Monday, March 29, 2010

More whiffs of Burger Kitchen

My dear friend Samantha just sent me Urban Daddy's Burger Kitchen article, and I have to say I cannot wait to go there!  It'll take me some time to do all the recon for this joint, but I have a feeling it'll be worth it.  I'm especially interested in the Eggs Benedict burger... 

Friday, March 26, 2010


        It was like eating the first hamburger ever invented. 
        It felt like the beginning.

        Walking through the double doors at Apple Pan is like stepping back in time. The street noise from Pico Boulevard gives way to the sound of sizzling meat and the excited chatter of local patrons. With wood paneling reminiscent of a lake house, and a U-shaped counter/bar with red twisting seats I felt like I’d been whisked from Los Angeles to a quaint diner overlooking Lake Tahoe during the days of John Muir and Roosevelt.
        I ordered the Hickory burger, with Tillamook cheese, fries and a rootbeer. (Rootbeer!) Samantha chose the Steakburger with Tillamook cheese and fries. Fries came out instantly; the missing evolutionary link between wedge cut and skinny fries. They were on the softer side, but looking around the diner I could tell other patrons’ were more well done. We loaded on the salt and our friendly server poured us mini-plates of ketchup to dip them in. Eating them, I felt like I was revisiting an old, familiar friend.
        Rootbeer came next, an ice-cold bottle of IBC, served next to a tin cup (kind of a cross between those little cups for hard boiled eggs that look like hour glasses and a bigger version of a bartender’s measuring cup) with a snow cone paper inside, filled with ice. Obviously, it was fantastically refreshing, and I think the tin kept it cold longer. It was the perfect compliment to the food, but even more so, to the vibe of the joint.
        After gorging on fries, our burgs came out. They were wrapped in little paper sacks with ketchup and cheese oozing out. I could taste the smoky hickory flavor with the first bite. They piled iceberg lettuce high inside of a soft white bun with a ketchup/hickory sauce and the textures contrasted well. Samantha’s Steakburger came with a special relish on it, that was good, but a little overpowering. Now pay attention: You’ve got to keep your burg in its little paper home, and just try to peel back enough paper for each bite, otherwise it will definitely slide to pieces. I ate the whole thing, quite happily, like a kid with ketchup smeared on the sides of her face.

         Aside from the burgs and fries the main thing on the menu (prices are higher than shown) is PIE: Apple, Pecan and the occasional Cream. Samantha and I chose to share a slice of Apple (our waiter cut it in half for us) and it was served so piping hot, the Thrifty ice cream was practically soup on the dish. A delectable treat.
        Service was fast and friendly. Each server had on a classic white uniform that you might see in pictures from the first carhops, and their pockets were neatly lined with Ticonderoga pencils. We arrived just before seven and only waited a minute or so for seats to open up. I spoke with one patron who had ordered take out, and he said he’d been coming to Apple Pan since he was three- basically, for forty years. It was definitely a locals-only joint, filled with friends, grandparents with grandkids and so forth. There were a few couples too and I have to say, it would be an excellent place for a date.
        They have two old fashioned cash registers at each corner of the bar, and they’re cash only. Not the cheapest old school burger, Samantha and I clocked in at $18 each, but learn from our mistake and share an order of fries. 

I felt like I wasn’t just paying for the food though; I was also paying for an hour of time travel.


Dear Westsiders, 
Looks like Umami is just about ready to open their Santa Monica location at Fred Segal!  Get excited...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Recon: HODAD'S

No shirt?
No shoes?
No problem.

        That 'No problem' sign hangs over the bar at Hodad's and declares the joint's vibe exactly. The driving force behind Hodad’s delicious burgs is definitely its attitude and technique: Simple and efficient.  You can get a mini, single or double size burger- the mini is an In N Out size patty, the single is a bit larger, and the double is two patties.  Comes with everything (tomato, lettuce, onion, pickles, mayo, mustard, ketchup) unless you say otherwise, and you can ask for grilled onions if you like.  One of their techniques is putting all the hot ingredients together and all the cool ingredients together, keeping each bite in perfect thermal balance.  My dad, brother and I all ordered the Single Bacon Cheeseburger.  (We subscribe to the theory that almost anything can be improved with the addition of bacon.)  Burgers come wrapped in paper- DO NOT UNDO.  You’ll need it so you can pick it up and take proper bites. 
        Now, this is where some serious technique comes into play: Because putting strips of bacon on a burger is inefficient and leads to uneven flavor in each bite, Hodad’s designed a ‘bacon patty’ to rectify this serious flavor-gap issue.  The bacon is chopped and boiled, then loosely chopped again and formed into a thick patty. They cook both sides of it, so it’s nice and crunchy, and then they put it on your burger- on f the cheese that’s already melting over the meat patty. To top it off they throw another slice of cheese over the bacon. Genius.

