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It was time to leave behind Tustin, trading it away for another destination, saying goodbye to close friends and newer acquaintances that would not be joining us on the trek to Compton. We arrived at the roadside eatery and took in the surroundings. A large field, with ample parking, horseshoeing around the center attraction—I had finally made it to Mom’s Burgers.

Piling out of the car we stood out, especially me, with a camera clinging firmly to my chest and my dark rimmed spectacles lining my mug. We were a mixed group of kids like a hipster clique in a different part of town.

Immediately we were asked if we were from the area, the person asking knew the answer and wondered how we’d heard of the place. He took an interest in us, walking us through the menu. His name was Devon and his recommendations were more than helpful when it came to ordering from the assorted list. Sifting through the popular items, he hinted that his favorite was Mom’s Soul Burger with added relish. That burger normally consisted of fried egg, tomato, shredded lettuce, chopped onion and apparently the relish was the only thing missing. He broke down all the burgers, listing the ingredients that had been missing from the names and when we felt good and ready about our decision we ordered. I respected our courier’s knowledge and requested Mom’s Soul burger with the extra relish and the others put in their orders.

After ordering we spied a chess set parked on a table in the seating area. We brushed up on our skills, over small talk and colorful conversation with another local by the name of Capone until we were called to retrieve our meal.

I found Mom’s to be the perfect spot to pour the Vietti Nebbiolo (#308) from Langhe—a pedigreed vintner with a penchant for beautiful labels. Nebbiolo is the grape of Barolo and Barbaresco, two of Italy’s greatest red wines that can handle a wide array of gamy meats like rabbit stew to heartier fare of big roasted meats. Best of all it was cloaked in affordability ($23 for a superior red wine). I knew this wine would have enough acidity to help subdue the grease while enough structure to prop up the patty and I was itching for the combination.

Unwrapping the burgers, the presentation was sloppy, the egg could barely contain itself and the relish was seeping out of the monster burger. It was jarring in comparison to the ABC burger I had had an hour earlier.

Presentation is never enough to stop me from devouring a meal so I jumped in, the depth players (tomatoes, onions, relish) assisted in the win for this burger on the palate, transforming a coarse, hand formed patty into to a bigger sensation. The egg also really melded the flavors with the tang of the relish, combined to make a salty, sweet combination that won over my taste buds. Enough to make it the second star of the night.

The wine did wonders too; with big notes of ripe cherry and earthy bramble the Vietti Nebbiolo was more than up to the challenge of hanging with the big shot burger. The acidity, as predicted, helped cleanse the palate and ready me for another bite. After a drawn out game of chess and a solid meal it was on to the next spot.

Now under the spell of eating too much meat, a brief respite from bovine seemed a marvelous idea. I met with another friend who happened to be a vegetarian and she insisted that we go to the Veggie Grill on Sunset Boulevard.

For two of us in the group it was our first time eating veggie burgers, I was nervous about them disappointing me because I have never been one for substitute meat, in fact the idea appeared farcical for a vegetarian to even want to eat such a thing. We pressed on, assuaging my fright and splitting the V burger.

A short wait yielded a nice, unhurried presentation—clean and simple. I recalibrated my jaw for the petite portions in comparison to Mom’s and took a bite.

The fresh vegetables were pleasant and in proportion but the patty was suspect. Not because it tasted awful but because it lacked flavor. To make up for that there was a spicy mayo assigned to disguising the patty. In a word the veggie burger was disappointing, not the fault of the restaurant because it was executed perfectly but it leaves some room for improvements on vegetarian patties. However, I was now over the hurdle of my first alternate burger experience and much more open to the possibility of eating another. Umami anyone?

By the time we left it was late in the day and traffic was becoming a reality, a five-minute drive to Stout waddled into a thirty-minute bob ‘n weave through Sunset Boulevard. We decided it was not meant to be to consume the fourth burger, and our stomachs’ collective sigh of relief was palpable. Trying to outdo my first Burger Bonanza reflected in the spots I chose and the amount of petrol I used to get there. Though I did not complete the four-burger benchmark it was a complete success filled with friends, good music, interesting variations on a burger and of course… wine. When April comes again, here’s hoping the Bonanza rides again.

