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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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Salts cure open faceMeat. I like it. Given that you’re reading this article, you probably do too. Unbeknownst to me until the day that the first post on this site was created, it does not have to be beef. Any meat at all as long as it’s ground, can be the star of a burger. The single defining characteristic that can take a sandwich to burger status, is the patty of ground meat. Variety of animal options aside, it would stand to reason then, that true burger heads place extreme value on the quality of that particular ingredient in their burgers, and that the same value be placed by those making said burgers. The phrase “all about the meat” has been thrown around a bit here at hoodburger over the course of our journey, and that is because some burger makers (though sadly not all) truly do recognize that the quality of their meat is of the utmost importance. Salt’s Cure, is one of those places.

Restaurants that source as much of their food locally as possible and change their menus according to seasonal availability are rapidly growing in number, which rules. Salt’s Cure finds itself not only among them but progressive among the progressives, in that they often purchase the animals they serve nearly whole and break them down in house. Just read their mission statement:

“We believe in sourcing better products. We buy our animals whole and directly from farmers and ranchers in California. Our seafood is caught in the Pacific Ocean by local fishermen who exercise sustainable practices. Our produce is sourced from farmers’ markets around the Los Angeles-area. Our award-winning wine list is 100% Californian, and produced biodynamically and/or organically by small producers. We carefully select each wine on our list to pair with our food. We make everything ourselves, from the ketchup to the bacon. We find complexity in simplicity, and showcase flavor through simple preparation.”

Salts cure burger Clearly the dedication to quality does not stop at the meat, but at least in the context of their burger, the meat is where it shows the most. Salt’s Cure’s dinner menu changes daily, and is written on a chalkboard- a photo of which is posted to facebook. The burger is rarely seen on it, but usually (though not always) they can make you one and though according to the definition it doesn’t have to be, this burger is most certainly beef. The toppings are not complex: butter or gem lettuce, red onion, mayonnaise, a mild Swiss cheese (tasted like alpine lace), and house cured bacon. As you should have guessed, it’s all about the meat. To my surprise, the bacon was less salty than any I have ever had, which allowed for its natural flavor to shine. It was like a thinly sliced pig steak perched atop a delicious course ground patty of perfectly seasoned beef. They don’t say this about it, but the richness and character of the patty’s flavor were that of dry aged. All of the burger’s modest dressings casually compliment the featured meats despite raw onion and Swiss cheese having power of their own (though to be fair, I did remove about half the onion from my burger). The pseudo-brioche (white bread bun with pretty/shiny outside) on which it is served is also merely a vehicle by which an amazing celebration of meat travels to one’s mouth.

Salts burger cross section Though the burger was fantastic, my meal was not without fault. My co-diner and I both ordered glasses of a totally mediocre tempranillo, and the pound cake we ended on was a bummer. Even still, the approach that these guys take to their position as food-makers makes my heart sing, and their burger is a delectable exercise in the art of ground beef sandwich construction. A hint: it’s all about the meat.

– Geoff Sawyer

ps I keep eating these burgers after dark, so again, if I stole your photos from the internet, thanks.

photo (15)Granted,  not the most inspired name for a restaurant, but I need to confess to you something right off the bat, I love this place. I’ve been eating here ever since I moved to LA in 2008. All of their food is fresh and homemade. I love their soups. I love their salads. I love their pies. I love their sandwiches. Jesus, even their butterscotch pudding is wonderful. (Fans of Mozza’s butterscotch budino take note.)  The staff knows me by name. I get all of our office lunches catered here. I buy people birthday presents like Noble’s bourbon maple syrup or Sqirl jam or some of their homemade candy  from their display cases.  What I’m saying is, Food LA is my boyfriend.

So when I showed up on a rainy Tuesday evening right before they closed, I was nervous. Why? I had never had their burger before. Yeah, that’s right. Never. We’ve been together for almost six years and I’ve never had a burger there. Why? Honestly, I never have had the time. I usually rush in there and rush out without the time to wait for a burger.  Or maybe I was scared.

Photo by Ed K.

Photo by Ed K.

