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Chego: Exhibit A

Chego: Exhibit A

Roy Choi, I love you. I’ve said it before, and I still mean it even though you’re crazy. Perhaps that little bit of eccentricity is what makes your food so phenomenal. Perhaps it’s just me (and a few others), and your wares are just fitting to my taste rather than immeasurably exceptional. Either way, I went to Chego recently, and urge you to read on for the next chapter in my book of love letters to you.

Chego is not a burger spot, nor should it be. Tucked into the center of an outdoor mini-mall in China Town, its tininess and picnic table seating in an open air walkway do not suggest that should you stop, your mind will be blown. However, they make the most staggeringly delicious rice bowls that $9 will buy (in this country anyway), and far be it from me to wish a change to that mission. They do have a burger though as all of Roy’s properties do (each is different, too), and predictably, it’s delightful. The Chego Burger, also known as “Exhibit A” is not particularly fancy, but is both unique and scrumptious. A half pound of grass fed ground chuck comes cooked to order, topped with melted cojack, mayo, arugula, thai basil, red chili sauce (tasted like Kogi’s signature salsa roja [spoiler: it is]), and a heap of caramelized shallots that I swear tasted more like fennel than any onion’s cousin ever has. The bun is just your standard sesame seed bun, available at not-so-fine diners all across this great nation. It’s a hearty burger, and lends itself to a messy consumption process. Roy’s cooks tend to be a little sauce-happy, and they should because the condiments he makes define the flavors of his food. The beef was well seasoned and the proportions of each topping’s flavor to the others was nearly perfect. My singular complaint is that the bun can’t handle the job. This burger fell apart by the end because the bread was not strong enough to contain the force of its contents.

Chego Burger Guts

Chego Burger Guts

The only real rub about this particular review is that, despite the burger being excellent, so is everything else. I would highly recommend this burger in nearly any context- it was delicious- but if you go to Chego and DON’T order a pork belly bowl, you’re blowing it. Just go the website and watch one be built in the banner across the top. It makes my mouth water every time. So, Chego’s burger gets a HB cosign, but Roy Choi’s food gets my heart. What’s most important to note is, whatever you order, just go there. It’s going to be great.

-Geoff Sawyer

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Photo by Melissa S.

Photo by Melissa S.

One of my favorite things about Los Angeles’ burger scene is their ability to take traditional elements of any cuisine and create a gorgeous hybrid burger.  And I don’t mean sprinkle a little spice into an aioli and call it a day. I mean taking one of America’s beloved foods, breaking it into parts, and rebuilding it from the bun up.  The new Indian gastro pub, Badmaash (which means a person who is naughty or notorious in Hindi), has thrown its lamb burger into the ring and it’s a winner.

Located near City Hall in downtown Los Angeles on 2nd and Main, you can smell Badmaash before you can see it. As you walk down 2nd street, curried spices and sautéed onions beckon you into the restaurant.  It’s a tiny space that is awash in color. Bold stripes festoon the walls and the kitchen is so close you can hear the chefs yelling to one another.  As soon as you sit down and glance at the menu, you know you’re going to have a good time. Traditional Indian favorites with cheeky names line the bottom like Good Ol’ Saag Paneer and Ghost Chili Lamb Vindaloo. The more exciting pubby food is closer to the top with amazing creations like Chili Cheese Naan, Chicken Tikka Poutine, and samosas stuffed with short ribs, pineapple and cilantro.

Photo by Richard T.

Photo by Richard T.

The only item on the menu that is circled is the Spiced Lamb Burger. When a burger gets its own little section it’s usually a very good sign. It’s listed thusly “ground and spiced in house-with spiced mayo, onion, lettuce, tomato on a brioche bun.” However, when the burger was brought to the table, I quickly realized that the menu has done it a dreadful disservice. It was like having your friend describe their car as blue and then finding out it’s a Shelby Cobra. There were definitely details left out.  Like the beautiful tomato chutney on the side or the cilantro that gave it an extra punch.  The patty was delicately spiced but not so much so that you lost the earthiness of the lamb and was accompanied with a creamy curried aioli and the tomatoes were so red and ripe and luscious, they looked like they had just come out of the ground.

Was I disappointed it came on a brioche bun and not naan? A little, but I understood why that decision had been made as soon as I picked it up.  Juice ran from every crevice of that thing. Even on a traditional bun, that thing was impossible to put down and extremely hard to wield.  I could imagine that placing that sucker between two pieces of floppy naan would be disastrous.  As for fries, I played it safe and got the masala fries not the Chicken Tikka poutine. Epic mistake. The masala fries were not very exciting at all. They somehow managed to be both over spiced and under salted, which is odd. It was really strange that a place that had gotten all of the elements so right for something as complex as a burger, just failed at something as simple as French fries. BUT maybe their poutine is excellent and I just ordered the wrong thing. Maybe the chef put all of his love into the more complicated dishes and couldn’t be bothered with the less exciting ones. Totally possible. I will have to go back and find out.

