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Fuj 73After a routine visit to the credit union, I spotted a strange marquee in a nearby strip mall. Something kitsch and novel—in terms of lunch—, brought me closer and while I wasn’t exactly sold, I wasn’t forgetting about it either. Showing a bespectacled man, Fuji, and his famous burgers, the placard’s image stuck between my ears like a Jon Brion score. A visit to the burger joint would have to wait, though, until another midday trip to the bank.

Who was Fuji? What inspired his burgers? Those questions played in my mind that day, while the answers would arrive sooner than anticipated; scheduling a trip to the far-away bank in between strategically placed sales meetings (accommodating curiosity), so as not to feel too guilty for an extended lunch break, I made for the burger joint.

Fuj BurgFuji’s had started in Long Beach in the early 70’s, and now, I was dining at its second location in Orange County—Fountain Valley—forty-one years later. The original location had shuttered and they had moved south to Huntington Beach in the 80’s. Fuji had been one of the originators of fusion cuisine in Southern California (before it was fad!), tweaking the comfort foods modestly and tastefully. The restaurant was now in the hands of his children.

Stepping foot inside, Fuji’s was clean and unassuming (the way I liked things). There were fast colors of key lime green and bright red—the hallmarks of college marketing—with an open kitchen and the menu chalked wall-side. It boasted a Japanese flair with teriyaki burgers and the like, however I kept it simple to judge the base. Five dollars later (and a few minutes) and I was hovering over a hamburger and fries.

No tells on the first take as the burger came completely wrapped. After peeling back the parchment it showed no frills just the classic griddled patty, shredded iceberg, tomato, pickles and a sloppy application of mayo. Despite its shabby appearance the burger actually replicated some of my favorite burger joint experiences. I was only short my beloved banana peppers. The patty was well seasoned, the vegetables were crisp and cold, playing on temperature contrasts, and the food was honest.

Fuj BacWith the foundation solid I thought I would brave a more adventurous path upon my return. On my second trip, the teriyaki bacon burger warranted a go—reasonably priced below five dollars—with another basket of fries. Arriving in similar fashion, the sandwich boasted a few strips of bacon and a heap of teriyaki sauce in addition to the core ingredients. The salty-sweet combination was almost perfectly executed on the meat, save for the excess sauce surrounding it, the greater proportion of which disrupted the balance for me.

Fuji’s was something I wanted to be great, and with my expectations tethered to the clouds, the burgers actually didn’t disappoint (regarding quality and price), which in itself, was a nice experience. This might not be the destination spot for gourmands in California but definitely a strong recommendation for those who live in the surrounding areas. Not bad for a lunch break.

Living in the city affords a boodle of burger varieties, accommodating all the price ranges, incorporating an endless array of ingredients and specializing in unique sides to quell my cravings any time of day. I can eat the lower ranking, mass produced patties of fast food chains or work my way up to gourmet grinds (sirloin, short rib and other cuts) of meat, a swanky mise-en scène of Hollywood’s hippest hamburger, depending on how much I am willing to spend. In Los Angeles the gourmet burger phenomena has clenched its fist around our city (big cities in general) and there are a few places that stand out in the LA area, including but certainly not limited to: 25˚, 8 oz. Burger Bar, Umami Burger and Father’s Office. It would be difficult to maintain a burger and wine blog without tipping the fedora to these masters of the patty.

Not too long ago, in GQ Magazine, Alan Richman decided to be a maverick and sniff out the best burger in America, platitudes not to be doled out carelessly, even more, he decided that Umami burger would take those honors. After that article was released, Yahoo decided to repost it, slapping the article and an even more obnoxious title on the piece to their scrolling marquee of eye-catching news items.

I was inundated with questions and comments about my opinion of the piece and the place, as if I know everything about hamburgers, or subscribe to a burger blog called A Hamburger Today, riding shotgun with Damon Gambuto through the city of Angels… no, no, not me. I know that the article was well written and that a lot of other critics are in agreement about the best place to find a hamburger in LA, maybe California, but the country pushes that theory to the brink. It is an arduous task to assign rank to so many different variations (burger joint vs. gourmet burger) but feel that if you do, it is incredibly subjective, and therefore I rarely rate burger establishments (and any inclination is behind me now) because I know they are created in unequivocally dissimilar styles! Alan Richman made a bold claim about a local restaurant, one that I had the means of traveling to. It was time for me to recast my attention on the dressed up and sophisticated burgers of Umami.

After spending four plus hours at the LACMA, my eyes were full, ingesting an entire course of artwork from Koons to Kadinsky, but my stomach on the other hand was howling for nourishment. I decided the best course of action would be to dine nearby and document my third trip to Umami Burger (I am beginning to adopt the LA Times food critic strategy before reviewing).

