GEAWhat was a smart and mobile business plan ballooned into a full-fledge phenomenon in the late 2000’s. Every festival, event and abandoned parking lot seemed to offer gourmet options on wheels. Even now there are televised competitions and endless variations on interesting cuisine concepts launched. However exciting the menu and cool paint job though, the idea of waiting in crazy lines and eating in uncomfortable settings was never that appealing, except for one Heavy Metal themed burgerie—and the best part of the exception was, they had a brick and mortar location.

Headed to Alhambra, I looked forward to a belated birthday lunch with friends and an opportunity to finally try Grill ‘Em All. The roaming burger joint had made quite a name for itself, winning Food Network’s “Great American Food Truck Race,” and had settled in the gateway to San Gabriel Valley.

With an edgier diner setting and an all-encompassing penchant for metal (music), the restaurant didn’t appeal to me much at face value. If it weren’t for the massive amounts of social media and tremendous word of mouth, I probably wouldn’t have paid them any mind—folk music was always more my thing.

Gea BurgAn extensive menu of scrawled music-laden choices didn’t speed things up, we measured our options; going wild for “Napalm Death” or “Powerslave,” would be reserved for a return visit as I held strong to my philosophy of judging the base, and ordered the “Winger” and accompanied it with “No More Mr. Nice Fries.” My friends went a hair more daring since they had been here before.

It was apparent early on that their great reputation was earned by the endless procession of photogenic sandwiches trayed through a packed restaurant. By the time our food had arrived, I took a few snaps with the camera and we dug in.

The Winger arrived gloriously with an unruly avalanche of American cheese and few edges of Iceberg lettuce protruding from the toasted brioche bun. An homage to the classic West Coast hamburger lathered in thousand-island dressing and bread-n-butter pickles to buttress the ridiculously tender patty. No head banging about it, the Winger was excellent, a lot of jus from the meat and a soft ‘n well-seasoned grind played against the cold, crisp vegetables. No More Mr. Nice Fries were outstanding too, with a true meat-lover’s chili dressed over the piping hot potatoes—one of the best chili fries I’ve ever eaten.

Everything checked out at Grill ‘Em All; a bona fide concept on wheels brought the thunder to Alhambra and made this hamburger tracker very happy! Even though I had to make some compromises to my musical tastes—an ardent supporter of bluegrass and folk—for an afternoon, the result was well worth it. Maybe now I will feel more confident about the wait at their food truck.

PattiAs a rule I try not to praise my own wines (that I sell) like spoiled children—the attachment to a brand or a story clouding my objectivity—by not paying enough attention to their individual faults and virtues. But there are a few wines, and producers, that are so compelling that I feel like I have to share the gospel—this is the closest I will get to proselytizing or picking a favorite child.

Before I started to sell Carmelo Patti’s wines, I knew of one producer pushing counter to the barrage that was being peddled to all buyers (myself included) from Argentina. I had been introduced to Bodegas Weinert, a traditional winery that had been described to me as the R. Lopez de Heredia of Argentina; Malbec, Cabenet Sauvignon and Merlot, among other grapes, fashioned in a masculine style, with immense structure, aged in large casks for extensive periods yielding wines that were savory and could only be thought of with food, unlike the more ubiquitous run-and-gun style offerings. As exciting as these wines were to me, the problem was I could never find them; buyers wouldn’t support Bodegas Weinert consistently, claiming that they were too difficult to sell.

Carmelo Patti is an even smaller operation than the legendary Bodegas Weinert, crafting a fraction of the production nearly singlehandedly. A garagiste. A lot of care in the vineyard sites—Luján de Cuyo—and unmanipulated winemaking, with native yeast fermentation, delicate punch-downs and employing nearly all used French oak to keep the wines pure and honest. Much like Weinert, Patti will release his wines when ready and the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon embodied this methodology perfectly.

I opened the bottle for customers, booking appointments for two days to show the wines to accounts I thought would be interested. I was surprised that a few accounts didn’t open their doors to Carmelo Patti (his wines) because the overall showing was stunning—all were snatched up… we are plumb out. That was their loss!

