October 18, 2012 by Gennefer Gross
We’ve all seen the myriad of ‘Top Ten’ lists of the best burgers in Los Angeles, and the usual suspects can typically be found topping them. Look, I love In ‘N Out as much as the next person, but if you’re looking to reach burger nirvana, a thin slab of meat with your standard accoutrements isn’t going to cut it — even if you go full-on double double or 3 x 3 (guilty) animal style.
And isn’t the other cult foodie favorite, Apple Pan, basically just a BBQ burger? It was named the best burger in America by National Geographic but I’ve had similar at Chile’s, Applebee’s and various other burger-slinging chains across the country. While solid fast food fare, they’re just not getting the job done for me when it comes to that holy trifecta of meat, cheese and bread. Basic ingredients yet so difficult to perfect.
So, after many grueling months of research, ‘forcing’ myself to consume yet another piece of grilled meat in my personal quest to uncover the real best burgers of LA, I have narrowed it down to the five that I think meet the below criteria and bring something unique to the classic all-beef patty:
- One Patty To Rule Them All: Let’s face it, the star of this show is the meat, so it’s critical that it be flavorful enough on its own to be the main attraction. I want to be satisfied if I were to be served the patty alone. (Carb cutters can rejoice because these burgers are good enough to grace a lettuce leaf.)
- No Bread Left Behind: A key component of a solid burger is the bun that encases it. It’s not just a clever way to transport meat into your mouth! So, it has a job to do. It should be soft enough to squeeze around its juicy center while adding another layer of texture or flavor. Lightly toasted, buttery, even sesame seeds can add to the experience and elevate a burger from good to great. And absolutely no roof-scraping buns that make you feel like they were concocted by the makers of Cap’n Crunch.
- The Cheese Doesn’t Stand Alone: When it comes to a burger, I’m an emphatic proponent of cheese. Its gooey goodness sprawled languidly across the meat is as visually inviting as it is tasty but it should enhance the burger, not overpower it. When I take that first bite, I don’t want to be assaulted with cheese. I want to taste that beautiful commingling of flavors that come to life when you melt dairy around sizzling meat. (Sorry to my Kosher-keeping pals. Bullet #1 still has you covered.)
Chef’s Favorite Burger @ Plan Check Kitchen + Bar
Chef Ernesto Uchimura was recently named among L.A. Magazine’s Master Chefs of 2012 as Comfort Food Master and has been lauded for his smoky fried chicken (which is also magnificent and deserving of a post unto itself), but to me, he is the ultimate burger maestro. One of the original Umami chefs, there’s no question he knows how to construct a good burger, but what makes Chef Ernesto’s creations so special is that he really knows how to layer flavors with innovative twists on classic toppings like ‘ketchup leather’ (think ketchup bacon) and ‘pig candy’ (think candy bacon) that make each glorious bite nothing short of mind-blowing. Every one of his burgers is a mouthwatering work of art but my go-to is the Chef’s Favorite Burger with cheese two ways, bacon two ways, a fried egg and hot sauce on a crunch bun. There’s definitely a lot going on with this burger, but it doesn’t taste like it. The crispy cheese cracker, against its perfectly toasted bun counterpart, creates the perfect backdrop for the explosion of flavors to follow — rich, juicy ripples of glazed beef Wagyu, creamy dashi cheese, salty-sweet bacon and the essence of freshly broken yolk that ushers in a kick of spice from the hot sauce. Despite how many flavors hit your palate all at once, you don’t detect just one. Just a finely-tuned symphony of the best meat medley to ever hit your lips.
Plan Check Kitchen + Bar | 1800 Sawtelle Blvd. | West Los Angeles, 90025
Truffle Shuffle Burger @ Stout Burgers & Beers
Stout Burgers and Beers supports the philosophy of focusing on one thing and doing it well. While Stout actually does a lot of things well (diverse, rotating craft beer selections, killer rosemary fries and some of the best bread pudding this side of London), burgers are the headliner and they’re what pack the house. A hand-mixed (that I’m told is to spread the fat evenly) and perfectly-cooked blend of beef (that I’m still trying to figure out but I know includes short rib) sets the stage for an abundance of hand-crafted topping options like fig jam on their Six Weeker, parmasiano flakes on the Goombah and their housemade horseradish cream on the original Stout Burger but I always go back for the Truffle Shuffle off their (not-so-)secret menu. I normally prefer my burgers medium rare, but Charles Lew, one of the founders, has the kitchen prepare a true medium temperature, which imparts a light crunch on the meat while maintaining its moist pink center and is consistent every single time. Adorned with velvety Brie, mushrooms that taste like they’ve been slow-roasting for hours and a dollop of truffle aoili, the Truffle Shuffle turns comfort food into fine cuisine that just happens to be served on a bun. And the bun is pretty spectacular, too, with bursts of butter and a hint of sweetness. Wash it down with a malty Belgian ale, keep calm and shuffle on.
