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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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Photo by Eli G.

Photo by Eli G.

What happens when a super fancy chef decides he wants to open a little diner? Super fancy burgers, of course. Would he stock just any beef burgers? No, they would be wagyu burgers, of course. Chef Bruce Marder of Capo fame opened up a tiny café on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica right across the street from some enormous hotels.  I wandered inside one rainy day and was immediately charmed by its black and white tiled floors, wooden furniture, and the speakers which pumped out hits from Buddy Holly and Otis Redding. It’s exactly the kind of vibe you would want from a diner. Crowded, warm, and unpretentious.

Usually it’s incredibly crowded, but I lucked out and grabbed a table right away.  The menu was speckled with fancy ingredients in an otherwise traditional diner menu. Their bagels come with a side of burrata cream cheese. Their vegetable omelet has artichokes and tarragon. Instead of a tuna melt they have a fresh albacore tuna panino.  And of course, their burger is a wagyu “kobe” burger.

Photo by Brian S.

Photo by Brian S.

Now honestly I couldn’t give a damn whether my beef was wagyu or kobe or whatever. I don’t care if the cow was massaged during its life or not. I don’t care if it was born in Japan or Omaha. What I do care about is how it was raised, how it was fed, and whether it was killed humanely, but they never put those details on a menu, now do they? Occasionally they’ll put grass-fed (which is good in my book. It means the cow may have seen the sun.) And organic is always a plus although if you put a gun to my head and asked me what passes as organic meat these days, I would not be able to tell you.  I can only give you a list that I found on the Whole Foods website. 1. Must be raised organically on certified organic pastures. 2. Must be fed certified organic feed for their entire lives. 3. No drugs, antibiotics or growth hormones are allowed. 4. Must have year-round outdoor access. Those all seem like good things.

But you’re not interested in my feelings about organic meat. You want to know how this fancy burger actually was.  On top of a fresh bun with butter lettuce, slices of red tomato, red onion, and melted gooey cheddar cheese, it was very good. Well-seasoned and full of herbs the meaty patty stood out on its own against the traditional array of flavors. Here’s the thing, though. It was fourteen bucks. Fifteen dollars with the cheese, which wouldn’t have bothered me too much if they sides had not been so very dreadful. It came with a lump of the worst potato salad I’ve ever had. It tasted vaguely like sardines with just a hint of gasoline.  And the complimentary pickle was a cucumber with pretensions of grandeur. I don’t believe it had even touched brine. I think they just chopped up a cucumber, dunked it in water, and called it a day.

At that price point, I expect better. I expect my sides to be made with love and at least tried before they’re sent out. A decent side of fries, is that too much to ask? Otherwise, I’d just as soon go to the Hole in The Wall and spend ten bucks on a gorgeous gourmet burger in a paper bag.

 

Photo by Joan S.

Photo by Joan S.

Photo by Craig R.

Photo by Craig R.

On first appearance, R&D Kitchen was everything I didn’t want.  Placed on the affluent Montana St in Santa Monica the place was jammed with people on a Thursday night. Blow dried ladies in skyscraper heels were clutching onto the arms of their deeply suntanned dates wearing striped button down shirts that revealed too much chest hair. I was hoping for a nice quite place to eat a burger while desperately trying to  finish the Brothers Karamazov before my book club meets tomorrow (I am epically screwed on that front.) No such luck. After squeezing past the bar area, the harried looking hostess told me it would be awhile. So I perched on a brick wall next to some empty martini glasses, with spiky shrubbery poking me in the back, and eavesdropping on TV execs trying to impress one another. I swear there is nothing worse than a dick measuring contest. “I’m working on this project with Sam Jackson. Do you know, Sam?” or “Anna Faris is in my new pilot. She’s such a gem, so TALENTED.” Or my personal favorite, “There’s so much raw talent these days. It’s so actor rich. Anyone can get a job in this business who’s funny.” Really, dude? That’s weird. I have a lot of comedian friends who are currently waiting tables. A lot.

After half an hour of trying to shut out the cacophony of bullshit and focusing on Alyosha Karamazov’s familial problems, my name was finally called and I was ushered to a very nice booth.  All of the staff were dressed in white chef jackets, I’m not really sure why, but it had a very military effect, like they had just graduated from the academy of service. They may well have. The service was unbelievably punctual and friendly. Perhaps they’re too used to be screamed at by the monsters at the bar, but it was really nice.

