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SugFish

We arrived, a band of bleary-eyed and palate-fatigued wine buyers, at SugarFish in Brentwood.

A strange and distant (diegetic) music began to play. 

Salmon

Three “Trust Me’s” were ordered in little time.

Fish

Fatty and rich fish were coupled with gluey and subtly sweet rice.

Hand Roll

After the final hand roll, our ailing tongues had been restored—a trick I will remember for future tastings.

Salt's CureAfter my last burger outing I was seeking redemption; a swing from distrustful of brioche, to hoping for any other form of wheat-based carbohydrates, perhaps even seriously considering a protein-style burger (lettuce-wrapped) for a reprieve. At Salt’s Cure, my brioche-induced fears might be abated, but now I just needed to see if their gourmet offering would warrant the price.

D&G FiveAcross from Astro Burger and Fat Burger (on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vista Street), sits Salt’s Cure, perched coyly behind a saltshaker. The American eatery scrawls Calfornia-centric fare on the chalkboard daily, with a few staples that survive the eraser. Their wine list lives by the same idea, supporting the chalkboard rotation with a stellar Californian lineup.

In for dinner with a friend, punctuating the Memorial Day weekend with a pair of burgers and bottle of Donkey & Goat Five Thirteen—the red wine, born in El Dorado (Amador County), showed youthful notes of red plums, dark berries, and violets all misted under a faint crack of the pepper mill. We ordered in support of the burgers.

S C BOpeners a King Salmon atop a sweet onion puree, a simple presentation and clean flavor spectrum showing off the fish, it wasn’t until the entrees arrived that our eyes perked wide with excitement.

Two identical open-faced burgers, with one showing a strip of house-made bacon over a translucent layer of cheddar that coated the patty while the other side balanced a few fine rings of red onion and red leaf lettuce, all atop a toasted in-house Ciabatta! The bun alone was relief.

After assemblage the first bite showed off the superb texture of the sandwich. Crisp veggies, a melt-in-your-mouth patty and chewy bun came together well. The patty was comprised of a 70-30 grind (meat-to-fat), which explained the juiciness, and why I was thankful for the slipper bread bun—it held the burger’s integrity. The bacon, generally an overpowering addition, was content being rank-and-file with the rest of the burger’s components, adding a sweet-smoke finish. And finally salt, that basic ingredient, didn’t just figure into the name of the restaurant, its liberal dashes brought out a precise depth in the flavor department. A finely tuned burger that paired nicely with Southern Rhone inspired red.

Salt’s Cure had recaptured my gourmet burger spirit. Even the little things were taken to the next level—the accompanying fries that packed rosemary-freshness were excellent vehicles for one of the better house made ketchups I’ve encountered recently. My buddy and I were both blown away by the quality at almost every level from the attention to detail to the wine list. Seventeen dollars is a fair price to price to pay for excellence—if only that were the price for the entire dinner.

RC BA friend’s belated birthday dinner was the perfect excuse to indulge, and, on advance reservations, we headed west for an early supper at Rustic Canyon to corroborate all the weighty claims about a superior burger served at the Santa Monica eatery.

RuthWe arrived at 6 PM sharp—parking nearby was easy despite competing with fellow early birds—to a table for two. The dining room was half-full and sun-soaked, poised to catch the most of the waning light as it washed over the worn hardwood floors. A beverage list towered vertically, while our cardstock menus lay glued to the table. There was little milling over the drinks, we skirted the vin in favor of beer—the list was chock-full of interesting choices—the Rustics, were in fact, a wine bar. The burgers’ reputation was sterling and the reason (one of them, anyway) for our trip, but the starters were where we welcomed our server’s input.

Guided gently to a Clam & Mussel Pozole and the ever-popular Kale Salad to precede the heavier main fare. I nibbled on some olives, passing time with playoff hockey chat.

Two diametrically opposed dishes landed together, sharing only their earthy green hue. The bowl of Pozole finished with crisp tortillas, making use of a wide range of flavors and engaging all the senses. From the varied textures to the subtle spice and clean cilantro flavors, the starter had it all in spades. It unfortunately overshadowed the kale salad.