I made it to La Brea in no time, pulled up to the valet and in minutes was seated inside Umami. The service in the past was a little spotty, borderline rude and that has always been my knock against Umami, not the burgers but the people, it makes for uncomfortable dining when you are in combat with your server.

Anyway, with the luck of the draw I had a nice but inattentive server, busy with a ton of other things than his station and the wait was much longer than I remembered, roughly twenty five minutes elapsed before my burger (The Manly Burger) and smushed potatoes made the table, but it seemed a legitimate wait; there were some rather bulky orders for parties piling up in the kitchen, my order happened to be lost in the shuffle.

The presentation is minimal, understated and clean. Arriving on a long ceramic plate straight outta Surfas the softball of a burger sits proudly. The burger bun is always eye-catching, a little too big, like button cap mushroom that dwarfs the rest of a substantial setup by comparison. The patty is generous, cooked medium and finely seasoned. The addition of bacon lardons, thick ends of smoky-salty-fatty chunks of pork, adds depth to the fairly straightforward beefiness of the burger. The onion strings bludgeon the taste buds with a similar smoky profile. There is also an aioli replete with horseradish, not listed in the ingredients that add sharpness to each bite, keeping the salinity in check. The burger is calculated and though it spares greens—in display or on the burger—all else is covered.

If you grow up in a Dutch household, the potato is the only vegetable you are comfortably attuned with, at least in my household, so the smushed option seemed fitting. A double fried Dutch yellow creamer with a measured sprinkle of coarse salt sitting atop a rich creamy fry sauce (in the same ilk as the friet met—the mayo-driven accompaniment to the frietjes of the Netherlands or Belgium), complimented the meal and were a welcome reprieve to French fries, though the sides still did not top my favorite at the Golden State.

On a whole, much like the other times I went to Umami, I left satisfied by the burger, not feeling like I had transcended time, or had a mind-altering experience with fleeting bits of ecstasy but rather a very carefully crafted burger. I admire Alan Richman—that heavily decorated food writer for GQ—for the gumption to extol Umami openly; I am not so outward in my adoration, believing more can always be done and to never become too comfortable (Thanks Dad!). I do feel that aside from the burger being marred by inconsistent service (a definite factor in any restaurant receiving nearly perfect accolades) it offers a bounty of goodness. Enough so that you too, should try it for yourself. Douzo meshiagare.

It was Friday, the season opener for the Anaheim Ducks—it should have been a joyous occasion—and I was interested in watching the game immediately after work. To mark the occasion I was going to have a bottle of Washington Cabernet Sauvignon with a hamburger. I would need to choose a dining spot not five minutes (barring seemingly inexhaustible Los Angeles traffic) from where I currently reside on Santa Monica Blvd to catch the broadcast. Things were getting hurried and jammed.

In my sights, the Corner Deli and Grill, an inconspicuous pick, turning out decent fare at low prices, hidden in plain sight to the hundreds of thousands that drive by it in a day, it also fit my search criteria: a short drive from my residence. Operating within a mini-mart, armed with just the necessities to cook: a grill, griddle, counter, a case and few other tools to run the miniature kitchen.

I ordered the regular burger ($4.49), an economic deal for a 1/3-pound of “Angus” beef, tomato, lettuce and a considerable spread of mayo, including seasoned fries. No more than five minutes after my order and I was out the door with the Styrofoam carrier in hand, negotiating traffic on Santa Monica Blvd to better my chances of catching the Ducks game.

Once home, I got the hockey game primed—already behind two-zero in the first period, the Ducks were making a poor case for a fast start to the beginning of the season—and quickly unscrewed the top to my bottle of Chateau Smith, pouring the garnet liquid into my Riedel stemware, with the hopes of abbreviating the aeration. I gave the Cabernet Sauvignon a few minutes to open up, expecting the brash tannins of its California counterpart, before taking my first swig. In the meantime, I devoured the aromas of the Washington red wine, picking up some cedar, a little black fruit.

For some time I had wanted to acquaint my palate with the Washington winemakers, those many who have made significant success with Cabernet Sauvignon, vaunted for their finesse. I was hoping that their acumen would lead to a better encounter with Cabernet Sauvignon (the typical exchange left my wallet hurting and my mouth roughed up).

The maker of my bottle, Charles Smith—chief winemaker of K Vintners and Charles Smith wines—is a magnanimous character in the wine world, an important winemaker and practitioner of the grape in Washington. He has drawn lots of attention to the area with his critically acclaimed Syrah (fetching perfect scores from RP).

Wines hailing from Washington dwell in a long and cool growing season, unlike the scorching sun that shines mercilessly in some of the more famous AVA’s of California. The cooler climate is similar to the Rhone Valley but Chateau Smith is an elegant and fitting tribute to Bordeaux, blending 96.5% Cabernet Sauvignon with 3.5% Malbec.