What if it was terrible? What if I then had to report that to the internet? How could I look them in the eye and say something like “You do everything perfectly, except for the burger, my favorite food in the whole world.” It could get awkward. However I started to relax when I was asked whether I wanted my cheese to be cheddar, blue, or Gruyere. All three of those cheese are statement cheeses. You don’t put those on there unless you’re confident in your burger. (In case you’re curious, the most insecure cheese of all is white American cheese. If they put that on your burger, you’re in trouble.  It’s got no taste. What is the point?)

When it arrived, though, I got really excited. On a brioche bun lay a hand crafted 4oz beef patty with gruyere cheese melted on top, sautéed onions, a thick slice of tomato and arugula. Next to it were five golden spicy potatoes covered in aioli.  One bite and I knew, all of my fears were completely unwarranted. The herbs and spices that were lovingly folded into that burger was something that I had only had in someone’s mother’s kitchen. There was no need for sauce or any kind of condiment. The herbs, cheese, and onions were enough to compliment the burger’s juicy flavor. I’m thinking about proposing to this place at New Years. Maybe a June wedding? Maybe August? Who knows. All I know is I’m going to put a ring on it.

 

– Molly Bergen

The pljeskavica

The Pljeskavica

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

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

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

Grilled Potatoes

Grilled Potatoes

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

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

-Molly Bergen

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

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

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

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

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

-Geoff Sawyer

PC Chicken

Pickled eggs

Apple Pan Steakburger

Apparently December is to go down as the month of unmet burger expectations, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just the reality regarding a recent short string of meals that were not exactly what we hoodburgerers thought they would be. My review this week was intended to be an homage to old faithful, as I do from time to time for you traditionalists (see Pie and Burger, and T.K.’s), despite the fact that I had not yet been to this particular pillar of the L.A. burger pantheon. I have however heard this name spouted time and time again from people offering their opinions (solicited or otherwise) on the best burger around, and they’ve been around for about 70 years. If that wasn’t enough, National Geographic listed this place as the best burger in the country (which now that I have eaten there, confirms my suspicion that Nat Geo should stick to knowing about beautiful photos of glaciers and leave the burgers to the fat boys [me]).

Apple Pan outside

The neon-lit exterior of the Apple Pan looks like it borrowed its inspiration from a seedy hotel in any rural area in the country, which for the record I am not mad at. I walked inside at 9:45 p.m. on a Tuesday and there were 2 empty seats in the whole place. Multiple couples were waiting for others to finish so that they could be seated. To be fair, the restaurant probably couldn’t fit more than 20 diners at a time. I didn’t count the stools, but all of the seating is around a 3-sided horseshoe shaped bar that encircled the cold parts of the kitchen. Clean-cut young men dressed identically to those who serve a similar function and in a similarly cheery fashion to those at In & Out whizzed about dropping off mounds of French fries on small paper plates and taking orders to memory. Everything is served in or on disposable ware: paper plates, Styrofoam cups, and if you order a soft drink they give you a paper cone and an adorably vintage looking holder for it. I’m not too keen on the disposable stuff, but it’s fair to say, so far so good.

Apple Pan Fries

First came my fries, far enough in advance of the rest of the meal they could easily be considered an appetizer. This worked out fine, because it was late and I was starving, though typically I would have not been impressed. They were nothing to write home about but were hot, crisp and just what I would expect from a frill-free venue such as this. Upon them hitting the counter my server slung another tiny paper plate down and poured me a sea of ketchup with zero provocation. I didn’t need it, but the showmanship drew my appreciation. Then came my burger.

Apple burger guts

More showmanship, which, much like the sketch-ball motel exterior design; is not lost on me. The guy set the thing (wrapped in a paper sleeve) on its side and slid it upright down the bar to me with no plate. I have never felt more like a young John Cusack in my life (and I’m not even making reference to an actual movie moment, I just felt that cool). I was so excited! I snatched that burger up, took a huge bite, and tasted nothing but pickle relish. Like, nothing. Their “special” sauce is ketchup and either 2 kinds of relish or sweet relish with a splash of vinegar, but either way, you get a LOT. Mine also had Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese (an additional $.50 well spent), dill pickles, mayo, and a fat wad of fresh iceberg lettuce, also a la In & Out, all on a plain white bun. Now it wasn’t bad mind you, all the parts described were just as good as could be expected, but I think Apple Pan fell victim to its hype outshining its product. Based on its reputation, I expected magic and the burger itself did not really deliver.