        We ordered a stack of ‘Frings’ for the table, a 50/50 combo of fries and onion rings. Fries are wedge cut with seasoning and as my brother referred to them: they’re “legitimate potatoes.”  Onion rings are thick cut with a crisp bread-batter shell.  They come out positively steaming and are served with ranch dressing.  I like them because they have a distinct flavor- not that generic restaurant “fried” flavor.  Ketchup is on every table and mustard/mayo are available by request.
        Hodad’s has an amazing selection of drinks.  They serve shakes/malts (chocolate, vanilla & strawberry) and each comes in a huge malt cup, with two scoops of matching ice cream inside, and they bring out an extra cup and spoons to help you get through it.  We ordered chocolate, and it definitely took all three of us to consume. Hodad’s also serves regular fountain sodas, rootbeer floats and a wide range of beers. Draft beers like Fat Tire and Sierra Nevada come in mason jars with handles and bottled beers range from PBR, Bud, and Sam, to Pacifico and Miller.
        It’s almost always crowded with a line out the door, especially now that summer’s coming.  Used to be locals only, but the tourism traffic is growing since Guy Fieri named it one of the top ten burgers in America, and chose it for Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate: With Bacon.”  The d├ęcor is eclectic: license plates from all different states and countries cover most of the walls, as well as surfboards, maps, stolen street signs, psychedelic stuff and a spattering of awards.  Just half a block from the beach, it’s a lively, casual atmosphere filled with hungry anticipation.  The Ramones were blaring through the speakers while families and friends tried to get out a few words between bites.  Depending on what and how much you like to drink, you’re probably looking at about $10-$15 per person for burger, fries/rings and a drink.

My brother got it right when he said, “It’s a necessary accident that you eat too much.”  Please note: Hodad's is located in SAN DIEGO, CA.

Recon: IN N OUT

For many of you who live in the southwestern United States In N Out might seem like a given, but for those outside the sprawl of it’s branches In N Out is an elusive oasis with a classic American burger and a delicious secret menu.

        Two of my favorite things to order at In N Out are not on the menu. Like any human being, I love to be in on the joke- a card-carrying member of the club- and I love talking in code. The secret menu at In N Out has become so widely known in the past few years that In N Out redesigned some of their packaging to accommodate their secret menu. Spread now comes in packets double the size of ketchup packets (they literally say ‘SPREAD’ on them!) And they even created a special box with a lid for their secret fries.
        The burgers come wrapped securely in their In N Out papers, buns toasted, not soggy. You can have no onions, regular onions or grilled onions- I like grilled best. The meat is thin compared to a lot of restaurant style burgers, but I like it that way because it’s easy to pick up and bite into- and it doesn’t slip apart. The meat/cheese/grilled onions compliment each other well and contrast nicely next to the cool crispness of the lettuce/tomato, mixing texture and temperature just right. A thin layer of Spread coats the bun; ketchup and mustard by request. Spread is In N Out’s version of Thousand Island dressing. Sort of. Only better. Their three burger options are Hamburger, Cheeseburger and Double Double (double meat, double cheese) and you can add a “style,” to any of the combos, such as ‘Protein Style’ which means your burger will be wrapped in iceberg lettuce. Or ‘Animal Style’ which means add pickles and grilled onions, and cook the meat in mustard. For all you vegetarians out there, there’s no veggie burg, but you can ask for the Flying Dutchman which is basically In N Out’s version of a grilled cheese.
        In N Out’s fries are on the softer side, but this never stops me from requesting extra Spread and dipping each one in it. I like to get my fries ‘Animal Style’ which means they get topped off with a slice of cheese, grilled onions and Spread. Because that combination quickly gets messy they give you a fork so you can pick thru and get a perfect bite every time. In N Out only offers ketchup and Spread, but that’s all I’d ever need there.
        In N Out’s clientele shifts slowly throughout the day. At lunch time it’s anyone and everyone. The restaurants are almost always neat and clean and the red palm trees over the white background make for a cheerful motif. To combat the long drive-thru lines (10 cars plus!) they get at peak hours they started sending out a server with a mini computer to take your order- the faster orders get in, the faster they come out. Later at night you start to get a lot more teenagers around. Servers are polite and friendly and the simplicity of the menu keeps the wait down.
        They offer your standard set of fountain sodas, water and lemonade. But In N Out makes amazing shakes. A chocolate milk shake isn’t something I normally crave, but In N Out does it right. They make strawberry, vanilla and chocolate and they’re all equally good. If it’s your first time there, or you rarely come across one, definitely get a shake!
        In N Out is, by all counts, a cheap burger joint. Even if you start adding ‘styles’ and shakes it’s not likely you’ll get over $10 per person. Quick note, in phrasing leftover from the 50’s, if you drive thru they’ll ask you, “Will you be eating this in your car?” You typically want to answer, “No, to-go please,” because you want everything in to-go containers, not open containers and placemats. Yes, they have placemats; I only go to classy joints.