Stout Burgers and Beers | 1544 N. Caheunga Blvd. | Hollywood, CA 90028
Nancy’s Backyard Burger @ Short Order
When you’ve got Nancy Silverton, renowned chef and baker behind La Brea Bakery and co-owner of the famed Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, you’ve already set the bar pretty high. So, I was fully prepared for what I hoped would be an impressive gourmet burger experience (but maybe also a little skeptical after the frenzied anticipation of its opening last Fall). What I wasn’t prepared for was biting into a burger that would not only live up to the hype but far exceed my expectations. Executive Chef Christian Page has engineered an array of burgers that meticulously marry the highest quality beef cultivation and preparation (all meat is grass-fed and shaped by hand) with artisan baked breads and equally precisely paired basic and elevated topping combinations. Nancy’s Backyard Burger is the expert embodiment of this with her signature dry-aged beef blend (crafted by Huntington Meats), Comté (an acclaimed French cow’s milk cheese, also aged, usually up to 18 months for maximum flavor), North Country Smokehouse Applewood bacon, red onions, heirloom tomato, iceberg lettuce, avocado, guacamole whip and spicy mayo on a fluffy bun that proves Nancy’s secrets extend beyond her meat mix to her yeast formulation. The result is the flavors you’d expect from the greasy indulgence of a burger juxtaposed with fresh, organic farmer’s market ingredients that make you feel as good as they taste. No burger bloat here.
Short Order | 6333 W. 3rd Street #110 | Los Angeles, CA 90036
The Cheeseburger at Pie ‘n Burger
On the other side of the sustainability spectrum is the old school cheeseburger at Pie ‘n Burger, the quintessential greasy spoon, complete with the now rare ‘service with a smile.’ There’s no fancy menu or toppings their waitresses, frocked in uniforms reminiscent of Pleasantville, can’t pronounce and an overwhelming sense of nostalgia as you take a seat on a swivel stool at the counter and look up at a board that reveals just two choices — a plain burger or a cheeseburger. They only prepare them one way and they’ve been doing it that way for nearly 50 years. (Don’t expect any gluten-free options at this joint, but they are introducing a veggie burger to keep up with the times.) The burger itself is the poster child for burgers — a medium-well patty charred on both sides (never pressed to retain its fatty juices), smothered in classic yellow American cheese with lettuce, tomato, onions and that familiar ‘special’ sauce (essentially, Thousand Island Dressing) on a supermarket-style bun you’d enjoy at a family cookout. Add a slice of freshly baked apple pie, and turn back time for a little while as you enjoy a simple, well-executed burger that’s simply perfect.
Pie ‘n Burger | 913 E. California Blvd. | Pasadena, CA 91106
Tamago Burger @ FukuBurger
Admittedly, I first ventured into Fukuburger because I was tickled by the name (pronounced ‘foo koo’ not ‘fuk yoo’). Yes, I went there. (Oh, come on, you know you were thinking the same thing!) Lewd phonetics aside, this Japanese-inspired burger spot has been my dirty little secret since my first encounter with the Tamago Burger, a sinful Fuku-patty drenched in Teriyaki sauce with furikake, crispy onions, a fried egg and wasabi mayo. This burger gives whole new meaning to the oft overused ‘foodporn,’ with overflowing juices that make it impossible to eat with any semblance of decorum. But you won’t want to. From the second the succulent Wagyu beef touches your tongue, you surrender to the ensuing mess, feverishly lapping up the dripping yolk as your teeth sink into the crackling onion straws, tempting you with the building textures and flavors overtaking your mouth as the heat from the wasabi slowly rises, leaving you breathless with a primal sense of satisfaction and an overwhelming need for a cigarette.
Fukuburger | 1634 N. Cahuenga Blvd. | Hollywood, CA 90028
There are some other noteworthy burgers in LA like the Pastrami Burger at Tops in Pasadena, a heaping mound of house-cured meat on a beef patty for under $6 bucks, the imaginative Mori Eel Sushi Burger at 26 Beach in Venice, the rustic Fontina burger at Eveleigh on Sunset (only available late-night) and the ‘Smashed’ Burger at GO Burger in Hollywood where hand-smashed, onion-studded Angus beef is king but these five are the ones that I just can’t tear myself away from. And despite Joel Stein’s recent article in L.A. Magazine that debating the best burger is child’s play, these meat masterpieces show skill on par with the walnut dust and elaborate foams of ‘haute’ cuisine, proving that burgers aren’t just for the drunk, hungover or under 12 set. Because, let’s face it, Denny’s already has that market covered.