I didn't pay much attention to the Cut when it was just a food truck. As with so many luxe loncheras before it, the Cut did burgers, and I was tired of burgers. To me, it sounded like more of the same. Sure, it employed the right buzzwords: "free-range," "hormone- and antibiotic-free meat," and "hand-crafted"—whatever the hell that means nowadays. Then I glanced at its menu and saw tater tots. Great, I thought, more tater tots—how original.
So when word got out that the Cut, as with so many luxe loncheras before it, was becoming a brick-and-mortar, I shrugged. Moreover, it was taking over the space vacated by Smashburger in Irvine, another joint whose demise I did not lament.
But one day, I was in the area and saw what the new place looked like. I noticed where there used to be a window was now a fenced-in outdoor patio that spilled onto the sidewalk. With it, the Cut had managed to do two admirable things: It claimed more space for itself from its landlord than its predecessor did, and it allowed passersby such as me to get an unobstructed view of the new layout and bar.
Gone was Smashburger's dated Johnny Rockets-cum-Red Robin interior. Instead, the dining room is now classy and contemporary. If I didn't know it served burgers and fries, I would have assumed the Cut was a stylish new gastropub. In any case, it was enough to convince me to try it. Besides that, I happened to be there early enough to take advantage of the happy hour specials, which, I admit, was the more compelling reason.
My first taste of the Cut's food was mediocre. There was a serviceable if unremarkable mac and cheese served in a cast-iron skillet with a crispy, crumbed top. And though I didn't dislike the honey-Sriracha wings, it also didn't taste any better than those I've had at Buffalo Wild Wings, which is a very low bar indeed. And though the fries were obviously made from scratch—here sprinkled with a bacon-fat garlic confit and bits of rosemary that filled the air with an intoxicating aroma—they lacked the crispiness of the frozen fast-food fries to which I unfortunately have become accustomed and for which I have developed a fondness.
Finally, I tried the happy hour cheeseburger. This, I said to myself, would determine whether I come back to try the others. And, dear reader, I'm glad to report it was as good as I've ever had. As Ron Swanson proved, ground beef, when cooked well and seasoned confidently with nothing but salt, can do no wrong inside a bun. And this was the benchmark by which to measure other cheeseburgers: a thick, juicy, hand-packed, well-seared but not overcooked slab of chopped steak, simply tucked into an oversized dinner roll. It was almost Zen.
I would return to the Cut not just once, but three more times. And each time I did, I ate burgers that were progressively better than the last. The Colombian—with smoked mozzarella, roasted bananas and a cilantro chimichurri—balanced flavors and textures I never thought would work together, let alone in harmony. And it was then that I realized why the bun's ultra-dense stock worked better here than, say, one from a fluffier, sponge-like dough such as In-N-Out's. Those buns, I determined, would completely dissolve into a sopping-wet mess if applied here.
That moment was also when I had to admit I was wrong about the Cut. It wasn't—pardon the pun—cut from the same cloth. This wasn't another Burger Boss or the Counter, where toppings are free-for-all and the combinations endless. This was a real gourmet-burger restaurant akin to LA's Father's Office. And like it, the Cut has the confidence in its chosen flavor profiles to put this disclaimer on the menu: "We will do our best to accommodate any dietary restrictions, but we strongly encourage you to enjoy what we've created for you without modifications."
On my third trip, I tried what I can say is the best burger I've had in recent memory: the Truffle & Brie. In applying its black truffle aioli, melting Brie, pickled red onions and drizzle of honey, the Cut has managed to figure out how to amp up the savory and the sweet while still highlighting the decadence of its beef.
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There are also noteworthy dishes here for those who don't or can't eat red meat. The TBD Cutlet is the chicken sandwich I wished Chik-fil-A could make, the crispy pork sandwich oozes butter and sin, and the hummus is as surprisingly spicy as it is addictive. And yes, I ordered the tater tots. No, not just once, but all three times. How very original of me.
The Cut, 3831 Alton Pkwy., Irvine, (949) 386-8547; thecuthcb.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$40, food only. Beer, soju and sake cocktails, and wine.