When you write books about a made-up restaurant critic, sometimes you get the urge to channel her and do a bit of critiquing yourself. Which is why my husband Andy and I decided to fly to L.A. over Martin Luther King weekend and eat as many different hamburgers as we could.
This whole crazy idea came about last year, when I tagged along with Andy on a work trip to L.A. I put out a call online for restaurant recommendations, and ended up with a lot more recs for burger places than I would have expected. There wasn’t enough time to hit them on that first trip, but Andy and I vowed to come back and eat at as many as we could in an effort to find L.A.’s best burger. Our friends Katie and Jason, who live in L.A., immediately agreed to join us, and a quest was planned!
Andy (financial professional) & Tara (children’s author)
Jason (TV writer) & Katie (environmental communications expert)
In three days, we managed to hit nine places, running the gamut from humble fast food shack to high-end French bistro. I know that this doesn’t even begin to be comprehensive (I’m already compiling a list for next time!), but it made for a decent sampling.
So without further ado, here’s where we went and what we ate!
Stop #1: Hole in the Wall, Santa Monica
Burger base price: $8.95
Hole in the Wall is a cute little fast-casual place with a decent-sized outdoor patio.
(And a mission statement!)
You order using a handy checklist. Andy and I kept things pretty basic, though we did go for the pretzel bun and the cranberry mayo, which sounded like the most fun of the spread choices provided. Katie and Jason got cheese on their burger, and tried the mustard pickle relish.
Meat: I found the meat to be juicy, and Katie said hers had “solid char.” Andy thought the meat was on the mushy side. Quoth Jason: “It was good. I liked it.”
Bun: Everyone loved the pretzel bun, though Katie said the bottom of hers got a little soggy and that the cheese was poorly distributed.
Condiments & toppings: Andy and I found the cranberry mayo to be lacking in flavor, even when eaten on its own without a bite of meat. Katie and Jason gave the mustard relish a big thumbs up, though. The lettuce and tomato were fresh enough, though no one found them remarkable.
Worth mentioning: The fries were solid–worth ordering. Also, Hole in the Wall had a great assortment of shake flavors (including peanut butter and malt), which, sadly, we did not try. But they also has a fridge full of awesome-sounding soda flavors, including Shirley Temple soda, Cheerwine, and various cream sodas. I just had to get the praline cream soda from Louisiana. It was a little scarily sweet, but I appreciated the opportunity to try it.
Bottom line: We all gave Hole in the Wall a solid B for its burgers. We would return if we were in the neighborhood, though we probably wouldn’t drive across town just to go. The pretzel buns and fun beverage selection give it an edge.
Stop #2: The Apple Pan, West L.A.
Burger base price: $7.10
The only thing more adorable than the outside of The Apple Pan…
…is the inside of The Apple Pan! It’s just one giant counter (and in the middle of the afternoon, well past peak lunchtime, we had to wait for seats).
But while you wait, you can gaze into the back kitchen, where rows and rows of deep-dish apple pies wait to be cut up.
The menu features two “original” burgers–the Steakburger and the Hickoryburger–so we had to try both.
Meat: These are thinner, smaller burgers than most of the other entries out there. While no one found the steak burger remarkable, we all agreed that the hickory burger had excellent flavor.
Bun: No one was very impressed. Comments included “generic” and “not substantial enough for all the condiments.”
Condiments & toppings: The condiments were overwhelming, exploding out of the sandwich to make this our messiest burger-eating experience. The relish had an interesting flavor, but everyone agreed that there was way too much of it, and the delicious hickory burger was almost drowned in ketchup. As for the toppings, Andy said “I liked that there was half a head of iceberg in my burger. I could have taken the extra home to make a salad later.”
Worth mentioning: The beverage selection was poor (no shakes or interesting sodas). The pies looked amazing, though, and it wasn’t until we were a neighborhood away in the car that we realized we really should have tried a slice while we were there. Our mistake.
Bottom line: The Steakburger got a B- from everyone, while the Hickoryburger’s grades ranged from B- to A- for an average grade of B/B+ (terrific meat surrounded by lackluster everything else). However, The Apple Pan gets an A for atmosphere, and we’d go back to try some of that pie, at the very least.
Stop #3: Father’s Office, Mid-City
Burger base price: $12.50
Atmosphere-wise, Father’s Office is pretty much the opposite of The Apple Pan–very slick and modern. (Though, like at The Apple Pan, you order at the bar/counter!)
Father’s Office makes a lot of “best burger in L.A.” lists–but the thing is, they won’t do any substitutions. And since Andy doesn’t eat cheese (and I don’t like melted cheese), that meant that their famed burger (which contains gruyere and blue cheese, as well as bacon and arugula) was untasteable for us. And by the time we got there, Katie and Jason were burgered out, so we didn’t end up having a burger there at all.
