Houston’s restaurant had long been touted as one of the great burgers in our beloved city. I had seen the restaurant many times when driving in Orange County and few more times since relocating to LA but never felt compelled to see what the fuss was about. In fact, I was a tad disheartened to know that a burger that constantly garnered rave reviews belonged to a large chain. Years had passed before I had heard the banter start up again—in the last couple of weeks I had four separate people tell me about Houston’s burger and my curiosity was growing. In a calculated move I staged a birthday dinner for a friend in hopes of slaking his steak tooth while I was finally able to assess the grade of their prized burgers.
I made reservations for the Houston’s only to find out that the name had changed, taking the parent group’s moniker—Hillstone. I was assured that nothing on the menu had changed and the name only switched for branding purposes. And so with plans materializing and the dinner crowd swooning we arrived in Santa Monica at 6:45pm.
Seated immediately, the restaurant was wanly lit, trying best to squeeze the most out of the fleeting natural lighting. Large and spacious, we were seated in a fairly grand booth for a two-top but we had great seats for viewing the hockey game… The bar TV had piped an out-of-market basketball game rather than watching local hockey. A shame, given what was unfolding down the road.
We decided on our appropriate courses and complimentary beverages quickly, allowing for a long conversation about the success of teams with weak local markets. When the Telegraph California Ale and M5 red wine from Margerum arrived tableside, we resumed our lively discussion about hockey. I had very little ground to stand on when forming my arguments as a Ducks fan (a abysmal local market) over a Michigan hockey fan. We kept the discussion amicable and stayed current on the pivotal series game for the Kings via our phones.
Our food was delivered expediently; in no more than fifteen minutes we were staring at the Hawaiian Rib-eye and California burger. I snapped a few pictures and drew the curiosity of our waitress. She was interested in revealing a little bit more about the burger after I shared my blog with her; that the patty had recently changed grinds, and now consisted of 20% brisket and 80% chuck. She told me that it was definitely one of her favorites on the menu too.
With this new wealth of information I was ready to devour the attractive package. My friend moved to fork position while I assembled the open face sandwich. He was fast into the first few bites of ginger-marinated steak while I admired the soft texture of the egg bun and the juicy patty in my fingers. My first bite was sensational. I wanted it to suck, to be over-hyped, or at least over-cooked but it was flawless. The execution—cooking time was spot on—and the texture was soft and the seasoning was not overbearing in the least, but in perfect proportion. It only got better with each bite. The waitress came back to check on us, mid-meal, and with Doyle Brunson-like bluffing I said that the burger was pretty good, bottling up my excitement and offering that the arugula was not as tender as it could be. It was true but super minor and I was just throwing her off the trail.
The Santa Barbara red wine was a good match for the California burger but ultimately it faded in relevance to one of my favorite burgers in recent memory. And even my least favorite component of their sandwich (brioche bun) showed well! I was stunned and a little upset that a burger this good did not belong to a small and intimate spot, unique to LA like Irv’s in West Hollywood, but to a bigger establishment that can be found in major cities across the United States but so it was. My friend was impressed with his birthday dinner too, though he carried no grievances with chain restaurants prior. He enjoyed it thoroughly. It was a good night on all accounts as the Kings locked up the series against the Blues (though no one in the restaurant knew it), my buddy celebrated his birthday and I had one of the best burgers in memory.