The challenge this week was to find a good burger in Little Tokyo. My first attempt was at the Lazy Ox Canteen on San Pedro St. Named Best Burger by LA Weekly in 2011, I figured this was a sure bet. Sitting down in this fancy pants gastro pub, I was instantly charmed by the beautiful menu which took its influences from all over the city. Basically they had everything that a drunken gourmand would want from a bar, from pigs ear chicharrones to Galbi beef dumplings to Pacific prawns kebab. The low lighting and bare brick walls made the place feel cozy and warm. All and all, if I was going to get some late night nibbles, this would be a good place to stop.
However, I would never come here for a burger. Yes, on paper it looks magnificent. 7oz of beef on a brioche bun with bravo farms white cheddar, whole grain mustard, red onions, and a leaf of butter lettuce cooked just how you want it. Sounds satisfying, right? Here’s the thing. They over seasoned the beef. Instead of letting the meat shine through, they buried it in salt. Perhaps if there had been a sweet counterpoint like a caramelized onion or a tomato jam, it would have been okay, but there was nothing to soften the blow but whole grain mustard and cheddar. Now, it is entirely possible that maybe I was just there on a bad day and they knocked over a salt shaker into the beef, but for a fifteen dollar burger it was very disappointing. Their fries, however, were excellent. These thick cut potatoes were golden and crispy and hot. (Although to be fair, I have yet to meet a fry that I didn’t like.)
Bummed out but not beaten, I decided to go over to The Spice Table on Central Ave to see if they fared any better. Housed in a big brick building, the high ceilings and sparse but tasteful adornments reminded me a bit of having dinner in a rundown carriage house (in a good way). There was nothing frilly or pretentious about this place. All of the attention was paid to the food. The menu paid homage to the owners’ culinary heritage, Vietnam and Singapore respectively. Chock full of tempting satays and noodles, I was a little sad I was just getting the burger.
That is until it arrived. Then all those fleeting feelings of regret disappeared. Dressed in a wax paper bag escorted by a side of fries covered in garlic, a swimming pool of ketchup, and some delectable pickled bok choy, the burger did not disappoint. Whoever designed the Spice Table cheeseburger is a very big fan of In -N-Out. Instead of a regular beef patty, the Spice Table upped it a notch by making theirs out of ground short rib and topped it with shallot mayo, but was not above putting a slice of Kraft American cheese on there. The real star of the sandwich was the sambal that gave it a subtle heat which took the burger from being good to great. It was the perfect fusion of high and low ingredients that gave the illusion of a classic American In-N-Out burger with a distinctly Singapore twist. So if you’re in Little Tokyo, hankering for a gourmet burger with twenty bucks in your pocket, this is the place to stop.