The burger was huge, the sesame seed bun was soft and warm, the patty was painted with char marks and the first bite showed promise. The texture of the patty was not as tender as the “angus” would generally imply, but it was a good expression of a fast food burger. Then I brought the thin-rimmed glassware to my lips, pairing the bold char flavor with the Cabernet. It was a hit; my taste buds were delighted because the weight of the wine (medium-full body) supported the hamburger effortlessly.

The Cabernet on its own was very good, soft tannins, low alcohol (relative to the Cabernets to which I am accustomed) and nice persistence of fruit flavors on the finish.

The immediacy of the wine was unexpected but its result was instantly gratifying where I might have had to wait the better half of a decade before I could think of enjoying a bottle of Napa Cab. The burger was good (7/10) with respect to the style but the beverage overshadowed it. I enjoyed my first introduction to Washington Red wines via Charles Smith and if only the Ducks had managed to wrest their first victory of the season and had not fallen disgracefully to the Detroit Red Wings (4-0), the night would have been over-the-top outstanding.

A couple of Sunday’s ago, on a lunch break at Whole Foods I caught an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and while I am not a fan of the show or its premise I shelved my distaste and decided to stomach the program since the subject matter was quite enthralling—hamburgers. I gleaned a lot of useful information from the program and was eager to prepare my own homemade hamburgers and apply the newfound techniques to my creation.

When I make homemade burgers, they come in three stages: conceptualizing the burger, sourcing its ingredients and then preparing it. I need to think about what style I am after, then I need to purchase the necessary ingredients to bring it to fruition and finally amass those individual components and create a cohesive and satisfying unit. May sound scientific but it is a simple process that requires little culinary skill and can yield big results as long as you are efficient and focused.

At the check stand, after my lunch break I had plenty of time to have my perfect burger (particular to that day) fester, the thought consumed me.  In my mind I ran through favorable styles that I had recently encountered like blending cuts of meat or infusing the patty with herbs or peppers but ultimately simplicity reigned supreme. I was also able to recall Mr. Flay’s advice about not complicating the meat, just rely on the seasoning. On my final break I selected some ground beef, and would combine it with some sautéed mushrooms, raw red onion, heirloom tomato, romaine lettuce and a few bread and butter pickles all on a bun.

The preparation—or second step—came when I got home, washing my hands and rummaging through my ingredients. Unloading my groceries, I sorted them; the vegetables were shifted to my bamboo cutting board after rinsing thoroughly, while the meat was unpacked. I quickly formed patties and applied generous amounts of kosher salt to both sides of the meat with a few cracks of fresh pepper per side. I had my large sauté pan heating while I was slicing vegetables. At this time I began sautéing the mushrooms with a lot of oil. Then when I deemed it warm enough, I threw in some oil to my large sauté pan and had the patties start searing at high heat for two minutes per side. After the short cooking time, I transferred the patties to a plate to rest the meat and began assembling the assortment of vegetables.

After ten minutes I had a gorgeous looking burger and popped open a bottle of Hawkes Merlot to pair with it—I was short on appropriate pairing partners at my apartment. The patty, as Mr. Flay emphatically insisted it would be from following his technique, was crusted perfectly. Mr. Flay also stated to not press down on the patty with a spatula, as is so often the case when people make homemade burgers—I followed his techniques to burger bliss. My burger was to taste so it would not be fair to say it was amazing—though it was my best effort hamburger—however the execution of the meat—cooking it to a perfect medium—it made me ecstatic, the burger was dripping, juicy and charred. The wine was not a perfect match but at least it provided some structure.

Homemade hamburgers have the potential to be the best, they are easy to prepare and extremely rewarding. They satisfy many demands, and if you are rooted in busy city life without a moment to spare then consider this: substantial food, quick preparation time, and they are very affordable making it a go-to choice. Rarely does a food item get better.

Feeling uninspired last Friday, I opted for a solo burger outing that would be themed in simplicity, without expectation; with a few spots in mind I narrowed my decision by bowing down to better driving sensibilities (still uneasy about the traffic in LA) and favored a location that was convenient and actually, my weekend-workplace: Whole Foods Market.

Coming off of average to low-end burgers the previous week made this idea a gamble—not too many people rave about Whole Foods Market (WFM) burgers—however, I had enough resolve to get there and try one.

The line was small but yielded a deceptively long wait, eight minutes of watching someone decide what he or she wants on his or her nachos can be baffling. At this particular WFM, the burger station is coupled with the taqueiria and while this may seem odd, there are many burger joints that provide fast-food Mexican staples like burritos, tacos, carne asada plates, etc. to supplement the burgers and pastrami.

