A year in burgers: How they all stacked up

Twelve months. Almost 24 burgers.

After our East Coast favorite Five Guys Burgers and Fries invaded the land of In-N-Out at the end of April 2011, my husband, Kenley, and I set out to discover for ourselves what indeed is the best burger in town.

We tried five burgers that first month. (You can read about our first take in I can has cheezburger?) We got serious about documenting our journey in January after we celebrated our wedding anniversary weekend by trying two fancy-pants burgers.

We don’t claim to be culinary experts, but we know what tastes good, have strong convictions and have been known to be stubborn — maybe a little obsessive. So in honor of National Hamburger Month (which officially ended on May 31), here’s a list of the burgers we have tried, what we liked about them and how we’d rank them.

In order to conquer the list and not rank a food truck with a top chef, we divided the burgers we tried into four categories based on “A Hamburger Today’s” Guide to Hamburger Styles: Fast-food-style burgers, pub burgers, fancy-pants burgers and extreme burgers. There’s a poll with each category so you can let us know whether you agree and suggest other places we should try. The map at the top of the page shows you where we’ve been so far. (You can probably tell we have a West Side bias, but we’re willing to travel for the promise of a good burger.)


8. Fatburger: Founded in Los Angeles in 1947 (one of two burgers on our list that predates In-N-Out), this chain falls short compared with other fast-food chains such as In-N-Out and Five Guys. It’s cooked fresh, and the house relish is certainly a distinctive take. But nothing to write home (or a blog) about.

7. Habit Burger: Founded in Santa Barbara, it’s a few steps above Fatburger, but there’s not much to set the burger apart from the stiff competition in this category. However, it is a cheaper option than many of the others on this list. A satisfying choice.

6. Apple Pan: Best old-fashioned burger. It offers the experience of the ’50s-era diner (it actually opened in 1947), where you wait along the walls for a stool to become available at the U-shaped counter. Grandfatherly types wearing white paper hats take your order. It’s worth at least one trip. You can choose between a steak burger, which comes with a trademark relish, and a hickory burger, which comes with a hickory sauce. And, of course, there’s apple pie. More than 60 years later, this establishment still gets some people’s votes for one of the best burgers in Los Angeles. I think those voters are motivated more by a sense of nostalgia than a sense of taste, but sometimes that’s OK.

5. Baby’s Badass Burgers: Sexiest burger. This was our first food-truck cheeseburger, and the burgers (with names like “All-American Girl,” “She’s Smokin'” and “Cougar”) were surprisingly thick and juicy. Of course, the whole babes-in-stilettos-serving-up-beefy-burgers thing might have swayed Kenley. But the sweet-potato fries always get bonus points from me. But be warned that even though you order from a truck, these babes have expensive tastes, and they are some of the priciest burgers in the fast-food-style category. (Read about our first impression in Just keep truckin’ on.)

4. Pier Burger: Best burger with a view. Kenley and I recently discovered this place, which opened in October on the touristy Santa Monica Pier. Maybe the salty sea air got to our heads, but this is a really good fast-food burger. The soft bun and melted cheese go together perfectly. “The beauty of it is its simplicity,” Kenley says. Pier Burger also offers hot dogs and a sea-bass sandwich. The California favorite Arnold Palmer (half tea, half lemonade) is on the menu, and there are “concretes,” which are thick, custard-based shakes. One warning: They charge for drink refills.

3. In-N-Out Burger: Best cult classic and best toppings. OK, this is where our ranking gets ugly because you’ll notice our East Coast bias starts to show. California’s beloved In-N-Out Burger notches only a No. 3 ranking? Yes, but Kenley calls it a respectable showing. Many California burgers, even many of the fancy-pants kind, are influenced by In-N-Out Burger. What makes it so good? The toppings are fresh, the bun is toasted, the medium-well patty is crispy around the edges, and there’s the not-so-secret menu (The grilled cheese is really good). In-N-Out’s glaring weakness? Its fries. Order them “well” or animal style (with melted cheese, special sauce and grilled onions), or get a black and white (chocolate mixed with vanilla) milkshake instead. (Read our first impression in The Real Housewife of Bentley Avenue.)

