If you are not a fan of heavy metal music, walking into Grill ’Em All in Alhambra can be a little intimidating at first. The sounds of iconic heavy metal screamers like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest blare in the background. The walls are adorned with photos and album covers of face-painted vocalists such as King Diamond. A large chunk of the clientele wears black T-shirts and denim jackets bearing unreadable death-metal band logos.
Within the trappings of the heavy metal shell is a burger menu that is impressive even amid L.A.'s recent burger explosion. A vast array of heavy metal–inspired burger names adorns the menu, ranging from simple-but-still-creative sandwiches such as the Dee Snider — adorned with peanut butter, jelly, bacon and sriracha — to monstrous concoctions such as the Napalm Death, a pepper-jack cheeseburger piled high with pickled jalapeño, cream cheese and jalapeño poppers.
When Grill ’Em All co-founders Matt Chernus and Ryan Harkins launched their food truck in 2009, the undertaking had been birthed by the inspiration for many of life's greatest successes: failure.
Chernus and Harkins were lifelong friends and heavy metal fans who had relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-2000s. They had been toiling away in their home city of Cleveland, working in restaurant kitchens by day and moonlighting in hardcore punk and metal bands at night, failing to gain momentum in either endeavor. The duo gambled on a move to Los Angeles to try working behind the scenes in the music industry.
“We both got jobs in music marketing,” Chernus says by phone. “We lasted six months, and we were back working in the food service industry.”
They were stuck back in the same rut they had been in before relocating West. Harkins had been working at Two Boots Pizza in Echo Park, with Chernus landing at Ye Old Rustic Inn in Los Feliz. Almost as an act of desperation, the two of them pooled a small amount of money to combine their love of heavy metal and burgers and join the then-burgeoning Los Angeles food-truck revolution. They named their truck after a throwaway pun tossed out at a backyard barbecue — it was a play on the title of Metallica's 1983 debut album, Kill ’Em All.
“One day there was a lot of food left over,” Chernus says. “I said 'Grill ’Em All!' as a pun. Ryan got it as a tattoo a week later, with a steak and two spatulas forming the devil horns logo. We wanted our food truck to be loud and stupid and in your face. Ryan said, 'I already have the tattoo, that's the name!’ We just replaced the steak with a hamburger and had the logo.”
The truck soon gained a cult following within L.A.'s heavy metal community and became a regular fixture outside metal shows all over town. Grill ’Em All's greatest breakthrough occurred though when the duo won the initial 2010 season of Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race. Chernus and Harkins use the winnings from their victory to pay off debts and launch a second truck.
A brick-and-mortar restaurant had not been a priority for them initially, but the duo soon found themselves worn out by the food truck grind. An opportunity to take over a closed Johnny Rockets restaurant in Alhambra dropped in their laps. On Saturday, Jan. 13, Grill ’Em All celebrates its fifth anniversary in its current home.
“There is a cool little vibe in downtown Alhambra now with 38 Degrees, Dog Haus and a few other bar-and-grill restaurants,” Chernus says. “The movie theater next door is great for us. We have an influx of people every two hours when a movie lets out. It's been an uphill climb to win over everyone that's local, but after five years of being there the locals know Grill ’Em All.”
The heavy metal inspirations behind Grill ’Em All and its burger menu — featuring other items referencing classic songs by Metallica, Pantera and more — was sure to lure in like-minded music fans. But to survive for five years in the cutthroat restaurant industry, the food has to appeal beyond that niche. The amount of effort and care that Chernus, Harkins and Grill ’Em All head chef Ken Cazares invest in both presentation and taste of their inventions is evident to all burger lovers who are adventurous enough to sample their wares.
“We've always been prideful of the fact that we can have our roots firmly planted in the heavy metal world but the food still appeals to a family of four, or just a regular person who likes listening to Britney Spears,” Chernus says. “The gimmicks, the puns, the burger names, the attitude — it's all a big part of it but at the end of the day it's the burger that is the core of the business.”
The burgers grilled at the Alhambra restaurant would be filling even without the additional ingredients that make up Grill ’Em All's signature sandwiches. The core of the burger is a hearty, 8-ounce hunk of meat sourced from Commerce-based Sterling Pacific Meat Company. The buns, from Sun Valley bakery Wheatland Baking, are firm enough to not completely disintegrate under the weight of the chef's more ambitious efforts. While at times certain menu items almost seem as if they were created with a sense of daring customers to eat the whole thing, the restaurant's more elaborate burgers hit more than they miss. The heartier burgers are as heavy as the metal riffs that inspire them, but the combinations are filling in taste and comfort.
In addition to the regular menu standards, Grill ’Em All gives reason to come back again and again by indulging in a “Burger of the Month.” Old favorites are sometimes cycled back in by popular demand, but more often than not, a brand-new metal-inspired combination awaits those who return. This month's Burger of the Month is the Pungent Stench, a burger that lives up to its name by piling on deep-fried garlic chips, garlic bacon, pickled garlic and garlic-spinach-artichoke dip, all packed within garlic-buttered buns.
Burger lovers who crave sides to go along with the meat have plenty of options. A favorite listed menu item of ours is the High on Fries. Named after stoner-metal greats High on Fire, this dish consists of crispy fries drenched in shredded buffalo chicken, blue cheese and Buffalo wing sauce. Chernus confided that as a secret menu option, one can take any burger on the menu and order those toppings on fries. His recommendation there is the Pantera-inspired Cowboy From Hell, which is topped with pulled BBQ chicken, jalapeño bacon, cheddar cheese, red onion and garlic aioli.
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Chernus and Harkins will be celebrating the fifth anniversary of Grill ’Em All's physical restaurant on Saturday, Jan. 13, from 10:30 a.m. to midnight, with single-day returns of popular menu items from the past, single-day beer specials, black-metal face painting and a three-hour DJ set from Katon W. de Pena, lead singer of SoCal thrash-metal veterans Hirax, starting at 8 p.m.
While many heavy metal musicians have stepped into the restaurant to try Grill ’Em All's creations, one iconic metal singer's visit remains a highlight of the duo's restaurant careers and heavy metal fandom.
“The Dee Snider was named because when we created our peanut butter–and-jelly sandwich, we thought it looked like the makeup he would wear,” Chernus explains. “He wore a lot of purple and pink, and we thought the purple jelly looked like him. There wasn't more thought than that. He found out about it and sent us a direct message saying he wanted to drop by the restaurant next time he was in L.A. We didn't even think he would show up. He came in, sat at the bar for two hours and ate three burgers, including his own. We were freaking out because Dee Snider was eating himself. It was super surreal seeing a legit idol of ours sitting in our little restaurant eating a burger we named after him, and loving it.”
Grill ’Em All, 19 E. Main St., Alhambra; Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (626) 284-2874, grillemallburgs.com.