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Geoff Sawyer

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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Number 1 at 25 Degrees            Have you ever been introduced to someone with whom you have shared a social circle for years, but managed to never encounter? You’ll be at some engagement speaking to a friend, this new person comes up, you introduce yourselves, and your mutual friend says something like “Wait, how can you two possibly not know each other?!?” You spend the remainder of the evening discovering that you have quite a lot in common, and in short order are friends as if you had been all along. Though some variation of this story has happened to me many times, only recently has it happened with a restaurant.

25 Degrees, found in the heart of Hollywood’s touristy shit-storm, is my new friend who I can’t believe I only just met. Located on Hollywood Blvd. between La Brea and Highland, 25 Degrees shares a building with the famed Roosevelt Hotel and is quite the oasis of quality in an otherwise overwhelmingly underwhelming pocket of Los Angeles. No more than a block away you can find struggling actors dressed as your favorite character from Pirates of the Caribbean shaming themselves for a shot at your one dollar bill, and right across the street is Madame Tussauds; where you can have your photo taken with life-sized wax statues of famous people (if you happen to think that that sounds more like fun than like creepy). Foot traffic is always heavy in this area, and made worse by the wealth of pedestrians pausing every 4 feet to capture images of the experience in that ‘they just don’t have stuff like this in South Dakota!!’ Perhaps it is no surprise that 25 Degrees and I managed to miss each other until now, because I clearly hate her neighborhood. The food however, has got me wanting to be besties.

Onion Rings 25 Degrees            Though they have a solid assortment of sandwiches, salads and sides, (in addition to a full breakfast menu during the hours that it would make sense to make such offerings) the burger is clearly the featured food media here. You can build your own via the broad but not off-putting list of toppings, cheeses and sauces, or you can go with any of their four pre-constructed formulas. I chose the Number 1, as I always go with the flagship/specialty/namesake of any place the first time I eat there. The Number 1 is: caramelized onion, crescenza, prelibato gorgonzola, bacon, arugula, thousand island. This tops a 6+ oz. beef patty, and comes on the best version of the pseudo-brioche I have ever had. There are no surprises, but the sum of the parts was just delightful. The gorgonzola was applied very sparingly so the strong flavor was quite subtle in context. Crescenza, a cheese of which, prior to this burger I was completely unaware, is mild and melty; as if mozzarella had twice the fat content but the same flavor. The bun is like many other places’ (The Park, Slater’s 50/50, Salt’s Cure, etc.) but unlike any of the others the inside was soft, flakey and malleable in exactly the right way. The patty was cooked a little more than the medium rare that I ordered but was still very flavorful and appropriately seasoned. French fries and onion rings (you can get half and half) accompanied this burger, and were as good as you can get anywhere. Having to pay an extra $2 for the sauce flight is a minor bummer, but on the upside they make all their condiments in house, and they were excellent. I’m a real sucker for house-made Ranch. Still not sold? They have a full bar and are open 24 hours. So next time you’re contemplating a post- Hollywood clubbin’ 4th meal, don’t you dare make that nice Uber dude take you to a drive through.

25 Degrees, let’s be friends. I’ll probably groan about having to come to your house because the area is lame, but I can already tell that every time I visit I’m going to be glad I did and wonder why we don’t spend more time together. I’m so happy we finally met.

-Geoff Sawyer

Number 1 Guts 25 Degrees

Grown ass cream soda 25 degrees

Interior 25 Degrees

Big Homie

Lions and tigers and burgers. OH MY. A reactionary phrase, generally reserved for encounters with intimidating stuff, be the subject predatory jungle cats, or just… big things. With regards to the latter, probably no restaurant has ever been more appropriately named than Oh My Burger. They most certainly make big things, including but not limited to their signature burger, known as the Big Homie.

Oh My Burger is located on Van Ness and El Segundo in Gardena in a modest stand-alone structure that is half kitchen, and which cozily seats about 16 people. Golden era west coast rap blasted through stereo (Tupac when we arrived, and Ice Cube as we walked out), which is definitely not lost on me. The interior is modest as well; this is much more of a neighborhood hearty lunch joint than any type of fancy restaurant, but the aspiration towards high design is evident though not at all yet realized. I’ve never been more sure than I was today: where hood meets bougie aspirational, I feel at home.

Oh My Burger comboSo the place is not fancy, but they have cool chairs, they play excellent music, and have incredible customer service. The only thing left to discuss is the food, and whether or not you are physically capable of internalizing as much as they give you. Oh My Burger does not half step when it comes to portions (also not lost on me) and as I said, they have earned their name. The Big Homie is a double cheese burger boasting two 1/3lb ground beef patties, bacon, cheddar cheese, grilled onion, pickle, lettuce, tomato, and their special sauce, which tasted like 1000 island with mustard where the ketchup should be, all on a toasted onion roll (Why they hell does nobody serve onion rolls? I totally forgot how awesome they are!). You order it and pick it up at the counter, and when you have your first look at this tower of food you just signed up to eat, well over half a foot tall, guess what you say? Oh. My. But then you go for it. Intimidation factor aside, this burger is void of gimmick. It’s simply good. There are no surprises, but each topping compliments the others just as they should and all work together to be a perfect bacon cheeseburger. You have to give it a dedicated smush before attempting to fit it in your mouth, but otherwise it wasn’t difficult to eat either. No substantial mess. Just eventual food coma. If you opt for a combo for another $2.50, the OMB fries come crusted with garlic seasoning and shaved parmesan, and the fried pickles (don’t you dare go there without ordering fried pickles) are the best I’ve had since being on the west coast. They not only came with ranch dressing (FINALLY someone knows how to serve fried pickles) but it was house-made ranch at that. A single diner is out the door for $12 too, which is half of what we end up spending at most of the gastropubs who don’t dare claim to evoke Oh My’s namesake reaction.