Then the burgers landed. All business. Identical presentation between the two plates as the immense cheeseburgers split their rectangular ceramics with fries. The brioche bun was toasted to a firm and flaky consistency to keep its integrity under the rich and fatty grind that was cooked to a perfect medium-rare (a good default setting). The sharp cheese, melted nicely, lent another layer of fatty flavor, which added continuity to the sandwich’s theme. The spread, pickles and sweet onions worked harmoniously to provide an extra bit of lift. It was simple and satisfying.

If a burger’s purpose were to showcase the high quality meat that makes it into the patty then Rustic Canyon would surely get a gold medal. The patty was tender, filling and delicious and they didn’t hide it. We not only disagreed who would make it out of the first round between Anaheim and Detroit but also on how good that burger was (by me it took top honors for E.O.M. in May), as it didn’t bowl my friend over. I guess that’s what happens when one’s expectations are parked above the Hollywood sign. Still, the overall dining experience was excellent and I can’t wait to go back for seconds on the Pozole.

Westside TavIt had been a while since I last had a burger, tiptoeing around my favorite comfort food in hopes of reinvigorating the palate. In lieu of the patty I was on an Asian binge, I devoured lunch at Lukshon, which was a catalyst for delving further into a Far East bender. Undocumented dinners at A-Frame and Nong La would eventually take me full circle though, as I went fifth wheel to finally order a highly touted burger at the Westside Tavern.

Beside the Landmark Theaters, the Westside Tavern is a contemporary space that offers fine-tuned American fare complimented by a deep beverage program. Reminiscent of Hillstone’s, but not a chain, Westside Tavern relishes its role of convenient date spot for the pre-movie crowd or can act as a beautiful finishing touch to an evening.

With a pair of married couples, we grabbed a booth, catching the last two periods (plus some bonus hockey) of the Ducks vs. Kings game over cocktails and burgers. Well into my bourbon drink and at about the halfway point of the game, the food appeared. From the lens of my iPhone, I best documented the rotund grub, capturing a melted layer of Tillamook Cheddar dominating the landscape; the finely ground, hand-packed patty was completely obscured, supported by a brioche bun with a few leaves of arugula lending color. However, it is what you couldn’t see that seemed to bring the burger down a notch; a mess of caramelized onions and the garlic aioli that were very present on the first bite.

The meat and cheese combo were sterling, but the proportion of caramelized onions seemed to drown out the sandwich. I was essentially eating two things: French Onion Soup from Mimi’s Café and a gourmet cheeseburger on the side. The sea-salt fries were splendid though, helping me reset after a few bites.

Apart from the palate confusion, the burger showed some good qualities like being perfectly cooked and seasoned well when those bites weren’t masked by the overpowering combination of garlic spread and sweet onions.

While I didn’t agree with the acclaimed status of Westside Tavern’s cheeseburger, the restaurant showed that they were more than just a catchall for those on a date—definitely a good spot for a drink. My charitable mood may have had something to do with the Ducks downing the Kings in an exciting shootout, yet I wouldn’t rule out a repeat visit, even if the food failed to capture my heart, or stomach, the way Lukshon did. Back to the drawing board.

Rosado CanRaising the ante on Lunch, I went upscale in Culver City, giving a rare day-off to the red basket fries and behemoth burgers fare in favor of Asian verve. In a complex that boasts an embarrassment of riches—with regards to food and interior design—a posse of wine rep friends and I decided to reserve a table at Lukshon.

The restaurant is a brainchild of Sang Yoon—the same Chef that architected the Father’s Office burger (with no substitutions), one burger that perhaps has no equal in Los Angeles. Further down Helms Avenue from his satellite Father’s Office location was another first-rate eatery that tied together a mélange of Far East flavors in dishes that were pleasing to all senses. A curator’s care went into the beverage list that cleverly supported the breadth of the menu like Atlas and encouraged a wine-drinking excursion.

SeafoA Rosado of Listán Negra from Bodegas Los Bemejo out of the Canary Islands we hoped would enhance the robust quantity and variety of food: Brussels Sprouts, Duck Confit Spring Roll, Flank Steak Bao, Kurobuta Pork Ribs, Cantonese Chicken Soup, Grilled Squid Salad and finishing with the mouth-numbing Dandan Noodles. We were a hungry lot.

The dishes were staggered nicely at first, allowing time to dissect each course while we sipped on a cloudy (unfiltered) salmon colored Rosé that smacked of cantaloupe and ripe cherry freshness with dashes of cupboard spice and red flower petals for added complexity.

