Village Burger — Atwater Village Tavern, Los Angeles

atwaterburgerI the the hamburger is a problematic form, and as I’ve expressed before there’s something about it that encourages the worst sorts of excess. There are a good many people in this world who think that a hamburger isn’t finished until you’ve piled short ribs on top, and if you’ve gone that far you might as well wrap them in bacon and roll them in a mac & cheese crust. Not all hamburgers fall prey to these bizarre instincts, though, and the burger at Atwater Village Tavern is a good example of how one can do something that isn’t the standard lettuce-tomato-onion setup without losing one’s head. It’s angus beef, very lightly dressed coleslaw, processed avocado and a bit of pico de gallo on a sesame seed bun. It’s a good lineup of flavors, it’s not quite what you’d expect, and the fresh slaw and the sesame seed bun bring a nice textural contrast to things. All in all, a fine hamburger.

True Burger, Los Angeles, CA

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I’ve taken issue with hamburgers before, because I believe the form encourages excess which only in very rare instances actually excells. But I still go in for one from time to time, largely because the ideal of a hamburger is strong, and when someone makes one with that ideal in mind the result is often really quite good. Take the above burger: white cheddar, roasted tomato, fried onions, spring mix, bacon jam, ketchup and ginger mustard. As a lineup, that’s just a basic bacon cheeseburger. But each ingredient has been carefully considered and slightly upgraded: the onions extra crunchy, the tomato a bit sweeter for the roasting, the bacon relatively unobtrusive in jam form. There’s one apparent misstep and one actual one, and both are worth discussing. The bun looks large and likely to send half the burger out of the side, but it was soft and juice-absorbing and the whole thing held together without any issue. The spring mix looks sparse, and it was. I generally do not care for lettuce as an afterthought; if you think it’s worth having on the burger then put it on the burger. Burgers are generally quite rich, and can easily support an echo of richness in a respectable amount of lettuce. Regardless of the error with the spring mix this was a very, very good burger and a fine example of the form’s higher end.

Lamb Burger – Alcove, Hillhurst Ave, Los Feliz

alcove-lambburgerThe lamb burger at Alcove is a fairly straightforward affair, ground lamb, kalmata olives, herbs, goat cheese and an olive tapenade. It also includes a ramekin full of mayo and whole-grain mustard, which I found benefited the burger to a good degree. A lamb burger is sort of a pass/fail enterprise, where you’ve either done things right and it’s a flavorful, herbal affair, or you’ve overdone it and it’s tough and bland. The folks at Alcove get it right, and the olive/goat cheese/olive combination is a bold affair but one that works.

This was good, but I couldn’t help but wonder something that raises a larger question about hamburgers: Would this have been better as a lamb sandwich? There’s no specific need for this to be a burger (over, say, roasted and slice or shredded) other than ease of preparation. I sympathize with the establishment on that front, but ultimately this is On Sandwiches, and not On Efficiency. I’m after the Best Possible, and I’m not sure that’s what I got.

Jack in the Box Sirloin Swiss & Grilled Onion Burger – Slummin’ It

jackintheboxsirloinswissThough I dearly hope that On Sandwiches stands as the home of the world’s finest sandwich discourse, there are other places on the internet that discuss sandwiches. One of them is The Dwichtorialist, a French operation that features a variety of creations that intrigue and inspire. Imagine my delight when the proprietor of that site made their way stateside and sampled a few of our wares. Everything seemed swell when Umami Burger rated a nine out of 10, but a recent post on Jack in the Box had me more than puzzled. Having tried the sirloin Swiss and grilled onion burger, The Dwitchtorialist rated it an eight out of 10.

I’ve eaten at Jack in the Box. When in the right state, I’ve even found it quite enjoyable. But eight out of 10? I had to investigate. Wouldn’t it be a delight, if Jack in the Box had a burger that was capable of standing with the best? It would, friends, but it isn’t. The burger actually isn’t bad. It suffers from the same thing that hamstrings all fast food patties thicker than average, namely having been cooked dry all the way through. There’s a mayonnaise involved to compensate, and it has a nice peppery bite to it. That’s about where the fun ends, though. The grilled onions are sparse, and fail to bring the sweet notes one would expect. The Swiss is that thin strip you see nestled below the pickles, and the taste is about as strong as the sight. Like most fast food there’s more than a little salt, and overall it..it was a fast food burger. As one would expect, I suppose, but I had my hopes up.

It seems to me that this demonstrates the limits of criticism, to a certain extent. I cannot try the Jack in the Box burger as anyone but myself, a denizen of America, a man who has eaten his fair share of American fast food. Consider it a wall of context, one which genuinely can’t be torn down. And that’s so much the pity, given that on the other side of this wall a Jack in the Box hamburger is an eight out of 10.

The Rossini – Burger Bar, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

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I have spoken of the Rossini before. Not just spoken; I have praised, and done so at length. In my previous review I talked about Rossini himself, about why one might name a $60 hamburger after him, about what that says about him or about us. Having now had the hamburger a second time, all of that still stands. Perhaps even more emphatically. But this time I just want to talk about the burger.

Heading to Las Vegas recently, I knew I would return to the Burger Bar and eat the Rossini. That was never in question, but I did have my doubts if it was going to be as good as I hoped. I remembered it being very, very good, and given that memories often shine solely through the polish of nostalgia, I wondered if I might end up disappointed.

As it turned out, I had nothing to fear. Sweet mercy, is this ever a good hamburger. I took my time eating it, trying to stay mindful of every second, to engage it in communion. I spent time just smelling it, as I find that people do not smell their food as often as they could. It looks odd, but a meal only has so many bites, it has a nearly infinite number of molecules. Next time you’re really enjoying something, stop and smell it. I did, and it made no small difference. And oh, what scent there was to savor! The burger remains as simple as ever: wagyu beef, seared foie gras, and black truffles, served with a brown sauce. Each of those things are delicious in their own right, and what struck me most about the burger was how well they all come together. There are countless flavor profiles that work well together, but very few actually meld, presenting one unified flavor of an almost indescribable depth. There is not a tremendous range to it, there are few sweet notes and nothing really of spice, it is just richness. It is savory, incredible richness, and it is astoundingly good.

My associates each sampled the burger, so that I might confirm that this is not just me. Several of them agreed with me on how delicious it was but speculated they would be unable to consume an entire burger. That’s almost surprising to me, because if you look at the photo you’ll note that there really isn’t much foie gras and there aren’t many bits of truffle. This makes the Rossini stand out among upscale hamburgers, especially those in Las Vegas. It’s not a towering achievement, but it isn’t a modest one either. It’s a confident one, a hamburger aware of how strong its strengths are, knowing that it need not pile up what it contributes. It is at once expansive but not unrestrained, and this is a difficult balance for any sandwich to achieve, let alone one playing with foie gras and truffles and brown sauce.

The pictures I have taken do not do it justice, both in this post and certainly in the previous one. That is a testament to both my meager skill and the perma-dusk that grips every casino, and I hope you will not let that dissuade you from trying the burger, should you ever have the chance. It is a wonderful, wonderful hamburger, and I can’t recommend it enough.