Nearly every meat-eating Americanspeaks the language of burger. Whether it's a backyard barbecue or an upscale gastropub, the hamburger, once a practical way to make inexpensive meat more palatable, has become an art form unto itself.
Our continuing online odyssey "30 Burgers in 30 Days" isn't a hard-and-fast ranking system to determine The One Burger to Rule Them All, or a Morgan Spurlock–like stunt to test the limits of arterial tolerance. It's more socioculinary survey, a broad look at the enduring marriage of meat and bun. Like other deceptively simple American art forms, say, jazz or Westerns, it has seemingly infinite variations.
As we take stock halfway through this quixotic gastronomic survey, the burger continues to surprise: It is accompanied by all manner of foodstuffs; it can cost from $4 to $40; it can be served with every imaginable condiment on any type of bun, and even in a bowl.
It's only fitting that Southern California, birthplace of McDonald's and In-N-Out, has emerged as America's upscale burger mecca. We're the home of such archetypal burger emporiums as Father's Office, Hungry Cat and Umami, all of which, it should be noted, were excluded from this quest at the outset. Nothing against these now-iconic burgers, but it was time to visit less traveled lands.
Anyone who has ever truly loved a burger has at the very least imagined pursuing a quest like this one.
Follow along on the Weekly's food blog, Squid Ink, at blogs.laweekly.com/squidink.
Best Char Burger
Chef Josef Centeno is known for aggressive flavors, and the $14 burger at his Lazy Ox Canteen is no meek, middle-of-the-road patty. Don't be fooled by its disarmingly petite stature. This vertical, not horizontal, beast rests on a toasted, house-made bun (a thing of beauty). Centeno's upscale take on classic toppings, including the bold choice of cantal, a tangy, sublime melting cheese, moves this chef-driven burger into the stratosphere. Prepared medium-rare, it has a concentrated, earthy flavor, reportedly from suet in the grind. No one puts a better char on a burger than the Lazy Ox. Savor the gratifying textural disparity between the rugged, singed exterior and the tender, pink interior. From a seat at the bar (the most entertaining spot in the house), watch as flame meets burger while you drink an esoteric beer from the Lazy Ox's carefully curated assortment.
LAZY OX CANTEEN | 241 S. San Pedro St., dwntwn. | (213) 626-5299
Best Burger on a Budget
A hidden gem tucked behind the Winchell's at Sepulveda and Santa Monica, Hole in the Wall Burger Joint serves burgers that, at $7.95, can stand up against gourmet restaurant versions that cost twice as much. Full of flavor and fat, this is a coarsely ground, loosely packed, thick beef patty with enough savory meat juice to moisten the bun without being greasy. It comes with all the basics: choice of cheese, offbeat spreads (chipotle mayo) and veggies. Even those who don't relish the idea of relish may be tempted by the house-made mixture tinged with cinnamon, clove and sweet peppers. Get the bacon for an extra dollar (remember it's cash only): It's thick and brittle, with a crispness that endures. The Kennebec fries, piping hot and fresh from the fryer, are well worth $2.50. The pretzel bun is a must. This dark-brown, braided round with a firm, shellacked exterior and dense, chewy interior is ideal for sopping up the remnants of one of L.A.'s best — and most budget-friendly — burgers.
HOLE IN THE WALL BURGER JOINT | 11058 Santa Monica Blvd., W.L.A. | (310) 312-7013
Best Out-of-the-Way Burger
Known mainly as the childhood home of Richard Nixon and stomping ground of M.F.K. Fisher, Whittier soon may be known for the modest Bottle Room and chef Tony Alcazar's burger. Through some miracle of nature or trick of culinary skill, this flavorful $12 burger — soft on the inside, medium-charred on the outside — holds together until the last crumbling bite. The milky bun, with the texture of Hawaiian bread but without its sweetness, softens but never falls apart. It's topped with "sweet onion relish" (read: caramelized onions), sprigs of arugula (an homage to the iceberg lettuce of a classic burger) and two cheeses (Swiss and blue) that pair well together. For an extra dollar, swap out the salad for shoestring fries. Cooked to a light crisp with plenty of garlic and a dusting of parsley, they're impossible to resist. (If you still have room, try the truffled mac 'n' cheese.) Often imitated but rarely achieved, this style of burger is one Angelenos have come to know (see Father's Office disclaimer above). With his Bottle Room burger, Alcazar has paid tribute to his progenitor but made it his own.
THE BOTTLE ROOM | 6741 Greenleaf Ave., Whittier | (562) 696-8000
Best Bacon Cheese Burger
When Greg Morris (the Spanish Kitchen, the Olive) offered a top-of-the-line burger for $11.50, he was issuing a challenge to all of L.A.'s high-end burgermeisters. Just off Beachwood Canyon, the cozy Oaks Gourmet Market is stocked with fancy victuals and obscure beers, which — unfortunately — cannot be imbibed on the premises. The crumbly, flavorful eight-ounce patty of dry-aged meat walks the line between the minimally seasoned and the heavily herbed. Plenty of burgers arrive blanketed in melted cheese, but here it's taleggio. The creamy texture and mellow, buttery flavor perfectly complement the sweetness of the smoked-jalapeño-and-pineapple compote. The burger's knockout punch is its ultrathick Black Forest bacon. A dichotomy of crisp and chewy with a hint of sweetness, it's hands-down the best bacon on a burger. The trio of bacon, taleggio and compote is nothing less than genius.
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THE OAKS GOURMET MARKET | 1915 N. Bronson Ave., Hlywd. | (323) 871-8894
Best Brasserie Burger
It's no secret that French brasserie Comme Ça's $16 cheeseburger, now served for lunch and dinner, is considered one of the best in town. No mix-and-match toppings. No extreme sauces. No customization. Just rich, high-quality aged beef, juicy enough to marinate every bite in your mouth but not the least bit greasy. The patty is just the size it should be: only slightly larger than propriety demands but not enough to exhaust the eater. Covered in cheddar, topped with a scoop of rudimentary slaw (cabbage, mayo, a pinch of salt) and perched on the brioche of all brioches, it's L.A.'s gourmet burger par excellence. A gourmet burger ought to be accompanied by perfect fries, but let's not dwell on the disappointing frites here. Now it can be told: This is not simply a burger, this is the burger.
COMME ÇA | 8479 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | (323) 782-1104