A cityscape studded with palm trees. A historic Sunset Boulevard hotel. Your dinner served to you poolside, your waiter bearing aloft the perfect hamburger. It’s the quintessential L.A. experience.
And yes, that includes the hamburger. Not a California roll, not a chic plate of fusion food, but a burger.
From a wooden counter in Santa Monica to an industrial-looking foodie haunt in Hollywood to the swankiest dining room on Orange County’s Gold Coast, right now the burger is getting more play in this town than Colin Farrell. Suddenly, L.A. chefs are taking the burger very seriously: No longer a kids’ meal or de rigueur bar food, the hamburger is now a menu centerpiece, even a showstopper.
At the Terrace, the patio-with-a-view restaurant that opened last week at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood, Sunday night is burger night: The entire menu is devoted to the burger in all its glory.
Yes, there’s the fabulous sirloin burger, smothered in brie and caramelized onions, but you can also order a duck burger, made from chopped duck breast and shredded duck confit and smeared with Dijon creme fraiche, or a monkfish burger, in which monkfish is diced with fresh scampi, bound with a lemongrass infusion, and served with lobster aioli. All are grilled before you on the terrace by a whites-clad chef and served with a copper cassoulet pan of fries for the table. While you wait, you can take a dip in the pool and watch the sun spread out over the Los Angeles skyline.
This Kobe is on fire
AT Stonehill Tavern, the elegant restaurant at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort and Spa, chef-partner Michael Mina offers a decadent truffled Kobe burger, replete with creamy truffle aioli, truffled ketchup, shaved black truffle and a brioche bun made with truffle butter. It may sound like overkill, but it’s a surprisingly subtle creation: The truffle plays off the separate components and unites them without drowning them out. And tangy pickled onions, oven-dried tomato and peppery cress keep the richness of the beef and aioli from overwhelming the palate. There’s also some enforced restraint -- there’s just a dab of the truffle aioli.
Burger-wise, Kobe is very hot. Not real Japanese Kobe of course, which wholesales for $80 per pound, but Wagyu, American Kobe-style beef. Stonehill uses Snake River Farms American Kobe in its burgers. “You use it for two reasons,” says Mina. “The flavor and the fat.”
Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse Cut, which recently opened its Richard Meier-designed doors at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, offers Kobe sliders that actually contain a percentage of true Japanese Kobe.
Spago executive chef Lee Hefter, who helped chef Ari Rosenson create the menu, says the burgers are made mostly from American Kobe, but with some sirloin added “for flavor,” along with some true Kobe, extra from the cuts he gets flown in from Japan for the steakhouse menu. They’re served on delicate brioche buns, with shallot-jalapeno marmalade, tomato confit, aged Gouda and diced onion.
Kobe sliders are also on the menu at the chic new Social Hollywood, where they’re made with Wagyu beef and piled with melted Gruyere, caramelized onions, a thatch of iceberg, sliced tomatoes and rich “Moroccan” aioli -- infused with roasted garlic and ground coriander. They’re served pierced with skewers, atop three individual plates on a wooden board.
But not everyone thinks Kobe is best for burgers. Just as Angelenos love to debate whether the Apple Pan is better than Pie n’ Burger, or whether In-N-Out was ever as great as the original Fatburger, or whether the Counter is as amazing as Father’s Office, hamburgers have lately become a topic of hot debate for chefs. It all comes down to Kobe versus not.
“I think the Kobe thing is over,” says Jeff Klein, owner of the Terrace. It simply doesn’t have the depth of flavor that sirloin has, he says.
In West L.A. at Literati II, chef Chris Kidder turns out one of the city’s best burgers, using sirloin. A Zuni Cafe alum, Kidder salts the chuck and lets it stand overnight a la Judy Rodgers (his former boss at Zuni) before grinding it himself (twice) and grilling it over pecan wood. The result is a spectacularly flavorful burger that’s served simply, with just a touch of aioli, a grilled slice of red onion, a slice of really ripe tomato sprinkled with fleur de sel and a perfectly cut triangle of iceberg lettuce.
For chef Ben Ford at Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City, it’s chuck all the way for his equally old-school pub burger, topped simply with shredded iceberg lettuce, a slice of beefsteak tomato and some caramelized onions. “I dance around, trying to elevate the pub concept,” Ford says.
