This week’s burger comes from the bustling metropolis of Santa Ana, which, as the less geographically challenged of you have probably already noted, is not Los Angeles. Is hoodburger taking over all of Southern California you ask? Absolutely! To eventually be followed by the rest of the universe of course. Thanks to a reader submission, this week I went to a little spot I had never before heard of called Playground deep in the guts of Orange County. The one thing I hope to bestow upon you by way of my following words is this: Playground don’t play.
This is not a burger joint by any means. As a matter of fact, there isn’t even a burger on the menu- you have to ask for it (not unlike Café Stella). Rather, playground has an eclectic variety of high quality single plates inspired by cuisine from all corners of the Earth, and upon being seated you are given a letter from the chef to you explaining why you should love them. The letter is perhaps unnecessary, but the food is not cheap and they don’t take special requests, so perhaps it usurps some of the “yeah but I hate shallots and if I’m gonna pay twenty four dollars for a…” that I’m sure they get, and for these guys’ sake I hope it does. It is extremely unlikely that you are qualified to tell them how a dish should be constructed, and after having eaten there once all I would have to say to them is “teach me.”
My meal began with fried cauliflower (with pickled onion, aji panca oil [I think], cashew puree and candied lime), and what a way to start. The pepper oil provides the slightest amount of spice, the cashew brought cream and smoothness, while the pickles and lime were very tart- the lime seemed dried but minimally sweetened if at all, and the cauliflower was fried hot enough to give it great flavor and color but still keep a bit of firmness. Excellent. Next up was a pork belly steam bun because I just can’t seem to go anywhere that serves these without eating one. No big surprises aside from a tartness to the bun (I think they steam with vinegar in the mix) but the pork belly was perfectly cooked, and who doesn’t like radish and guacamole? The stage was well set for the main event.
Playground’s secret burger is an attempt at simplicity that is wildly successful without exactly achieving the stated goal. As the chef to whom I spoke put it, and I couldn’t agree more, it’s all about the meat. Steak trimmings are double ground to make their burgers, and on the second pass, rather than drop it in a bowl and hand press patties, these guys lead it from the grinder in a whole 5in. diameter meat wand that they ever so gently lay on plastic wrap, roll up, and slice, so that the patty’s texture is as delicate as physically possible, because all of the threads of ground beef run parallel and vertically. Then they season it perfectly, and drop it on a la plancha that is probably in the neighborhood of 70,000 degrees. The crust and char on the outside made this burger taste like none other I have ever eaten. Ever. I could easily and happily have eaten the patty by itself. Fortunately for everyone who orders one however, you also get: a house made bun (phenomenally moist) that is slathered with Playground’s 50/50 aioli/parmeasan spread on both sides and GRILLED, leaving you with the experience of eating browned butter that’s crunchy. It’s topped with maple-bourbon onion compote, fontina and Gruyere cheeses, ribboned iceberg lettuce, and a very liberal application of yellow mustard (about which I was as skeptical as you are right now but I assure you it was perfect). I’m going to go ahead and call this burger a work of art.
My sincerest thanks to our Instagram (@hoodburger) followers for bringing me to yet another positively stellar meal. Despite having only eaten at Playground once, my guess is that I fully cosign this place; not just the one item that has not even earned menu real estate. Playground’s burger might not be for the culinary novice, as it’s served a la carte, is $14, and at a glance is confusingly constructed- the dichotomy of involved process and a couple incredibly plain toppings seems an odd choice, until you taste it. However, if you eat burgers because the flavor of skillfully handled ground beef is near to your heart, I beg you, do not skip this one. I can’t wait to eat it again.