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Back to burgers, after unsheathing the Canon to chronicle haughtier culinary pursuits, it was time to get back to my roots. Continuing with fast food chains, I was waved into the checkered flags of Rally’s in Culver City (Palms) to take on their signature burger.

Not abundant in Southern California, Rally’s may be just a name to many of you. Broader name recognition in Kentucky and Indiana, Rally’s is the largest chain of double drive-thrus in our country. More than an asterisk on a stat sheet, or random fact, it was a place I used to frequent (almost a decade ago) in Orange County after hockey games. From what I remembered the “Big Buford” had always served me well.

Last Monday a flood of memories came rushing in as I pulled into the parking lot of Rally’s off of Venice Boulevard. Far from Orange County, the look and smells were similar, bringing on the flashbacks.  In no rush, I skipped both drive-thru options, and ordered window-side.

Roughly five minutes elapsed and I was face-to-face with the Big Buford. Unwrapping its shiny cloak, the exposed 3D components of red onion, shredded lettuce and some barely melted American cheese were exploding forth… uncontrollably.

One look at that disheveled appearance and I knew this review was doomed from the start. I braved the first few bites, looking beyond its sloppy appearance but it quickly became too much for me. Though my newfound affinity for cheese is still in bloom, American cheese can be a test; half-cooked, more so. The red onion was definitely my favorite part of the burger, a defining attribute, as compared to other chains, but not even that could save the paltry flavors. The patty was poorly seasoned, the bun was too soft and I eventually shifted to the fries for sustenance.

I looked ahead to my hockey game, trying desperately to shake those flavors as I tossed a portion of the unfinished Buford in the trash, a real shame to have such a miserable experience. I’m going to give Rally’s the benefit of the doubt; I’ll  chalk this up to a poor showing. Maybe if I had arrived at lunchtime, or at a different location, or held off on the American cheese…, this review would’ve had a different outcome—not stellar but not abominable either. A tough reprise and tougher still for a franchise trying to its gain footing in California.

It is great to have chef friends. They keep me honest (they taste wines too!) and up-to-date on culinary trends, share awesome tips on purchasing the ‘right’ knives, filleting fish, preparing sauces and can give excellent recommendations for serious foodie spots worthy of dining. Their training might be different, growing up in restaurants versus getting their feet wet at culinary school, and then entering professional kitchens between here and Chicago. With all their varying opinions on where the Los Angeles’s food scene stacks up, one thing that everyone can agree on is that Californians have exceptional produce. I was treated to a dinner recently by one of my chef friends that highlighted the quality ingredients of local farmers markets, playing to his strong suits by making an Italian-themed meal; my ticket for admittance would be a bottle of wine.

I accepted the invitation happily because I had not seen my friend for at least three months. He told me that he would be serving pasta but everything else was based on a whim, depending on what he picked up from the farmers markets. I was hoping to find something Tuscan or at least a red wine from Central Italy (Lazzio, Marche, Abruzzo or Umbria) in my possession, but alas, my stock was primarily filled with bottles from the Northwest—Dolcetto and Barbera*. Rather than over-thinking the dinner pairing, I opted for a bottle of Barbera d’Alba, thinking that the acidity in the grape would best handle the wide variety of fare that would be served. A bottle of 2005 Angelo Negro e Figli Barbera d’Alba was in my clutches as I shimmied through the congested boulevards to my buddy’s new digs in Culver City.

Once there, we discussed the latest happenings in our busy lives since we last talked. I readied the bottle as we caught up over each other’s current successes while he continued preparing the dinner. As the news petered out, the focus shifted to the ingredients garnered from his latest visits to different markets. I was prodded to eat all the fruits and vegetables, apart from their destined courses. He extolled the produce before I ingested any of it, and in my mind, I was certain that these market fresh items would disappoint. It was a weird experience to be forced to pay attention to a single leaf of arugula or carrot as if it were aged Brunet from Piedmont, Italy. But, when I listened closely they were singing brightly, full of flavor and much more complex than I had anticipated.

The food was plated an hour later and we sat down and shared cheers, sipping the wine before diving in. The Barbera showed cherry and blackberry cloaked in wet soils which proved to be a better match for the first few dishes of the evening but not really ideal for the main course of rigatoni all’Amatriciana.

I sat back and indulged in the flavors and freshness of the dinner, my friend had perfected some dishes that he was looking to incorporate into his repertoire. True to my Italian experiences, he kept the dishes simple, concentrating on preserving the integrity of the locally sourced ingredients with reverence. I knew that I had been missing out; I left his house resolved to take advantage of the many farmers markets in the area, weaning myself off my convenience-oriented food buying habits. I initially was skeptical of the “sourcing movement” afoot in the food world but after that illuminating meal I can see that it is anything but faddish.

* Next month (March), for the purposes of palate education, I will be taking a closer look at Central Italian red and Rhône Valley white wines almost exclusively.

A burgeoning culinary scene, chock full of great choices among its many establishments, Culver City is an epicurean’s destination where it is easy to lose sight of all the good ones. Enter Beacon—an eatery with serious acclaim, as the head chef—Kazuto Matsusaka—worked with Wolfgang Puck (for years), after first coming to America to hone his culinary prowess.

I finally made it to Beacon on Sunday evening to try their burger, definitely not the first thing people think about when they go to an Asian fusion restaurant but I have had it on my to-do list since reading about it on AHT.

Very few people were in the sleek and modern confines of Beacon. Our group was one of three groups rounding out the night. We had the ultimate attention of the Master chef.

The Beacon Burger is available on request, no price is given. Is it a gamble? Not really, if you read reviews or ask the waiter they might say as our waiter did “…it rivals Father’s Office burger” as well as tell you the ingredients. For the drink we split a bottle of Tempranillo (an 02 reserve from Rioja).

For me the decision was made easy, Father’s Office was still fresh in my mind and this burger would be a welcomed competitor for the best burger on the block. Beacon’s featured a patty (half-pound) with a miso glaze that is grilled, served with caramelized onions, Gruyere cheese, hearty slabs of bacon, butter lettuce, tomatoes (variety: on the vine) and resting atop slipper bread (ciabatta roll).

The burger came with French fries and a little ramekin filled with ketchup. It was an understated presentation, signifying the burger’s legitimacy. After the first bite my fingers were covered in jus. I examined the charred patty that had a pinkish shimmer. The grind had a good crispness to the outside while yielding the tender inside—perfectly cooked. The bacon became a tad tiresome and could have been left off in favor of showcasing the patty. The roll was firm n’ chewy; it was able to make it through the entire meal without falling apart like the trendy brioche bun.

The Tempranillo presented great aromatics of fresh red berries and spice. The flavor profile was more refined—the berries were predominant but there was a light vanilla flavor that eked through and the taste was rounded out with a sophisticated pepper finish. The Spanish wine married the flavors of the burger and fries well, preserving the sweetness of the onions and miso glaze while cutting through the char on the patty.

Beacon – defined as a source of inspiration (one of four definitions), could be just that; after weeks of failed burger outings and other burger debacles, it was nice to relax and enjoy an outstanding burger. Was it better than Father’s Office? Not sure if I am ready to answer that, but I am positive I will find myself back here enjoying another great hamburger.

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