Monday, April 21, 2008

LA Burgers & Me, A New Love Story

That’s right, it’s taken me almost 2 YEARS to get on board with the famed LA burger wars. I cannot plead ignorance either, since many years ago Gourmet magazine (to my mouth-watering amazement and east coast envy) had an article about it.

There may have been two articles, because I remember one about the coolest LA burger joints and another about LA burger joints with secret vegetarian ordering methods (yes there are those who order an In-N-Out with just a bun and double cheese!).
What an exciting city, I thought. Really this could be one of the 25 reasons I moved here, even if this knowledge did escape once I started eating LA fish tacos. Forgive me, LA burgers.

Anyway, I digress.
So, how did this new burger love story suddenly start now? Let’s see…

Weeks after I got off the plane in Burbank, I drove to an In-N-Out. It was forgettable (sorry!). And it ended there. Because some time in the 90’s my friend Adam brought me to one of the spots listed in that magazine article, Mo Better Meatty Meat Burger, near where the Lakers used to play. It was juicy spicy AWEsomeness. The In-N-Out, years later, was not. It was “okay.” And because before I moved here Mo Better Meatty Meat
closed its doors, I had no reason to carry on (trying burgers, I mean). The war, in my opinion, was a figment of Angelino imaginations.

Time went by. I ate more fish tacos, Chipotle bowls, buffalo wings, fried chicken, and fried chicken with waffles. (It's true I weigh less now than I ever did back east. Boy LA’s great!) Then a few weeks ago at lunch Neil walked me over to Fatburger, one of a dozen fast fooderies on Figueroa by the University. We shared a Kingburger and Fat Fries. It was thrilling. Three nights after that after saying bye to a visiting friend at midnight, I drove to another Fatburger that's open til 3:00 a.m. Two days later, I was enlightened late night to the Original Tommy’s, and two days after that I stopped at Astroburger. It was burger gluttony and oh it was all sooo good!

Below is a list of burgers recently sampled, including french fry and other comments, for your pleasure. These are in order of favorite, and each place is linked to a website.

The LA Burgers

1. Fatburger (slogan: “The Last Great Hamburger Stand”)
Ordered: Kingburger and Fat Fries, Lemonade
Happy joy! My new favorite burger is so because it tasted like I was at a backyard barbeque, only so much better! And with better conversation! The patty was thick, tasty and made-to-order. The bun fresh. But the winning element here is the RELISH. This from the person who always takes her pickle off her McDonald’s Happy Meal Burger. Other elements on the burger are fairly standard in California: Mustard, Mayo, Lettuce, Tomato, Onions. However the relish really took the flavor to the hilt. Plus the service is damn friendly.

2. Original Tommy’s (slogan: "World Famous Burgers")
Ordered: Burger (Easy Chili, No Onions) and Fries, Orange Soda

I never went here before because there are too many knockoffs so I didn’t want to risk going to the wrong one. This one is very close to my home! which means its close to USC too and has a following there. Now I am not into restaurant chili or chili dogs etc., though Neil insisted I at least try it, just say “easy chili.” I did, and it was AWESOME. The fries were like those crunchy greasy diner fries and ROCKED. The best! The cooler where you get to grab a can of soda was FUN. And my stomach, although warned, made it through the night UNSCATHED. Oh yes I heart you Tommy.

3. In-N-Out (slogan: “Quality you can taste”)
Ordered: Hamburger and Fresh Cut Fries, Diet Coke
Sure the burger and accoutrements (including a thousand-islandy-style dressing) tasted fresh and good, with that cute white wax paper wrap around the burger welcoming me to California burgerdom, though there was no hit-me-over-the-head flavor. Surprisingly the fries, even though freshly cut from whole potatoes right there on the counter, lacked flavor too, and you’re talking to a person who eats fries without ketchup! I want to taste the potato, so I wonder why the freshest-of-all-fries didn’t deliver there. Maybe it's a simple matter of under-seasoning? (I've heard I'm not alone here.)
ps: if you’re curious about the legendary “not so secret menu,”
just click here.

