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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.

Dave's BurgersThe big moment of my first car signified independent transportation and loud music, delivering me to endless destinations. That car served me well, driving locally from beach to beach in my native Laguna, to beyond the borders of the United States, reliably. After fourteen years I finally said goodbye to my ‘99 Honda Civic on Monday with one last burger run.

On the way to the dealership, my Mother, riding shotgun, and I stopped for our last lunch in the Honda. We pulled up to Dave’s Burgers where Wardlow Road intersects Atlantic Avenue in Long Beach. Too small for a website, the Yelppowered eatery grabs hungry drivers eyes sporting a tasteful red-‘n-white themed look…, that is, if you don’t miss it. If it weren’t for the big clock, I might’ve driven past the stand, but it was definitely “time to eat”.

We walked up to the window of the cash-only purveyor, to the sizzling sound of patties and onions being griddled. The place was dinky, an honest to goodness shack. We were greeted immediately and though our smiling face do-it-all was deep in cooking mode and busy with two other patrons, we were still encouraged to put in our order—she had multi-tasking down.

A short wait—under ten minutes—and we had two sandwiches and a bag of banana peppers in hand for $6.25. We skipped the two adjacent picnic benches for our burger sendoff, pulling up at a local park nearby. A mouth-watering presentation was enough to know the direction of this burger.

D BurgerIt seemed as if the sandwich was busting at the seams—a generous size considering the price. The first bite backed it all up with a contrast between hot patty and cold crisp sheets of iceberg lettuce providing a winning combination. The juiciness of the patty was really surprising too; the cooking time played up its strengths and though I still prefer raw onions, the sautéed onions had no problem finding their place. The application of sauce was judicious, sealing in the standard symphony of flavors.

A fitting end to the final ride of my Honda Civic, with a very good burger from this tiny roadside stand, we made it to the dealership full and ready to purchase my first new car. Hours later, driving off the lot in the new wheels, I had peace of mind knowing that my car had all the amenities, and there was a great place  nearby to grab lunch when my car would go in for regular maintenance.

YLTUp and at ‘em at 3:00 AM, still unwinding from my magnificent midweek dinner at the recently hatched Superba Snack Bar on Rose Avenue in Venice. I was only a couple hours away from starting my big day that would include a free concert and burgers… What else?

My shift began at 5:00 AM with a little more pep, knowing that eight hours later I would be darting across town to see a perennial favorite, Yo La Tengo, promote their latest record with a free show at Amoeba Music. The lines on Ivar Avenue grew around the block as the clock approached 6:00 PM. Once inside, roped off between the clearance records, we enjoyed an abbreviated set from the New Jersey trio.

I got my poster signed and gave a heartfelt thank you to the band. Another buddy met us at the show and it was off to Short Order at the Farmer’s Market on the corner of Third and Fairfax for dinner.

ShortIt was a nice change of pace to venture east to the Farmer’s Market at the Grove to grab a meal, and not just attend another tasting in the area. Seated immediately, we settled into the comfortable woodsy/modern environment, with heat lamps and fire pits ablaze.

The menu reflected a commitment to local and organic—those posh food and drink superlatives—without gouging. The hardest thing to swallow though was the pricing for wine, so I followed my party and went draft.

We each had a burger: one lamb, one dry-aged and one just grass-fed while sharing two sides—my choice followed our server’s recommendation for Ida’s Old School Burger cooked medium rare.

Ida’s burger landed tableside, folded neatly into the wrapper. Protruding was a cascading layer of aged cheddar atop the thick beef patty and a few vegetables not forgotten. The other burgers looked equally appealing.

Short OrderNo longer fooled by a pretty appearance, it would be the first bite that would tell me what I needed to know. Soft and tender, the entire first chew disintegrated in my mouth. I reexamined the burger—the cooking time was flawless—a bright pink core shown through. The bun also stood out, with a soft, pliable texture that was superbly constructed. All combined, Ida’s Old Fashioned Burger was solid, making use of a sweet and savory blend of house-made pickles and griddled onions on Short Order’s classic take. However it wasn’t without flaw. I could’ve gone for more seasoning (a pinch or two more salt to bring out the flavors), and the grass-fed beef didn’t leave me with that jus-dripping goodness that I prize in my favorite burgers.

