We've got no shortage of places in Orange County that specialize in burgers and only burgers. They're not diners (not enough blue hair and orthopedic shoes on the waitstaff), they're not fast food (not at these prices), and they're not gastropubs (which have non-burger foods). The question is, are they any good? Is it worth the $11 average cost for a burger at these places? We pit eight of them together in the initial round.
The Counter vs. Umami Burger
The Counter is the best-known of the custom-built burger chains; there are two in Orange County and a bunch more in L.A. and elsewhere. The idea is to fill out an order form and hand it in, have a beer, and enjoy a high-end burger. The problem with the Counter burger, though--which I ordered with roasted chiles and bacon--was the same problem it always is: the burger is practically unseasoned. As unpopular as the idea is with cardiologists--and when was the last time you met a cardiologist who recommended a bacon cheeseburger for heart health?--meat requires a lot of salt to bring out the flavor. This was just flabby, and it seemed like they over-salted the fries to make up for it. The bacon helped in this case, but a burger shouldn't be dependent on smoked, cured pork belly for its flavor. Also, the burger was overcooked. I lied through my teeth to the server when asked how it was, though--you get one chance to bring your best to Game of Burgers.
Umami Burger, frankly, suffers from its hipster reputation. That may be the case in L.A., but the long-awaited Anaheim location was thankfully hipster-free. Their burger, which came on the bun with the trademark U branded into the top (why?), was smaller than the Counter burger but had a quite good flavor. The chiles were spicier, the cheese was better, the grind was better, even the fries were better. The only criticism I'll give is that the bottom bun got kind of leathery from the weight of the stuff on top of it; it's also expensive for what it is. That said, it's the quality of the burger we're after here, not any of this ancillary nonsense, and so the decision here is clear.
Winner: Umami Burger.
DG Burger vs. Marc Burger
The battle of South Coast Plaza is on: Charlie Palmer's DG (Damn Good) Burger against chef Marcus Samuelsson's Marc Burger in the food court in the basement of Macy's Home Store in the South Coast Plaza annex.
We've commented on DG before; everyone who reviewed the place noticed what a bitchy counterwoman they had taking orders. Happily, that distraction is gone, and I got the kind of service I'd expect from a Charlie Palmer property.
The burger has only improved since my last visit; fluffy yellow brioche that would take gold if it were Game of Burger Buns, wonderfully seasoned meat cooked absolutely perfectly, non-distracting sides that concentrated all my attention on the MEAT, and even great fries served in a basket rather than in the fruity little wire cones they used to use. Because I ate both this and its competition within half an hour of each other, I only got to eat half--and I'm kicking myself for not planning better.
Marc Burger is a different setup: you order burgers, Cat Cora's barbecue and La Brea Bakery goods from the same counter, with the sauces for each concept mixed up together toward the side. You could, if you liked, make some very interesting burgers with those sauces--but that's not the point.
The bun on the burger was smushy and weird (wonderful, non-differentiating prose from a food writer, but it really was smushy and weird), the lettuce was yellowed, the onions were old. Still, this would have won on the burger patty alone for the char. I love smoky char on a burger; my ideal burger is charred on the outside, medium on the inside, still juicy, plain and unadorned on a bun. My first bite was damn near life-changing--and then I took another bite and discovered that the burger was drastically overcooked; in fact, it was served so hot from the grill that it kept cooking after I took the picture, so that it was pretty much jerky by the time I got to the end of the half I ate.
Winner: DG Burger.
Slater's 50/50 vs. 25 Degrees
Even people in Los Angeles have heard of Slater's. They're famous for their 50/50 burger--half beef, half ground bacon--and have even rolled out a 100 percent bacon burger. I couldn't bring myself to order the 50/50, though, because thanks to the efforts of our local food police, it has to be cooked well-done. Who wants to pay ten bucks for a well-done burger? No, it had to be beef. I ordered it, as I always do, medium, with green chiles, cheese, and the usual vegetables.
I should've gotten the 50/50--it would have been cooked to the same temperature. Not only that, but the lettuce and tomato, chile and pickle were so ice cold that by the time the burger got to my table, it was cold. If I'd just been eating there, I'd have sent it straight back, but this was Game of Burgers and do-overs are not a part of life. I'd been rooting for Slater's, one of my favorite places to go--but not to put too fine a point on it, whoever was expediting in the kitchen that night needed a slap on the keister.
I'd actually never been to 25 Degrees before. Though my in-laws live in Huntington Beach, I rarely go downtown. I started re-thinking my choice of day when I saw the throngs of people crowding the Sugar Shack and the other breakfast places at noon on Sunday; when I got to 25 Degrees, though, it was almost empty. Odd.
It should be more crowded, because the burger was a real surprise. Slightly overcooked, but with the pepper jack cheese (recommended by the bartender over the other fresa cheeses like Crescenza and Red Hawk) melting wonderfully into the Hatch green chile in a bun that kept the burger centered for once. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than Slater's air ball.
Winner: 25 Degrees.
G Burger vs. Peter's Gourmade Grill
The hidden gem vs. the Yelp favorite; La Habra vs. Tustin; shack vs. gas station; American Dream vs. American Dream.
I'd never been to G Burger, which won Best Burger honors from us last year, frankly because La Habra is convenient only to La Habra Heights; it takes a lot of dedication to get up there (dedication shown by our own Edwin Goei, of course). It's a nice setup, with really sweet (and, uh, very nice-looking, ahem) staff, but the focus was on the burger. I declined the $14 "G Burger" and went for a cheeseburger instead... and what a cheeseburger! Beautiful beef, ripe tomatoes, tasty aïoli, even fantastic greenery. No wonder it won last year. My only ding is the bun, which was got soaked by the beef. Need to put some lettuce underneath there, guys.
Peter's Gourmade Grill started in a gas station. Yes, really, a gas station. His entire allotted space was smaller than a European hotel room, yet he started churning out great burgers. Eventually he moved into more permanent digs on the other side of the 55 (but still in Tustin), and there's--wait for it--actual seating! It was still busy, though, and still a wait for a place to sit.
The A-B-C burger, their specialty, is avocado, bacon and cheese. Well, twist my arm, why don't you. Another great burger, though smaller than G Burger. Excellent bacon, a nicely toasted bun. I struggled with this one. I loved it--but I loved G Burger too. Ultimately, it came down to the lettuce. Peter's Gourmade Grill uses that gross shredded Habit-style lettuce. Still, the lettuce notwithstanding, if Peter's had gone up against almost any of the other contenders in this bracket, it'd have won.
Winner: G Burger.
Here are the standings at the end of Round One. Next week, stay tuned for Round Two of Game of Burgers, as Anne Marie, Michelle, Niyaz and Taylor pit the Round One winners against each other--and don't forget that the winner will be announced at our next KCRW/OC Weekly Good Food Happy Hour, August 16 at 7 p.m. at SIP in Long Beach.
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See the other recaps of Round One: