The Hungry Cat
1535 North Vine, Hollywood CA 90028 (b/n Selma Ave and W Sunset Blvd; map); 323-462-2155; thehungrycat.com
The Short Order: A foursquare, seafood eatery defies the odds and its location to deliver a great burger
Cooking method: Grilled
Want Fries with That? Definitely. They come with the burger and they'll leave in your belly
Price: The Pug Burger $16; add a fried egg for $2
Notes: Mon. to Sat., 12 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Sun., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Over past few years Hollywood has been undergoing a gentrification of housing bubble proportions. From my living room window I can see a huge crane looming over the rapidly changing landscape below. For a while it was sort of exhilarating—new businesses opened at a fever pitch and created the most vibrant club and restaurant scene in Los Angeles. Of course, reality soon set in as real estate developers jumped at the opportunity like bankers to a government loan.
Big dreams and easy credit have begotten that most imaginative of development ideas: the mixed-use facility, where residences and businesses are built next to each other in a city. Imagine that. And so was born the bastard child of public urban renewal efforts and the private exurban aesthetic: the new Hollywood.
At the northwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street can be found the current centerpiece of the Sunset & Vine Business Improvement District. It's called—wait for it—Sunset + Vine. It's about as creative as its name. Cookie-cutter condos sit atop standard issue chain businesses. Baja Fresh, check. Borders Books and Music, check. Smoothie King, Verizon Wireless, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and on and on.
Why would I be heading to this imitative space for an authentic burger? To visit The Hungry Cat, that's why.
A Pug Burger Hidden on a Seafood Menu
Set in a back corner of a small nook of this residential/industrial behemoth resides one of the great restaurants in Los Angeles. Chef and owner David Lentz was raised on the Chesapeake Bay and the thrust of his menu betrays his affection for the seafood shacks that dot the Mid-Atlantic coastline. The Hungry Cat is first, second, and last a seafood restaurant. A beautifully appointed raw bar greets you as you walk into the unassuming, minimalist space. If you want peel and eat shrimp (and aren't up for the drive to Neptune's Net in Malibu), pull up a stool.
"Damon, why are you talking about seafood on a burger blog?" you ask. Or should I say, "Why are you reviewing a seafood restaurant on AHT?" I ask on your behalf. It's an understandable concern, but allow me to allay your fears (and whet your appetite). On The Hungry Cat's slim one-sheet menu you'll find—set amongst the cherrystone clams, Maine lobster, and other sourced seafood—two delicious words: Pug Burger. (Lentz's burger naming pun was inspired by his dog.) The one and only meat dish on the menu is not separated from the seafood options, so it could easily be missed. (To be fair, this is just conjecture on my part; I spotted it right away.)
There are, in fact, two iterations of the Pug Burger on offer. One comes with lettuce, red onion, avocado, bacon, and blue cheese. The other comes with lettuce, red onion, avocado, bacon, blue cheese, and a fried egg. You just smiled a little, didn't you. Lentz just cut through your burger suspicions with that last topping. It's okay; the ability to change one's opinion when presented with new evidence is the sign of an intelligent and agile mind.
When it came time to order, I was torn. "Without egg" seemed the more apropos as more people will choose that option. "With egg" is what my mouth craved. As I am (technically) a professional, I steeled myself and made the professional decision: I ordered both. All right, truth be told, I had brought along my favorite belly in the world (other than my own) to help me consume this burger feast.
We ordered our burgers and a couple of drinks: Coke in a bottle from Mexico (nice touch) for me, a spiked, mint lemonade for her. Now I can enjoy a fruity adult beverage now and then, but I usually find them overpriced and too sweet. The Hungry Cat battles this common failing by squeezing their own fruit juice before every service (evidenced by the beautiful steamer buckets filled with fresh fruit that adorn the bar) and using a gentle touch with the simple syrup. I don't think there are two more important elements when creating these kinds of drinks. At $12 and up, we'll call them pricey, if not overpriced.
Speaking of pricey, the burger goes for $16 sans egg. A price tag north of $10 changes my expectations. I'd like to judge every burger simply on its taste and construction, but that's not the world we live in. We live in world of limited resources and how we spend our dollars is a moral decision. Dropping sixteen dollars on a burger means those dollars can't be spent on worthy causes. Like pizza.