Around the horn, I heard similar musings; we each liked our individual choices but they fell short of the wow factor. The prices were reasonable ($11-$14 without sides) and our server (Miss. M) was amazing. Excellent service isn’t normally factored in my reviews. Yet it’s an undervalued part of the dining experience and greatly appreciated when received.

By 10 PM it was time to retire; I was starting to feel the effects of my 3 AM wake-up call. I had reached my limit from the night before but not without seeing one of my favorite bands and spending time with friends over gourmet burgers. Not bad for a Thursday.

Shaka ShackWith resolutions still fresh, going back to last year seems an odd but appropriate place to start. I had been recommended the Shaka Shack by a colleague and was finally making good on a promise made months ago.

Toting a few pours worth of 2008 Bodegas Avanthia Mencia, crossing my fingers for a good pairing, while seriously hoping I wouldn’t have any misadventures, I slated a time that worked for a friend and me to share the offerings of my flask over cheeseburgers for lunch.

On the corner of Ocean Park Blvd and 17th Street in Santa Monica sits the little burger purveyor, dressed in tiki-attire with everything surf-oriented. Bringing about instant recall, afternoons spent on the shores of the beaches between Brooks and Thalia Streets in Laguna Beach were flooding my mind.

Shaka BurgerDespite the awesome mural and the interesting menu choices, my fill for the ocean themed eatery had been reached in a matter of minutes. I ordered the Shaka Royale combination with my counterpart following suit, waiting outside to allow myself some time to refresh.

A ten-minute wait yielded two identical combinations that were less than photogenic. Despite the disheveled appearance the food was actually perfect. A soft bun cradling the 1/3-pound Angus beef patty dressed in a nicely melted layer of cheddar with red onion, lettuce, tomato and secret sauce completing the classic sandwich.

MenciaThe meat was tender and seasoned; the red onion added sharpness and crunch while the other vegetables were a supportive chorus. Fresh and simple. The fries were crisp to the tooth but gave way to soft creamy spud innards. Those may have been the best I’ve had in a while.

The wine was a bit of disappointment; the fruit was subdued, showing graphite and woodnotes in its place and a lackluster finish on the highly touted red from the Valdeorras region of Spain.

I went back recently, not believing that the photos I had captured would be able to tell the whole story of this deliciously simple burger convincingly, yet on my second go the presentation was fairly consistent. Leaving me to recite the wise (maybe trite) saying: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Shaka Shack may not conjure Photoshopped images of griddled burgers and perfectly cooked fries immediately, but a trip there serves up a consistent and well-prepared burger. It’s rewarding to follow your resolutions especially when they are met with great results.

Humble PLos Angeles is surprising… just when I get a feel for the lay of the land, I learn that LMU is actually down the street, and that Playa Vista is an uncharted territory for me. California’s size allowed the estimable Huell Howser to wander the state for so long and never run out of stops. LA is California writ smaller, but still inexhaustible. Setting up lunch with a friend in the wine business, another person with screwy hours, I decided to check out The Humble Potato, and start plotting its coordinates.

D F R RougeMy first trek into the Playa Vista/ Westchester neighborhood and it was immediately reminiscent of the rapidly developing UCI landscape in my native Orange County. Upscale tract housing shading into any adjacent land, the area was new but familiar; as a microenvironment very different from OC, but similar too. I arrived at the corner of 83rd and Lincoln Blvd at exactly 1 PM for our lunch appointment.

A busy lunch crowd was drawing to a close and De La Soul was playing in the background as we ordered our wide assortment of menu items including: Hambàga, Battle Royale, Curry Fries and a Little Tokyo Doggu to be shared.

Tentative at first because of a similarly themed concept in Hollywood that had haunted me a couple years ago (such bland food, poorly integrated dishes and classless presentation, I couldn’t even post my review!), but from the onset it was apparent that The Humble Potato was less about attitude and more food-driven.

