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Double Double

March to the beat of your own drum. Generally, we talk about fancy-pants burgers, which makes sense because that’s what we like. There have and will continue to be exceptions to that rule not only because we see you burger-traditionalists, and we respect you, but also because not all delicious burgers need come topped with 27 syllables worth of cheese and exotic vegetation. Over the course of our handful of hat-tips to the simpler burgers out there we’ve even come to coin the phrase “California Style” which, if your memory fails is, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, and Thousand-Island dressing. What we have managed to NOT do (until now anyway) is pay homage to the creator of that style. To give credit to the establishment who re-wrote the fast food bible that WackDonald’s imposed upon the world. To shout out the institution that is a culinary pillar of Southern California, and whose quality and consistency will keep them adorned in that accolade. Today friends, we are going to In ‘N Out.

Animal Fries

Animal Fries

This is a burger blog about Southern California’s offerings, and if you’re reading this (you are), you probably live in Southern California and you probably like burgers. If both of those things are true, I’d bet the farm that you don’t need me to tell you about In ‘N Out’s food. So, I won’t. It’s great. You know that. Sometimes I crave their food in a way that can only be cured by their food. You probably do too. In very few contexts, processed-pasteurized-American-cheese-food-product is pure joy and the greatest of those contexts is known as “Animal Fries.” None of this is news to you. However, you may not be rich with fun facts about the company that has become a staple to residents and a to-do list top-liner for everyone who visits Southern California. Let’s change that.

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If you haven’t read Fast Food Nation, you should; though it will probably have you questioning (and rightfully so) not only what you eat but also just how shameful you should feel about it. Though the whole book is informative,  the very beginning describes Southern California as the Fertile Crescent of hamburgers and how that came to pass, which, if you’re like me (fat), is simply fascinating. Ray Crock, the industrious entrepreneur who took McDonald’s from one popular restaurant to a National force, created a blueprint that nearly all other fast food chains modeled their businesses after: Prime convenient locations and plenty of them, profitability through extremely low costs of both food and labor, market saturation, and a franchise business structure. In N’ Out’s philosophy agrees with exactly zero of those things. They only have approximately 300 retail locations despite nearly 70 years in operation, are entirely privately owned by the family that started the business and have offered no franchises, take excellent care of their employees both financially and in terms of available benefits, and have higher food costs so as not to compromise the company’s quality standards. If that wasn’t enough differentiation, the diversity of the menu is nil (there are basically a total of 4 things: burgers, fries, shakes, sodas, though one has a couple of style options per category), every store looks identical, and the pro-Jesus culture is subtle but visible on the bottom of every cup. So according to the fast food model followed by most of their competitors, In ‘N Out does everything wrong. Somehow that doesn’t equate to failure. I implore anyone to find an uncrowded location at mealtime.
In ‘N Out is another solid example of “if you build it, they will come.” Uncompromising standards yield consistent quality, and that makes for consistently happy customers, who are loyal. This chain’s contribution to SoCal’s burger Mesopotamia is an important one, and one that I suspect will continue to enjoy slow and steady growth at whatever pace it chooses, as has been the case thus far. If it ain’t broke…
– Geoff Sawyer

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Muddy Leek's slider

Muddy Leek’s slider

This is a story of moderation. Let’s be clear. Moderation in burgers is usually a very bad thing. Our waistlines might demand a turkey burger with no mayo, but by God, our hearts want the biggest, baddest, cheesiest behemoth that money can buy. Preferably with bacon. Right? Right. Which is why, when sliders are on the menu, I usually pass. Two or three dinky little burgers? No way, man. I want something I can barely hold in my hands that threatens to slip away from my greasy fingers with every bite.  But there are exceptions. One of these exceptions resides at Muddy Leek.

On the part of Washington Blvd in Culver City which is festooned with galleries and artsy coffee shops, you know, the hip part, is a very nondescript sign that reads Muddy Leek. Do not be fooled by its appearance. This place is CLASSY.  Their turkey club sandwich has fried shallots and apple butter on it. Their shrimp and grits has black kale in it. Every meal is served with fresh bread and sea salted butter. Their mustard is seedy and French. So when I found out they had sliders, naturally I had to investigate.

