Dancing with the devil

Happy hamburger month!

As many of you know, ever since last May — when Kenley’s favorite burger joint (Five Guys) opened its first Los Angeles location, invading the home turf of the legendary In-N-Out — we have become thoroughly caught up in the debate over the best burger in L.A. It’s a heated argument that everyone here has a strong opinion about.

Never ones to take other people’s words on such important matters, we set out to research as many burgers as we could. It’s a journey that a lot of others have taken, but it has been a fun way to explore our still-new city.

One Friday night recently after a long week at work, we were looking for a laid-back, inexpensive spot where we could watch the Clippers game. We wound up at The Shack in Playa del Rey,  a dive bar that is home to the “World Famous Shack Cheeseburger” — served with a “spicy, Louisiana sausage link” on top.

Playa del Rey, which is south of Venice Beach and northwest of LAX, has a high concentration of dive bars near the coast. My guess is that this has something to do with the proximity to the beach and Loyola Marymount University. My favorite dive bar on this strip is the Prince O’ Whales. (We haven’t tried the Whale burger yet.)

I’m guessing The Shack has been serving its cheeseburger since it opened in 1972, long before the more upscale pub and gourmet burgers invaded. (In-N-Out and Apple Pan might be the exceptions.) The Shack burger is the only dive-bar burger we’ve tried in L.A., and it definitely wasn’t intended to compete with the likes of Father’s Office or Umami.

The burger wasn’t bad, by any means. A good, solid bar burger. But the spicy sausage link — which I assume was Andouille — was really the only thing that set this burger apart. It could have been much better.

That said, The Shack is the type of place you go where no one cares whether the beef is grass-fed or what type of pork product is on the burger. You’ll find a bunch of regulars who just want to drink a few relatively cheap beers with their meals. It’s totally unpretentious and feels miles away from L.A. — until, of course, the karaoke host shows up. Like everywhere else in L.A., The Shack is serious about its karaoke.

I bet this place can get rowdy on a Saturday evening when the surfers and sunbathers come in from a day on the beach. We’ve also been to the slightly more upscale location in Santa Monica. That version of The Shack is also a fun, divey bar to grab drinks and watch the game, but it has a less beachy vibe.

That same weekend, we also tried 26 Beach in Venice. Like The Shack, 26 Beach has been serving burgers long before many of the other places we’ve tried. The chef hasn’t been on any reality TV shows, and it doesn’t make the top of most respected food writers’ lists.

But, whenever I’ve read such a list of the best burgers in L.A., some commenter always asks: “What about 26 Beach?”

All it took was word from a co-worker that 26 Beach has a peanut-butter-and-jelly burger, and I knew we had to check it out.

Peanut butter and hamburgers are Kenley’s two favorite foods of all time.

26 Beach is an eclectic neighborhood restaurant. The eatery itself has white tablecloths, but the sun room is decorated like a French country garden, with funky chandeliers, mismatched wrought-iron chairs and wooden benches. There’s a mural of a garden covering a brick wall, and the roof is retractable.

26 Beach offers much more than hamburgers on its menu, but on your first visit the burgers are hard to resist. An entire section of the menu is devoted to hamburgers, including 27 creations that range from $12 to $19.

The restaurant is known for its sushi burgers.

So naturally I ordered the Yuki’s Spicy Tuna Burger. I was expecting a tuna steak, but what I got was so much better: a hamburger with chopped ahi tuna, green onions, ginger, lettuce, tomato and wasabi mayo piled on top. It was peppery and full of flavor, somewhat similar to the Asian-influenced Fukuburger, which also has wasabi mayo. But those burgers couldn’t match the combination of textures and flavors found in 26 Beach’s creation, which has the tuna and ginger on top.

Kenley ordered  the P B & J burger. Yep … creamy Skippy’s peanut butter and Knott’s Berry strawberry jam on top of a burger.

This was by far the most over-the-top burger we’ve tried so far. The peanut butter was warm and oozing out the sides. My sweet tooth would have liked a little more jelly to cut the richness of the beef and saltiness of the peanut butter.

The combination of two of Kenley’s favorite things on the planet pushed him to the edge. About halfway through the meal, he paused and said:

“This might be my wall. This might be my turning point. This is ridiculous. I can’t keep this up.”

After some more reflection he added: “I am dancing with the devil … and he tastes like peanut butter!”

I’ve lost track, but I think that was close to hamburger No. 17 for us over the past year in Los Angeles. We’ve had three others since then. Heck, we even found another one with peanut butter: the Dee Snider burger from the Grill ‘Em All food truck has peanut butter, jelly, bacon and Sriracha sauce. But we didn’t dare try it, lest the devil (or Dee Snider) win. (The post about what we did try from the Grill ‘Em All truck is coming before National Hamburger Day on May 28.)

FYI, 26 Beach also does the same over-the-top treatment to french toast for brunch, offering 19 varieties. I can’t wait to go back to try the Reese’s Pieces French Toast. Now that’s sinful!


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