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The menu was chocked full of comfort food: deviled eggs, mushroom meatloaf, and crispy chicken sandwiches, but at the very top was the cheeseburger. On paper it’s listed as lettuce, tomato, onion, and cheddar on a house-made egg bun, but in person it’s so much more than that.  It arrived chopped in half with not one, but two wooden sticks trying to keep each half in place. Why was it chopped in half? To show off, just how clever they’ve been. Like the Grand Canyon walls, each layer of the burger told a story. At the bottom a rich layer of BBQ sauce which cradles the burger and gives it a rich sweetness that is complimented by the cheddar melted on top of it. Above the cheese are shards of raw onion and dill pickle duking each other out for supremacy in a war between sweet and sour. On top of that was a thinly sliced ripe tomato (I cannot emphasize enough how beautifully ripe those were. They were not half frozen, mealy things you usually get) covered by freshly shredded lettuce covered in just a hint of creamy mayonnaise and a dab of mustard. It was beautifully built. You would think the mayonnaise and the BBQ sauce and the mustard would be a disaster together, but they were placed next to ingredients that made them thrive.

That is the genius of this burger. The decadently rich parts were kept separate from the fresh in such a way to make them both sing in your mouth. They didn’t become soggy or pollute each other’s flavors until they were supposed to.  Also, what a difference a freshly baked bun can make! The sesame egg bun was no slouch. Slightly sweet, it was strong enough that the whole sandwich didn’t collapse under the weight of so many ingredients.  On recommendation from my waitress, I got the coleslaw as a side. I was not disappointed. Although not as complicated as the burger, the cabbage was fresh and doused in sweet poppy dressing with green onions sprinkled over it that was not heavy at all. So if you’re on Montana St and you don’t feel like elbowing people for a table at Father’s Office, walk down to R&D Kitchen and grab a gourmet burger for the same price.

r&d kitchen

rustic canyon burgerNestled between a fancy antique car dealership and a medical building, Rustic Canyon manages to be cozy despite being placed on the extremely busy Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica.  Once inside you have two options: lie and say you have a reservation to get into the main dining room or snuggle up to the bartender and order from a stool in the lounge. If you’re like me and betting on the fact you bother reading this blog I’m guessing you are, you are never dressed for a chic restaurant in Santa Monica.  Dressing up to eat a burger and fries just seems ludicrous.

Perched on a bar stool next to a wall of tastefully placed candles, I got asked whether I preferred complimentary still or sparkling water, which immediately tipped me off that this was going to be expensive. Asking for tap water, I perused the menu and was horrified to discover the burger wasn’t on it.  Was this some kind of joke? All I had ever heard about this place was how wonderful their burger was. I knew they had gotten a new chef, but this was ridiculous. Why on earth would you bench your star player? It was like if the Heat showed up to a playoff game with Lebron James in a suit, not because he was injured, but because he didn’t feel like playing.  Indignant I asked the waiter if the burger was still available and he gave me a long pained look, “Yes, it is. It’s just not on the menu.” The poor thing must have been answering this question all week.  So it’s still there, it’s just become a secret.

When the burger arrived, I saw why people had been upset. It was magnificent. Glistening upon a brioche bun was a huge 80/20 Niman Ranch beef patty covered in sharp cheddar cheese, a five onion fondue (leek, Bermuda, Spanish, spring, and brown), housemade bread and butter pickles and creamy homemade herb remoulade with a side of golden hand cut French fries.  It is a slippery beast. The thing requires two hands and all of your concentration.

outside

Now, I didn’t spring for the extra fried egg and bacon that you can order on top. Why? Because I’m too cheap.  At $18 I think a burger is pricey enough. (Honestly dudes, you don’t need five kinds of onion. One would be fine.) The extras jack the price up to a whopping $25, which is absolutely crazy.  After the first couple bites, I knew I had made a good decision. The burger is incredibly rich.  Fingers dripping with greasy and remoulade, I could barely finish half of it before calling it quits. My eyelids drooped and it took all of my willpower not to curl up on the sticky floor for a quick nap.  It was like a meat sleeping pill.