It's all in the sea salt.

It’s all in the sea salt.

Now on paper, the deal sounds terrible.  For fourteen dollars, you get two sliders.  That’s right, just two. Preposterous, right? Highway robbery! Who cares if they’re made of wagyu beef on homemade brioche buns with wasabi aioli and green onions? That is insane. And it would be too if it weren’t for just one tiny little detail. The soup. With your order of sliders you get a bowl of freshly made, piping hot, extremely delicious soup and a side of their freshly made bread. I chose the lentil with fried leeks on top. It was insanely tasty.  I could almost feel my mother giggling from far away. A burger place that made me eat my vegetables first and enjoy it? This was definitely a first.

By the time the sliders arrived with only four (!) sweet potato fries, I was pretty full. The spicy aioli was salty and greasy and everything those darling little patties needed to embellish their meaty flavor. The brioche added some sweetness and the greens gave it a little crunch. Would I have preferred that they had cheese? Of course. Would I rather they had bacon? You betcha. Do I feel like a responsible adult for eating moderately by accident? Sigh, yes, yes I do.

Lentil soup with fried leeks

Lentil soup with fried leeks

The kicker was a dark chocolate truffle in a champagne glass with the bill. You don’t get classier or more moderate than that. Would I preferred a box of truffles to gorge myself on? Naturally, but Muddy Leek is there to keep your wild urges in check. They’re very clever that way.  So if you want an indulgent lunch, but don’t want to regret it later, I highly recommend these sliders. They give you just enough, so you feel satisfied, but no more than that. They are the kings of balance.

Deceptively dinky.

Deceptively dinky

Delicious!

Delicious!

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I’m just going to start by saying I expected this to fail.  You could blame it on the spelling. (Lyfe? Really?) You could blame it on the giant ad campaign I’ve been subjected to for the past couple months before the place opened with cheery ad people letting me know that Lyfe Kitchen is coming. You could blame it on the fact that on their website they have mission statements and TV clips with celebrities before you can even find the menu.  You could blame it on the fact that their mission statement includes this “With every interaction, we look to awaken our “Sixth Sense”– the intrinsic desire to do right and make powerful purchasing decisions that inspire good in the world around us.” Did I mention the CEO and Chief Brand officer were both former executives for McDonalds? Blame it on whatever you want, but the whole thing felt so false.

Yes, sustainability and community responsibility are things I love. Eating right and supporting local farmers are hallmarks of the way I cook, but MAN this really felt like corporations cashing in on environmental ideals. But who am I to judge? Maybe they really did have a change of heart. Maybe they really wanted to get Americans to eat better after selling them junk for years. People can change and the fact of the matter is they’ve built a beautiful restaurant in the heart of Culver City that is trying to walk that delicate line between healthy and delicious.

Naturally when I found out they had a burger, I knew I had an easy target. A healthy burger? I don’t think so.  Walking into the place, I must admit it looked pretty great. Antique bulbs hanging from the ceilings, shelves of fresh herbs, bare brick walls, and hip music on the stereo (can’t go wrong with Spoon) it felt very inviting. The line for lunch was incredibly long, but it gave me time to analyze this burger. The Classic Burger is listed as 100% grass-fed beef with organic romaine, tomato, red onion, agave pickles, agave ketchup on a golden flaxseed bun with the calories neatly listed underneath 562. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I think listing calories is the absolutely most unromantic thing you can do to a menu. It’s the equivalent of watching a live birth video before going on a first date. It makes you want to abandon the whole idea.

