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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.

I knew it would be good, but just how good, that was the three hundred dollar question. Would my experience at Bobcat Bite justify the steep airfare and surpass my sky-high expectations of a great hamburger? On the final leg of our journey, the three of us, separate from our host, took a pilgrimage north to Santa Fe for some burger soul-searching before heading home.

We had done a lot more than I expected to in New Mexico; we ate well and participated in everything, save for hot air ballooning, under the auspices of our local resident Bryan. On Sunday, our final day in the Southwest, we got an early start on our itinerary, hiking before the sun would overwhelm the trails. Ascending unawares to deceptively higher altitudes, the height had caused our breathing to be more strained. Increasingly affected as we pushed harder to the top, in thirty-nine minutes we had completed our course, good pace afoot, and were officially ready for breakfast.

Stopping at Weck’s on the return drive, a Southwest diner that specializes in breakfast and lunch options, with hefty portions and the green chile touch, we ate our fill. Passing mounds of potatoes (Papas) under broken yolks at adjacent four-tops, as we were lead to our table. We had arrived at a unanimous decision by the time we found our seats: Papas, for four, with slight derivations on the staple breakfast plate between us. I went with carnitas over-easy with a blend of red and green chilies—Christmas–, while others went for different options like Carne Adovada, Sloppy and Pollo. The mounds of potatoes arrived before us, feasts for our eyes, but I could hear our logical bellies collectively gasp—too much. The meat smothered hash browns were excellent but definitely too heavy for me. I walked away after finishing three quarters of the plate, having to part with the unfinished Papas for fear of going comatose and not leaving a sliver of room in my belly for the early dinner in Santa Fe.

Uncomfortably full from one of the biggest breakfasts I had ever eaten, we sluggishly readied ourselves for our departure. We bid our host adieu and thanked him wholeheartedly for the surprisingly eventful weekend, taking our rented wheels for a spin north on I 25 heading for Santa Fe. In a little over an hour we were being funneled through the downtown at 1:15 PM, touring the city without leaving the car, minding our 5:40 PM return flight back at ABQ. Clock management.

Two hours elapsed before pulling into the parking lot of Bobcat Bite, even though we thought we would never have to eat again. The hairs lifted between my pate and phalanges in sheer excitement. It had been a long time coming. I first heard of the place in 2004, on Hamburger America—a documentary showcasing a few stellar burger locations across the states. The owners looked humble and inviting, and their inimitable Green Chile Cheeseburger shone onscreen. Eight years later, I would have my first chance to sight and validate one of the unicorns of burgers that I had been chasing in my burger quest for almost an entire decade.

Under the midday monsoon we entered Bobcat Bite at about 3:15 PM–uncomfortably closer to our departure–, chalking our name (Goldy, party of Three) behind two sizeable groups (six and seven-people parties) ahead of us on the board. We waited patiently, while one of our own grew squeamish due to calculations of drive time back down to the airport. The time passed quickly, twenty-five minutes in and only the first group had been seated. We were still waiting for the seven-top to be accommodated. Growing restless, our friend’s legitimate panic was starting to carry-over. The unfortunate thought that we might have to forego the burger (MY PURPOSE FOR VACATIONING IN NEW MEXICO!!!!) was fast becoming a dismal reality. We held out, and just as soon as the sun re-entered the Santa Fe sky, setting for the seven-top was called, followed by “Goldy.” Our iPhones showed 3:55 PM and the next priority was getting our ticket fired before the seven-top. We knew what we wanted before we were seated. No dawdling! We tried to place it as we sat but that wasn’t possible according to our waitress. With urgency, we waited for her return. In what seemed like an eternity (about a minute) she found us with pen and paper and had our order in—success! While the group of seven behind us was figuring out appetizers, we had snuck in our order.

A sense of relief came over two of us, but the realist at the table knew we weren’t out of the woods. He was almost too frustrated to eat but the picture of those three open-faced cheeseburgers was enough to bring a tear to one’s eye. Between Canon and Instagram, we had documented our glorious sandwiches and were ready to eat in a hurry.

