One Man’s Burger Odyssey, Pt. II

I kept on, cautioned by friends and urged by disbelievers. There would be time for salads later — roasted fall mushrooms and winter vegetables were just around the corner. For now, there were burgers to taste.

Howard's Famous Bacon & Avocado Burgers

The latest trend here in Los Angeles — and lord knows we love our trends — is Umami Burger. First coined in 1908 by a Japanese scientist, “umami” — the “fifth taste,” i.e. savory — has become a bit of a buzzword in food circles over the past decade. So it was only a matter of time before some enterprising businessman (not chef) found a way to capitalize on it. Springing up virtually out of nowhere, there are now three Umami Burgers in L.A. with more to come. “Have you been to Umami Burger?” the trend followers will say, watching your face for a validating smile or nod. Yes, I’ve been to Umami Burger, and how are the burgers? They’re rather small, and have a cute “U” baked onto the top of the bun. You’re paying for that. I ordered the Umami Burger. The idea that you could put together three umami-rich ingredients — kombu seaweed, parmesan and shitake mushrooms — and create some sort of flavor revolution is silly. It wasn’t bad. But I would’ve rather saved the extra $8 per burger and gotten a bigger, tastier burger at In & Out or Fatburger (both loaded with “umami,” by the way). I did like the way they had crisped up the meat, though, and still kept it beautifully medium rare inside. I’d like to learn than technique.

At the other end of the see-and-be-seen spectrum is Howard’s Famous Bacon & Avocado Burger, which appears to have been collapsing inward into its Venice Boulevard minimall location since the dawn of time. I’d driven by it a million times, and had never heard a thing about it. But anywhere with “Famous,” “Burger” and “Bacon” all in the same title warrants a visit. Besides a couple melancholy Hispanic cooks and a large blonde European lady behind the counter, I was the only one in Howard’s when I arrived. I ordered the “famous” burger, always the best tact in a place you’ve never been before. While I was waiting, a few more people came in — an Eastside-type hipster with Elvis Costello glasses and a porkpie hat; a skinny black dude with a buxom Mexican girl; a portly guy with a goatee who addressed the large blonde as “sweetie.” Then my burger arrived. It looked flaccid and leaned to one side, sort of like the building itself. It had a thin grilled patty, some avocado, bacon, mayo. It wasn’t bad, and was probably the buzz when it debuted in 1971. But time and taste had passed it by. The place did have a blue collar quality I kinda liked. A tattooed couple came in just as I was leaving. “We just got married!” the woman announced to the large Euroblonde, who replied: “You’re beginning a long path.” I guess the folks at Howard’s would know.

Across the street from a design firm that I work with is a hole-in-the-wall kitchen space that used to sell cupcakes, but abandoned that fading trend for the promise of the burger zeitgeist. Appropriately named “Hole In the Wall Burger Joint,” it features boastful claims scrawled across the wall about its burgers. It has the now obligatory sweet potato fries, which I will never order again. I got a menu, but it had too many choices on it. It asked you to choose your protein, choose your spread, choose your bread… I could’ve made the right choices and probably had a reasonably decent meal. But I can do that at home. Plus they didn’t offer blue cheese. So I moved on.

I like anything with “Tavern” in the name. I can imagine myself centuries past, a rogue troubadour riding my horse across a darkened English countryside, following the beacon of a lone lantern to a tavern where an ale and leg of mutton is waiting. Maybe the owner will put me up in an extra room conveniently close to his daughter’s. Or at least in an empty horse stall with some hay and a sheep to cuddle. So anyway, when Sidekick Greg, a drinking-and-dining buddy and a trusted consultant in my burger enterprise, told me about someplace called Laurel Tavern, I added it to the itinerary. It had won, apparently, the title of “best burger” and a coveted cover shot on the local business-district magazine. I met Greg there on a Thursday afternoon. As a preamble to our burgers, fortified with tequila and beer, we ordered crispy skewers of pork belly and marrow bones. It would be a carnivorous evening. Laurel Tavern only makes four burgers, which is a good thing. We tried three of them: the “old school” burger (just ketchup), the hickory burger (some other stuff and hickory flavoring) and the blue cheese bacon burger. All were very good, none was a revelation. I think I liked the blue cheese bacon burger best — it’s hard to go wrong with that classic combination. Actually, I liked the pork belly skewers and marrow bones best.

*   *   *

Finally, I circle back around to where I began — L.A.’s best, cheap burger chains. And a funky little dive called Original Tommy’s (just “Tommy’s” to we So Cal natives). Open since 1946! No sweet potato fries. No chipotle spread. And this is one burger you’ll wanna eat in the car or when you get home, because there’s no ambience either. What to get? The double cheeseburger (or single cheeseburger, if you’re not man/woman enough). Tommy’s is all about the chili — it comes standard. Well, have a look:

The patty is made with 100% beef! And the only choice for cheese is “Real Cheese”. No gruyere or pepper jack. A real burger made with Real Cheese. How can you argue with that?

Next time: What I learned. And introducing the Skinny Girls Burger…

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 01:44:56

    You’re right…very strange video 😉


  2. Cookie
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 01:45:03

    Ever hit Juicy Burger in L.A.?


  3. Benjamin Thompson
    Sep 12, 2011 @ 19:07:38

    I think I’ve mentioned this before but my signature burger is what I make at home. I grind chuck roast fairly coarse and toss it lightly with fresh thyme, salt, and pepper. Then I make 6-8 oz. patties, as loosely formed as humanly possible, that are grilled or seared hard and fast to MR. Served on a buttered and griddled English muffin with caramelized onions and Brie, preferably Chateau Affinoix. A-fucking-mazing.


    • scolgin
      Sep 12, 2011 @ 19:12:14

      Man, that’s almost worth a trip to Chicago for! (Just heard we’ve got our family wine being poured at Topolobampo and Frontera Grill … the reasons to visit Chicago just keep piling up!)


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