Carrot We opened with Cantonese chicken soup that showed how weak our chopstick-skills were, making a mess over our shared bowl. We made up for the clumsiness by devouring the second plate of duck confit spring rolls swiftly. The next two dishes, the Brussels sprouts and grilled squid salad arrived in tandem. I tend to not get terribly excited over salad, but the grilled squid course showed off its deep dimension, with tender pieces of seafood bathing in a chili sambal vinaigrette that were pitted against the crunch of celery, cucumber and a clean mint finish. It was refreshing and not to be missed… like the Brussels sprouts! The ribs slipped off the bone and were a perfect set up for the Bao that arrived next. Steamed buns pocketing strips of flank steak with kohlrabi and green bean like slaw smothering the meat, dressed in kimchi vinaigrette. We finished with the circus trick… Dandan noodles were recommended to go last in our rotation. The Sichuan dish incorporated Kurobuta pork with mustard greens, Sichuan peppercorns and peanuts, mixing in the components with a serious toss before we divvied it up. An unusual sensation transpired as I shoveled the oily peddler’s noodles down the hatch, a mouth-tingling reverberation occurred—a MILD blackout of the taste buds. I reached for the glassware to revive the palate. Hell of a trick!

A complimentary dessert—a petite wedge of carrot cake— punctuated our decadent lunch and superb Rosado pairing. My first sampling of Canary Islands wines was piquant, mellowing the spiciest elements of the lunch while not diminishing any of the explosiveness of the foods. It also emphasized how big the wine world actually is, as I sometimes get lost in just a small corner of it. The smattering of outstanding Asian fusion transcends any three, maybe four fancy-pants burgers I would’ve eaten in LA for its forty-dollar price tag. Lukshon is a clear-cut favorite to capture E.O.M. for April.

Stout SignNo longer able to ignore Stout, with a beer-thirst peaking and word-of-mouth about the restaurant itself spreading like a SoCal wildfire whipped by Santa Anas, there was more than enough reason to dine out at the burger and beer purveyor. Standing guard on the corner of Cahuenga Boulevard, sandwiched by Hollywood and Sunset, Stout’s original location was the it-spot for lunch.

My friend and I were seated at the last remaining table. Stout was similar to Little Bear in that it was a Beer-friendly environment; that didn’t stop me from looking to see what wines had been relegated to the back page. (Rant warning)*

Skirting the wine, we made our tap selections on the first go with our server. Upon her return, two beers-a-tray, we had decided on the Stout and Morning After burgers with a side of zucchini fries.

StoutNot too many sips into the Mikkeller, two orbicular sandwiches touched down with a share bowl of fried zucchini dividing our table. We took a respectful look at our burgers before digging in. Wedged between the perfect semicircles that would shame mathematicians, were two candied slabs of rosemary bacon atop a blend of Alpine—Gruyere—and blue cheese, coating the grain-fed beef patty with roasted tomatoes and a daub of horseradish cream. In the best way it reminded me of a classy Sourdough Jack minus the sourdough. A perfect medium rare with a soft grind showing off a depth of smoky sweet nuance that was near great. There was something lacking, however—texture. With no snap to juxtapose against the mushy core, the complimentary flavors had no direction and ran amok. The Stout burger was solid, but frustratingly, had the potential to be a lot more. The fried zucchini were an excellent accompaniment, with a creamy green core that was a sight to see, but like anything fried, a little went a long way.

In need of a digestif after the heavy midday affair, only our wallets felt lighter after leaving the beer-first establishment. Attentive service, lively crowd and stellar beer list staved off an average review, as Stout obviously excels in certain aspects. Regarding balance, there’s still a ways to go.

*If you have a top-notch wine list, beer and sake should be integrated seamlessly and the same goes for an expertly crafted beer list. Why does the imagination stop when wine is involved? It’s not okay. Who would want to have a Westmalle Dubbel or Achel Bruin at some joint, and then order a plonk Chardonnay for their girlfriend—and not feel a pang of conscience about it? Craft begets craft! 

Little BearRecently, on a beer kick that I couldn’t shake, I stumbled upon Little Bear—a Belgian Beer Café—stooped on its corner of Industrial Street (in Downtown LA), across from Church and State, serving epic fare (ambitious burgers) and belly filling brews behind a big red door.