Doggu TI decided this would be the time to test drive a holiday gift of govino wine glasses, christening them with a pour of one of the wines from my friend’s portfolio. We each had a glass of the 2010 Ferrer Ribiere Côtes Catalanes Rouge to be partnered with our food, which we would take to go.

We began with the hotdog; an inviting presentation of sauces were crisscrossed over the beef frank. The bites were smoky sweet with the applewood-smoked bacon adding extra protein. Not to mention the soy pickled jalapeño that delivered a measured dose of piquancy and the grilled onion lending more depth. An intelligent combination of flavors.

We started to dig into the fries before we would tackle our respective burgers. The curry sauce reminded my friend of a Japanese take on Poutine Fries. Each bite was messy but delicious.

Then it was time for the main attraction. My burger was simple and flawless. A fresh and perfectly toasted bun sandwiching a tender and well-seasoned 5 oz patty, with finely chopped romaine for texture, tomato, pepperjack cheese (by choice), and their secret sauce woven together cleanly. The Hambàga was stellar, delivering its flavors precisely.

HambagaOn the flipside, there was the Battle Royale—a big burger—that presented a challenge as to how my friend could possibly eat that cleanly. The fried egg, bacon and avocado were included to make it the kitchen sink burger. It looked great and became napkin fodder.

Best part was how well it all meshed with our chosen French red. The dark fruit was brought out and the acidity tamed the spicier components of the meal. Everything a success!

It was like I had seen it all before, from my drive through the new neighborhood to the Japanese infused American restaurant. The real difference was the food, which stood out, delicious, and put my themed-food fears to rest. The menu showcased a smartly crafted board of culinary delights. The atmosphere was stylish and better served the food, in comparison to that Hollywood establishment that left a lot to be desired. The Humble Potato warrants a repeat visit and I can’t wait to get back and find out what else has been hiding in Playa Vista.

Five

Rain favors Indian food the way battle favors the swift, but an end of the year fast-food pledge approached with a chance for giving out a good grade.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries, the establishment, has been flowering like backyard morning glories, taking Southern California root, coming to the doorstep of my alma mater, planting itself minutes from my apartment. The red-checkered burger purveyor was hard to ignore and would be my stop for a to-go order on a wet Saturday evening.

I found parking closest to Broxton Avenue (it remains a constant challenge in the Village), and noticed a dynamic culinary landscape—hardly recognizable from three years ago. A surplus of great choices now existed for students, staff and denizens to dine after school or work, from The Lime Truck and 800 Degrees to Umami. Westwood was mid-food-Renaissance. Trying to stay dry as I advanced upon it, Five Guys appeared like a beacon gleaming brightly through drops on my watery lenses.

Inside my eyes followed a disciplined checkered motif that ran to the counter. Buns next to a chalkboard, scrawled with potato origins (Washington State) and ample peanuts on the countertop, to be shelled by those who wait for all good things. To my custom order, I added a regular side of Cajun fries with some sliced jalapeño ($9).

AmancayaFood in hand I ran to the car—the rain had intensified over the ten-minute wait. With my warm goods and a rally car pace I uncorked an Argentine red and plated the burger and fries as I walked briskly in the door. The tinfoil sphere yielded my customized burger with lettuce, tomato, raw diced white onion, pickles and a little mayo—standard setting—holding the bacon and American cheese for another occasion. The patties (about a quarter inch per) were bigger than expected and lightly seasoned upon first bite. The burger came together well and was exactly as I wanted, the accompaniment (bread ‘n butter pickles and raw onion) adding texture and depth. The extra bites of the pepper weren’t forgotten, jolting the palate intermittently, as I devoured the sandwich. The bun took the worst of the drive home, where the rest of the ingredients were still crisp, the sesame seed bread was quite squishy.