3. Astroburger (tied with above)
Ordered: Hamburger and Fries
Now I was on a roll. I pass this place whenever I’m on Santa Monica Blvd. It’s directly across the street from a Fatburger, so I figured it must be worthy of the competition. I’d say it sorta is, but more so because Johnathon Schaech the actor (from "That Thing You Do") ordered right before me and I thought that was very cool. Otherwise, this place is like a diner, with way more offerings than burgers. Cute kitsch includes mini juke boxes with oldies at every booth, and an outdoor picnic area that looks 50’s quaint. The burger itself was sorta In-N-Outish but thicker and from the other side of the tracks, if that makes sense. The onion rings one table over looked good too and I really wanted to ask the patrons to try one in the name of the blog, but figured that’d be pushing my luck.

Gourmet LA Burgers Worth Mentioning

These two “build your own burger” places are swank and fabulous. Each has a bar and a cool vibe, whether beach modern or retro clubby. I won’t go into special detail on each, just summarize by saying I highly enjoyed each experience. And it’s hard not to, since you make your own burger! Although at 25 Degrees, Robert and I each ordered a pre-decided “favorite” version (see below… what is “crescenza” anyway?). Still real good, but I know I could have had better. Another 25 Degrees note: They serve the fries and onion rings as an appetizer for some reason, so we filled up on that first and that kinda muted our burger delight. Silly place.

Ordered: My creation of a 1/3 lb. Beef Burger on English Muffin with Mixed Baby Greens, Herbed Goat Cheese Spread, Pepperoncinis and Caramelized Onion Marmalade, and Sweet Potato Fries
Special Pro: fancy milkshake specials (ie. s’mores, banana split, date)
Special Con: major wait time

25 Degrees
Ordered: The Number One with Fries (Prelibato Gorgonzola, Crescenza, Bacon, Caramelized Onion, Arugula, Thousand Island) AND The Number Two with Onion Rings (Burrata Cheese, Crispy Proscuitto, Roasted Tomatoes, Pesto).
Special Pro: those freakin’ onion rings!! + same owners as Red Pearl Kitchen
Special Con: it’s in the center of Hollywood, and who wants to go there?

Not Really Worth Mentioning But I Will
Jack in the Box
Ordered: don’t remember
I’ve had this but there is no recollection of “special.” It’s a chain like the east coast ones, so only on the list because it was a new experience for me. When I go I usually order a chicken sandwich or a shake (because those truly rock), plus they have an added bonus of offering spicy curly fries and 24 hour service.

Until we eat again (to carnivores especially),

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Starbucks What’s What


If you are reading this post today expecting that doing so will result in some savvy new information about the corporate policy changes or stock prices at Starbucks, you are barking up the wrong blog :) What I'm writing about are opinions, based on new experiences, and old! that I would like to share with you as a sometimes consumer of this maniacal coffee chain.

So, here's what's what. After what seemed to be a recent complication of practices--folks in line asked to pre-order, baristas filling out tiny cheat sheets with the pre-orders, baristas wearing head mics, new honey lattés (?)--it's as if the great flood arrived and wiped the slate clean. Starbucks is turning back to its roots!

Remember when they added the brewing of the breakfast blend way back, for people who wanted a milder coffee taste in the morning? You know, for those of us who don't want their daily addiction to sizzle their taste-buds off? The stores also change the non-breakfast blend daily so you get to "mix it up" and taste new flavors each day. You'd read the "Today we are brewing..." sign and order by flavor name, Gold Coast or Café Verona or Café Estima. But let's be honest. No one ever tastes the difference, with the exception of Sumatra being the most brewed-from-middle-earth-like than the others.

Well guess what, if you haven't heard, Starbucks has now eliminated that and added instead the “Pike Place Roast” blend. I met this nostalgic attempt at remembering the early coffee days in Seattle with a private tip to their marketing hats along with an indifferent “whatever.” But sure, of course I’ll try it one time…that is my job as an active consumer, right? Not that I really had a choice. Even though the sign said "We will be grinding and brewing Pike’s Place Roast every 30 minutes. Other coffees will also be offered throughout the day," other coffees had not been brewed, so we drip buyers really had no choice.