After the end of the second day I took the dregs of the Cabernet Sauvignon for myself and meditated on it privately to further assess what I had: Conjuring Old-World images, medium ruby in the stem, with dusty red raspberry, spearmint, dried tobacco leaves and olives on the nose. It was a deep scent that had no end. On the palate the wine was lithe, a graceful medium-body, contoured by medium-plus acidity and fine tannins that tasted of red raspberry, pomegranate seeds, Earl Grey tea, dashes of cupboard spice (of the savory variety) and pepper. It was elegant and complex; the transparency of the wine was seamless and soulful.

In comparison to Weinert’s wines, they had a softness about them on the tongue. Patti’s 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is reminder of why I sell wine, exposing others to a producer that is making wines in his modest style—humbly—ignoring the homogenized exports that flood retailers and grocery stores, thereby storming the public’s palate. Every wine has its place and Carmelo Patti and Bodegas Weinert certainly have one in my cellar!

Uma 2

Nothing against Austrian wines, but I rarely drink them when I am not working—the restaurant post or slinging Weingut Salomon on the streets of Southern California. If I do, generally, it’s to have a glass of groo-ve (Grüner Veltliner) or Riesling when I’m in a ramen mood, but however much Austrian white wine I may taste, experience tells me it’s best to keep my eyes trained on the less celebrated red wines. As a birthday gift I received a bottle that would help maintain the balance, red versus white.

I uncorked the seven-fifty of 2006 Umathum “Vom Stein” St. Laurent with the friend who gave it. A wine that he and his family had enjoyed many times while visiting the estate in Austria. I was unfamiliar with Umathum, the eponymous family that began focusing on wine production in the early 80’s after years of cultivating vines. Under the direction of Josef Umathum, in the mid 80’s, the wines transitioned to organics under the tenets of Biodynamics and their reputation for excellent red wines has been growing ever since.

The Vom Stein (from stone) vineyard is an older and warmer site where St. Laurent grows in gravelly soils that are rich in quartz. The wine was vibrant, with developing scents redolent of dried red flowers, dark cherries, blackberries and wet forest floor. Flush medium-body with round, fine tannins, pert acidity and a long, expressive finish of mixed berries, plum, subtle spice, and coffee grounds.

St. Laurent is often compared to Pinot Noir, though there is no genetic link between the two red grapes, however this wine shared a lot of the same pleasing flavors while adding a bit of weight to the mid-palate. It was in a class of its own and every sip was better than the one before.

The complexity and velvety texture of Umathum’s St. Laurent were eye opening, I couldn’t really tell you if it was a value, because it was a gift (and it’s impossible to find on wine-searcher), but it was certainly delicious. It will definitely make me rethink my Austrian white wine bent, and I will be scouring the wine shops for more of it.

DuffourLast year, in an effort to go deeper into spirits (Brandy) and round out my beverage knowledge, I remember reading all about Armagnac from Charles Neal, importer and writer/historian extraordinaire. I enjoyed learning about the region—Gascony—with a long history of culinary and wine traditions. It was untapped, rustic and genuine, escaping the buzz of nearby Bordeaux for obvious reasons (one being proximity to a major trading port), and although the book didn’t leave me with an insatiable thirst for Armagnac I had suddenly been turned on to the South West of France.

Back LabelI had stockpiled Cahors, Madiran and the white wines of Jurançon after reading Neal’s take, branching out from Armagnac to find a bunch of treasures—albeit under-the-radar wines—for reasonable prices. Most recently, I unscrewed a bottle of Côtes de Gascogne from Domaine Duffour, a producer of both Armagnac and wine from the village of Lagrulet-du-Gers. The Gascony blend was comprised of 70% Colombard and equal parts Ugni Blanc and Gros Manseng. What did it taste like?

Sprightly and fresh, with a pale straw color in the glass and bright aromatics of lime zest, honeydew, guava, an herbal tinge and a faint yeastiness reminiscent of good Belgium white ale. A trim medium body, medium-plus acidity and packing a fruit-forward finish of lemons, limes, guava, passion fruit and minerals.

The best part of this wine was the QPR (quality-to-price ratio); for nine dollars I had a bottle of wine to share with a friend that made a story and had refreshing properties. The Côtes de Gascogne wines are often simple, carefree and really affordable—rarely topping out over twelve dollars—and even though the summer is behind us these are still really friendly bottles as apertifs for enjoying the perennially warm weather of Southern California.