Lunch at Little Bear fostered a casual vibe, workers relaxing behind their hazy witbier and lively discussions whose acoustic bounce off the vaulted ceilings ramped up the buzz; we planted ourselves central to our surroundings, carefully selecting liquid accompaniment to the ordination of midday burgers.

More than the De Ranke Saison that filled my chalice, I was curious to see how well the Little Bear burger worked because, at fifteen dollars, the stakes were high.

Fire CrackTo get our fill, we began with crispy firecracker shrimp that were plated tail up, with a Thai dipping sauce and cilantro garnish. As easy on the eyes as they were on the tongue, possessing a lovely fried snap, the rich crustacean filling was given a lift by the sweet peanut sauce on a starter that boasted it all from texture to taste.

Two Little Bear burgers landed next, sharing their ceramic plates with a spread of Flanders frites. Photo-worthy. The Little Bear burgers were decked out with a large patty covered in bubbling Stilton cheese, fried onion crisps, mushrooms, truffle oil and kissed with cherry gastrique all between a toasted sesame studded brioche bun.  Simplifying burger arithmetic: they were working the sweet ‘n savory angle.

The first bite lacked balance; the Stilton came in hot and heavy, as did the truffle oil dominating the beef. As I inched closer to the core however the sandwich had found its groove, blending umami characteristics with the sweet kriek spread and cubing it all with the textural crunch of the fried onions. Sublime bites. The bun also showed better than most brioches, the toasting was perfect, complimenting the gamut of flavors and keeping its integrity as the burger discharged its jus to burst its bounds.

With a crescendo that would make Ravel envious the Little Bear burger’s flavor trajectory was exponentially up, gathering steam with each ensuing bite. It was complex and quite filling, leaving me to meditate over the farmhouse ale. Impressive, when you consider the price (which included the spuds), that Little Bear could over-deliver! For beer geeks and burger enthusiasts alike, Little Bear struts easily into E.O.M. territory for March!

PiePasadena was on the horizon. I had the intention of coming back sooner after my last memorable trip to Oinkster and Galco’s Soda Shop years ago but I had had no business taking me that far east until my latest trade tasting had brought me within birds’ eye view of an historic eatery just in time for an early dinner.

In thirty minutes I had arrived at Pie ‘n Burger. From street view it was an authentic diner, not much to look at, showing its age and not many patrons. Almost deserted, I was wondering if I had the right place, I took a quick peek at my phone (5:15 PM) and waited for a friend to drive up before I would set food inside. I walked around the city blocks, passing time and was soon flanked by my buddy as we continued to do laps in Pasadena until the sun had set and it was a proper time to eat.

We seated ourselves center and counter side in the long, rectangular establishment. A cash-only venue, with a fairly limited menu that promised quality, we had an easy time deciding. Our waitress was alone, and by 6:30 PM they (patrons) were coming in in droves. It was no secret; Pie ‘n Burger had withstood a restaurant’s biggest test—time—and endured by serving up praiseworthy comfort food for fifty years.

'n BurgersIt took a few minutes (our waitress was in the weeds!) to put in the order but it was out in a dash, the two cooks working rhythmically before us to extinguish the rush.  The place filled up, no seats to speak of by the time our two cheeseburgers were plated.

Oozing with American cheese and an unkempt leaf of lettuce that obscured the seasoned patty and put the hefty smir of Thousand-Islands in perspective, it was evident that it would be messy. The fries were piping hot, recently fried, completing the coupling. A soft and creamy texture emerged between cheese and meat drowning out the pickle, onion and tomato fixings as the parchment folding did its part in keeping the juices contained and napkins to a minimum. There was harmony between the components, as it followed the signature diner recipe to a tee. Nice seasoning to the patty with sweetness from the sauce that worked in concert to make every bite a fraction better than that before.

As was my custom, when I could hardly move it was time to pile on the dessert. My God! that was a big slice of Dutch Apple pie with an insane dollop of whipped cream. Served warm, the cold whipped cream melted like an iceberg as it hit the counter. With vanilla and heartwarming spices playing against the gooey apple filling and flaky crust, drenched in sweet cream—each bite sensational. I was full from the cheeseburger but still managed to eat it all.

