Memorial Day kicks off the summer grilling and road tripping seasons. Of course, a staycation soaking up rays in your backyard, drinking homebrew and grilling your own Hamburg steaks is a classic, but it’s always instructive to see what unique creations the experts are proffering from coast to coast. There was a point in time when adding onion dip mix to the ground beef was considered revolutionary, not that there’s any arguing with the ketchup-mustard-pickles methodology. Still, the vaunted hamburger, like our venerable craft beer, need not be mass-produced in an attempt to please one and all.
No, the hamburger did not originate in Hamburg, but its exact origin is still disputed. “Hamburger” Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, WI, enjoys notoriety as the inventor in 1885, and there exists a Hamburger Hall of Fame―and an annual Hamburger Festival the first Saturday of August―in this town near Green Bay. That same year, brothers Frank and Charles Menches were said to have constructed the first in Akron, OH, where the Menches family still flips ’em to this day. And in 1891, Oscar Weber Bilby is heralded as the innovator of the hamburger on a bun, putting Tulsa, OK, on the burger map.
Any way you slice it, May is National Hamburger Month. Which is why we’re focusing on destinations where gastronomic playfulness, much like fermenting whimsy, and the superlative camaraderie of burger and beer can be found aplenty.
LOS ANGELES, CA
In the not so distant past, Los Angeles earned its reputation as a craft beer wasteland. After all, a city with a population of almost four million people and not a single craft brewery? (OK, fine, there were a couple in LA county, but then what are two breweries to nearly 10 million people?) Then, as soon as I hightailed it out of my native hamlet only a few years ago, actual beer bars and gastro-taverns sprouted up, taking their cue from the likes of Father’s Office (1018 Montana Ave., fathersoffice.com) in Santa Monica and Lucky Baldwins (17 S. Raymond Ave., luckybaldwins.com) in Pasadena. Incidentally, it was actually the burger that put Father’s Office on the map. It was so popular with the happy hour crowd―what with its dry-aged beef, caramelized onions, bacon compote, gruyere, Maytag Blue cheese and arugula―that you could expect to wait in line for it.
It’s great that more Angelenos are pairing slow beer with their slow food. Since Angelenos are always in a hurry (even though the freeways are always bumper-to-bumper), it’s no coincidence that SoCal is the birthplace of fast food burgers. McDonald’s first opened in San Bernadino in 1940. Eight years later, a superior drive-through was born, In-N-Out, which most visitors to California insist on trying. Better still in my opinion is Fatburger, another decades-old, indigenous chain where the skinny fries are the best. But for the record, as any native Angeleno will tell you―and perhaps only a native would―the best burger in town comes from The Apple Pan (10801 Pico Blvd.), established in 1947 in West LA. Alas, none of these joints serve beer.
Paige Reilly, who has earned the title of Beer Champion at Tony’s Darts Away (1710 W. Magnolia Blvd., tonysda.com) in Burbank, right near the NBC/Universal and Warner Bros. lots, helped devise a list of the best new beer ’n burger spots in all of LA. Refashioned into a stellar beer bar last year with the goal of achieving zero waste, Tony’s offers a beer menu that is naturally all draft and all California-brewed. Furthermore, it’s split into IPAs and non-IPAs since of the beers Tony and Paige think best to wash down their grilled sausages, a full dozen of the 30-plus offerings are gnarly, bodacious West Coast hop bombs.
This being LA, Tony’s is very vegan friendly and there’s a vegan beer brat, plus their most popular item is the “wheatloaf slider.” Reilly says the mini patties topped with house-made jalapeno ketchup, griddled onions and basil aioli will make you “never look at vegan food the same.” For pairing, Reilly recommends Atticus from the brand new Strand Brewery south along the coast in Torrance. Among the non-IPAs, try Solidarity, an English mild on nitro from Eagle Rock Brewing, which at one year is LA’s oldest craft brewery.
Before championing beer at Tony’s Darts Away, Reilly cut her teeth at Blue Palms Brewhouse(6124 Hollywood Blvd., bluepalmsbrewhouse.com) in Hollywood, two blocks from the stars of Humphrey Bogart, Jayne Mansfield and Alec Guinness. One of the first of the new wave of beer bars, this is the go-to watering hole for many of LA’s beer geeks and the tap list is always eclectic and fresh. It doesn’t hurt that they make a Truffle Burger with Kobe beef, gruyere, sautéed shrooms and truffle oil. Reilly proclaims it’s “insane” not to mention that it’s “the size of your face.” What also doesn’t hurt is that Blue Palms has its own proprietary IPA made for them by Firestone Walker, whose Union Jack IPA won gold two years running at the GABF.