Undeterred, or perhaps to spite the calorie counter, I got my burger with cheese which turned out to be laughable. Adding cheese to this burger as it turns out meant a paltry sprinkling of low fat cheddar. Hell, the lettuce had more presence on that burger than the cheese.  That being said…the burger was pretty good. It’s not going to win any awards in a beauty competition, I know, but the seedy bun had the right amount of crunch that countered the sweetness of the pickles and the agave ketchup, and the burger itself was quite hearty.  I’m serious. It was good, people. My only gripe is that the only side possible for that burger was a kale salad with grated carrot dressed in lemon juice. No sweet potato fries? No coleslaw? I’m willing to be as healthy as the next person but the only option is KALE? You’re killing me, Smalls.

 

public school lamb burger

Colorado Lamb Burger

Sometimes you go into a place and it’s got strikes against it by just BEING new. It’s not fair. It’s not rational. Public School 310’s only crime was that it replaced Fraiche which had my favorite spaghetti in all of Los Angeles. So I hated it immediately. Just like I always hate the new Dr. Who initially or the new Golden State Warriors uniform. I just hate it because it’s new and unfamiliar and replaced something I liked. The line out the door for lunch on Tuesday didn’t help it much either. If you plan on going here, just grab a seat at the bar and forego the whole waiting in line entirely.

Once I figured out that the bar was open, I scuttled past the well coifed hostesses and grabbed a seat. The inside of the place pays homage superficially to public school. They’ve got globes, textbooks, and pencil sharpeners balanced decoratively on shelves alongside giant bowls of shiny red apples. The menus are printed in test notebooks. It’s all very adorable, but they didn’t push the theme as far as they could have. They missed the opportunity of turning it into what people actually remember about public school lunch rooms. There could have been long wooden benches with very little elbow room, a wait staff that all wore hairnets, and they could have labeled the tables things like “The Geeks,” “The Football Team,” and “Mean Girls.” Or if they were feeling really cheeky they could have made you bribe the waiters to buy you beer.

The menu, however, is very appropriate. They have hotdogs, hamburgers, and fries alongside more grownup offerings like the roasted poblano with quinoa and a Tuscan chopped salad.  They have four different burgers and over the course of four weeks, I ate every single one.  Here’s the weird part. I’m not going to even talk about the beef burgers.  Well okay, that’s not entirely true. I will say this: they are perfectly respectable and utterly unremarkable things. They both have the things one would expect from a cheeseburger: cheese, burger, lettuce, and tomato. The main difference between the two is one has Huntsman cheese and balsamic grilled onions and is dully dubbed The Huntsman, and the other one has pickles and American cheese and therefore called, you guessed it, the American.  It’s one of the few times in my life when I could feel the boredom of the chef radiate out of the burger. He/she couldn’t give two figs about whether you enjoyed yourself or not.

C.C.B.

C.C.B.

How do I know this? Because the chicken and lamb burgers are spectacular.  It reminds me of my own high school career, where I excelled at only the classes that interested me and the others I just barely squeaked by because they bored me to tears.  This chef is bored to tears by beef. Why? I don’t know.  I’ll start with the lamb burger.  Complimenting the earthy flavor of the patty, it’s paired with a really tangy barnyard brie, sharply peppery arugula, and a sweet tomato and cranberry jam. The combination of these flavors is really satisfying and homey.

But this is nothing compared to the chicken burger. This chicken burger is the new standard for all other chicken burgers. Why? Because it’s a fusion of two of my two favorite foods: a burger and a Cobb salad. I didn’t think such a thing was possible and am a little sad I didn’t think of it first. Named the C.C. B. (Chicken Cobb Burger) it is the true star of this menu. It’s a ground chicken patty with a fried egg, avocado, house made tomato jam, three strips of bacon, lettuce, and a good slathering of blue cheese. Just one word of caution: you cannot eat this thing wearing sleeves or a white shirt, the yolk and blue cheese goes everywhere.  It is a glorious mess.

