Bummer Burger

The pljeskavica

The Pljeskavica

I should have listened to Geoff. I really should have. But when the venerable Jonathan Gold puts out his list of his favorite burgers in the city and there is one on that you’ve never heard of…it’s hard to resist. A Bosnian hamburger?  A pljeskavica? Listed as “among the best options in the great hamburger city of Los Angeles” by the famous Pulitzer Prize winning food writer himself, I had to know what that meant. Geoff in his wisdom pointed out that The Apple Pan had also made this list, and everyone knows that the Apple Pan has a vastly overrated burger. It’s a beacon of hype and mediocrity. (I will not knock their pie, however. Their apple pie a la mode is gorgeous.)

There is a reason why Geoff Sawyer is my burger partner and not Jonathan Gold.  Even IF Gold knew who I was and I could afford to pay him, I wouldn’t take him on because the man is just plain wrong about this burger. I need taste buds I can trust. Sawyer’s never lets me down.

The Aroma Café is an adorable establishment wedged in a strip mall in West LA on Overland St. The insides are covered in fake vines and paintings of the Dalmatian coast. You can buy mayonnaise in giant tubes and feta in great tubs. I ordered the pljeskavica with a side of grilled potatoes. I will say this, they do not skimp.  The burger was the size of a 7-inch record wedged between two slices of fresh flatbread with sliced tomato, hunks of feta cheese and a lettuce leaf. Inexplicably it came with a side of raw white onions that had been liberally peppered.  I took a bite and was immediately sad. This was not an amazing burger.  It was not juicy. It was not flavorful. It didn’t even have mayo or ketchup to give it some oomph. It was a perfectly ordinary chargrilled burger. The kind one might find at their cousin’s tailgating party in the parking lot of Soldier Field.  It was dull.

Grilled Potatoes

Grilled Potatoes

The grilled potatoes however did not disappoint. Golden and charred, they were perfectly paired with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of cheese.  I ate the whole plate.

This is not to say I won’t be back to the Aroma café. They had a lot of really enticing things on their menu. Next time I go there I’m going to try their kebabs or their goulash. I’m a sucker for a good goulash. I bet it’s terrific.  But never again will I listen to Jonathan Gold and order their hamburger. That dude has lost his burger recommendation privileges for life.

-Molly Bergen

Gonpachi Burger

Anticipation is an immeasurably powerful tool. The drawn delay of an inevitably terrifying movie moment, the build up to a first kiss, or a day spent mentally revving up for a post-dinner date with one’s favorite dessert, all lead to an eventual experience largely defined by the moments that preceded it. The wanting of the thing in some cases can even be as important as the getting it (if not more so), and when those expectations deliver, the results are spectacular. When they do not, you may have just eaten a burger at Gonpachi.

Well before this blog was launched, a co-worker brought me an unsolicited gift one afternoon, wrapped not so neatly in a small white paper box. “You’re gonna love this” he gleamed. Without the slightest clue what might be inside, I thanked him and promptly tore it open (which is not a very good example of allowing anticipation to work its magic). What I found was a formerly glorious and delightfully unique looking cheeseburger, that appeared to have spent at least the last day in that little box and though obviously well past it’s prime was no less intriguing. A black (the first I had seen) carbon brioche sandwiched a thick beef patty, aged white cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, peppercress, and the sweetest/tartest tomato compote of them all. I still remember it clearly, because I ate the whole luke-warm spent-the-last-4-hours-in-the-front-seat-of-a-truck thing right then and there and was absolutely consumed by the thought of how good this burger would have been had it been constructed recently. Humbled by the surprise present, I asked where it was from so that I may treat us both to a future round of burgers there. “Miyako. It’s a hotel!” was cataloged for future reference.

Gonpachi is actually the name of the restaurant in the Miyako Hotel in Torrance, and for whatever reason I took my sweet time making it back. Absence, for me, does in fact make the heart grow fonder though, so the time passed was not lost but rather spent getting me geared up for my next dance with this burger, one fond memory at a time. The menu described it exactly as I remembered, and my excitement magnified as the moment of reunion quickly approached. Upon ordering, the waiter directed me to a salad bar that is apparently free with any meal, the mediocrity of which came as quite a shock once I actually dug in. Its freeness garnered prompt forgiveness however, because my long awaited burger was soon to be mine.