When it was my turn to order, I kept consistent with the theme of the night… simplicity, and ordered a hamburger with lettuce, tomato and onion. A warning posted on the menu told me to expect a 15-minute wait. I casually made the rounds and began talking to co-workers, trying to kill time; I eventually circled back to pick up the burger.

I paid $5.99 (before the discount) and with burger in hand, rushed home to open a bottle of the Mercury Geyserville Jug Wine to pair with the night’s selection. The jug wine may sound gimmicky but it is a fairly adept pairing based on the combination of grapes that go into it. No dominant grape torques its pairing preferences thus bringing out different aspects when paired with big foods or simple burgers.

Unwrapping the brown paper, in which it came tightly bound, I noticed a thick patty of meat that wore heavy grill marks. I was eager to bite into it but before I did, I studied the other components, realizing it was akin to a homemade barbecue burger. However, when I picked up the burger the squishiness of the bun was unsettling, this was the first of some serious errors. After the first bite I realized another critical mistake—it was overcooked. This left me pining for condiments, nowhere in sight was thousand-island sauce or ketchup. The patty was desiccated, no juice to be found, I drowned my sorrows by satiating my palate’s demands and drinking heavy gulps of wine with each bite.

Preferring simplicity surrendered unexpected results. Looking back, I know this was not so much the fault of the employee who made the burger but rather with instructions on preparation. WFM must avoid the risk of serving medium rare burgers or anything that could alarm patrons, so they serve up a WELL DONE patty. It’s a shame because it seems like WFM can source the best ingredients to make a worthwhile burger but instead, they play it safe and as a result rank somewhere below c-level.  Next time, I am going for the burrito!

In anticipation of Fridays’ flask tastings I have been extra dutiful in studying wine pairings to determine what might best complement a hamburger. When marrying this dish (or any) to wine, a number of factors must be considered: the meal’s preparation, complementing or contrasting flavors, acidity, and thinking about terroir. Carefully considering these criteria might best lead to the perfect pairing.

No burger is created twice (my apologies to McDonald’s)—though the meal can be simple there is a lot of variation between establishments. A hamburger might feature lettuce, tomato and onion to start but of those ingredients, the lettuce or tomato may not be the same. Some restaurants may favor a red onion, or an heirloom tomato while others prefer white sautéed onions and romaine lettuce. Then there is the patty, which can be grilled, griddled, charbroiled or can include ingredients like peppers or cheese into the formation of the patty. A deluge of options can change the complexity of the hamburger.

To broaden the scope, a person choosing a wine may select a route that can complement or contrast the flavors of the meal, depending on their goal. Complimenting the charbroiled meat I might want to serve a full bodied red because the backbone of the wine will be able to stand up to the bitterness from the char. Specifically, I might want to pair a Russian River Pinot Noir with a fatty burger—dripping in oil from the grind and the preparation—because the acid of the wine can cut through the fat, taming it. If I wanted to contrast the meatiness I would pair the wine with a complete opposite in order to highlight/bring out flavors that may not have been easily detected. Both are acceptable paths and can provide a different perspective on pairing.

Acid can be found in sautéed spinach and a glass of wine—the trick to matching these flavors is making sure that the acids found in my favorite vegetable are in proportion to my glass. If one of the components is too acidic the balance is lost and one of the items will suffer. Matching the acids is of paramount importance—nothing should be steamrolled—instead the acids should be utilized to bring out more in each meal. When it comes to the burger, a ripe slice of tomato might make me adjust my pairing like serving an Italian varietal to match the acid and bring out the savory grind of the meat.

Hamburgers strike me as uniquely American fare, a favorite of mine—comforting and diverse (as noted before). The final edge in selecting a wine that suits a hamburger might be the terroir (or the climate, soil and other elements unique to an origin comprised within a bottle). Wine has been tailored to meat for centuries but certain dishes are representations of their environment. So it is no surprise that it would be difficult for a Canadian Ice Wine (even if they posses great acidity) to pair with a hamburger since it does not share the same locale and was not created to suit hamburgers.  Instead, I will begin my experimentations with California wines; specifically Zinfandel and Merlot to see what can be gained by pouring American born wines.

Terroir is not strictly applied to wine—the influences of a particular locale can find themselves on the menus of many restaurants like sourcing all the meat a chophouse uses from Japan (or an individual Wagyu producer) or Niman Ranch in California where unique philosophies help raise the cattle. Differences in diet—kind of like the soil conditions in wine—between grass and grain fed cows can also have an impact on flavor.

Now these pairings may appear goofy but I am aiming to be practical—haute cuisine is special to me so I do not eat four course meals in excess nor do I find myself eating lavishly at home. I prefer simplicity and it will be interesting to note if this is reflected in the pairing. Hamburgers away.

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