I am still developing my tastes for Armagnac, but am sold on the values of South Western French wine. Domaine Duffour is worth seeking out as are a number of other great producers from Charles Neal’s portfolio. Cheers.

Gros NoreMy favorite baseball team was ousted on Sunday from the 2014 MLB playoffs and temperatures peaked in the triple digits over the weekend, yes, we were firmly in fall. Overloading on football and baseball, while I ate some North Hollywood Thai and sipped on a domestic Picpoul (Whoa! I’m that guy), it was a pretty lousy sports weekend. It might have been the heat or the string of defeats for the day, but I suddenly wished to be reliving another, more cheerful Sunday.

I drifted into a rosé reverie from earlier in the summer; transported alongside of an ice cream sandwich and pretzel floaty (waterbeds), a ton of friends, excellent fare and a magnum of Bandol rosé.

Domaine du Gros Noré hails from Bandol, making an excellent pink wine of Mourvèdre, Cinsaut and Grenache. Bandol, an appellation of Provence, was made famous by Domaine Tempier and the use of Mourvèdre in the reds and rosés of the region. Gros Noré, like most producers, is often overshadowed by Tempier’s rosé every year, as far as buying trends are concerned, but delivers scintillating aromatics, a suave mouth feel and lengthy finish that makes it a great value (about $10 less, and still available in wine shops where you might be laughed at for asking about Tempier by now).

With a paper plate’s worth of Wisconsin bräts and pickled sides, I uncorked the 1.5 liter bottle. Red flowers, summer berries, apricot, peach over a riverbed of wet stones filled my nose. Fanning out over the palate and propped up by moderate acidity were lengthy notes of Rainier cherries, strawberries, rubbed herbs and minerals. It was youthful, bright and weighty, living up to its place.

A companion to a multitude of flavors like spicy mustard and jalapeño relish that were drizzled on the brät, the Gros Noré rosé crawled out of the shadow of some the vaunted producers of the region to forge one of my favorite memories of this summer.

Unfortunately, when I came to, I was sweating in a dark apartment watching the Cincinnati Bengals suffer an ugly and similar fate to all of my teams that fell earlier on that Sunday. One can only hope a little summer’s rosé magic will start to follow my teams. Victory and rosé would go so well together.

Fuj 73After a routine visit to the credit union, I spotted a strange marquee in a nearby strip mall. Something kitsch and novel—in terms of lunch—, brought me closer and while I wasn’t exactly sold, I wasn’t forgetting about it either. Showing a bespectacled man, Fuji, and his famous burgers, the placard’s image stuck between my ears like a Jon Brion score. A visit to the burger joint would have to wait, though, until another midday trip to the bank.

Who was Fuji? What inspired his burgers? Those questions played in my mind that day, while the answers would arrive sooner than anticipated; scheduling a trip to the far-away bank in between strategically placed sales meetings (accommodating curiosity), so as not to feel too guilty for an extended lunch break, I made for the burger joint.

Fuj BurgFuji’s had started in Long Beach in the early 70’s, and now, I was dining at its second location in Orange County—Fountain Valley—forty-one years later. The original location had shuttered and they had moved south to Huntington Beach in the 80’s. Fuji had been one of the originators of fusion cuisine in Southern California (before it was fad!), tweaking the comfort foods modestly and tastefully. The restaurant was now in the hands of his children.

Stepping foot inside, Fuji’s was clean and unassuming (the way I liked things). There were fast colors of key lime green and bright red—the hallmarks of college marketing—with an open kitchen and the menu chalked wall-side. It boasted a Japanese flair with teriyaki burgers and the like, however I kept it simple to judge the base. Five dollars later (and a few minutes) and I was hovering over a hamburger and fries.

No tells on the first take as the burger came completely wrapped. After peeling back the parchment it showed no frills just the classic griddled patty, shredded iceberg, tomato, pickles and a sloppy application of mayo. Despite its shabby appearance the burger actually replicated some of my favorite burger joint experiences. I was only short my beloved banana peppers. The patty was well seasoned, the vegetables were crisp and cold, playing on temperature contrasts, and the food was honest.