2. Five Guys Burgers and Fries: Best fries. This is one of two burger joints included on our list that does not have roots in Southern California. But we allowed it because it’s what launched us on our mission to find the best burger. Because it’s not a native, I would be OK with ceding the No. 2 ranking in this category to In-N-Out. But Kenley is holding out. The East Coast favorite has expanded aggressively in the land of In-N-Out, with almost 70 locations in California in the past four years. And there’s still something deeply satisfying about a Five Guys burger — the soft bun, the large, flavorful patty. There are many toppings to choose from, including mushrooms, green peppers and (Kenley’s favorite) A1 Sauce. But I like my little cheeseburger with only ketchup. At Five Guys, you can eat peanuts from the shell while you wait for your burger, and the Cajun-style, hand-cut fries really can’t be matched. Kenley believes the best order of fries he’s ever had came from Five Guys. They come in a brown paper bag, and you can see the grease soaking through. There are no health claims here. If Five Guys has a weakness, it’s the lack of milkshakes. Actually, it’s the lack of any dessert options whatsoever. Points for In-N-Out there. (Read the entry on the I can has cheezburger? site about what happened when Five Guys opened its first restaurant in Los Angeles last year.)

1. Hole in the Wall Burger Joint: Best bun, best bang for your buck. (They call themselves “The working man’s gourmet burger,” as burgers are $8.95 and fries are $2.75, cash only.) There really isn’t much more than a counter where you place your order, plus a patio with maybe a dozen tables tucked behind a strip mall off Santa Monica Boulevard (there’s a second location in West Hollywood). You fill out an order form, choosing your protein (there are turkey, chicken and veggie options), your bread (do yourself a favor and choose the pretzel bun), your spread, your cheese and your toppings. Get the mustard pickle relish even if you don’t think you like relish (even Kenley liked it). Bacon, avocado and a fried egg cost extra. They also have sweet-potato fries and homemade ketchup! The burgers are thick, juicy and full of flavor, and truly taste like they belong in a higher tax bracket. Kenley’s reaction: “Wow, I was not expecting that.” Now that we’ve discovered it, I bet this is a place we’ll return to often.

(We loosely defined pub burger as a beefier burger at a sit-down restaurant that has a bar, but one that is still moderately priced — less than $15.)

8. The Counter: Best variety. I like The Counter concept for building your own burger, as well as the variety of meat, toppings, buns and sauces offered. I like dried cranberries and gruyere or softened brie on top of my burger. I have found the turkey burger can be a bit dry, so choose your toppings accordingly. But the veggie burger is one of the best I’ve had. The Counter also offers seasonal market selections, such as crab cakes. The sweet-potato fries are really good, they offer fun milkshake flavors, and there’s a bar!

7. Umami Burger: Best concept. These burgers were created to maximize umami, the so-called fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty and bitter.) Some describe umami as “savory,” but it also seems to add a rich flavor to foods. Umami-rich foods include beef, pork, tomatoes, soy sauce, shiitake mushrooms, truffles, Parmesan cheese, sweet potatoes — things often paired with burgers. The Umami burger was one of the first burgers we tried in L.A., and I had high expectations. But I said at the time that the umami flavor seemed too rich and overpowering for my palate. However, two of our top-rated burgers also are very rich in flavor, so I am eager to give Umami another try. I also wasn’t a fan of the Parmesan crisp that topped my burger. I prefer my cheese melted, but there are options with different types of cheese. Umami also is known for its homemade ketchup. The mini-chain, which calls itself fine-dining fast food, is rapidly expanding in Southern California. Since last year, owner Adam Fleischman has opened the Umamicatessen downtown, which features the burgers as well as deli sandwiches and gourmet doughnuts! There’s also a flagship Umami burger restaurant coming soon to The Grove shopping complex, not far from potential rival Short Order, mentioned below. (Read about our first impression in I can has cheezburger?)