If you find yourself in Santa Monica, this is a perfect burger to share. If you’re going with a buddy, hole up in the bar, split the burger, and spend the money you would have spent on the fried egg and bacon on a beer. Trust me. Half a burger is enough. Or if you’ve acquired a sugar daddy/mama this is a great place to have them prove just how much they love you. Nothing says love like a $25 burger. Although why stop there? Take them to the antique car shop next door and have them buy you a ride.

rustic canyon car

F.O. Burger

Once upon a time I moved to L.A. Thanks do a dear friend, client, and maker of fine rap music, I was immediately made aware of the innumerable amazing places in this wonderful town where one might shift his or her stomach level from E to F. Within a very short window of time I also learned of the fact that Los Angeles is arguably Mecca to burger-heads such as myself, which lead to my frequent asking of any and everyone (which has yet to dissipate) “so what’s your favorite burger in L.A.?” A few answers came up far more than any others: Umami (of course), The Oinkster, Apple Pan, and this week’s burger maker: Father’s Office.

I excitedly made my way to the Culver City location immediately after hearing about it, and only shortly after calling Southern California home. At the time, Father’s Office was perhaps the most talked about burger of which I was aware, though to be fair, the burger quest on which I currently find myself had not yet begun. Rather than recount the entire experience I will distil to one point: the staff was SO rude, I hardly remember anything about the food. I have not been spoken to by a hostess that way in my life, before or since. I left completely disappointed and did not return for over 3 years.

Outside

Over the course of those 3 years, I really dug into this city and its burgers, and while the journey thus far did not suffer for a lack of Father’s Office, I did continue to encounter people who cited it as their all-time favorite. The masses had spoken, so a return trip, this time to the original Santa Monica location, had to be made.

Upon entering this quaint, nostalgic taproom, a bubbly young man offered to show me to a seat. His cheer and desire to please instantly bagged the other place. There was no way it was going to be as shitty this time. I found a seat at the crowded little bar and ordered my burger and fries (each are offered a la carte). They have a rather impressive draught beer selection as well that I would have loved to show you and I might have even ordered one, had the bartender not reprimanded me for attempting to take a photo of the taps. “House rule” he said. Apparently the fear is that someone will plagiarize their beer list. He was relatively polite considering his role at that moment in our interaction though. So far so good, kind of.

The Meal

Shoestring fries and ambiguously herby mystery aioli.

My burger came quickly, and I may be grading on a slight curve because I was STARVING. According to the menu, which I inspected closely only after I ate, the Father’s Office burger comes adorned with: caramelized onion, applewood bacon, gruyere, Maytag blue, and arugula. My notes about the onions were that they were very bouillon heavy: salty and sweet at the same time, and nearly overpowering of the other flavors. Upon reading the description, I inquired as to why my burger hadn’t had bacon on it (because it didn’t). The same cheerful gent who greeted me explained that the bacon wasn’t strips but is confit, and it’s IN the onions. I would absolutely never have known, but I really wish I had because I wonder if the experience would have been any different. I never picked bacon out as a flavor in those salty onions, and I’m so bothered by it now that I almost want to go eat it again as I write this. In any case, the burger is pretty well assembled even if one flavor dominated. The cheese appeared to be broiled on to the patty, making it melted and browned a.k.a delicious. Arugula is always a good pick for sharp green, and F.O. serves its burgers on buttered Portuguese rolls, which I thought was innovative. Instead of being yet another brioche pusher, they slap their burger on some cheap yummy white bread. The patty wasn’t particularly seasoned that I could tell, and was firmly packed for my preference but overall, Father’s Office has a great and somewhat unique burger.

Father's Guts

There’s a bug on my thumb. I didn’t eat it.

So the verdict is: there is some truth to the hype. Do I think that Father’s Office’s burger should rank amongst L.A’s finest? I might if it was six bucks, but for the money you spend I can think of many places I would rather eat. A burger, fries, one beer and decent tip is $30, and for that you can just about have your pick of any of Los Angeles’ finest ground meat sandies. To lay my initial Father’s Office experience to rest was not cathartic but important, and for the first time my opinion of this place is actually objective. This all feels good, but I’m still in no hurry to go back.

-Geoff Sawyer