Olly goes on a quest for the perfect burger
The only food at the whiskey bar was peanuts. Hungry, and on our way to get the kind of burger that only a drunk should eat, we stopped at an amateur art show looking for cheese. My friend Ben spotted a cake, and no sooner had he taken a bite, a girl howled, “whhyyyeeeeee?!” Confused and still chewing, he was too distracted by the audible crunch of the cake to pay much heed to the girl. “Wwhhhyyyyyyyyyeee??!!” the girl screamed again.
Now decidedly disgusted by his mouthful, Ben spat out the cake and looked at the girl, “What?” ”You’re such an arsehole!” and she picked up the cake and stormed off, teary. Next to where the cake had sat there was a little card that I read out: “Bran, Shellac, and found objects”. Like some kind of accidental art vampire, Ben Frost had just eaten some young hopeful’s artwork. “That cake barely touched the sides, lets get a burger.”
The burger chain across the road was host to drunkards, munters, and the occasional homeless person. This night, it included the dregs of a nearby nightclub could that easily be called Emo if that was still a thing. Too mallrat to be goth, they looked like they were about to audition for Idol “just for the publicity for their band.” The burgers there were generally barely warm and rubbery, but I liked this joint because they hired immigrants rather than spotty teens, so there is less chance of having your burger spat in.
Ben was busily snapping photos of the consumer kitsch rows of burgers and fries while we waited for our meals. The tiny lady manager snatched the phone from him – “No photos. Get out.” Clearly it was crazy day. “Give me my phone!” “Give me my burger!” we said in unison. We got our burgers and the phone back and the tiny woman escorted us out of the store. Sitting in the park, I wondered ‘why are we eating these shitty burgers?’ Were we being punished for eating the art? Or was eating the art also part of a greater punishment for an earlier crime? All I knew is that when I ate a good burger, I’d know we were back on the good path. There must be somewhere -a burger Shangri la- where your food is hot, affordable, spit free, and you don’t get robbed of your personal effects by management. Harmony must be restored. A burger quest was in order.
I had heard that such a place, the best burger place, was In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles. It was mysterious due to the (not so) secret custom menu. I ordered a cheese burger ‘animal style’, a 50/50 shake and fries. I was able to take as many snaps as I pleased while I was waiting. The burger was wrapped cutely and unlike other places the whole tray looked like the perfect food in TV ads. I took a bite and realised my mistake, I had been hoping for the best burger, and it was good burger and perhaps the best fastfood burger I have ever had, but it was still a fastfood burger. It wouldn’t make sense for it to be as good as a burger 4x the price, but in a land of $1 tacos it was not going to become a staple for me.
The next part of my quest took me to the other hyped LA fast food burger, Astros. I went through the Drive-Thru with my mate Lee who swore by the place – “you can get avocado, avocado is good for you”. I took my cue from him and ordered a burger with avocado, zucchini fries and an iced tea. The burger was good, not great, miles ahead of the big chains, but still a fast food burger. The zucchini fries were too oily. I’d rather go to In-N-Out and get a perfect fast food burger, and although Astro’s may be a step toward healthier, it’s still so far in fast food territory that it just seemed like a less perfect example. But both definitely good burgers.
Still hoping for a perfect burger I sought out a more expensive food chain with table service. Drawn by the 50s dinner styling I went to Johnny Rockets. The sloppy combination of bread, meat and cheese they served me was honestly some of the worst food I’ve eaten in my life. I took one bite and gave up, revolted. I stayed and got as many iced tea refills as possible to maximise value/keep from vomiting. The staff was the same age as the high school students that made up half the clientele, the other half were senior citizens. I couldn’t help but think of Beavis and Butthead and all the horrible stuff they do in their burger joint kitchen and started to wish that I’d opted for vomiting after all. I got another refill and put some money in the little jukebox. I selected Here Comes the Sun, the fitting mixture of static and deranged clipped verse that came out from the malfunctioning unit caused me to laugh so hard at the complete shithouseness of this place that any iced tea that didn’t get snorted up my nose wound up spat all over my plate. “Cheque please.”
Not willing to admit defeat, I went upmarket and sought a restaurant. Because of its proximity to New Image Gallery where Anthony Lister was showing, I went to a WeHo BBQ place called Baby Blues. I ordered the sliders so I could sample a few of their many kinds of burgers (I love sliders) and a happy hour beer to wash it down. The staff were awesome, I’m pretty sure I fell in love with one of them, and they were playing great music. I got a mini version of their regular burger, a pulled pork slider and one with tri-tip steak. On the side I had a mixture of sweet potato and regular fries. The burger was the best I’d had in a while, the pulled pork was good, but the tri-tip was the best piece of meat I had ever tasted in bread. I place it up there with my best steak experiences full stop. There was some serious mojo happening in that BBQ flavour. My journey was complete.
Like any quest there was a lesson: I was reminded that I like street food and restaurants but can do without most of the stuff in-between. If you have a hankering for some fast food, get a taco from a cart; if you’re fixed on a burger get In-N-Out, it’s perfect fast food. But if you want the best burger you need to fork out more cash or make your own. I had thought the In-N-Out experience hadn’t left much impression on me until many months later I awoke hungover craving it. Bizarre – like having a sex dream about a woman I didn’t realise I was attracted to.
Words and pictures by Oliver Heath