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J RI know my penchant for hamburgers may appear never wavering, but often, other menu items will tempt me. A fresh catch can read tantalizingly from a menu, or barbequed brisket can sound, and smell, better than a lowly hamburger, if I’m comparing meat to meat. No more difficult is it to fend off an instinct for seafood when I’m in a nautically themed restaurant, as recently I neatly fended, when I dined at James Republic in Long Beach. The journey sometimes is to allow the good burgers to find me.

A modern and clean-cut façade, James Republic operates at the corner of Linden Avenue and First Street, in downtown Long Beach. Chalkboard marquees shed any notion of a cold and uninviting downtown establishment while a seasonally driven menu and a stellar bar program are enough to hook me in for lunch or dinner.

J R BURUnlike my past dinner experiences here, the seafood options were downplayed, and the burger was quick to grab my attention.

A short fire time yielded a seven-grain bun sandwiching two medium-rare, grass-fed patties with a bubbling layer of Fiscalini cheddar that obscured the “fancy sauce” and onion jam, all served up on a thick cutting board with a ramekin of house-cured pickles. For extra measure I ordered a boat of fries.

Although I prefer to see some greens like Arugula, Butter, or even Iceberg lettuce on a sandwich (to reduce my guilt), one bite eased my fears of imbalance. The coarse grind was seasoned to perfection, the cheese, and horseradish—in the ‘fancy sauce’—added some bite, and where the seeded bun was the secret weapon, harnessing both the practical needs of maintaining form and sopping up the jus while the seeded crust imparted a boost in the flavor department. The pickles provided extra acid to help reset the palate. It was a thoughtful and clean presentation, which served as a good ambassador for the restaurant.

James Republic’s overachieving cheeseburger reminded me why I am on this never-ending quest of documenting America’s favorite comfort food—burgers—because even if I am led astray, chasing other menu items, a great burger can be an excellent place to drop the anchor.

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.

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.

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