Fuj BacWith the foundation solid I thought I would brave a more adventurous path upon my return. On my second trip, the teriyaki bacon burger warranted a go—reasonably priced below five dollars—with another basket of fries. Arriving in similar fashion, the sandwich boasted a few strips of bacon and a heap of teriyaki sauce in addition to the core ingredients. The salty-sweet combination was almost perfectly executed on the meat, save for the excess sauce surrounding it, the greater proportion of which disrupted the balance for me.

Fuji’s was something I wanted to be great, and with my expectations tethered to the clouds, the burgers actually didn’t disappoint (regarding quality and price), which in itself, was a nice experience. This might not be the destination spot for gourmands in California but definitely a strong recommendation for those who live in the surrounding areas. Not bad for a lunch break.

OINK Pasadena is not close to me, nor is Eagle Rock, but occasionally I will have business that takes me east. When I am out there, navigating unfamiliar freeways like the 210 and 134, it’s good to have a few markers that I can lay down. After leaving an account I stopped off at one of my favorite places on Colorado Boulevard to grab a sandwich.
A giant A-framed marquee that could be seen from down the street was a welcoming sight as I approached slowly in rush hour. Eric Burdon and the Animals were audible, after parking the car and queuing up for a cheeseburger at The Oinkster.
It had been four years since my last official visit and about two since on unofficial business. Both times were consistently delicious; The Oinkster hybridized the Californian burger stand offering with better ingredients and a methodical approach. I had selected the classic 1/3 lb burger with cheddar cheese—as my own tastes, in cheese, had matured in my absence—and a Boylan’s root beer to wash it down.
In a little more time than it took for me to load up on banana peppers and pickled extras, the cheeseburger arrived, smocked in yellow wax paper inside a red plastic basket. Fresh and warm; the sandwich was the perfect contrast between cold, crisp vegetables set against the warm patty and layer of finely melted cheese. The bit of acidity from the pickles, and the smartly dressed thousand-island sauce added extra layers of flavor in an aptly dubbed ‘classic’ representation. It was excellent and exactly how I remembered it.
My long drive home smacked of nostalgia, bringing to mind the last couple trips I had made to Eagle Rock and recalling a few of my favorite burger stands that I grew up with in Southern California. The Oinkster delivers a familiar cast of flavors exquisitely, not claiming to be new, or quick, but done well.

C M J GThe world of wines is a lot bigger than my grocery store buying days let on. Working at a top-notch restaurant in Los Angeles, one with a serious wine program, has afforded me a privileged view of some of the greatest producers almost nightly. I learn every shift, with my own piecemeal understanding of new and legendary winemakers crashing in sets of waves; sometimes, like last Thursday, being a sizable break that sets you tumbling.

The closing ceremonies of the sommelier staff are always the same, breaking down stations, polishing, cleaning and restocking before our nightly bonding unwinds in the cellar, after we’ve clocked out. We gather round the samples that our wine director has amassed, from guests and salespeople, or we’ll taste some interesting leftovers from service that night. Often the wines are just footnotes that don’t carry much over the late night chatter.

Last Thursday, however, was a themed evening on Burgundy, and a night that made quite an impression. It was hard not to be wrapped up by a vertical tasting of Ghislaine Barthod (my introduction to the estate’s Pinot Noirs from Chambolle-Musigny), but another producer had me stammering over its beauty. A Premier Cru Chardonnay from Chassagne-Montrachet, with which I was unfamiliar, its label simple and not letting on much more than it would be of a certain quality (as Premier Cru designates).

The Chardonnay was lemon hued in the glass and led with a developing scent of citrus, golden apple, smoke and a surplus of chalk. The effect wasn’t instantaneous, rather a slow transmission that took hold. I was revved up by the mouth-filling body (medium-plus), the luscious texture of a complex range of flavors that brought out more pear and apple under fresh-squeezed lemon, a little wood spice and a lot of chalk like two blackboard erasers smashing together violently on my palate while retaining mouth-watering acidity. It was overwhelming. Each sip surpassed the previous, and by the end of the night I had consumed more than my fair share.

I kept harping on it, until the wine director clued me in on the price of the Chardonnay from Jean-Noël Gagnard’s Les Caillerets vineyard ($100 a bottle). My ignorance had been helpful in demonstrating what a Premier Cru was capable of, without being influenced by a staggering price tag or prestige of the family and their vineyard holdings.