I got my typical “tall in a grande cup.” This because I always add a lot of whole milk and half-n-half to my Starbucks to combat this equivalent to a coffee sludgehammer. And funny enough, after the whole milk was poured into my Pike Place Roast, would you believe my targeted coffee color* needs were prematurely met, beFORE pouring in the half-n-half? (*This color can be referred to in CMYK as either dark wheat, sand, bread, or the formula magenta 20, yellow 40.) So I thought this was already pretty interesting.

(By the way, if I don’t love Starbucks why do I go through this? Because it’s the only coffee shop near USC campus that takes credit cards. Simple as that. Drink this or deal with the office’s “Alta Office Services” machine that was made in like 1962.)

As I walked the short distance to campus I took a sip of the PPR and oh my gosh, my lips uttered an unexpectantly cocky “Well well well,” you know with the same inflection the producer gave to Dustin Hoffman when he stood up to Dabney Coleman for the first time in “Tootsie.” It's like saying "You’ve got balls, Starbucks, but you did it, good for you (damn it)."

The pleasure mounted more so when that first sip kinda reminded me of my first latté. Yes, I was one of the lucky ones in this matter. While some people have a transcendent first kiss, I had a transcendent first latté...

It was on a business trip to Seattle in the late 90's. We flew out to do a focus group on coffee and the up-and-coming chai tea. I’d already visited the first ever Starbucks and had a regular cup of coffee there. It was nothing better than I’d had at any other one really. However the next morning I walked over to Post Alley, and wandered into a place I’d never heard of, Seattle’s Best Coffee. It was there that I decided to be a little more coffee-daring, as I was in the coffee capital of the country. I ordered the latté so plainly though, without the de rigueur customization demands, that the barista probably thought I was mentally challenged.

My first latté was the most beautiful cup of coffee & foam I’d ever seen. I gingerly carried it outside to the alley--which overlooked Pike’s Place Market and Elliott Bay--and while the salty, rising fog tickled my nose I sipped and was brought to coffee hallelujah glory. *sigh*

Nah you’re right, that experience was not repeated two days ago when I had my first sip of Pike Place Roast at the Starbucks on Hoover St. near USC. But you know, I was reminded of that, oh because this new coffee blend was so smooth, and it tasted great! without that Starbucksey burned, heaviness that people-sheep think equals good coffee. And when I repeated the experiment this morning, it confirmed there was no flaw. My morning pleasure--and no need for half-n-half--occurred again. Damn you Starbucks! Now I can only pick on your food!

Let's talk about the food.

A Starbucks employee in Northridge, CA recently told me that their breakfast egg sandwiches that remind me of happy Korean deli mornings in NY would be gone by the end of the year. No! Well if I have anything to say about it, the lack of success on this project is not because these sandwiches aren’t 1) tasty, or 2) necessary as a counterpoint to their other food offerings which are probably made with 90% white sugar.

The problem is that some corporate wonder is having the stores sell fairly identical sandwiches; they eliminated the one unique sandwich from the menu altogether. I’m talking about all the egg sandwiches being made of English muffin, egg, aged cheddar cheese, plus something from a pig (sausage, Black Forest ham, or peppered bacon). That's right, each one has the same cheese. Oh sure there’s one egg white version with turkey bacon and some reduced fat cheese, but it's still cheddar cheese! So why the fabulous Spinach Florentine sandwich (English muffin, egg, Havarti cheese, spinach, herb spread) was deleted early on, I’ll never know.

Hmm, also the scones at the east coast Starbucks were great, especially the cinnamon chip (I miss you), but out west they're all bad, all covered in some version of white sugar muck, or in the case of the blueberry scone, actual white sugar. Even the always-reliable marble pound cake has been modified in some way, as if they removed the butter in the recipe altogether. I can’t eat that! But I can, and will probably now more than ever, drink the coffee.

Until we eat again,