Gonpachi Burger Plate

Then it came. And it was completely not at all what it was supposed to be. Not even close. I just looked at it. Moved it around. What’s the orange stuff? Wait is that mustard? What is this? The server assured me that this was the only burger they had. The menu still describes the old one, but what they serve now is this thing, which turned out to be a straight up, regular-ass, eighteen-dollar(!!) chili cheeseburger. I will say, the grind, seasoning, and flavor of the beef were impeccable, but the toppings were so confusing. Said delicious patty was dressed with white cheddar, tomato, diced white onion, yellow mustard, and chili that I am fairly certain was just canned Hormel ballpark-style hot dog chili that had been smoothed in a food processor. The (depressingly not black) bun felt like a potato roll but was so thick with the flavor of movie-theater popcorn feaux-butter that onions and chili actually had to compete with it. I moved my shoestring fries and mystery aioli around the large plate and wondered how my life might have been different had I come here a few months earlier.

The worst part is, this was probably one of the best chili cheeseburgers that I have ever had.  Had I gone into Gonpachi with an expectation of what I might actually get, or with no expectations at all, ‘lackluster’ would surely not be my first choice of adjective for the experience. Anticipation got the best of me though, and Gonpachi ultimately did not compare to my imagination.

-Geoff Sawyer

Gonpachi Burger Guts

The Lazy Ox Canteen Burger (Photo by Peter C.)

The Lazy Ox Canteen Burger (Photo by Peter C.)

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.)

The Spice Table Cheeseburger

The Spice Table Cheeseburger

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.

The Spice Table Cheeseburger Wins!

The Spice Table Cheeseburger Wins!

Slim Pickins

Product is key. If you want to sell something, pour your energy into making that thing awesome. An amazing product does not require particularly creative marketing, because people want the thing; they don’t want to win a game to get it or be wowed by how cleverly and/or strangely said thing is presented to them. Radiohead hardly markets their records at all anymore; they just put it out, and people find it and tell everyone they know. Ok Go on the other hand, has constructed an entire career (and a lucrative one at that) on their penchant for making brilliant video content centered around their otherwise unremarkable music. Not to say that they are bad by any means but I, like many others, would never have heard of them had it not been for this viral video. Smoke and mirrors, bells and whistles, call a concept whatever you like but a gimmick is a gimmick and is most functional as tool used to draw attention away from the mediocrity of a product. This week we travel to Skid Row to the Escondite: which is flush not only with gimmicks but also, perhaps predictably, mediocre burgers.

Boss Hog

The Escondite is unfortunately located in a particularly neglected pocket of downtown LA, just a couple blocks East of where you would ever want to go. The inside is lit like the type of club that reeks of Axe aerosol cologne during all operating hours, and a large sometimes covered outdoor patio would be more inviting if it faced something other than a huge parking lot. They have a pretty comprehensive menu (it’s not JUST a burger spot, as you can read in the pages of would-be witty literature on their website), but they do have a pretty lengthy list of specialty burgers and not a single one of them is not weird. Each burger is named after something you’ve probably heard of, in many cases fictitious TV characters and in others more failed attempts at levity, but there doesn’t seem to be much method to the naming. I tried the Boss Hog, and Slim Pickins; both of which appear on the regular menu. There is also a rotating burger of the day menu, which features a few more weird burger formulas named after 80’s and 90’s TV roles. I had one of these the only other time I went, and I don’t remember what it was called but it had Mac and Cheese on it. Maybe a Seinfeld character. I digress…

Boss Hog Guts

The Boss Hog is the Escondite’s chili-cheese burger, and was the better and less strange of the two I tried. It features vegetarian chili(?), sour cream, cheddar cheese and a “special crunch” (Fritos). The burger is not bad, but is generally unimpressive and the low quality of ingredients was obvious. The buns look attractive but were just dry white bread, and the flavor of the meat was disappointing. The Slim Pickins was even more lackluster- boasting Canadian bacon, cheddar, onion, BBQ sauce and its own special crunch, which this time was Funyuns. Not much more to say about it really. You know what all that stuff tastes like. The chosen sides were poutine (pretty good actually), fried pickles (breading was too think and they served them with thai chili sauce because these guys are clearly the only people on earth who know about fried pickles but do not know that ranch dressing is the fried pickle’s universally irrefutable soulmate), and a side salad that was comprised of shit that I laughed when I saw, including 2 types of cheese cube.

Slim Pickins Guts

If you, like myself are on a Los Angeles burger quest, let me do the work for you on this one: you can guiltlessly skip this place. If a burger served on doughnuts with maple syrup sounds good to you, or you would prefer yours to be topped with garlic mashed potatoes and gravy instead of things that belong on a burger, then maybe this is your spot after all. I however, am content to save my naughty meals for places that focus on the quality of their product, rather than cloaking them in silly ingredients and silly names.

