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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Burger Roundup II: Burger Kitchen a Hit, Houston's Still Rules


Maybe it had something to do with consuming copious amounts of pasta during the Italy trip, but I was so ready for a bloody, juicy burger when I got home. Naturally, I went overboard. Here's a roundup of the good, the bad and the ugly of burgerdom.

I tried lowly burgers all the way up to the lofty ones that break the bank. All the way south to San Diego and north to San Francisco. Disclaimer: the sampling from these cities don't come close to being comprehensive. I happened to be there. I was hungry. And I'm a burger fiend.



If you've been reading for some time, you'll know I'm not one to subscribe to hype. When I heard and read all the hoopla about Burger Kitchen being the only burger joint in LA to serve meat from the famed Pat La Frieda Meats in New York of Minetta Tavern fame (which I tried and thought was just ok), I wanted to verify it wasn't style over substance. More so after reading the nasty exchanges on yelp between negative reviewers and the owners that bordered on the absurd.

I was surprised at how flavorful the $26 "Natural" was. The meat from PLF is described as a "40-day, dry-aged prime mix." Even so, I think it's steep for what you get. Thank god it came with fries, which were crispy and well-seasoned (Had to take back the first set of fries because they were not piping hot and we eventually got an acceptable set). I loved that they had sweet potato fries, although I found myself liking my burger with regular fries better, which is very unusual for me. The $19 kobe beef burger was just ok. But the Natural was really something else. I daresay the patty itself was more flavorful (the good meat taste) than my all-time fave Houston's Cali burger. I give the Natural a big thumbs up, way up there in my top five in LA. I'm definitely returning to try the more affordable burgers ($9) offered but am worried my palate's already been hopelessly spoiled. If you're in the mood to splurge on burgers, there are $39 and a tricked out $50 variations at hand. But honestly, who needs lobster medallions and truffle oil on a burger?

Still, as our burger club members concurred, we still like Houston's Cali more in its entirety for its yummy arugula and avocado toppings and delicious sesame bun.

Speaking of Houston's, Hillstone Group once again delivered on quality with its latest, South Beverly Grill in Beverly Hills. It even has live jazz playing in the evenings. I'll definitely be returning. Its burgers were very good, just as consistently well-cooked (medium rare) as at the other Hillstone restaurants R+D and Bandera.

I've gotten more into pairing food with beers these days, so when I found a pretty good burger (right) at the local gastropub Village Idiot, I was ecstatic. What better than a good, beefy burger with reddish interior and fresh bun to wash down with a local or exotic microbrew? Excuse this brew novice, but I recently discovered Hitachino's White Ale that was so refreshing and the beauty of pairing something like Racer 5 IPA with a meaty burger. Besides, the vibe at VI is great -- totally chill.

Off Vine was another great surprise. I usually consider bacon a distraction in burgers but it was for brunch so I ate it up. The curly fries were a tad disappointing, like something out of a slightly upscale diner (or is that an oxymoron?). The patty was soft and juicy and the bun was on the dry side but decent. I liked the different dipping sauces offered, like some kind of chipotle mayo and garlicky concoction. I really liked the ambiance here. The converted house gave it a cozy feel and outdoor seating area made us feel like we had been transported to some B&B in New England -- very serene.

Now for some disappointments. Westside Tavern, which seems to be the only halfway-decent place to eat in Westside Pavillion, was a downer. Judging by its swanky and dark interior bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Hillstone Group restaurants (I swear I'm not on their payroll), it obviously aspires to be a place like Houston's. Too bad the food didn't live up to its aspirations. Its burger (right) isn't a bad burger. It just isn't on par with the recent onslaught of gourmet burgers on the rise. For the same price or less, one could get a comparable or better burger elsewhere. So unless you're stuck in the pre-theater bind at the Landmark, there really isn't a reason to go.

Salt House (left) in San Francisco supposedly had a serviceable burger. Again, it wasn't a bad burger. But at $14 (yes, I have paid $26 for a burger but it was worth it), I expected this patty to be perfectly cooked with a soft bun that wasn't as dense. The bun was too hard and dense -- overtoasted. The "works" that came with it were nothing to write home about. And the fries. Oh the fries. They were neither crispy nor warm. Bad, bad fries.

Service was horrendous at first but got better. I don't think I'll be returning.



On the other end in San Diego, Burger Lounge (right) serves up a $8 burger that is barely a notch above an In-n-Out burger. Its patty has crispy edges, which I liked. But because the patty is so anemic -- at least compared to the big, fat gourmet ones I like and am used to -- this couldn't possibly be cooked medium rare, and it wasn't. The fries were even worse. Not at all crispy. They need to get their crisp game up, big time. A modern and clean interior alone does not a good burger joint make.

Back in LA, I tried the dive bar institution, Chez Jay (left). It doesn't get more old-school than this. I feel bad ragging on the burger because our server was nice enough to accommodate our request for a burger at dinner time when it's not usually offered. But look at the inside of this burger. There's not a trace of red, which equals no juice or blood, which equals dryness and no flavor. An overcooked burger through and through! Having said that, I loved loved the chunky potato wedges. But needless to say, I won't be returning. Other dishes weren't good either. I wanted to like this place but alas, I didn't.
So tell me, what's your fave burger?

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