Served with potato chips, the hulking patty was the focus of this burger. The green chile and cheese were in proportion while the tomato and lettuce were off to the side. We piled high and dug into that fresh-ground 10oz. patty of sirloin and chuck. It was the three hundred dollar bite. The meat was seasoned and prepared flawlessly. They were masters of their craft. With excellent texture in the mouth the burger was divine. Each bite was better than before and the three of us looked at each other knowing full well, that this was the best burger we had ever eaten. Wolfing it down, we cashed out and ran out of the restaurant to the car at 4:17 PM.

Cutting it close, we tested our Nissan Sentra’s limits, pushing a hundred to cut some time off our hour plus drive down south to the rental car return. We meditated on the burgers to keep ourselves sane trying desperately not to look at the in-dash clock.

With five minutes before take-off to spare, we had made the gate, in a terrible rush… that was totally worth it! Jeremy, our justified worrywart, was finally relieved, while Brandon and I were comfortable with the possibility of missing the flight because we were still awestruck by our Green Chile cheeseburgers. It is a lot to pay for a hamburger, if you only count the airfare against this one experience and not all the rest of the great things we had done in New Mexico, but from the first bite, I was happy to have made the excursion to Santa Fe and eat the best burger of my life.

Bar burgers cater to a different crowd. I am dubious of exuberant praise for bar burgers—save for Hinano Café and a couple others—because spirits might besot the people evaluating the food. Earlier in my burger-hunting career, I learned this lesson the hard way, seeking out one too many bars, only to be routinely disappointed by eating an over-priced and often overcooked sloppy burger in a sober state. Now, I take bar food for what it is—relief from the throes of inebriation or to stave off drunkenness. There are exceptions. I was surprised then, by my brother’s insistence on taking me to Heroes Bar and Grill in Fullerton, California since he knew my stance. I chose to accept his invitation because Heroes is a restaurant first that has a bar and because he was strictly vouching for the food, as he was not an avid drinker. I thought I might get off my temperance high-horse (as it related to burger reviews) and join him at the bar for lunch.

Sawdust covered the floors; with dim lighting and nostalgic relics adorning the walls, we took our seats in the main dining room at a mock picnic table. A pack of salty peanuts was doled out, along with the menus and two large pitchers of water to get us started. Next to the Nixon Lodge placard, the TV’s were piping baseball and monster truck racing, bringing to mind my time in Tennessee. Unpresuming, and yet, comforting, we kept our orders as simple as the décor, ordering two Hero burgers with cheddar cheese.

We didn’t wait long before the enormous sandwiches arrived. Stacked high on an onion roll with thick patty of beef, lettuce, raw red onion, tomato and bread and butter pickles. It was impressive, even the copious amounts of fries were dwarfed by the Hero burger. The combo was ample for its ten-dollar price tag.

I took my first bite finding it cumbersome to corral the burger. The patty was nicely seasoned which made up for the fact that they served it medium well. Sweet and sharp flavors immerged with each ensuing bite; the raw onion, pickles and cheddar cheese were a perfectly honed trifecta bringing the burger to life. The burger was poised to be a highlight until its soggy mountain breakdown. The roll completely gave way (it broke apart and wilted) and I was resigned to eat the rest with fork and knife. My lunch quickly shifted to a messy gear and was suddenly unappetizing. My brother was laughing at me until the roll on his burger broke apart in similar fashion.

Up until the roll fell apart both burgers were showing quite well. There was a lot to like for my palate—the ringlets of raw onion against the sweet pickles had a nice yin yang effect and the cheddar was melted perfectly. That is not to say there are not things that I would like to see changed like the roll and the cooking times of the patty. But, all in all it was surprising, even with the disintegration of the bun, that Heroes Bar and Grill was re-instilling my confidence in bar food once again.

I am certain that this year will bring the lion’s share of great burgers to me as I sniff out historic hotspots and chic and trendy grub purveyors all over California. The road is endless and I see that we may be transitioning out of the feared burger Renaissance—the excuse to over-complicate a simple American staple and charge excessive prices (at least if you are in Los Angeles) for, in some cases, total drek—and hopefully entering a time of burger Reformation, where artisans may differ with orthodoxy but still produce simple and wonderful tasting burgers. Headlong into an expedition for exotic sandwiches, pairing them with wines as I go, I hope to finally make it down to New Mexico (Bobcat Bite) and possibly tour the east coast to audition classic burgers that grew up in very different environments. Before I leap carelessly ahead I want to take a look back to a very interesting burger from Napa to draw inspiration.

