The Lab Brewing Co.
30105 Agoura Rd., Agoura Hills CA 91301 (map); 818-735-0091 labbrewingco.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: This very well-run, high-end brew pub makes a solid burger that tastes even better with its excellent beer
Want Fries with That? Yes; they are properly handled with a twice frying and it shows
Prices: The Lab Burger, $10 (fries or a side only a $1 more)
Last fall The Lab Brewing Co. opened in Agoura Hills, and at the time I had no idea. It's really no surprise since I'm woefully under-informed about the new restaurants in Los Angeles, and Agoura Hills is—no matter how hard they try—definitively not in Los Angeles. It's a small, suburban town Northwest of LA that lives for me as an exit off the freeway that marks the distance I've driven up the 101.
Then came a very public pronouncement from a guy named Alan Breslauer that called out the burger aficionados of LA, myself included. They dared us to come try the burger and claim it wasn't one of LA's ten best. If not, the burger would be free.
I was out of town for the challenge, but Breslauer is nothing if not persistent. He stayed on me and recently I made my way out to Agoura to see what all this good-natured burger hubris was about. I learned that The Lab is a collaboration between chef Moez Megji, who had been running a lounge out of The Lab's location until he met Roger Bott. Bott wanted to brew the beer and Megji was ready for a change. With the help Rod Hecker and Bentley Richards they turned the lounge into a full-fledged micro-brewery. I went for the burger; I stayed for the beer.
It's clear that the folks behind The Lab are comfortable making some lofty claims about their burger. To their credit they take pains to make good on their promise of greatness; the Lab Burger is made up of some impressive ingredients. The patty is eight ounces of Wagyu clod and sirloin beef sourced from the very good and reliable Premier Meat and ground in house. Megji adds some caramelized onions, bacon, blue and Gruyère cheese, and arugula. Those of you familiar with the LA burger scene are probably nodding with recognition about now; the Lab Burger owes a debt to the iconic (and overrated) Father's Office burger. The Lab takes an important turn with their choice of putting all of these high-end components on the very good La Brea Bakery brioche bun.
There's a lot to like about this burger, and it's not just the above litany of burger building blocks. More than that, you have a team of owners dedicated to making something great. That alone is worth your attention. Also worth your attention is the balance of flavor from the cheeses and onion (no small feat considering the addition of blue). Also, there's the excellent La Brea Bakery bun. It's called brioche, but like many bakeries, La Brea realizes that a true brioche recipe would undermine the goals of a good burger bun. This one is spongy and well-suited to great beef.
Unfortunately The Lab's burger is lacking that crucial final element. I fear Megji makes the chef's mistake of complicating the simple beauty of his ingredient. The burger blend gets a too-much-by-half measure of his secret seasoning that gives the patty the whiff of meatloaf. Add to that mine coming out closer to well done than medium rare and I found this the Achilles heel of the otherwise excellent burger project.
The fries are handled with an expert hand. Megji uses Kennebec potatoes that he cuts in house and fries them twice in canola oil to give them that Belgian taste I like so much. They're served in a little paper container that made me consider getting an order to go.
For those of you on the fence about visiting The Lab, let me push you over. In this case my nudge comes in the form of a call to beer. Brewmaster Bott is, quite simply, everything you'd ever want from a beer maker. He's got a scientist's understanding of process with a true enthusiasts love of creation.
The four beers I sampled were delightful. If you're like me and choose a bitter beer, try the Lab XPA. The Pale Ale comes in at 67 IBUs and 6% alcohol content. It's perfect for those of us who enjoy a nice hop bite but don't want the punch of a super strong beer. The Cold Fusion Java is a coffee Porter that is brewed with whole Kona beans. It's not for me, but if you like ice coffee and a drink at brunch welcome to the promised land. The Take Her Home Tripel is, as you'd guess, a Belgian Tripel. The slightly sweet flavors of citrus and spice and Belgian yeast mask the high alcohol content. (Enlist a designated driver if you are tipping a few of these.) Finally, I tasted what might be the best light beer I've ever tried. One night of sampling his own creations and a frustration over selling other people's light beer led Bott to inspiration: he figured he could make a better one. A quick recipe was jotted on a cocktail napkin and a month or so later he was sampling his first batch of Honey I'm Home. It's a honey blonde that is preternaturally light, crisp with just a hint of sweetness from the 20 pounds of local organic honey Bott uses in the brew. I could forsake water for the stuff.
The Lab Brewing Co. approached me with a challenge that was, to be fair, probably a bit too tall an order. Los Angeles is arguably the best burger town in the country and to make the top 25 is an accomplishment, let alone the top ten. So it's no slight for me to say they fell a little short of the top ten with their burger. Still, I am unquestionably a fan of the place, and if I had my druthers they'd be pulling pints around the corner. Until they are I'll have to find reasons to head all the way out to Agoura Hills.