Big Homie guts

If I could fathom a complaint about this place it would be that they empowered me to run right through a 2,000-calorie meal without hesitation. I’m kidding of course, but truthfully, if you aren’t the type to eat 2lbs of food in a sitting, you may want to split your Big Homie with a homie, at which point the value for dollars spent is virtually unbeatable. Your only other options at that price are value menu trash chunks, and if you’re the type to enjoy a Mcpigbarf combo over quality independently produced food, then you’ve got too much to learn for me to teach you. Gardena has a crowned king of working man’s burgers, and you can find it at Oh My. Be prepared to say those words too, because it’s big, homie.

– Geoff Sawyer

Fried pickles

OMB Fries

GIANT Jolly Rancher juice pops :)

GIANT Jolly Rancher juice pops 🙂

VIP options.

VIP options.

Barnburger

Apparently, you don’t have to have a cancerous tan, steroid induced bicep bloat, dreadlocks, the ability to juggle, an iguana on a leash, or any of the other numerous stereotypical attributes that I associated with this place, to hang out at Venice Beach. While finding one or many individuals in possession of any of the aforementioned qualities is not a tall order, there are plenty of plain-old, happy, boring folks such as myself, who like a good drink and a good meal. The other thing that I did not know is that Venice is very much a home to both.

Pacific Ave. and its beach front tributaries have a short but densely packed pocket of purveyors of vittles and libations, and if they are all as good or even comparable to my first Venice Beach dining experience, then what a lovely little pocket it is. Barnyard was opened in February of this year by Jesse Barber (the opening chef of Tasting Kitchen) and his wife Celia, and is by no means a burger restaurant, but they do however, like many of their contemporaries (Comme Ca, Rustic Canyon), have a damn good one. The menu is primarily local and seasonally driven, because the chefs who get it, know that the best food is made with those ingredients. Its offerings are rustic and fairly eclectic though not necessarily inspired by a particular culture’s cuisine, and the short list of small plates and mains hits all the necessary marks. They also have a great and affordable wine selection if that’s your bag. It’s certainly mine.

pretty grilled breads barnyard olives

My meal began with grilled breads, a meat plate (soppressata, picante, and wild boar), and warm castelvetrano olives- which were the closest thing to butter that I have ever eaten that was actually not in any way, butter. Who knew, all you have to do is make them hot? Next up was a panzanella salad, with prepared arugula, candied nuts, white raisins and monstrous semi-soft croutons, which, though are this dishes namesake ingredient, were sparse enough that it still felt like a salad. Oh and burrata. A huge, beautiful wad of creamy, mild mozzarella. I enjoyed all of this over the better part of a bottle of Bielsa Garnacha, which is a medium-full bodied Spanish wine not unlike a Tempranillo, and before I knew it I had already been drinking and nibbling for over an hour. Entrance of a time vortex is a pretty sure sign of a solid meal. Time for that burger.

Barnyard’s burger is, in a word, tart. Now don’t go thinking that that adjective is chosen critically, because it is absolutely delightful, but among those restaurants in the same lane in terms of price and quality, they all seem to strive for richness. Fatty grinds, high fat content cheeses, and an assortment of aiolis are standard fare when it comes to the $17 burgers of Los Angeles. Barnyard chose a different path and I salute them. This wonderfully seasoned, medium rare, coarsely and loosely ground patty came adorned with butter lettuce, house made pickles, stone ground mustard, aged sharp cheddar cheese, and a small smear of pickled pepper spread (the pepper type I am not sure but it wasn’t spicy at all), which all add up to one loudly flavorful burger. Buttered and grilled brioche housed all the acidic accoutrements, and in tandem with the richness of the beef was just enough to reign in all those sour elements.

Barnyard burger

A brief recap of things I learned this week: my sense that Venice is lame is just as wrong as my sense that you need fatty/salty things on your burger for it to be delicious. Both biases were undone in one spectacular evening, of which I expect to have many more. Barnyard is a place that you should just go. The burger is stellar but if you don’t get it, that’s fine. This is a great restaurant, period. Take friends, order a bottle of wine, course your meal out and be prepared for time to pass at an alarmingly brisk rate, as it is known to do when you’re having fun.

– Geoff Sawyer

p.s. It was too dark to take a decent photo by the time any of my food came, so if I stole your pics from Yelp, thanks.

