The Santa Monica Pier might be up there with Grauman's Chinese Theater on the short list of places that Angelenos know to avoid like the 101 at rush hour, especially when the withering heat of summer begins to settle in. Yet in spite of its tourist-trap idiosyncrasies -- the overpriced carnival rides, the Midwest retirees whizzing by on Segway tours, the guy wailing "Hotel California" on an out-of-tune six-string -- the Santa Monica Pier manages to capture something as essential to the Southern California lifestyle as Vin Scully's baritone melodies. On a cool blue day, when the salty tang moves lazily through the air and the breakers softly fold into the shore, a stroll along those lacquered wooden planks can feel just about perfect.
If you're the type who frequents the pier daily, like those grizzled dudes with a fishing pole permanently fused in hand, you may have noticed a pale green burger shack with a candy-striped awning that recently cropped up across from Bubba Gump's -- a place that looks like it's been there a lot longer than it actually has. This is Pier Burger, a low-entry concept from King's Seafood, a restaurant group better known for fancier places like Ocean Avenue Seafood, King's Fish House and the Water Grill downtown.
The prospect of a rather large restaurant group opening a old-school burger joint isn't completely unheard of -- Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality introduced New Yorkers to Shake Shack, a purveyor of home-style thick burgers that felt decidedly old-school, which has became a populist favorite because of it. It won't be long until mayoral candidates pose for snapshots biting into a Shack Stack rather than a dirty water dog or floppy slice of cheese pizza.
The burgers at Pier Burger are equally retro, a loosely packed thick patty, neatly seared outside and indecently juicy inside. If you order a slice of yellow cheese on top, the entire package arrives absolutely molten, in a cheese-grease plasma state so ephemeral it only exists solely during a small post-grill timeframe. There is a secret sauce, which is remarkably similar to In-N-Out's -- a trait that almost no one in this town will object to -- a thick slice of tomato and a sheet of lettuce, both a lot fresher than you would expect, and a kind of airy potato bun as chewy and yielding as a good croissant. And that's about it, really, the bare and essential ingredients for the classic American cheeseburger, retooled with a "gourmet" ethos.
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Have the past couple years of burgers smothered in truffle oil, balsamic onions and tomato-bacon jam made us biased? Probably. In regards to the fries, though, we feel much more objective. They're the skinny-cut variety, crisp and golden and fluffy. Innovation is praiseworthy in most fields, but when cooking french fries, it's best to stick to formula.
Are you the odd type of personality who likes to dip their fries in a chocolate milkshake? Then you would probably be well served here. Pier Burger advertises its ice cream as custard, and while it's not the real custard like you'll find in Milwaukee malt shops, it could be the closest approximation short of the Straus creamery interpretation at Short Order.
The highest virtue of Pier Burger is likely its non-pretension. We've become desensitized to paying higher price for burgers, albeit ones that are irrefutably delicious -- the minimalist $17 version at Comme Ça can inspire hunger pangs months later -- but there is something to be said for the idyllic shop that can whip a brawny burger from the flat-top, pull a carton of fries from the fryer and pour you a bubbly grape soda for just over $10. That's a large part of the reason Shake Shack has enjoyed such a surprising level of success, and why we imagine Pier Burger soon will be serving more than just sunburned tourists.