The Bistro Burger

Since Hoodburger began there has been a process of steady revelation for us that there is a frequently recurring style of burger in Southern California, which I have (for lack of a more clever name) dubbed SoCal style. Made famous by In n’ Out, who appear to have just added tomato to the toppings of a Big Mac, SoCal style is lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, American cheese (usually), and Thousand Island dressing. Several places employ this formula, and some of them are excellent (see Oinkster’s Classic Burger). What I did not realize though until this week, is that there is a second formula at work in this region’s burger scene, and it is responsible for some of the best and also most famed burgers around. I am not sure who did it first though I would not be surprised to find out that Father’s Office can claim the fame. Los Angeles’ second burger archetype is as follows: Patty with 1 or 2 kinds of melted cheese (usually a blue and sharp cheddar), strong bouillon flavored caramelized onions, arugula, and some sort of aioli (in most cases, though Father’s Office uses no condiment). This week, I went to 6th St. Tavern in DTLA, who just so happens to have both of Southern California’s burgers on its menu.

The Classic Burger

Catty-cornered from the Standard Hotel, 6th St. Tavern invites any passerby who might find joy in its modern décor and craft cocktails. On a Saturday afternoon they were busy but not crowded, and the vibe was mellow without being fully subdued. You order at the bar, and in my case the food came very quickly. As mentioned, these guys make 2 burgers, and each accurately represents a very similar list of ingredients to those of its competitors. The “Classic Burger” (it’s even named the same as the one at The Oinkster), is classic indeed: double patty, lettuce, tomato, grilled onion, American cheese, 1000 Island and pickles (though they came on the side). Perfectly good in every way you’d imagine, and feel free to openly refer to it as Animal Style, because it is. I mean, if it ain’t broke…

Inside the Bistro Burger

The other Burger 6th St. offers is the “Bistro Burger” featuring a collective group of components that I have yet to nick-name, but much like Father’s Office and King’s Row, this burger comes dressed in Port Salut cheese (like a higher fat muenster- melty and mild), Worcestershire onion compote, arugula, and aioli. For my taste, this was a clear winner of the two, but in that the burger is constructed in the image of the King’s Burger at King’s Row (my favorite in LA), The Bistro Burger wearing the 6th St. Tavern burger crown comes as no surprise. The strength of the flavor of the onions and the excellent seasoning of the meat made this one the standout, bite after bite. And did I mention they have duck fat fries? The have duck fat fries.

Duck Fat Fries(!!!)

So the steady revelation continues. A talented few have thus far determined two failsafe means of assembling a burger, and intelligent burger peddlers are following suit. The good folks at 6th St. are doing at least as good a job as any one else in the same lane. If you’re looking for something amazingly unique or culinarily challenging you may want to look elsewhere, but if you’re in the market for superb quality pub food, be sure to add 6th St. Tavern to your list. As if the eats weren’t enough, the beer and whiskey selections are stellar too. Definite hoodburger green light.

-Geoff Sawyer

Classic Burger Guts

The Bistro Burger

piehole2

Before beginning I should admit bias, I love this place.  The Pie Hole is one of the shining lights of baking in Los Angeles, a city that is so anti-carb and gluten-free that it makes me want to cry. Through the power of their handmade buttery crusts alone, this place makes LA a better place to live. However, it is their combination of old fashioned filling classics from apple to banana cream to more adventurous Mexican hot chocolate and Earl Grey tea is what makes me want to tattoo their shop sign on my right buttock.

So when I heard that they had created a cheeseburger pie, I freaked out.  That golden crust wrapped around a burger? I couldn’t get down there fast enough.  Tucked away in the Arts District, the tiny shop is bare bones, but glows with warmth.  Wooden tables and aluminum chairs line the dining room, a glass display case with white ceramic plates displaying the specials, and the menu is written in brown butcher paper on the walls.  They serve only pie and coffee, nothing else, which is fine by me.  It’s always humming with customers doing work or getting dessert after a fancy meal elsewhere.

piehole

The cheeseburger pie turns out to be visually unlovely.  It’s a brown Cornish pasty sized half moon of pastry with fillings of mysterious origins, with a side of salsa. Why the salsa is included is beyond me.  But bite into it, and all the flavors of a cheeseburger show up in hot tempting glory: ground beef, cheddar cheese, onion, and a little bit of pickle. It is incredibly satisfying. The one gripe I had was the addition of the salsa side.  Why? Ketchup or mustard would have been much more appropriate. Also there were no gooey strands of cheese that poured forth, which I had looked forward to wiping from my chin. So, stuff that thing with fromage and douse it in ketchup and I would have been one happy camper.

Bear in mind, the cheeseburger pie is not a meal. It’s much too small, but fear not. You can save all of that room that you would have spent on a burger to indulge yourself on one of their massive slices of pie. I chose Earl Grey cream and was not disappointed. Who knew that Earl Grey would lend itself so well to pudding? The delicate tea flavor combined with the layer of salty chocolate on the bottom really made it stand out.  So if you’ve had a rough week, I would pop over and get a slice of something warm and filling. Also, their cheeseburger pie is a special, so if you want to try it for yourself, you will need to get over there soon.

piehole1

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

Poutine

Fried Pickles

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