Brown Bag Fries

Brown Bag Fries

scorpion burger

For those of you chasing your New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier, this is the article for you. I am here under protest. I hate eating healthier. It’s one of my least favorite things. I mean, sure vegetables are wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but a salad is always better with a medium rare steak draped on top of it. That being said, my beautiful, brilliant younger sister is getting hitched in June to a wonderful man and those pictures last FOREVER. Not just my lifetime. No, no. My grandchildren and their grandchildren and possibly their grandchildren are going to see these photos. I mean, it’s not a matter of looking good (I always look good) it’s a matter of looking svelte and sophisticated and at the moment I am neither.  I need those descendents to look at that photo and say the words, “Wow, great Grandma Molly was super fine.” Or something to that effect in whatever slang is popular at that time.   If they utter the words, “Woah! Who the hell is that?” I will rise up from the grave and rip their eyeballs out of their heads and eat them.  No one wants that.

So in the name of being super hot, I’m eating more vegetables and hiking mountains more often. I’m even taking fancy classes where spandex clad former dancers beat you up with tiny weights and ballerina bars. It’s awful.  I’ve even said no to cake recently. To cake! For those of you in the same boat, I present to you my favorite veggie burger in LA, The Scorpion Burger from Native Foods Cafe in Culver City. (They’ve got other locations, but I’ve never been there. I’m not sure how their Scorpion Burgers compare.)

native foods

Yes, I know. It’s not a pretty burger. Square faux meat patties fill no one with pangs of desire even if they are described on the menu as “homemade blackened Tempeh.”  But just shut your eyes, grab a hold of it and dig in. They get the spices on this thing exactly right. The sweetness of the carrots and onions blend really well with the creaminess of the avocado and the tempeh gives it just the right amount of savory to make the sandwich really work.  It’s called the Scorpion Burger because of it’s “spicy” chipotle sauce, but I’ve always found it needs a couple slugs of hot sauce. Actually I think all vegan food improves with a couple slugs of hot sauce.  Whatever you do, do not get the optional vegan cheese on top. I’ve had silly putty that tasted better. It is unbelievably disgusting.

All of their burgers come with a side, so if you’re feeling virtuous get their kale salad. If you feel like you’ve already ordered a veggie burger, dammit, and that’s about as good as a person can get, get the sweet potato fries. They’re lovely.

Pub Burger

I’ve long had this assumption that if a place is passionate about their beer, that they should be passionate about their burgers. There is no reason why these two things should correlate, but in my head it should be true. Just like a place with good wine should have a fantastic cheese plate or a place with good sake should have amazing sushi. It’s hard to unravel why these two things should be true, but for some reason I feel that burgers and beer should be on par. Now obviously in reality there are glaring exceptions to this rule, case in point Golden Road Brewery has a terrible burger. For some reason their passion for beer does not extend to their hamburgers. I mean, and nor should it really. Just because a place is great at brewing beer does not mean that they should be good at cooking meat. The two skills have nothing to do with each other…and yet…I feel that they should. Maybe it’s just a weird hang up of mine.

Be that as it may, I’ve brought that hang up with me to City Tavern in Culver City. The place is devoted to beer, so much so that there are booths where you can pull your own pint (very dangerous territory) and their beer list is longer than my arm (not an exaggeration). So naturally, when I heard they had burgers on the menu, I had to go see for myself. The Tavern is on Culver Blvd wedged between the Kirk Douglas Theater and a truly mediocre sushi place. The insides are warm and inviting. The entire place is warm woods, brick walls, and cast iron stools with an impressive wall of wine and kegs lining the hallways. It is the perfect place to sit down and drink away the afternoon.

 

Their menu sports two burgers known as the Brew Burger (fancy pants) and the CT Burger (regular). The Brew Burger is the fancier item on the menu. It’s a beef patty with pub cheese, mustard aioli, and greens on a pretzel bun with a vodka-battered onion ring on top. The CT burger is much more relaxed with it’s thousand island dressing, lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions, and pickle on a brioche bun.  (Be forewarned both of these items offer ways to end your life quicker. You can add pork belly to one and an extra patty to the other. I assure you it’s not necessary.) Both arrive with a knife through the middle pinning them to wooden slabs like butterflies in a specimen case. There is something ridiculously satisfying about having your food stabbed on a slab of wood. I might start doing that at dinner parties just to add a little drama.