Making of a craze
SO what makes a great burger? Spago’s Hefter says it’s two very simple but crucial things: great meat, and meat that’s ground fresh. Literati II’s Kidder echoes this, emphasizing the quality of the meat as being the most important, plus “a bun that can handle the patty” and fresh accompaniments “that complement the meat rather than overpower it.” And “lots of love,” Kidder adds.
Hefter explains the current burger craze this way: “People are bored with this surge of crazy food -- foams and gelees and mousses. These days people want something with some familiarity. Comfort level is very important when you’re eating.” Also, he points out, “more chefs are cooking for themselves.” And what chefs secretly want to eat is, it seems, what we all want to eat: hamburgers.
The epicenter of the new hamburger explosion is Hollywood, where three relatively new places have some of the best gourmet burgers in town, both Kobe and not Kobe.
At 25 Degrees, Tim Goodell’s burger-and-wine bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, the burgers are a blend of chuck and sirloin, with a secret ingredient: a dash of pork fat. Goodell’s burgers come medium-rare, as befits a restaurant named after the difference in degrees between a medium-rare and a well-done burger. They can be built from a variety of ingredients and come wrapped in parchment paper with a big side of fries.
Just down the street, Lucky Vanous’ haute diner, Lucky Devils, offers a massive Kobe burger served either standard, with caramelized onions, arugula and garlic aioli on a brioche bun, or as one of “Lucky’s Favorites,” fully loaded with all of the above plus Maytag blue cheese, Gruyere and Nueske bacon.
And then there’s the Hungry Cat, David Lentz’s seafood place, which has what might be the best burger in town -- a gigantic paean to sirloin known as the Pug burger. (Named after Lentz’s and wife Suzanne Goin’s dog.) It’s topped with mixed greens, an enormous wedge of blue cheese, thick aioli and served with more fries than you’ll be able to eat in two sittings.
What goes into the burger itself is important to Lentz. “I’m suspicious of Kobe burgers,” he says, noting that some places mix different cuts of meat together into their burgers, and burgers labeled as Kobe burgers are not necessarily 100% Kobe. And Wagyu “isn’t even close” to Japanese Kobe, he says.
Whatever goes into them -- Kobe, sirloin, chuck or duck -- we’re eating them up.
Both Terrace’s Klein and 25 Degrees’ Goodell agree: Their research shows burgers as the most-ordered item in the country. In hotels, Klein says, it’s “80% burgers, 20% other.”
“L.A. is a burger mecca,” says Jeff Weinstein, owner of the Counter, a build-your-own burger cafe in Santa Monica. But “it’s not about the burger,” he says, “it’s about the experience.” The experience at the Counter is like one big childhood memory -- legions of happy kids, and equally happy adults, wait in droves to create their own burgers from the list of possible combinations. Which, if you do the math, works out to more than 312,000 possible burgers -- and that doesn’t even include the specials.
But for the Counter’s fans, it is about the burger, which is thick and juicy, with all-natural chuck Weinstein has ground daily. It’s served cooked to medium, with wonderfully fresh toppers such as Greek feta, roasted red peppers, house-made guacamole or roasted corn-and-black-bean salsa that you choose from a big board.
Another Westside gourmet burger favorite, Father’s Office is a direct contrast to the Counter: Instead of legions of kids, no one under 21 is even allowed through the doors. And instead of thousands of combinations, try one burger, no substitutions.
Owner Sang Yoon is just as draconian in his opinions on burgers as he is about restaurant policies: “Kobe beef is a useless thing in hamburgers,” he says. “When you grind it, you disrupt the integrity. It’s something different.” The lines of people waiting to get into Yoon’s clubby little spot must agree: His burger, made from chuck and dry-aged New York strip loin and served on a French roll with caramelized onions, blue cheese and arugula, is a city legend.
Though, of course, there are detractors.
The Counter’s Weinstein argues that the hamburger is a particularly nostalgic food and that people therefore have very strong -- and often territorial -- feelings about it. “When people migrated towards the ocean, there were all these little burger places that opened up,” he says. Angelenos, often transplanted from other places (Weinstein himself is from Washington, D.C.), took their new burger places personally, which tapped into a nostalgia generated by the burgers themselves.
In other words, home is where the burger is.