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

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

Grill em Art

Grill Em Art

If you build it, they will come. Sometimes the universe rewards crazy. In the case of one 1989 triumph of cinema starring a dreamboat-era Kevin Costner, he was crazy enough to build a baseball field on his farm land on the hope that the spirits of dead baseball stars would come a-running. Though the parallel might be a stretch, the boys of Grill ‘em All were crazy enough to think that they could build a restaurant in Alhambra that featured a far more comprehensive menu than what they serve on their truck (a menu that was already populated solely by crazy-ass burger concepts) and that people would flock to it. Well, fictitious late 80’s farm-boy stud and former Cleveland based heavy metal/burger gods collectively rejoice, because in both cases, they were right.

We’ve talked about Grill ‘em All before, not only in the context of their truck, but because they do a kitchen takeover day on Oinkster’s burger week, year after year. Everything they make is always not only head-scratchingly clever, but consistently delicious. The menu at the first brick and mortar location, located in the same quaint shopping center as Alhambra’s Edward’s Renaissance Imax theater, is made up of the truck menu’s greatest hits, a few retired specials that previously debuted at the truck, and a handful of gems that you can only get in the restaurant (I made it a point to try things only available at this location). You can probably guess that from here I’m simply going to gush about how good their burgers are, and you’re right, but what you might not know is that they have other foods that are also better than any other version that exists on this earth, namely chicken wings.

Duck fat chicken wings            At my insistence, Executive Chef Kenny Smith talked me through how these are made, after the first one I ate fell, literally fell, completely off the bone like a short rib that had been braised for 3 months. The wings are totally submerged in duck fat, and roasted at low temp. for 4 hours. They are then thrown in the fryer for just a few minutes to add color and crispness, and finally doused in a small lake of sweet, sweet chipotle sauce. House made blue cheese finishes them off, and if you’re a wing fan, don’t even waste time reading the rest of this- just go there right now. These dudes have changed the game. I never realized to what extent wings don’t like to come apart, until I found the ones that can’t stay together. I will never, NEVER go to this restaurant without ordering wings.

Trouble            Given that there were so many gorgeous things from which to choose on the menu, and being that I am an aspiring fat person, I got 2 perfectly seasoned burgers, each ½ lb 80/20 ground chuck lead out of the grinder and sliced so all the threads of beef run vertically (just like they do at Playground). The first, dubbed “Trouble” is a special of the month, so waste no time getting in there and eating this masterpiece- you’ve only got a couple weeks. It came adorned with Chicago style Italian thin sliced roast beef, grilled sweet Italian peppers, house made giardinera, and the most stunning jus imaginable. It’s a meaty, salty, warm drippy mess and it is pure joy. The locally sourced bun (from Wheatland bakery) gets soaked with the jus but the flavor is so luscious you will not care if even notice, and the giardinera provides the perfect amount of crunch, tartness and spice. I really hope they decide to make this one available until forever.

The Exciter            Burger number 2 was the “Exciter,” a full-time offering that tastes like everything you love about thanksgiving in a single burger bite. This one wore duck con fit, frise, arugula, truffled herby goat cheese and cranberry gastrique. The duck had the look and texture of perfectly smoked Carolina style pulled pork, but with the mild gamey richness of duck meat. The goat cheese was strong with rosemary, which when accenting the duck and complimented by the cranberry was truly so reminiscent of a traditional thanksgiving flavor palate it should easily be the meal of choice given an out of season craving for turkey and family drama. Saddled up next to an order of “high on fries” which are french-fries buried under buffalo chicken and blue cheese, the possibility of happily dying right then and there crossed my mind innumerable times.

High on Fries

Still got room to spare? Well you’re gross, but fret not, Grill ‘em All also has dessert. There is only one choice currently, but don’t be saddened by your lack of options, because if they had other choices and you ordered one of those instead of the deep fried rum/apple bread pudding with maple bacon glaze (I know. Just saying that feels like sex), then you’d have really screwed up. Bread pudding is never a thing that I feel like my life is missing. Or it wasn’t until I had this. So rich, so sweet. Every flavor present, none over powering. The bacon adds salt but is hardly recognizable as meat unless you get a big piece. The apple chunks are many but still feel like prizes. Perfect texture, perfect…everything. Perfect.

Bread pudding            At 3:30p.m. on a Sunday afternoon (a decidedly non-meal time in any western diet), I sat shoveling very modestly presented and priced gourmet food into my eager face, in a PACKED dinning room filled with unanimous agreement that Grill ‘em All is doing everything right. Each vegetable in the giardinera on the burger of the month is cooked and pickled individually, but you would never know that unless you cornered one of the busy cooks and asked them. Do you know what a pain in the ass that is, for what essentially serves as a condiment? Those chicken wings are slow roasted in duck fat for hours, but you can’t find that written anywhere either. The point is not to brag, it is to deliver a quality product, and these fellas do it impeccably. You built it, and they came. I recommend doing the same thing 1,000 more times all over the world, because they will keep coming.

-Geoff Sawyer

Notice how all the threads run vertically.

Notice how all the threads run vertically.

Trouble guts

A band or two...

Inside