage which is half Scottish and half Israeli.  As a child of English and Jewish parents myself, I was really excited about this fusion menu. (There aren’t many of us out there. Andrew Garfield is the only other one that I’m aware of. It’s a weird mix. On one side are people who are the Chosen Ones and the other side people who had an empire on which the sun never set. Basically you grow up with two cultures touting the fact that they are the best. It gets confusing.)

Gorbals menu reflects this kind of confusion with glee. There are the sacrilegious bacon wrapped matzo balls, gribenes (chicken skin) sandwiches, Welsh rarebit with a fried egg on top and ridiculously delicious dill fries. I was there, however, for the dry-aged burger with onions seven ways. That’s right, seven kinds of onion, so many kinds that the waiter couldn’t even remember them all. Here’s what I could detect. There were grilled onions, shaved fried onions, onion jam, sautéed onions, and onions in the bun. The burger itself was cooked medium rare and was really tender, but I would have traded two of those onion varieties for some cheese. The seven onion burger felt more like a parlor trick than a signature burger. I mean, who really chooses to eat a burger with seven kinds of onion in their every day existence? Surely three would do or even five. Seven is just eccentric.

PS. They do have a sticky toffee pudding. The first time I had it, I thought about heading into the kitchen to propose to Mr. Hall on the spot, it was so divine. I even thought of what I would say. “Ilan, I know you don’t know me, but I can’t live without this pudding…I mean you! I can’t live without you!”  The pudding I had this night had no toffee sauce. That’s like having a chocolate fudge sundae without the chocolate fudge. I don’t know what happened. I’m having a hard time getting over it.

-Molly Bergen

I had a conversation tonight with an old friend, who is a cook at Saison, one of San Francisco’s few Michelin rated restaurants boasting more than 1 star. I have yet to eat there, but undoubtedly will because this place is NUTS. My friend directed me to this review, which according to him paints a pretty accurate picture of what Saison does and how they do it. Saison (to my knowledge) does not have a burger, and their menu probably does not suffer for it. I bring this place and this gent up though, because we had a great talk about burgers (duh). He walked me step by step through the recipe to the finest burger he has ever had, from ratios of cuts in the grind, to cooking process, to dressings, all the way to the plate. Now this is a guy, whose job is to smoke fish bones over almond embers until they are ready to be the base of a broth that gets brushed on a single aged sashimi piece. This is a guy who serves coldwater Bluefin robin that are killed instantly after being line caught by having their spinal chords severed so that the amount of lactic acid that builds in the muscle from the struggle on the line is minimized, resulting in a sweeter and finer grained flesh (according to a review by Michael Hung). This is a guy who serves 20 (TWENTY!!!) -course tasting menus of exotic and insanely ornate dishes at what is lauded as one of the best and most exciting restaurants in the WORLD. Yet, somehow, his burger sounded totally normal. I was sworn to not reveal the recipe and will not, but it wasn’t that crazy. I expected Foie Gras in the grind, a 3-day assembly, and rare oils and botanicals making up the aioli. Nope. This burger, despite being the holy grail to one of the fanciest food folks I personally know, would not stand out visually in a lineup. The moral of the story: make a quality product, and you don’t need a gimmick.

The Bucket in Eagle Rock, looks to have been there for quite some time. Cracks in the concrete on the patio are worn just as smooth as the edges on the ramshackle bar inside. The heat of the tiny grill and 2-basket fryer just on the other side of that bar are enough to chase most anyone outside who cares to avoid sweating profusely while they dine. The beer selection is not vast but accommodates everyone, with a few good ones on draught for those who have done their homework, and 32oz bottles of Corona or Tacate tall-boys for the rest of us. The menu is only burgers, and only a few at that, save the standard fare of sides and a couple appetizers. One of the non-burger bites that I ordered (sadly they were out) was labeled as “NOT for cholesterol counters” which though doesn’t exactly make sense certainly makes their point. Granted, deep-fried bacon-wrapped fried shrimp and faux crab definitely (no it is no accident that I said fried twice) is not a dish for those with heart health concerns, but I will confess a little confusion as to why the entire menu was not adorned with the same disclaimer. One of their signature burgers for example, which I ate, known as the Cardiac.

All of the Bucket’s burgers start with a half pound patty, with the exception of the Cardiac, which has two. For those without a death wish (such as myself), you can order a Mild Cardiac, which has only one patty but all the same toppings as its Daddy: cheese, bacon, one hearty ham slice, grilled onions and mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard and ketchup. Now that’s a lot of stuff. Typically I prefer only a few ingredients that truly compliment one another, but these guys really pull off the whole totally over-indulgent burger execution. Despite having to eat the better part of it with a fork and not having every ingredient present in nearly any bite, the Mild Cardiac is a delicious exercise in irresponsible dining. While the patty cooks over open flames, each is covered with seasoned salt, ultra fine garlic powder (it looked like the garlic flavored stuff you put on popcorn) and a serious dousing of worcestershire sauce. The result tastes like… home. The burger is huge I probably ate a 2500 calorie meal at this place, and I certainly moved slowly afterward. Even still, the waitresses being unnecessarily friendly, at least half the clientele being made up of obvious regulars, and the grungy unassuming décor all combine to provide the diner with a sense of comfort that few LA dives are able to deliver. The Bucket is not frilly, but they make a great burger.

Of the few side choices offered I very strongly recommend the onion rings. They outshine the other options by a large margin. I didn’t get to try the fried wrapped shrimp with the cholesterol caution, but I did have the wings, which were ok- no more no less. The infallible trifecta of  burger, onion rings, and beer, is why you go to The Bucket.

-Geoff Sawyer