We couldn’t pass up dessert, though. Here’s the gingerbread ice cream sandwich with pumpkin ice cream (looks kind of like a burger, no? ) And even better was the sticky toffee pudding a la mode. YUM.
Nice desserts and beer list. Couldn’t try the burger, so if you’ve had it, feel free to weigh in in the comments.
Stop #4: Stout, Hollywood
Burger base price: $11
Stout, which focuses on burgers and beer, was a late addition to our first-day agenda…but a great one. Read on.
This is a sit-down, table-service place, though it’s not fancy or fussy. And while you can’t mix and match toppings here, you can have them removed, which is what Andy and I did to the cheese on our choice, the “Truffle Shuffle.” Jason had his burger mojo back by this point and went for the “Goombah,” while Katie sampled the bean-and-quinoa a veggie burger.
The “Truffle Shuffle” burger (minus cheese):
Meat: Comments from the meat-eaters included “juicy,” “delicious,” and “solid.”
Bun: This is a tall, substantial bun–very aesthetically pleasing in its perfect roundness.
Condiments & Toppings: Stout eschews the typical lettuce/tomato/pickle for its own custom topping combinations–and we think they should keep at it. The sauteed mushrooms and truffle aioli on Andy’s and my burger was terrific, and Jason loved the combination of cheeses and prosciutto on his.
Worth noting: Our side of sweet potato fries was definitely worth ordering–a good “crunch to softness ratio” as one of our tasters (okay, I) put it. The beer and wine list is extensive and was enjoyed by Katie and Jason; Andy and I would have liked to see more interesting nonalcoholic options, but at a place called “Stout,” we weren’t going to hold our breaths.
Bottom line: Solid A- grades across the board (including for Katie’s veggie burger). As Jason said, the whole experience just worked altogether. We’d definitely go back to try some different varieties.
Stop #5: Astro Burger, Hollywood
Burger base price: $3.20
Moving now from the gourmet to the…less gourmet. We kicked off day 2 of burger-eating at Astro Burger, which Katie described as having a “Greek diner meets fast-food burger joint” vibe.
Meat: “Bland,” “thin and gray,” “well-done,” and “just like a Whopper.”
Bun: As Katie put it: “average and unnoticeable.” Andy, when pressed: “It had sesame seeds.”
Condiments & Toppings: Toppings were average/disappointing: bland shredded lettuce and mealy tomato. Katie and Jason got an avocado burger, and the avocado was nice and fresh, but Katie said it added more texture than flavor.
Worth noting: Thanks to the burger’s low price, we sprung for a pineapple shake, which was fine (though not so pineapple-y). Of note, though, is Astro Burger’s extensive vegetarian/vegan menu, complete with a lot of different fake meats. (Maybe they are better than the real meat?)
Bottom line: Our grades ranged from C- to C+, averaging out to C. Quoth Katie: “It hits all the requirements, but makes no attempt to excel.”
Stop #6: Fatburger, Los Feliz
Burger base price: $4.69
On to Fatburger, a California chain. Apparently, most of them look like generic fast-food joints, but this one was very cute!
Well, at least from the outside. It’s hard to see the menu in this shot, but Fatburger operates on a “build-your-own” model; no special buns, but all of the expected basic topping and condiment choices are available.The burger:
Meat: Katie and I both found the meat to be tasty, and I liked that the patty was thicker and more substantial than the Whopper/Astro Burger style of fast-food burger. Andy, on the other hand, found it bland and said the burger taste was overpowered by the relish. Jason said that, of the fast food chains, it’s the best by far.
Bun: Andy enjoyed that the bun was toasted, and Jason said his didn’t get greasy. Katie found it unremarkable; I thought it was a step up from the average bun.
Condiments & Toppings: We all agreed that the relish was strong, and that pickles + relish is probably overkill on this burger. Next time, we’d pick one or the other.
Worth noting: Katie and I split a red velvet shake, and appreciated the novel flavor, though we wouldn’t run back for another one.
Bottom line: No one gave Fatburger the same grade; they ranged from a C- (Andy) to a B+ (Jason) for an average score of B-. Three out of four of us would come back, and I would definitely choose Fatburger over In & Out Burger (which we didn’t visit on this trip, but which we have tried twice before–I’m just not a fan).