-Geoff Sawyer


Fried Pickles

PCB CloseThe irrefutable power of marketing. It sure is amazing when properly executed. Are any of my hoodburger loyalists also whiskey drinkers by chance? Would you describe yourself as a whiskey drinker? Aficionado even? Do you like Jack Daniel’s? I bet it makes you feel like an outlaw biker when you order it. Choice drink of Rock n’ Roll badasses worldwide. Each sip provides a tiny snippet of affirmation that you’re tough and/or cool. I have a secret that I must share: Jack Daniel’s is GARBAGE. There are economy budget-barrel bourbons for half the price that are far superior in quality- but you won’t see anyone wearing one of those brands’ belt buckles on the sunset strip. Jack Daniel’s has presented its product in such a way that consumers believe so strongly that it’s good, the fact that it’s a shit whiskey makes little to no difference. Granted my feelings about JD far outweigh those regarding this week’s burger spot, but nonetheless. The best thing that Plan Check does is careful presentation of otherwise unimpressive food.

The Ocean is nearly the only thing with enough pull to get me out that way, so traveling West of the 405 is a rare occurrence. My personal proportion of culture to money appears inverted to that of (my personal experience of) the typical West LA resident, for which reason I tend to feel out of place there. However, Plan Check has been on the Hoodburger hit list for a number of months, and upon confirming that I actually had several friends who wanted to try it, we did. The establishment is not huge but it manages to make efficient use of the space with communal seating and tight fitting booths. Hard woods, concrete and iron adorn the interior, and the space is not only quite nice but very much looks the part of fancy gastropub, which is currently an extremely popular restaurant genre for those of you living under rocks. If you show up at 8:00pm on a Saturday, expect to wait at least half an hour to be seated. Having only been once I am no authority on how busy the place usually is, but my party of 4 waited about 45 minutes to be seated, and there is not a particularly comfortable place to do it. The wait did provide ample time to familiarize oneself with the menu, which is written on chalkboards and placards above the seating at the bar.

PCBUpon being seated at the communal table I immediately began sniffing at the food of strangers over their shoulders (as I am prone to do), and thankfully my privacy invasions were consistently met with polite and informative conversation. The service start to finish was excellent; both well timed and informative. Presentation is also a strong suit for Plan Check; as all the dishes are served in tiny cast iron skillets, with each ingredient placed just so. Most of the menu items sounded delightful and interesting, like the “Short Rib Pot Roast” which is served with “red wine, bone marrow turnover pie, sweet n sour mirepoix.” The only real problem, albeit a significant one, is that the food (at least most of what I tasted) wasn’t exceptionally good.

Pastrami friesAs I tend to do when eating anywhere for the first time, I ordered the signature dish, which is in this case the self-titled “PCB” or Plan Check Burger. Akaushi red wagyu beef comes adorned with “Americanized dashi cheese, ketchup leather, schmaltz onions, mixed pickles, crunch bun.” To me this sounded like an unnecessarily fancy way to describe a relatively simple hamburger, which is exactly what it proved to be. For once, the patty came cooked a little more rare than I would have liked, and was not noticeably seasoned. Ketchup leather is cool. You get tartness with no saucy mess. The pickles were not mixed, they were pickles. The cheese was American cheese. The bun was a bun. All of this is ok. But if you wish to present yourself as fancy, PCB, I shall require that you be fancy.

PCB GutsFortunately, having dined at Plan Check with friends, I was afforded to opportunity to try many things on the menu. The Chef’s Favorite Burger (cheese two ways, bacon two ways, ketchup leather, sunny fried egg, hot sauce), and the Blueprint burger (smoked blue cheese, pig candy, fried onions, roasted garlic steak sauce, peppercress) both outshined my own, with the Blueprint being the clear winner. The verdict is in, blue cheese is yummy. I also tried the fried chicken, which was decent, as well as pastrami fries, sweet potato fries, a butter lettuce salad, and pickled eggs. None of it was terrible, but none was impressive either, and with the burgers at $14 and sides averaging about $8, Plan Check is too expensive to not have better food. Even still, the line out the door of people eager to geotag their next several instagram posts of pretty dishes served in neat little skillets on a cool table, would likely disagree.

-Geoff Sawyer

PC Chicken

Pickled eggs