Past the infamous Hollywood and Vine intersection that has recently been converted from seedy to touristy, Stout (1544 N. Cahuenga Blvd., stoutburgersandbeers.com), and clearly you can tell that they know what they’re peddling by just looking at their URL. Reilly’s fave is the Six Weeker, a hamburger with Camembert, fig jam, caramelized onions and arugula. Look for a golden ale or witbier to sip between bites. It’s also open until 4 a.m. even though all liquor sales end by 2, but for better late-night people watching, head to Canter’s Deli on Fairfax, which is open 24 hours.
Across the street but closing at 10 p.m. is the Golden State (426 N. Fairfax Ave., thegoldenstatecafe.com). As the name implies, everything is sourced from the Golden State, including bottled and draft beers. While the regular house burger is amazing, Reilly has the inside scoop―go on Thursdays at 5 p.m., when a limited amount of lamb burgers are relinquished. She calls them “perfection on a bun.” Once they run out, though, “that’s it and everyone cries. People go nuts. It’s like Pliny the Younger on the burger front.” Of course they have shakes and floats, and in lieu of using draft root beer, they love using North Coast’s Old Rasputin for beer floats.
LA is quite spread out. It just so happens that these hot spots are in Hollywood, one of the areas referred to as the Westside. But just as Tony’s Darts Away is east of the Hollywood Hills in the San Fernando Valley, another valley place is the one Reilly saves for last.
She calls Boneyard Bistro (13539 Ventura ., Sherman Oaks; boneyardbistro.com) a major mecca on account of the chef/owner’s incredible palate. With its staggering beer menu, both bottles and draft, it’s where you’re likely to find other area breweries such as the oldest, Craftsman from Pasadena, and the newest, Nibble Bit Tabby, based in downtown. While there’s a list of delectable burgers, Reilly gushes about the appetizer that’s “burger-esque.” Savory donuts stuffed with Kobe chili, cheddar, onions, pickles and mustard―“They blow your mind!” Having paid a visit myself, I made a burger bucket list just so I could scratch these semi-sliders off it.
The key to packing in all these burgers and beers is a good night’s rest. One option is to stay in the Hollywood or trendy West Hollywood area so everything’s closer. Sleep with the beautiful people, or at least where they come to lounge, at The Standard (8300 Sunset Blvd., standardhotels.com/hollywood) at the center of the Sunset Strip. Even if you stay in the budget rooms that start at $165 a night, you can still hang out by the rooftop pool, or splurge and see how amazing the view is from the $350 suites.
The best part about crashing along the Strip is that it’s a five-block walk (though it’s true, nobody walks in LA) to what is probably my favorite breakfast place on the planet: The Griddle (7916 Sunset Blvd., thegriddlecafe.com). Arrive early or expect an hour wait; either way it’s worth it. Among the decadent pancake and waffle menu you’ll find Saturday Morning Fever, buttermilk pancakes with Bailey’s and Kahlua mixed in. If you’re traveling with kids, order them a single flapjack instead of the full stack since even my two nieces couldn’t polish off the Black Magic short stack stuffed with crushed Oreos. The omelets are equally gigantic and amazing and they serve the best coffee in town, brought to you in a French press.
Having said that, elect to get away from the congestion and stay in Santa Monica. There are very luxurious hotels such as The Viceroy and the Marriot-Le Merigot, but for one-third the price, you can stay a few blocks south along the very same stretch of the beach at the Sea Shore Motel (2637 Main St., seashoremotel.com) with rates starting around $125 a night. Not only is it two blocks from the Pacific Ocean, it’s across the street from the Sunday Venice Farmer’s Market, which has several fresh, cheap and tasty breakfast options. It also happens to be two blocks away from the Library Alehouse (2911 Main St., Santa Monica), home to Santa Monica’s best and most relaxing place to grab―what else―a great variety of craft beers and healthy burgers.
Kansas City, MO
Maybe it’s because the first time I ever drove through Kansas I remember seeing on the front end of a truck, in lieu of a real license plate, one that was made to look like one that read “EAT BEEF” and underneath it read “Kansas Livestock Assn.” Maybe it’s because Kansas was an integral part of cattle drives from Texas to the railheads in Wichita, aka, Cowtown, through Missouri and the Midwest, resulting in KC BBQ prominently including beef instead of just pork the way Memphis and Carolina barbecue does.
