What hath Kogi wrought — aside from a million imitations of its Korean fusion taco? How about a worldwide phenomenon pairing two of L.A.'s most ubiquitous immigrant cuisines with the accessibility of fast-food. Yet, the Korean fusion trend hasn't made its way to that other American classic: the burger. We have no idea why, but Kalbi Burger in Koreatown makes a compelling effort to rectify this oversight.
Tucked in a strip mall with parking issues that make pre-Christmas weekend at the Beverly Center look like a breeze (in other words, totally normal for K-town), Kalbi Burger has a pre-fab pop-mod diner feel, perfect for the post-modern era. At midday, it gets crowded as customers line-up at the snazzy lunch counter. If you can brave both of these hurdles, you'll be well rewarded for a one-of-a-kind burger that's tops at its price point ($5.95-7.95 + $2 w/fries and a soda).
The meat at Kalbi is good quality, though the patties have a uniform, pre-ground feel. Every burger is served in the same golden toasted bun, an airy ciabatta-esque puff of dough with more than enough integrity to stand up to a hearty pile of toppings. You can get a standard American burger with the lettuce, tomatoes, etc., but their forte is the mashup of Asian influences.
It starts with their housemade kalbi aoli, a mix (we're guessing) of mayo and Korean barbecue marinade. It's on Kalbi's eponymous burger, a combo of rib and ground chuck, according to the menu (though it's hard to tell), with romaine lettuce, tomato, red onions and a hint of tart-sweet “Korean vinaigrette” that amps up the aoli.
The Saigon burger is our favorite of Kalbi's fusion burgers. It may be about as traditionally Vietnamese as the food at Red Medicine, but it's a small, original twist — and it's good. The crisp slivers of pickled carrots and daikon radish, spiked with a sprinkling of cilantro, all drip with the house aoli, a sweet sauce that pairs well with beef.
Among their fusion burgers, the Seoul burger is the least compelling, mainly because of how the kimchi, which doesn't have much kick to begin with, instantly grows (more) limpid on top of a hot burger, congealing unappetizingly into the slice of American cheese and puddling around in Thousand Island dressing. A sharper kimchi and better condiment placement could transform this burger into a real winner. That and the elimination of the Thousand Island dressing, which dampens some of the kimchi's flavor.
Sides: The fries are standard issue: pre-cut, mid-size, frozen and dunked in hot oil. They're totally acceptable but nothing to write home about. When Kalbi tries to get fancy, it's a disaster. Their sea salt and vinegar fries are a sour, mushy pile of formerly edible potatoes covered in so much salt it's mouth-puckeringly painful.
Dessert: A while back, Kalbi began serving Coolhaus ice cream sandwiches for $4.56 each. Hallelujah! We think the Sir Francis Candied Bacon made with buttery-sweet bacon ice cream between chocolate chip cookies is a perfect topper for pretty much any of the burgers.
The Upshot: The Saigon and the Kalbi are the two best burgers. If you want a side, get regular fries. Avoid the sea salt and vinegar fries like the plague. Save room for a Coolhaus ice cream sandwich for dessert.
Exercise: 100 situps (hands behind head), 40 seated shoulder presses (15# dumbells), 40 weighted lunges (15# dumbells), 60-min. spinning class.