Here's a riddle: Where do you take a meat-and-potatoes Midwestern father-in-law, an arugula-and–goat cheese sister-in-law and two mac 'n' cheese children? Answer: a burger joint with enough booze to get you through.
My choice for that? Short Order, a not-quite-year-old restaurant in the Original Farmers Market with a bittersweet backstory. The story of Short Order is the story of friendship, and dreams, starring Los Angeles' culinary royalty. It's a story of this city's enduring devotion to Americana — and the ultimate edible symbol of Americana, the hamburger.
Short Order was the passion project of Amy Pressman, a lifelong baker, former Spago assistant pastry chef under Nancy Silverton, and owner of Old Town Bakery in Pasadena. Silverton, along with restaurant mogul Bill Chait, agreed to back Pressman with her plans for the burger spot, as well as a sister bakery, Short Cake.
But Pressman passed away in September 2011, just three months before Short Order and Short Cake opened. Silverton, along with full-time executive chef Christian Page, stepped up her involvement. Silverton already has her hands full with the ever-growing Mozza empire, though, and it's hard to tell what influence she has on Short Order these days; the official line is that she's not there daily, but she's "heavily involved."
Built into the outside corner of the Original Farmers Market, Short Order is both modern and nostalgic, a sleek interpretation of the beach burger stand of your childhood. Downstairs, on the patio, bench tables sit between the kitchen and a glassed-in fireplace. Up the staircase, the rooftop deck feels cozy and nautical, with strung-up lights, wooden tables and a communal table with a fire pit in a glass box at its center.
The menu is aimed directly at grown-up children. There are things with ice cream, fried things and cheesy meaty things, all with a twist: booze in the milkshakes, truffle aioli with the fried potato chunks, arugula on the burgers. Or not, actually — there are dishes at Short Order that are just plain fat food. But mainly, it's a menu of big, buxom burgers.
As such, it's hard to complain. When faced with a giant hunk of meat and cheese between bread, what's not to love? Short Order has plenty of variation — griddled mushrooms and Morbier cheese on the Short Order burger; cheddar and pickles and tomatoes on the Ida's Old School burger; bacon, tomato, onions and avocado on Nancy's Backyard Burger. Except? Except, as juicy and filling and over the top as these burgers are, as much as they satisfy that part of you that just wants to fill your whole face with meat and grease, they fall short of burger heaven.
It's not that these aren't good burgers — they are. They're just not great burgers. The avocado on Nancy's Backyard Burger wasn't avocado at all but rather that green mush that sandwich chains these days pass off as avocado, or, if they're being slightly more honest, guacamole. Why? Why not use sliced avocado? This is a seriously sloppy burger as is; it doesn't need the added squish of avocado purée.
I also found many of the burgers to be too salty. Some of them were just straight over-salted; with others, the toppings were to blame. The lamb burger with feta falls into the latter category, the feta simply overpowering the other ingredients.
As you'd expect with Silverton's name attached, the bread is a highlight, from the burger buns to the pretzel rolls that come around the "pretzel pups," two fat hot dogs topped with sauerkraut. I found my favorite meat-and-grease fix not on the burger menu but with the patty melt, which is served on fantastic rye bread and topped with pimento cheese and griddled onion. The pimento cheese purist at my table squawked that the sloppy reddish stuff on the sandwich wasn't a true representation of pimento cheese, but in this instance I didn't care. It was sharp and cheesy and made for great, messy fun.
Also, Short Order may have the best turkey burger around. Turkey burgers are notoriously hard to keep moist, but Short Order's kitchen somehow avoids that problem and achieves a great, mellow burger, topped with melted celery, leeks, cheddar and mustardy mayo.
The veggie burger doesn't fare so well. It's basically a falafel in a burger bun: two chickpea patties with yogurt sauce, harissa and cucumber. But falafel needs more air around it, more sauce and crunch, and it goes better in a pita. Basically, falafel is better as falafel, and a veggie burger should be something else entirely.
And some of the sloppy fun veers into straight-up gloop. The mac 'n' cheese "raft" (a raft is like an open-face sandwich, all the better for piling stuff on top) is bread topped with a burger patty topped with a blanket of mac 'n' cheese. OK, fine, but why is the mac 'n' cheese kind of watery and floury at the same time? If you're going to do gross-out stoner food, it ought to be better than Velveeta shells and cheese. I'm afraid this wasn't.
On Tuesday nights, the kitchen offers a special made with produce from the weekly "certified farmers market" held at the Original Farmers Market. Recently, a special of quail with pesto over grilled veggies was upscale picnic food — simple, fresh, tasty. I also liked a vinegary bean salad that comes as a side, and wished for a few more nods to the plant-based food groups. But I suppose that's not really the point here.
One of Short Order's big draws is a serious drinks program to go with your burger and fries, as well as not-so-serious alcoholic milkshakes. That said, I have no idea who wants Apple Jack or Old Grand Dad 114 in their dessert shake, but one answer is: Not me. I found the boozy shakes to be both too strong and too sweet, the novelty not worth the actual experience of drinking the thing. (My kid's nonalcoholic chocolate malt was great, though.)
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Regular cocktails are far more appealing, especially the Hotel Nacional, a rum-and-pineapple drink that's summery but not too sweet. I had to try the Kitty Cocktail — a mix of Zinfandel, ginger, lime and seltzer — because it sounded so wrong. It tasted an awful lot like bubble bath, but unlike the "adult shake," I finished it. There's also a rotating list of craft beers on tap, and a wine list that far outshines what can be had at most burger spots.
There's no doubt Short Order is a lot of fun. The rooftop, which feels part designer tree house and part swanky ship deck, is a lovely place to sit on these summer evenings. And in any other town, the fantastic bread, interesting drinks and messy burger fun Short Order delivers might be a revelation.
But in Los Angeles, where Americana and burgers are integral to the city's identity, where many of the places that inspire Short Order's nostalgia are still going strong, it's hard to paint this as a must-try. Unless, of course, you have a mother-in-law to ply with alcoholic milkshakes. In that case, Short Order fulfills a very serious need.
SHORT ORDER | 6333 W. Third St., Stall 110 | (323) 761-7970 | shortorderla.com | Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. | Burgers $8-$15 | Full bar | Lot parking (free with validation)