We cleared our plates and made room for eaters in the wings. By now (8:00 PM) the place had a lengthy queue and I could understand the wait—a fair burger and a delicious slice of pie for a reasonable sum awaiting all. We paid our bill at the antique register and left a decent tip for our over-worked waitress, exiting happier for having found the legendary Pasadena Burgery in full stride. I crossed one more place off the list and vowed to return to Pasadena soon, to see what other treasures had been hiding in plain sight.

Pier B 2

I was overdue to step foot on the Santa Monica Pier. Last week, the driving force behind the oceanfront visit was the promise of a great burger.

On an unusually cool day for Santa Monica I drove out to Pier Burger with a friend, in the nexus of tourists and a trove of eats and spectacles, past the warm scent of cinnamon wafting from a churro vendor.

Pier Burger serves exactly what you’d expect—nothing over-complicated, no Roaring Forties blue cheese or arugula, no custom grind on a baked brioche; they favor simplicity, with an Angus patty and American cheese all up for a reasonable price. For those looking for something beyond the pale, they serve fish and chicken sandwiches too.

Pier BurgAfter a ten-minute wait single- and double-pattied burgers arrived. With shared fries, we were out sixteen dollars—not quite In-N-Out prices but I’m sure oceanfront rent is steep!

They were beautiful creations; in a cardboard box framing appealing sandwiches nestled in their parchment pouches, maintaining an even meat-to-veggie ratio. The flavors were pure, the American cheese lending a buttery layer of flavor, a judicious application of Thousand Islands sauce that supported the seasoned and tender quarter-inch patties.  The veggies were fresh, cool and crisp and the bun was reminiscent of croissant, flaky and fluffy. All the elements came together well. The fries were on point too, seasoned liberally with coarse crystals, adding a little snap to the soft burger bites.

A trip to the Pier, in the off-season, played out marvelously. No lines, easy parking and missing traffic both ways while the burgers were solid. I couldn’t have asked for more on my first visit to the historic Santa Monica Pier.

Fritzi#Six Dogs at Stall #742 #    Nothing in one’s morning ritual prepares you for this sort of text. Dialing in KUSC, poring through e-mails, and intermittently checking wine articles online over breakfast with Ferde Grofé providing the diagetic scoring—the day’s burger-eating plans were dumped on their head. Farmer’s Market bound, close to Short Order, and on a mission to find Stall #742 by 12:30 PM. I was told to bring some wine and with the flask tucked in my front right pocket, I looked for my friend and the stall for our lunch.

We met at Fritzi Dog—burger dreams dashed. An inspired hot-dog vendor, tucked into a dizzying array of eateries inside the Farmer’s Market on Third and Fairfax. More serendipity: While we were plotting lunch, a random voice called my name. I turned to see it was a friend I’d lost touch with, midway through her lunch, and quickly invited her to sit with us.

Sausal and DogsThree minds were better than two as she helped us finalize our order, settling on the Chef’s Sampler, a corn dog and mixture of tater tots and fries on the side.

We set up our plasticware and divvied up a little taste of the 2008 Sausal Private Reserve Zinfandel from Alexander Valley from my flask while we waited for the grub.

Sausal Winery was the first tasting room I ever stepped foot in (sadly now shuttered), and the wine I split with friends was one of the first wines I ever bought winery direct. Our hot dogs’ companion, Sonoma County Zinfandel, showed a nervy black fruit core with leather and tobacco nuance in its full and balanced frame. It was a certainty that it would pair well with at least a few of the six hot dogs we ordered.

Our silver tray hit the table, loaded with six individual dogs. We split each one, between the two of us tasting the multitude of flavors, the favorites quickly emerging. The spice from the Jalapeño relish and the depth of flavor from the pretzel bun combined smartly with “the Fritzi dog” (a blend of pork and beef). The other favored bites were split between the bird dog with sautéed onions and peppers on a brioche bun and the well-executed corn dog loaded with “the porker.”

By the time the silver tray was bare we were still hungry. Our thirty-three dollar lunch (!) was hardly enough to quell our appetites. Fritzi Dog wasn’t cheap, and the bun to dog ratio was a little high, dog-skimpy. There was extra brioche, parker and pretzel bun long after we finished the franks. Not for the carbohydrate conscious.

I admit it’s fun to change things up; even if the results aren’t always smashing. I was able to reconnect with a friend I hadn’t seen in over a year, sharing a few pours of wine between all of us, over lunch. The mystery and lure of a Matrix-style tweet-sized text can put you on an adventure… or not.

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