Initial Doubts Give Way to Burger Joy
Despite a full-blown Sunday lunch/brunch rush our food arrived in just about the right amount of time—not so fast that I haven't had time to work up my excitement while watching other plates of food crisscross the dining room, nor so long that I had sucked down my soda for sustenance. The burgers are beautiful on the plate. They are huge and steaming and covered in just melted cheese, fatty bacon, and oily avocado, and framed by a heaping helping of fries. The fried egg iteration was truly gorgeous. And it came with a separate plate of mayo, mustard and two ketchups. Very nice.
Despite all of this good will that The Hungry Cat has generated, I must admit, I was uneasy by this tower of burger construction. First, the bun: It was a trimmed rustic roll that looked like it might very well cut the roof of my mouth with its crusty points. Then there was the simple geometry of it all. Fully assembled it was easily the height of a soda can. How exactly was I supposed to hold this burger in my hands and take a proper bite? I sliced it in half and the structure gave way. (The photo of the burger cut in two is representative of the engineering problems attendant to building sandwiches this high.) The answer to the above question became clear: I wasn't supposed to eat this like a proper burger. I needed to use a knife and fork. It's painful to admit, but that's how I ate it.
Normally, this would be a deal-breaker. This burger affair would end in the midst of the animal moment of sensual arousal. But not this time. The flavors were too powerful. The attraction too intense. Digging into the mass (morass) of burger set before me, I knew I had found something special. The full char of the high quality meat shone through the brigade of toppings. And oh, the toppings. Slippery smooth avocado, yes. Fatty, smokey bacon, yes. Pungent blue cheese, yes. Hungry Cat burger, I said yes I will Yes ...Okay, maybe it's not the Ulysses of burgers, but I really did enjoy it.
Even that dangerous looking bun revealed itself as the proper choice. The substantive, crusty, rustic body was just what all this fat and juice demanded. Anything less would wither and become soggy under the onslaught.
The fries were a revelation. French fries are so good and yet there are so many out there that do little more than make my pants fit too snuggly. If a food is going to initiate my self-loathing it could at least have the common courtesy to taste good. These fries tasted great. They were crispy without being crunchy; flavorful without being flavored. They were exactly what fries are supposed to be: Delicious in a way that is entirely about the pleasure of the moment.
As the meal wound down, I finally took a breath. I had eaten it all. My hesitations about the knife and fork of had faded away. I smiled and felt a small sense of superiority over my neighbors who had gone with the monkfish (though I'm sure it's delicious). The bill came and I was brought back to reality: The Hungry Cat isn't a cheap meal. Either be rich enough to not think twice about spending $65 on a hamburger lunch or it must be relegated to "special treat" burger status.
Where Your Burger Comes From
I came back a couple of days later to get the skinny on this fatty burger. Sous chef Kris Longly was kind enough to break it down for me. The Hungry Cat burger starts with eight ounces (aka a half pound) of 80/20 ground chuck. The meat comes from Niman Ranch, one of the few ranches that has rated an Alice Waters' menu mention and a New York Times profile. The bacon is also from Niman Ranch, but comes to The Hungry Cat in the form of an uncured pork bellly, which they smoke on site. The avocado is a Reed avocado from a farmer named Peter Schaner. That pungent blue cheese makes its way to my tummy all the way from Denmark. That rustic roll that made my eyes, well, roll, is straight from the L.A. institution La Brea Bakery.
Kris went on to tell me that the fries are normally hand cut from russets, but they've recently (due to what the farmers have on offer) made the decision to go with Kennebec potatoes. They soak them overnight and then they are fried, pulled out of the oil to rest, then fried again.
I asked Kris how a burger made it onto this seafood menu. It seemed that Lentz was trying to decide on a meat dish to balance things out and was having a heck of a time deciding in which direction to go. At the last minute, he decided on the burger. But it wouldn't be just any burger; he wanted to go all out, hence the aggressive nature of his offering. It seems to have worked out. I was told that the restaurant—which seats maybe 50 or so diners—serves 35 to 40 burgers on a busy night.
As I made my way past the Borders and Baja Fresh en route to my car, I wondered if a restaurant like The Hungry Cat was the secret hope of the real estate developer who built this massive space. Had he or she imagined that a talented chef would build a foursquare eatery dedicated to making honest, delicious food for the people who lived upstairs? Or was this just another happy accident of a city defying the worse angels of its planning?