6. Short Order: Best fried potatoes, best milkshakes. Short Order opened in November after much anticipation. The casual, open-air restaurant at The Original Farmers Market at The Grove outdoor shopping center is brought to you by chef Nancy Silverton, who owns the upscale Italian restaurant Osteria Mozza and its more casual sibling, Pizzeria Mozza. Short Order features local and sustainable meats, produce and dairy products. A slogan on Short Order’s cups reads, “Sloppy good burger,” and the phrase is quite accurate. The buns, which are made at Silverton’s La Brea Bakery, held up to the juicy burger, but the juices still drenched the paper wrapping and made for a messy experience. The “handmade,” organic pickles were thick, crunchy and added to the taste of the burger, unlike those limp, tasteless ones that just make the bun soggy. The grass-fed beef patty was big and juicy, but not as flavorful as others we’ve tried. While the burger was a bit bland, the perfectly fried potato wedges served with sour-cream dipping sauce (and bacon crumbled inside) topped all other fried potatoes we tried. And for my sweet tooth, there are custard shakes inspired by famed New York burger institution Shake Shack (these shakes are better than the ones at Pier Burger). And if all that isn’t enough, just around the corner in The Farmers Market is Short Order’s sister restaurant, Short Cake, which features cookies and other confections. (Read our first impression of Short Order in Order’s Up.)

5. Blue Cow Kitchen & Bar: Best patty. Blue Cow, which opened downtown in February, is a relatively new entry into the burger debate. The restaurant is actually more of a gastropub/deli than a burger joint and serves as a testing kitchen for Mendocino Farms sandwich shops. There’s only one burger on the menu, but it has one of the best patties. The ground beef blend is definitely the most flavorful and peppery, without being too rich. There’s no heavy sauce, the lettuce and tomatoes are fresh, and the baked-then-fried potatoes rank in the top three in the spuds category (Short Order, Blue Cow and Five Guys). I should note that at $14 not including the cheese, this is one of the most expensive burgers in its category. For dessert, we had a coconut marshmallow ice cream sandwich made with two chocolate brownie cookies. (Read our first impression of the Blue Cow burger in Eat Happy.)

4. Plan Check: Best newcomer. Former Umami executive chef Ernesto Uchimura opened Plan Check in February. The restaurant has a great laid-back, industrial vibe, a long bar and a big patio on a funky street known as Little Osaka. Plan Check offers innovative burger toppings such as ketchup leather (a dried ketchup layer that resembles a cheese slice) and pig candy (sugary bacon). I’m not usually a huge pickle fan, but their homemade pickles were delicious — a  little sweet and not too vinegary. Even Kenley ate his pickles here. The burgers are served on mini-cast-iron skillets and have lots of flavors that blend well together. My only complaint is that they seemed a little small compared with other burgers in this category. I wanted to try the veggie chips, but we got the fries with fresh ketchup instead. Plan Check also has my sweet tooth covered: We had a cereal ice cream bar from Milk! (a sandwich shop and ice cream parlor near 3rd Street that I have added to our must-try-soon list.) Plan Check also offers doughnuts, which have received rave reviews. Plan Check is likely to become a favorite go-to restaurant for happy hour and a casual dinner.


3. Fuku Burger: Best fusion and most irreverent. Fuku Burger is a popular Vegas food truck that decided to put down roots in L.A. with its first bricks-and-mortar storefront, which opened in December. Fuku might sound vulgar, and the restaurant has plenty of fun marketing the name, but it actually means “lucky” in Japanese. The burgers have an Asian influence in the form of wasabi mayonnaise, pickled onions, picked ginger and teriyaki sauce, depending on which burger you order. While the decor is loud, the Asian influence is surprisingly subtle — and just right. The flavors and textures mingle to offer a spicy dish, but one that is still satisfying as a good ol’ burger. The “jazz fries,” which come topped with gravy and “crack sauce,” are a must-try. Plus, you can get sake with your burger! (Editor’s note: There was some debate in the Young household about where Fuku Burger belonged on our list. I might rank it as No. 4 or No. 5 in this category, while Kenley says it could be a No. 2 pick. So I settled in the middle. You could also make an argument that it belongs in the “extreme burger” category. But Fuku Burger isn’t the type of burger you have only once just to say you did. You’ll want to have this burger again.) Read our first impressions in Go Fuku Burger.