Recon: UMAMI

1st bite: “It’s like a salty teriyaki?”  2nd bite: “Is that soy?” 3rd bite: “kind of a zingy tang…” 4th bite: “I give up! The only word for it is Umami.”

Umami Urban is situated in the new hipster center, Space 15twenty. {} Amoeba music is right across the street, and a gigantic, brand new Urban Outfitters is there as well- the fanciest one I’ve seen.  Look for metered parking or pull into one of the many lots in the area.   
My darling friend Samantha Peacock joined me on this excursion, and being an Umami veteran, she knew exactly what she wanted: the SoCal Burger and sweet potato fries.  Being an Umami virgin, I opted for their original, a Kombu #1: Umami Burger, regular fries, and roasted garlic aioli for dipping.  We both polished off a couple Nakhon beers, which complimented the burgers well.  When our burgs came out, I have to say, they looked pretty cute.  Perfectly round, a wee bit tall and very proud. 
The Umami burg comes with mushrooms, an oven dried tomato and what I call a ‘crispy flavor wafer.’  I took off the mushrooms (sorry, mushrooms and I ain’t friends) and I enjoyed the unique flavor of something I had simply never tasted before.  The flavor wafer added excellent texture and the meat was juicy and pretty pink in the middle. (Apparently they’re always like that so if you like your burgers a little more cooked, just ask.)  The bun was buttery and soft, and it did get a little soggy, but only because it was absorbing all that juice from the meat!  While eating it, it was on the messier side, but I’ve certainly made bigger burger messes. Halfway through I was over the tomato, and replaced it with a nice spread of the roasted garlic aioli.  While meat, bun, aioli and flavor wafer might seem like an odd choice, the mix was delish!  Samantha let me steal a bite of her SoCal burg and I have to say I really enjoyed the flavor combo of the butter lettuce and the cheese. 
The regular fries came hot, extra crispy and salty- my favorite kind of fry.  The sweet potato fries weren’t quite as hot, but they had a nicely flavorful exterior and weren’t too sweet, like most sweet potato fries I’ve had.  The garlic aioli was just one of several condiments you can have- you get one condiment per fry order- and it was very well done.  Excellent flavor and texture, it contrasted well with the fries and, alternately, with the burg.  I kept remixing my bite order: burg, beer, fry, fry, fry, burg, beer, burg, fry- just because the flavors played off each other so well. 
The atmosphere was mellow with a nice buzz of conversation for background noise.  With exposed brick walls and scratched up concrete floors I definitely got an industrial vibe, but the furniture and displays were modern and pop-y.  I liked the marriage of Japanese flavors and aesthetic simplicity to a classic American meal and architecture.  The layout was open and the mostly glass walls look out on the shopping area, making the space feel bigger than it actually is.  It’s the kind of place where your server will leave you in peace until you wave him down.  You’re not constantly interrupted, which made me think it would be a good place for a date.  I looked around and sure enough there were a few couples scattered about, but the crowd was mostly young hipsters.
They have a smaller selection of beverages, but good, quality ones.  I enjoyed the Nakhon beer, but a cocktail called ‘Rocket Pop’ also caught my eye.  Beer, wine, cocktails, and the good coke from Mexico that’s made with real sugar cane all graced the menu. 
We paid about $25 each which I felt was reasonable.  I felt like we were paying for the experience of the novel concept, as well as the food and drink.  It’s important to note that the menus vary at each location -to the point that some locations have completely different fries, like Jenga logs- and not all the locations serve alcohol.  I don’t know that I would crave it, but it’s the kind of place you’ll want to bring your friends to when they come to visit La La Land. 

Umami Urban
1520 N. Cahuenga Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028

The Mission

America is a hamburger nation. While the burger species has flourished under many names (Big Mac, Whopper, Double-Double, or even Tarantino’s famous Royal With Cheese) in a lot of the major cities it has recently split into two distinct breeds: The Classic and The Gourmet. BUT a burger always consists of the same three components: The Meat, The Bun and The Toppings. That can mean a sesame seed bun, quarter pound of beef, cheese, lettuce, onion, and ketchup; or an English muffin, with a veggie patty, sprouts and vegan pepper aioli.
In LA, many people, blogs and websites attempt to rank the burger joints and pick the BEST burger- an impossible task for even the most experienced critics. Instead of such unfair, subjective judgment, I propose a Burger Exploration Expedition. We don’t need a ranking system; we need first hand knowledge and insider tips so we can decide for ourselves what type of burger is best at the moment. (What type of bear is best? The Office, anyone?)
Over the next two months I will embark on this burger missionwith a couple good friends by my side, sampling one burger joint a week and giving you a comprehensive write up with regard to these factors:

-burger itself
 If you have a comment or a place I simply must go- please share!  Let the recon begin…