Stop #7: Comme Ca, West Hollywood
Burger base price: $18
Oops, forgot to take a picture outside of this restaurant…or inside…or of anything but the burger. (But oh, what a burger!) Briefly, Comme Ca is a fancy French bistro where the burger–while being the most expensive of our quest–is by far the cheapest entree on the menu. It comes with skinny French fries, strong garlic aioli for dipping, and a crunchy, salty slaw as the burger’s only condiment (unless you have yours with cheese, also an option).
Meat: Ah, subjectivity. Andy found our burger to be “flavorful but a little dry,” while Katie said her cheeseburger was “fairly juicy but not so flavorful.” Jason and I both thought ours had great flavor and texture.
Bun: Everyone was a fan of the toasted and buttered bun. “No bun-sog!” proclaimed Katie. (I should also point out that, between the thick burger and the substantial bun, this is a very tall burger, which may annoy small-mouthed folks. Given that, though, I didn’t have as much trouble fitting it into my [small] mouth after the first couple of bites, and it was not nearly as messy to eat as I feared.)
Condiments & Toppings: We were fans of the salty slaw…well, except for Jason, who said “it’s not a slaw.” Though, actually, I think he still liked it.
Worth noting: The fries and aioli were delicious. If $14 cocktails are your thing, Comme Ca has plenty of them to choose from, and according to Jason, an excellent wine list. Not so much of interest on the nonalcoholic side. The one dessert we tried, a caramel pot de creme ($8) was amazing. All that said, our service was kind of off–and when I’m eating at a place this pricey (entrees other than the burger were around $30), I kind of expect the server to be a little more knowledgeable and on-the-ball timing-wise than ours was.
Bottom line: Our grades ranged from B+ to A, averaging B+/A-. Jason and I both named it our overall favorite burger, but for the group, it came in a close second to Stout. If you’re looking for a swanky evening out during which you can still enjoy a burger, this is a great destination.
Stop #8: The Habit, North Hollywood
Burger base price: $2.95
From the priciest burger of our quest to the cheapest! The Habit is another California chain, and we visited the North Hollywood location, which is in a strip mall. No picture of the interior, but I thought it was a step up in decor and cleanliness from Fatburger, while Katie likened it to a Panera or Starbucks.
The basic burger choice is the Charburger, which comes with mayo, pickle, lettuce, tomato, and caramelized onions on a toasted bun. There are also a few other variations, such as the Teriyaki Charburger (featuring pineapple), which Katie and I tried.
Meat: No one was blow away by the meat. Andy said it tasted like “a slightly less charbroiled Whopper,” and Katie felt it got a little lost among all the condiments.
Bun: “Normal.” “Unremarkable.”
Condiments & Toppings: Habit seems to go with a “more is better” condiment and topping philosophy, though Andy said that the caramelized onions on his burger were a nice touch.
Worth noting: Sweet potato fries were tasty. Shakes are available, and our malt vanilla shake was fine, though nothing to write home about. The price, however, really can’t be beat.
Bottom line: The Habit got B- across the board. (Personally, I’d rather sit down for lunch here than at Fatburger…but I’d rather be eating a Fatburger.)
Stop #9: Rounds Premium Burgers, North Hollywood
Burger base price: $5.45
Rounds is a little storefront on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Not terribly exciting outside or inside.
Like at Hole in the Wall, you build your own burger by ordering off a handy checklist. We stuck to the basics, but chose chipotle ketchup off the list of sauces.
Meat: Andy and I thought that the patty was juicy and had really good flavor. I liked the thickness, too. Katie was less impressed, calling both the juiciness and flavor “average.”
Bun: “Toasted.” “Above average.” “Solid.”
Condiments & Toppings: The toppings were pretty average; I wished that there had been fresh green lettuce instead of shredded iceberg. Also, while we thought the chipotle ketchup had a nice level of spice, it was too cold, even on a hot burger.
Worth noting: Drinks were uninspiring–no shakes, and just fountain sodas–and sadly, there is no public bathroom.
Bottom line: Our average rating was a B/B+. At $5.45, we all agreed that a Rounds burger is great value for the quality, and that if we were in the neighborhood, we’d make the effort to come back by. In fact, I’d be willing to pay a few dollars more for the same burger on slightly nicer premises, with a bathroom and better drink options.
Thus concludes our burger tour of L.A.–perhaps the first of many! Our winner overall was Stout, closely followed by Comme Ca.
Best meat goes to The Apple Pan for its Hickoryburger.
Best bun was the pretzel bun at Hole in the Wall.
Best toppings were found at Stout.
Best value was Rounds.
And for best fast food burger, Fatburger edges out The Habit.
Agree? Disagree? Couldn’t care less? Feel free to share your opinions in the comments. I’ll just say that I think we all had a great time channeling our inner Gladys Gatsbys for the weekend…and also that we’ll be quite happy not to eat another burger for a while.