2. The Lazy Ox Canteen: Best traditional pub burger. The Lazy Ox burger has been ranked by some as the best in town, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. The patty is thick, juicy and has a nice, balanced flavor — not too rich, not too peppery, but not bland either. And it doesn’t seem to be too heavily influenced by other burgers in town. It’s served with cantal cheese (it’s a French variety) and whole-grain mustard. My sweet tooth was satisfied with chocolate pate accompanied by a caramel and almond cookie, which tasted like a chocolate brownie creme brulee. While the interior of Lazy Ox feels like a gastropub, the menu leans more toward fine-dining fare, and the $14 burger could compete with any in our “fancy-pants” category. And there’s a reason for that. The executive chef, Perfecto Rocher, apprenticed under legendary El Bulli chef Ferran Adria. (Until its closure last year, El Bulli was widely considered the best restaurant in the world.) I’d like to go back to Lazy Ox for brunch and to try other items on the normal menu.

1. Father’s Office: Best game-changing burger. Even Kenley (who puts ketchup on his ketchup) agrees that this is the burger you have to beat in L.A. if you want to claim the title of “best in show.” At Father’s Office, a gastropub with locations in Culver City and Santa Monica, you’ll take the burger the way they make it (with caramelized onions, applewood bacon, gruyere, maytag blue cheese and arugula), and it will probably change your life. The flavors complement each other perfectly, none overpowering the others, for an extremely rich, slightly sweet burger. There are no substitutions and not a drop of ketchup in the house. Fries are served with garlic aioli sauce, and they have sweet-potato fries, too. The Culver City location is always crowded. You order your food at the bar, and you’re on your own to find a table. Best time to go is as soon as the place opens at 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, or on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when it’s open for lunch. There’s a large patio with communal tables, which are always packed. The bartenders are extremely knowledgeable about the craft beers they serve and seem willing to help even when they’re busy. They also have seasonal beer floats!

(Often found at upscale restaurants with full menus that include one burger. The tab for the burger could top $20.)

4. Stefan’s at L.A. Farm: Most rebellious. Most expensive. We didn’t go to Stefan’s at L.A. Farm for the burger, but Kenley couldn’t resist when he saw the open-faced burger topped with brie, blue-cheese dressing, arugula and an egg with foie gras on the side. Chef Stefan Richter was the cocky, bald-headed runner-up on Season 5 of “Top Chef.” I really liked the cozy ambiance of the restaurant, and my scallops were delicious. But the burger proved too heavy and tough for Kenley. Still, he got to try it before California bans foie gras from chefs’ tables on July 1 (Geese or ducks are often force-fed to fatten their livers. Animal-rights activists and others say the practice is inhumane. Many top chefs say the birds can be hand-fed and that there are other examples of food preparation that are even more inhumane). We’ll go back to Stefan’s at L.A. Farm, but not for the $23 burger. (Read our first impression in She’s making a list.)

3. Comme Ca: Most romantic. I wanted to love the Comme Ca burger. Really I did. It’s a stylish French bistro down Melrose Avenue from chic, high-end designer stores, and Kenley and I went there to celebrate our anniversary — and to try what The New York Times called “the perfect burger.” Chef David Myers studied under renowned chef Daniel Boulud, whom The Times credits with starting the “gourmet burger” craze. I loved the sophisticated presentation of the burger, with the frites served in a silver cup. The burger itself is simple, with Vermont cheddar on top. But, alas, it was not love at first bite. This time, burger, it was you, not me. And you were far too dry. If you get what you pay for, one of the most expensive burgers on our list at $18 should have been so much better. So, I still want to see other burgers. However, I’m willing to give Comme Ca a second chance. I’d like to go back for brunch or to the location in the sexy Cosmopolitan casino in Las Vegas. Who doesn’t want to like a place where it’s acceptable — even encouraged — to order Champagne or Bordeaux with your burger? (Read our first impression in Married to burgers.)