Apple Pan Apple Pie

Being that hoodburger is about burgers this review probably appears critical, but it needs addressing that the burger was the only disappointing part of the entire experience. I made friends with nearly everyone in the whole place due to the close proximity/communal seating, and had what would probably have gone down as the best apple pie of my life had I not been too full of mediocre burger to fully appreciate it. So for you traditionalists (and definitely pie lovers) I still would recommend trying Apple Pan if you never have, because it seems that 70 years and multiple national recognitions later I am pretty much the only one on earth not impressed by their burger. And for those of you more like myself who prefer that the list of their burger’s toppings be bursting with hyphens and accent marks, stay tuned, because there are still undiscussed bougie burgers a-plenty.

-Geoff Sawyer

Apple Pan Inside

Apple Pan Soda cone

Abandoned Pie

Let’s get one thing out of the way before launching into this review. Hole in the Wall Burger Joint is not on Santa Monica Blvd. Google, Yelp, and all the other maps will say that it is at 11058 Santa Monica Blvd in West LA, which turns out to be total and utter fiction. It is in fact around the corner on S. Bentley Ave tucked behind a Winchell Donuts and unless you have X-ray vision there is absolutely no chance you will see it from Santa Monica Blvd.  You have been warned.

That being said, this place is totally worth finding. The Hole in the Wall Burger Joint (or as it will be known from here on out as the Joint because my fingers are lazy) is my favorite kind of burger place: unpretentious, no frills, cheap and gourmet.  The restaurant itself looks like the kind of place you could catch a disease just by sitting down. Tiny metal chairs are sprawled under tarps in the parking lot which counts as their patio and the inside is bright orange and filled with uncomfortable chairs. Does it matter? Not one bit. Because the money they saved on décor, they passed on to you. They don’t call themselves “The Working Man’s Gourmet Burger” for nothing.

The Joint is the kind of place where you can design your own burger.  For $8.95 you get a giant list of toppings, homemade sauces, and cheese. Unlike their expensive competition (cough, the Counter) they actually pay attention to the burger. They use grass-fed Angus beef without antibiotics or hormones. The burger is thick and juicy and grease will run down your chin. It is rich and satisfying and never overcooked. Don’t eat beef? No worries. They’ve got spicy chicken, homemade veggie, and turkey. Allergic to gluten? No problem, they also do burgers in a bowl. Don’t want to make a decision? That’s cool, they’ve always got a special burger of the day.  And all of it can be ordered online before you even get there and it’ll be ready in 10 minutes. All ready to go wrapped lovingly in wax paper and a brown paper bag.  It is one of those shining fast food lights in the shadowy world of strip mall burger joints.

I often sneak over there for lunch, and yesterday I got a beef burger on fresh pretzel bread with onion jam, cheddar, red onions (you can never have too many onions), sautéed mushrooms, and lettuce (You know, for health. Hi, Mom.) The man who took my order at the counter was a tall, sweaty behemoth of goodwill. His burgers are good and he is tremendously proud of them. Calling me darling, he told me to check out the sauces. The sauce counter is probably the only snobby part of the Joint, but it’s also my favorite. They have three options labeled: Their Ketchup, Our Ketchup, and Our Ranch. Below each title is a list of ingredients, including all of the chemicals included in Their Ketchup. Both Our Ketchup and Our Ranch contain the ingredient Love. Consequently, Their Ketchup contains “No Love.” It makes me wonder if anyone has ever chosen Their Ketchup and if so, how old the ketchup in that bottle is. These are not healthy things to wonder.

It’s hard not to like a place that focuses all of its energy on making good affordable food and doesn’t much care about anything else.  The only real downside is that they’re cash only, so come prepared.

– Molly Bergen