After that night I did my homework and saw the family’s vast reach in the village of Chassagne-Montrachet. I also read about the fickle and warm vintage from which I’d tasted (2011), and weighed my own chances to ever taste more of this wine again—to make sure it wasn’t a fluke—as few places carry the wine in California. It’s the constant reward of schooling, the unexpected storming of one’s taste, that makes for such a draw to the job. Introduced to a great wine of Jean-Noël Gagnard through the auspices of my wine director, the din of guests subsided and the after-hours repartee fading, the sea of wine becomes the night.

J RI know my penchant for hamburgers may appear never wavering, but often, other menu items will tempt me. A fresh catch can read tantalizingly from a menu, or barbequed brisket can sound, and smell, better than a lowly hamburger, if I’m comparing meat to meat. No more difficult is it to fend off an instinct for seafood when I’m in a nautically themed restaurant, as recently I neatly fended, when I dined at James Republic in Long Beach. The journey sometimes is to allow the good burgers to find me.

A modern and clean-cut façade, James Republic operates at the corner of Linden Avenue and First Street, in downtown Long Beach. Chalkboard marquees shed any notion of a cold and uninviting downtown establishment while a seasonally driven menu and a stellar bar program are enough to hook me in for lunch or dinner.

J R BURUnlike my past dinner experiences here, the seafood options were downplayed, and the burger was quick to grab my attention.

A short fire time yielded a seven-grain bun sandwiching two medium-rare, grass-fed patties with a bubbling layer of Fiscalini cheddar that obscured the “fancy sauce” and onion jam, all served up on a thick cutting board with a ramekin of house-cured pickles. For extra measure I ordered a boat of fries.

Although I prefer to see some greens like Arugula, Butter, or even Iceberg lettuce on a sandwich (to reduce my guilt), one bite eased my fears of imbalance. The coarse grind was seasoned to perfection, the cheese, and horseradish—in the ‘fancy sauce’—added some bite, and where the seeded bun was the secret weapon, harnessing both the practical needs of maintaining form and sopping up the jus while the seeded crust imparted a boost in the flavor department. The pickles provided extra acid to help reset the palate. It was a thoughtful and clean presentation, which served as a good ambassador for the restaurant.

James Republic’s overachieving cheeseburger reminded me why I am on this never-ending quest of documenting America’s favorite comfort food—burgers—because even if I am led astray, chasing other menu items, a great burger can be an excellent place to drop the anchor.

HB MenuJust about every restaurant menu features a hamburger. While some places make thoughtful tweaks, others are content to produce uninspired margin boosts. In the interest of seeing that latter trend fade, some extra care went into selecting an eatery for us to dine at on a Friday not too long ago.

Beverly Hills is rarely in my sights for cities to eat burgers, but after a little research on the best burgers in LA, the Honor Bar, square in the heart of the city, emerged as a prospect for the evening. We headed to the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and South Beverly Drive to try on the appropriately named Honor Burger.

The Honor Bar is the sidecar to South Beverly Grill—a restaurant affiliate of the Hillstone Group, which is responsible for one of the better burgers I’ve reviewed at Houston’s—with a deep, engulfing feel anchored by its sleek wooden bar and corner side griddle à la Hinano Café. All signs gave out that this burger would be a veritable contender.

The four of us took consecutive seats down the bar and gave the menu* a brief glance before placing our orders: four medium-rare Honor burgers with respective libations to wash ‘em down.

HB BurgerDing! Our meals were up swiftly; halved and toothpicked arriving splayed out on pastel-colored ceramic boats. Fries arrived separately in julep glasses. Each burger was demonstrably pink in its core and the sensible application of coleslaw lent color to the mouth-watering portrait.

It only took a couple of bites to realize that this burger was solid—the praise for it seemed warranted. The ground chuck was perfectly seasoned and cooked. The coleslaw gave a little flare without being flamboyant or cloying. Nice texture and great depth of flavor delivering everything we were expecting for a somewhat pricey thirteen dollars.

Certainly a good meal, the ingredients were simple and well-presented—better than most—as classicism was upheld at the Honor Bar. They owe a lot to other places in LA though, even if they perfected it more, but without a unique signature they are only serving a solid, enjoyable burger.

* The menu was unique; it pit classic sandwiches (“and a salad”) against sushi.

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