Last year I started the Burger Bonanza, in hopes of keeping pace with the flurry of gourmet and classic burger establishments opening in Southern California (a large enough drawing board). Devoid of critics, we are not quite the burger police, but reticent to fall for just any patty. I carefully studied the reviews and selected a few standouts to visit, covering more ground in one day than I sometimes would in a month, while being mindful to not overeat, splitting the burgers with the others who partnered on the journey. The original Burger Bonanza was three separate burgers to an excursion, all from within the confines of Los Angeles. This year, I was interested in upstaging my previous efforts, broadening the map to a beginning in Orange County and concluding the burgercurean tour in Los Angeles, visiting four restaurants along the way, with a larger collection of friends and as always trying to find a feasible wine pairing when applicable (unfortunately, only at Mom’s).

The menu du jour quatre fois included a quick pit stop to the Wine Exchange in the city of Orange—to stock up on some wines for this pairing and future events—then off to Peter’s Gourmade Grill, then a brief visit to Compton to try the legendary fare of Mom’s Burgers, a third spot was up to the people who were with me, and finally, ending at Stout. That was the plan and it took some serious resolve to make it work.

I waited for a buddy to carpool with and we headed south. Once at the Wine Exchange I loaded up on Rieslings of all different price ranges, and almost exclusively from Germany, to accompany my newfound preference for sushi and to tag along with the heavily spiced Indian foods that I hope to review. I lost focus among their jaw-dropping assortment of collector wines, priced much cheaper than in Los Angeles, but managed to regain focus and select a sampler of three bottles of Syrah from K Vintners—Morrison Lane, El Jefe and the Cougar Hills—and some more bottles of Vietti Nebbiolo for their already established pairing capacity with burgers, among other more traditional couplings.

After I stockpiled the wines, my friend and I headed out to Peter’s Gourmade Grill and met up with several more friends (new and old) to enjoy some high-end burgers at an unexpected location. Though it is not uncommon to hitch your eatery to a gas station, it just doesn’t conjure the best imaginable burgers and yet, they took top honors for the day. We queued up, placing our orders for the ABC burger loaded with avocado, bacon and cheddar ($5.75), and we shared a plate of Sweet Potato Gooey’s.

There was a major wait at the gas station for these burgers; we watched the cramped kitchen pumping out an endless procession of burgers on the terrifically warm day. Eventually, our meal was plated on soft pastel colors; mine was carrying a generous burger that was a hybrid, a blend of classic with gourmet tendencies. Sourcing the beef, including artisan items and attention to detail while maintaining the cornerstones of burger joints. With a nicely seasoned six-ounce patty, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, homemade pickles, avocado, thick cut bacon, a swath of condiments sitting between a potato bun, and its hidden pearl of a burger, save for the cheese.  The flavors were completely thought out—the bacon added fat and salt, the avocado was creamy and ripe, and the pickles added tartness. The texture of the grind was coarse, making it a signature burger. Everything was measured and worked in concert to create an enjoyably complex bite.

 The side of Sweet Potato Gooey’s was by far the most interesting side I have had at a burger joint, far surpassing fried pickles or chili cheese fries. They were a dessert, reminiscent of a Thanksgiving side, replete with a layer of baked marshmallow atop sweet potato fries and some maple syrup. Spectacular.

I rarely visit my brother—he lives far enough away that it is a hassle to get there—but when I do make it through hours of traffic (seemingly endless in Los Angeles), we always make up for the long gaps between hang outs. This particular event was bereft of wine but jam-packed with meat. We were going to two different restaurants to get two perspectives on the American classic.

The last time we had hung out, it was the Burger Bonanza, where we hit the streets of LA to find three unique styles of burgers and pair them with wine. We tried to replicate the fun of that night by creating the Baby Bonanza spontaneously and found two house burgers executed entirely different, yet in two neighboring cities.

On that Friday’s menu were: Imperial Char Broil Burgers (Imperial’s) and Frisco’s Car Hop of City of Industry. The burger at Imperial’s was first, a traditionalist approach—in price too, costing roughly two to three dollars/ burger—with hamburgers and cheeseburgers arriving cloaked in different colors of paper. Once we unsheathed the meals, we exposed dense and sloppy burgers; we were disappointed with the careless presentation (did they not see I was carrying a camera?). The cheeseburger was a little better in presentation but the hamburger was coated with copious amounts of thousand-island sauce and possessed a cloying look. Both burgers were crammed with iceberg lettuce, tomato (beefsteak), ¼ pound charred patty and pickles all smashed together in a bun. Despite it’s disheveled appearance, it was decent. Not too bland because of the char on the patty but nothing more than average.