With the burger I was drinking Amancaya Gran Reserva—a blend of Malbec (65%), emitting those luscious black cherry, new leather and sweet spice aromas, and Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), lending structure and medium fine tannins that coated the palate softly. Every minute the Amancaya opened it better served the food.

Skipping curry and bharta could not have been a better idea. The pairing of food and wine was textbook, and my brief journey to Westwood was pleasantly surprising. A good showing for fast-food too, though I’m not sure where the purists will weigh in since Five Guys doesn’t make use of a drive-thru. Regardless, the burger was solid and one of the highlights in my fast-food hunt.

Rosewood Tavern BurgerA day of two inventories passed last Sunday. A long morning session, with a 2:00 AM wake-up call, spanning 13 hours til 3:00 PM, counting floor stock of all things liquid in my retail environment, before moseying over to the restaurant for a second dose of counting bottles. A double-header, I laced up the sneakers, not allowing myself a chance to let a rare Sunday off slip away to make-up sleep, even if that meant more work. The head sommelier was treating me to a burger lunch for allaying his counting woes. My mind’s eye trained on the prize—stories of an epic cheeseburger served on Fairfax Avenue would finally be corroborated or debunked.

Rather than kvetching about the grueling inventory of my primary job, it was actually exciting to finally participate in a restaurant count. The head sommelier and I began a thorough inventory of the cellar lasting about 2 ½ hours, which seemed easier than the 6 ½ hours I’d spent tracking bottles at my retail post, except that the chill of a real cellar put the hazard in the work and started to go through me at the 2 hour mark. Finishing with dessert and sparkling wines—we’d counted everything, and I was ready for lunch at The Rosewood Tavern.

I had heard plenty about this burger before we had arrived—mindful of the many great disappointments with past lunches/dinners where the buzz had fallen short. Regardless, it was going to be fun to have one of my favorite foods with our sommelier outside of dinner service and our regular tasting group contact, and drink a sterling bottle of wine.

2008 Conterno BarberaWe toted a bottle of 2008 Conterno Barbera d’Alba, to lighten our own inventory and sidled up to the bar. It was nearly empty on a Sunday afternoon, a large, dark and spacious décor. We would have two burgers—medium rare—no substitutions—with standard accompaniments. A winning combination.

Between musings on work and occasional glances at the football games we gave scrutiny to the Barbera. The Piemontese red showed a developing nose of black cherry, plums, leather, coffee, smoke and dried herbs. The first sip however, offered something more youthful, with a good core of fruit washing across the palate—indicative of a structured wine with a long road to maturity. The savory flavors reappeared on the finish behind crushed fruits (red but mostly black), carried by a medium plus acidity, and a long and clean finish. It was impressive on its own and would hopefully gather strength with the all-American cheeseburger.

Two massive cheeseburgers arrived after a fifteen-minutes, sharing their burdened plates with a hefty pile of seasoned fries, a picturesque film of cheddar cascading down the half-pound patty, crisp butter lettuce, red onion rings and tomato protruding, and a sturdy looking pretzel bun keeping it together—it was an inviting image.

The first bite suggested a better method would be to eat with utensils. Juice running freely from the medium-rare meat; the first time in a while I could see the evidence of a true medium-rare afforded me in a generous and coarsely ground patty. The fundamentals sound, only one minor flaw emerged—easily ignored—they had over-seasoned the burger. Nothing a little wine couldn’t fix.

A wonderful blend of flavors emerged with each swig of Barbera from the old world producer (the son carrying on the tradition of his father—the late Giovanni Conterno). The acidity waded through the overflow of jus from the grind and tamed down the salty sword of seasoning. A delightful combination of beverage and fare.

For the money—fifteen dollars for burger and fries—it represented great value; the proportions were hearty and fair, but more importantly, the burger was simple and satisfying. Nothing was over-complicated; rather the burger was dialed in and someone in the back of the house understood cooking times! A few pinches less of salt would’ve catapulted Rosewood Tavern to burger fame. A long day of inventorying wine paid dividends as I shared a bottle of one of my favorite Italian cantinas, with a good friend, over one of the finest bar burgers in memory.

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