So which one won? Like so many things in life, the one that tried too hard lost. Oh Brew Burger, you don’t need a pretzel bun to impress me, a regular bun would have done just fine. The combination of the pub cheese, mustard aioli and the pretzel bun made the Brew Burger too salty. There was no contrast of sweetness to the mix. Add a little fig jam or a brioche bun or a tomato and you might have had something, but as it is there were too many strong salty flavors fighting for dominance.  The CT Burger however, was like finding an old friend at a party where you thought you knew no one. It tasted exactly like a gourmet Big Mac. From the Thousand Island dressing, down to the tiny shards of onion and round slices of pickle the CT Burger tastes exactly like McDonald’s most famous creation minus that wave of regret you get from eating one. It is absolutely delicious.

PS. One word of warning, at City Tavern they offer you a variety of sides and you might be tempted to get a healthy one in the name of restraint. Whatever you do, do not get their curried carrots. They are absolutely disgusting slimy planks of vegetation. Stick to the fries or the Brussels sprouts with bacon.

 

Rush Street is smack dab in the middle of Culver City where Washington and Culver Boulevards have a brief fling as one street for a few blocks before parting ways just as quickly. Named after the famous bar heavy street in Chicago, Rush Street describes itself as having a “Chi-Town Vibe.” Now I believe it’s true regardless of where you’re from, that when a place describes itself as an homage to your hometown it is impossible not to arch your eyebrow and utter the words “We’ll see about that.”  It’s weird. It’s like a nervous tic. For some reason we’re obsessed with authenticity even though we know we will be disappointed. A Chicago bar in Los Angeles will not feel like Chicago. It just won’t. I know this. And yet, I’m going to offer a few suggestions about how to make it better anyway. (Yes, I know. This is a burger blog. I’m getting to that. I promise.)

Let me start off by saying the place is lovely. Huge open ceilings lined with metal beams, exposed brick walls, and dark wood tables. Over the gigantic bar are flat screen TVs showing sports and there’s a party loft where people can schmooze freely. They have drink specials nearly every night of the week and any time there’s a Chicago team playing, it’s a party.

That being said, they could have put a little more effort into Chicago-izing the menu.  They have something called Tataki Nachos as an appetizer which is seared ahi, avocado, sambal aioli, unagi sauce, asian slaw, and wonton chips. It’s the most Californian thing I’ve ever heard of. If you ate nachos at a bar in Chicago with seared ahi and unagi sauce, I can promise you will be staring at the bottom of a toilet all night.  Where are the salutes to Polish, German, and Italian culture? Where are the pierogis? The Vienna Beef Chicago style hotdogs? Forget the avocado fries dude, make some schnitzel instead.

Where Rush Street excels is its burgers.  They’ve got a variety of options all around twelve bucks: The Mesquite Turkey Burger, the Moroccan Lamb Burger, the Shrimp, Crab, and Scallop Burger, the Ragin’ Cajun Salmon Burger, but the one that reigns supreme in my mind is their signature Rush Street Dry-Aged Burger. Most restaurants will offer you the ingredients on this burger as a side for extra money. You know a dollar extra for bacon or onions. This baby gives you everything you’re too sheepish or too broke to order on your own. This beef patty is nestled next to crispy applewood bacon, Tillamook Sharp cheddar, shoestring onions (aka crispy onion rings), arugula, and confire sauce (BBQ sauce) on a brioche bun. It’s one satisfying mess. The smoky sweetness of the confire sauce goes perfectly with the saltiness of the bacon and the onion crispies, and the medium rare dry-aged burger will drip down your hands no matter how you hold it. It is lovely.


Word to the wise, they will offer you many kinds of alternatives to the fries for extra money: sweet potato fries, truffle asiago fries, or a salad. Hold firm. The Rush Street shoestring fries are in a class all their own. They are crunchy little strips of golden perfection that feel like you’re eating nothing.  These spuds don’t get eaten…they get inhaled. Rush Street is one of the few establishments where I insist on a box for my fries if I don’t finish them. They’re just as delicious the next day with a side of eggs.

-Molly Bergen