2011 was rough for people who, like me, support the Ducks (Anaheim), but outside the realm of hockey and in terms of food it was more than interesting. From all the incarnations of duck between Thai food on Sunset Boulevard or crispy duck in Monterey Park the best may have come from St. Helena—for its sheer originality.

At Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, after a busy morning spent tasting, we (my friend and I) stopped off for a highly touted duck burger. More accurately the “Chinatown Duck Burger” for $15.50, which would include fries and a house made shitake mushroom ketchup. The price was a little elevated but I was in the mood for some good fare and did not flinch too much when I saw the tag.

We sat at the bar to speed along our lunch and a few minutes of talk elapsed between the bartender and ourselves before our food arrived. We ordered identically and were plated nearly the same dishes. The presentation was clean and bistro-esque. A sesame bun enveloped the hearty duck patty, under some miso-glazed mushrooms for added texture and the ensemble rested over a few leaves of rocket (arugula). The burger was cradled by an ample spread of plain spuds. The idea was east-meets-west, a culinary fusion binding a tasty combination of ingredients that most anyone would love.

I took my first bite and found balance in the sweet and savory elements of the burger. Nothing was over-the-top and everything was in proportion. I had no distractions as the bun held up marvelously to any drippings of fat from the patty. However, that was my one bone to pick; among the many things that were executed perfectly, the patty was not—lacking fat and jus drippings. Not to say that they overcooked the meat but perhaps a different grind should be entertained (everyone tries to defat a duck but in this case a little more fat should’ve be incorporated.)?

The lunch was pleasant despite the sans fat issue. It was not cheap, costing me roughly twenty-seven dollars for a spirited burger and beer combo w/ tip, which was not without fault. It is something to build on, expanding my burger horizons until I am able to eat the foie gras burger in New York or at a Laboratory in Seattle. I want to find a burger that is not too small, not exorbitant, but warrants its price tag, and proudly marries simplicity with complexity. Will that be so hard? I remain optimistic.

This coming Saturday (5/8) I will be hosting the Burger Bonanza—visiting three separate burger joints in a couple hours time to celebrate the variations of a favorite food. This event has been in the works for some time, especially as I put the Miserly Burger Tour on hold; the new addition to the Burger Bonanza is…wine.

This Saturdays pairing will be different from last weeks tasting because the nature of this event is humongous. We will be giving each individual wine a chance to interact with all three burgers to see if anything is gained by a particular variety of burger, monitoring how each wine pairs to the unique styles of these eateries.

The Jug wine from Mercury Geyserville, Stryker Zinfandel and others will be poured so sit tight and wait for the post on Mother’s day.

I am in the middle of The Miserly Burger Tour—originally launched as a way to have a large group of friends go out and try a burger every Friday. Specifications, or at least qualifications to justify the title were as follows: the burger had to be of under five dollars, within California and of some acclaim (through websites like Yelp or blogs like A Hamburger Today). These specifics have been easily satisfied however I am writing to inform all blog viewers that I will be integrating wine pairing—in the form of a flask—into every burger adventure.

This will start appearing on the page every Monday with an image of the burger and flask displayed together, a piece of scotch tape will denote the type of wine that was poured with the hamburger. More than likely there will be several flasks filled to determine which particular wine was favored with the food, all wines will be detailed whether it was a success or a disappointing attempt along with a rationale for the decisions to pour certain wines.

Next week I will be headed with some friends to Brea’s Best in Orange County to try their burger with some of these wines—as of now they have not been decided but the producers will always be different and the varietals will be a little less than standard. I look forward to sharing my discoveries with all you folks.

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Wine of the Month

2014 Domaine de Pelican Arbois Chardonnay

Eatery of the Month

Battersby in Brooklyn, NY

Musical Accompaniment