Frisco’s offered a refreshing change, women clad in skates and mini-skirts presenting diner fare. Whizzing by and then escorting us to the seats and benches that were old converted Cadillac’s and other vehicles. Kitsch. The walls were heavy with pictures of all the famous patrons who had dined there—the weight of notoriety was immense; I could feel how hard the place was trying to impress its eaters. I was being lulled into a false sense of security because Frisco’s shimmered with the veneer of a legend.

My brother and I elected to share the signature burger at eight dollars since our stomachs were still coping with the mountainous sides at Imperials. We deftly threw in a side of chicken tenders to maintain the manliness and to not raise questions (why are two men sharing a burger?).

When the Frisco’s Original made the table we encountered the completely opposite phenomena. It came via cute waitress on skates, it was impeccable, the plate was clean and the sandwich/burger was in thirds with toothpicks holding it firmly in place. Golden thin cut fries were delicately filling the plate while sourdough toast framed a thick patty of meat, some tomato and lettuce. Truly picturesque. The presentation is where the beauty ended or more famously we learned: “all that glitters is not gold.”

Upon first bite my brother and I traded glances—acknowledging that we had been boondoggled—our teeth were fighting the gritty texture of the meat. The patty was bland and might have been the worst meat I have ever eaten. The tart dressing that coated the romaine lettuce made the hamburger hard to finish—we didn’t. We were able to track down our roller waitress and immediately ask for the check.

While the burgers were less than par, the night was amazing, cruising with my brother through the streets and sharing our latest music trends and thoughts on life—just catching up—made the less-than-stellar-food quickly slip our minds and disappear into the ether. We also know well that when you are craving a burger, do not think about Frisco’s.

Before my three-week trip to Europe—in the interest of wine and family—I orchestrated an eat-a-thon of my favorite comfort food, something I have said before is essentially American: the burger. I knew well in advance that hamburgers in Europe would not be on the same level of my favorite eateries in California therefore I pledged to not eat one on the trip.

The event was dubbed “The Burger Bonanza” and it would include three wines to be paired with three unique burgers from Los Angeles. The wines were an Oregon Pinot Noir from Belle Pente Willamette Valley (2007), Coto de Hayas Garnacha (2008) and the Mercury Geyserville Jug wine (200?). My plan was to pair these wines with three unique burgers and see if the differences in preparation and style from each place made a difference with the wine.

1.) Belle Pente Willamette Valley (12.5% alcohol) possessed a thin body and light violet hue. Its flavors were subtle—light mineral. I chose this wine because of the reputation of the Oregon Pinot Noir wines.

2.) Coto de Hayas Garnacha (14% alcohol) was a full-bodied red wine with a peppery finish and cherry n’ spice on the nose. The Spanish wine seemed like it had the depth to pair well with a burger.

3.) Mercury Geyserville Jug wine (14.25%) showed a medium body wine with purple color. This blend acts as a chameleon and enhances flavors of a lot of dishes so I thought it would be a safe bet with the burger.

The first spot was Astro Burger—a small chain that serves a clean and simple burger with shredded iceberg lettuce, a little sauce and quarter inch patty on a seedless bun for a modest price.

We paired the Astro burger with the three wines and when our canteens were drained the winner was proclaimed, the people favored the Garnacha—largely because of the body and its ability to hold up to the flavors of the meat. There was nothing too exciting about Astro Burger but it was a good start to the rest of the festivities.

My plan would soon become mission implausible after our second stop. The Apple Pan dashed my dreams of pairing since just the ordering in the Edward Hopper-esque eatery is enough of a challenge. We decided to forgo the pairings and just concentrate on the burgers.

While I had intentions of pairing all the burgers (Astro Burger, Apple Pan and Gus’s Drive Thru) with wine I was unable to do so. Shortly after the first stop our group of 7 had to make it into one of the busiest burger joints: the Apple Pan. It is too bad because I am sure a different wine would have reigned supreme.

I look to do something similar in the future; with better planning, the execution I imagine could be spectacular. I did learn though that three burgers down the pipe in a four hour period is a stretch for any eater—well maybe not Kobayashi but almost all others. As for the wine of the day, the Garnacha—although a citizen of another country—proved to be a great partner for the burger matching the flavors and striking a balance that highlighted both parts of the meal. So much for home field advantage—two European wines have been crowned kings.

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