The brisket, burnt ends and the beef ribs at Oklahoma Joe’s (3002 W. 47th Ave., Kansas City, MO, oklahomajoesbbq.com) are worth the trip alone. Located in an actual gas station, it doesn’t hurt that it’s located three and a half miles from KC’s Boulevard Brewing, which offers tours and tasting but no pub. Anyway, it just stands to reason that people here can work wonders with some ground beef then slide it onto a bun baked with the grains that the Great Plains are renowned for.
JB Haught, better known by his nom de blogBull E. Vard (in deference to KC’s oldest craft brewery and the Midwest’s largest) of the KC Beer Blog, unabashedly calls his hometown “the ideal beer and burger city in the U.S.,” stating that Midwest-wise, they are almost on par with Chicago. He says it all starts with Blanc Burgers + Bottles (4719 Jefferson St., blancburgers.com) in the Club Plaza―the first shopping centerin the U.S. where “about half of all KC postcards feature the Plaza.”
Blanc racks up nominations for Best Burger in America left and right. “For a while I named the Kobe burger, the au Poivre burger and the Buffalo burger the best three burgers in town,” says Haught, indicating that while Blanc remains the best, it’s not the only game in town. Not to mention, the word “bottles” receives co-billing in the name and the well-curated beer list truly is all bottled, no taps. “The chef/owner, Josh Eans, knows beer and really takes care to only carry good beers.” The list contains around 150 selections including many from western and eastern Missouri (such as Schlafly, but no A-B).
What bumped Blanc off of the silver standing on Haught’s personal burger podium? Head to the Westport District, the hub of bar culture, where you’ll find Beer Kitchen (435 Westport Road, beerkitchenkc.com) their Bravo burger (crispy prosciutto, Maytag Blue cheese, sun-dried tomato relish, etc.), though he stresses the entire menu is rather delightful. In addition to eight taps, the extensive bottle list has a stellar burger companion―O’Fallon Brewing Smoke, a smoked porter from O’Fallon near St. Louis. They also have a great selection of bottled beers and eight rotating taps selected with care. Often, Beer Kitchen is the only place in town that has a certain rare beer on tap.
Additionally, you’ll always find a beer from The Foundry (424 Westport Road, foundrykc.com), as it just so happens to be a brewpub across the street under the same ownership. Here, Haught gives additional kudos to the owners because the Foundry also slings good burgers and excellent beer including all of the McCoy’s brewpub beers as well as many Belgian selections on tap. Not incidentally, the adjacent McCoy’s (4057 Pennsylvania Ave., mccoyspublichouse.com) shares a private room with the Foundry since it too, is under the same ownership. House beers range from an Unfiltered Wheat to Newcomb’s IPA that refreshes and cleanses the palate between bites. That room is often used for KC Beer Blog Gents tasting parties so hopefully a visit to town will be well-timed to coincide should you be inclined to crash.
Continuing Haught’s list is Swagger (8431 Wornall Road, swaggerkc.com) in Waldo, possibly the premiere beer district, “which is a more blue collar, tattoo-y kind of place. Swagger is real popular with many Boulevard employees.” The mighty beer list is almost 200-strong including bottles from Missouri’s Flying Monkey and Cathedral breweries, and Kansas’s Tall Grass, plus an eclectic menu that features sandwiches well-known in other regions such as “beef on weck” (more of a roast beef sammy from western New York).
Haught says their burgers are “one of a kind,” like the Suribachi, which is tempura battered and fried with Asian slaw. But the one that’s now on my bucket list―perhaps the one that will actually cause me to kick the bucket―is the Dead Texan. Two Texas toast grilled cheese sandwiches are employed as the bun, and betwixt that is a 1/3 burger, an egg, three slices of bacon, jalapenos and peppercorn mayo. Viva el Texan; el Texan es muerto. Should you survive, walk over to the 75th Street Brewery (520 W. 75thSt., 75thstreet.com) for some more local suds served in a cozy spot.
Rounding out Haught’s argument that KC is Burgertown, USA, BRGR Kitchen + Bar (4038 W. 83rdSt., brgrkitchen.com) in the area of Prairie Village. In addition to offering the Twin Cities classic, a Lucy with the cheese on the insideand a Pittsburger topped with fries and cole slaw, Haught sticks with the Roadhouse, a half-pounder with onion strings and barbecue sauce. They have at least eight taps and carry some beers from Free State Brewing (from neighboring Lawrence, KS) that aren’t on tap in any other places in Kansas City. “Their other schtick is they only carry cans of beer, so their beer list is a little limited, but they do carry every canned [craft] beer available in Kansas.”