2. The Hungry Cat: Biggest surprise. We went to The Hungry Cat’s Santa Monica location searching for good seafood near the beach and instead found a burger that can easily compete with the best in the city. (My peel-and-eat shrimp were good, too.) Later, I found that others have indeed ranked The Hungry Cat burger as one of the best. It’s served with blue cheese, avocado and bacon. (Many foodstuffs in California are topped with avocado.) You also can get an egg on top. Check out that buttery, biscuitlike bun (reportedly also from Silverton’s La Brea Bakery) and that thick-cut bacon! My only complaint about the restaurant has nothing to do with the burger — I wanted The Hungry Cat to have more outdoor seating with a better view of the ocean. There’s also a location in Hollywood.

1. Rustic Canyon: Most classy, best traditional burger. The burgers here are served with cheddar, onion fondue, pickles and herb remoulade. They are big, rich, juicy and flavorful. Ketchup is served on the side with the fries, and that simple condiment alone could set this burger apart from its main competition at Father’s Office, which notoriously doesn’t have a drop of ketchup in the house. It’s an unpretentious burger with few unnecessary trappings, and it comes within striking distance of Father’s Office. This burger stands on its own, though. (Read about our first impression in Married to burgers.)

3. The Shack: Best use of sausage. I would argue this is more along the lines of a fast-food-style burger that happens to have a spicy sausage on top, but Kenley says the sausage makes it extreme. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a sausage on top of a burger. But, in this case, the burger itself is inferior. Still, it’s a good place to grab a beer near the beach, and the sausage is hot and spicy. (Read our first impression in Dancing with the devil.)

2. Grill ‘Em All: Best food-truck burger. This food truck — named after Metallica’s legendary breakout record “Kill ‘Em All” — won the first season of “The Great Food Truck Race” on The Food Channel. The truck is decorated with a Metallica-like logo and has plays on lyrics such as “Take it to the face” and “Death to false food trucks.” Extreme? Definitely. The first time we found the Grill ‘Em All truck, it sold out before we could order. So when the truck parked at the Westside Food Truck Central lot, I made sure we got there early. I ordered the Blue Cheer burger (named after one of the first heavy-metal bands), which is topped with blue cheese, cranberry gastrique and Munchos potato chips. Kenley ordered the Witte (named after a heavy-metal drummer), which is topped with cream cheese, deep-fried bacon, beer-Sriracha onions and malt-vinegar aioli. Deep-fried bacon? Pretty extreme. And good. It’s thick and tastes extra crispy. The burgers themselves were flavorful, and the toppings added more than distracted from the overall experience. The Grill ‘Em All truck also has a limited (and unadvertised) supply of cheese-filled tater tots. Next time Kenley and I are going to tackle the Dee Snider burger: peanut butter, jelly, bacon and Sriracha. Now that’s extreme!

1. 26 Beach: Most creative. Whenever I’ve read a list of best burgers in L.A., some commenter always asks: “What about 26 Beach?” It’s definitely a place that any burger lover should try. An entire section of the menu is devoted to hamburgers, including 27 creations that range from $12 to $19. The restaurant is particularly known for its sushi burgers. I ordered the Yuki’s Spicy Tuna Burger: 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 Fuku Burger, 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. After trying the burger (which combines two of Kenley’s favorite things in the world: burgers and peanut butter), he 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, Kenley added: “I am dancing with the devil … and he tastes like peanut butter!” (Read our first impression in Dancing with the devil.”


4 thoughts on “A year in burgers: How they all stacked up

  1. despite visiting Blue Cow more than a handful of times, I hesitated on the $17 (!!!!) burger time and again. Thanks for that positive note, we will give it a go next time.

    Also, I don’t see 25 Degrees here. I like it more than FO’s, simply because it isn’t so dang sweet, and it’s nearly as beefy.

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