A Hamburger Today
The Oinkster in Eagle Rock, California, Serves Slow Fast Food Burgers
2005 Colorado Boulevard, Eagle Rock CA 90041 (map); 323-255-6465; theoinkster.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A fine dining chef's take on the fast food leads to an excellent burger
Want Fries with That? Yes, please. The twice-fried, Belgian-style fries are a superior value at $2.25
Notes: Sun. to Thurs., 11 a.m - 10 p.m.; Fri. to Sat., 11 a.m. - 12 a.m.
They serve beer and wine so you can make it a night out!
Eagle Rock is what I grew up dreaming a suburb was like. For a boy living in a cramped Manhattan apartment, there was nothing more fantastical than having a home with a backyard and a neighborhood of kids with whom to share it. It sounds strange to narrate it now, but growing up I never really experienced the American suburb—not even an overnight visit to a friend's place during a summer vacation. My life was a mix of New York City's impossibly urban landscape with occasional sojourns to the beach or a rural farmscape. It was nothing like the lives of those kids inside my television who populated the quiet bedroom communities built on the back of a post-war boom. They lived a magical life of mid-sized cars, big families, and little leagues. To me, it was all perfectly sized, and even though I could gaze across the river to its edges, it seemed far, far away.
When I reached my college years and finally ventured into the planned community landscape that was home to so many of my new friends, the fiction television helped me write was shattered by the facts of their lives. Suburbs could be just as—if not more—stultifying and limiting. The grass, it seemed, wasn't any greener in their backyards.
Los Angeles offers up a third option: the suburb masquerading as a city. (Or is it the other way around?) In either direction, Los Angeles seems like it can be all things depending on how you look at it. This comes into sharp focus when you first get a sense of the varied landscape of Los Angeles and realize that its many neighborhoods have been passing for Anytown, USA, or Anycity, USA (even my New York City!) throughout television and movie history. It's a bit uncanny, the sense of driving though a neighborhood for the first time and feeling like you've seen it before. The truth is, often times, you have.
There are parts of Los Angeles that have begun to defy the post-war and Hollywood narratives that have defined this city for over fifty years. Communities like Eagle Rock offer up a multicultural re-imagining of the suburb. Northwest of downtown and tucked between the posh estates of Pasadena and the mall-ified Glendale, Eagle Rock has slowly (re)defined itself as an affordable destination for arts professionals (aspiring and otherwise) who are starting families and the middle class hold outs who are holding on to their California take on the American dream. Why am I so interested in this changing community? What draws me to Eagle Rocks' main commercial drag of Colorado Boulevard? Today, it's a hamburger, of course.
A Haute Burger on the Boulevard
The Oinkster is chef Andre Guerrero's take on the mid-century hamburger spot and it's not surprising that he's gotten a lot of things very right. Guerrero grew up in the restaurant business and has enjoyed success on the higher end of the market with his two Studio City restaurants: the upscale Mexican establishment Senor Fred's and the Cal-Asian Max Restaurant. His food bona fides are certain, but one of his best decisions was the location and look of his re-imagining of the fast food restaurant. Guerrero chose the defunct A-framed Jim's Burgers-—a fantastic representation of the Googie architecture of the 1940s to 1960s. Think "space age" spaces that are called Futurist, but feel antiquated. I love them. For me, being around so much mid-century architecture is one of the treats of living in Southern California. The remodel is clean and pleasing: The interior is full of red vinyl and stainless steel and the patio is rimmed in mod bamboo hedges. Groovy.
Fast Food Looks Are Deceiving
The motto at The Oinkster is "Slow Fast Food" and this clever word play reveals itself as an ethos in a number of ways. You order at the register from a wall menu that looks like a traditional burger joint's bill of fare until you look a little closer and see that it's filled with the chef's take on some lowbrow staples. Guerrero developed his own pastrami cure, a homemade, Carolina-style pulled pork, and a fancy chicken salad. Of course, at The Oinkster, as in life, just because there are other things to eat besides burgers doesn't mean I have to try them.
I ordered a cheeseburger. "American, Sharp Cheddar, or Gruyere?" the young woman behind the register queried. More evidence of this being a chef-involved burger incident. "American." I smiled as I replied.
You truly know that The Oinkster is no ordinary fast food restaurant when you are asked how you'd like your burger cooked and offered a beer or some wine as a beverage option. Once again, for those of you who haven't been paying attention, medium rare is the proper answer for part one. Coke was my answer to part two, but to be honest, a beer, milkshake or even a glass of Cabernet are delicious alternatives. In fact, Guerrero serves up a panoply of artisanal beers, wines, and sodas. Again, not your average fast food joint.
Once you've ordered and paid the (entirely reasonable) $8.50 for the cheeseburger, Belgian fries, and soda combo, you're given a number and it's off to find a seat. Accompanied by some friends on my Sunday afternoon visit, this wasn't an easy trick. The Oinkster is a bit of a gathering spot for the...um, Eagle Rockers. (Holy Cannoli! It just now occurred to me that this town's residents might actually get to refer to themselves as "Eagle Rockers." If they don't, there should be a ballot measure or something.) Okay, back to my memory and its embellishment.
Delicious Burger, Sloppy Service
The burgers and sandwiches arrive a bit haphazardly and the charm of the number system fades. I have to grab the guy bringing out the food when I recognize our burgers being wrongfully taken out to the patio and another table. When the paper-lined red plastic baskets are placed before us, I have to admit I am a bit deflated. I've eaten at The Oinkster a number of times and the burger always came out looking beautiful, but on this day it looks a bit rushed. It seems this plate of slow fast food was put together a bit too quickly.
The fries are golden, warm out of the oil, and delicious. Twice-cooked Kennebec potatoes get two different oil treatments: blanched in beef fat, then finished in rice bran oil. They're nicely prepared in the Belgian style and are deeply flavorful. The condiment options are impressive: two ketchups, garlic aioli, two mustards, barbecue sauce, and mayo—all are homemade.
The burger is a hearty six ounces of salt and pepper-seasoned Nebraskan Angus beef at an 80/20 ratio. All burgers are hand pressed to avoid the "tightness" that come with a preformed patty. I really enjoy the grind—it's of the not-so-fine variety that it becomes a uniform texture, but not so coarse that it can't hold its form. These nicely structured patties then get proper griddle searing. The effect of the hearty, fluffy bun with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and a smear of mayo matched with the substantial patty is lovely. It's a strong, flavorful burger that is noticeably juicy. In fact, I found myself barely coming up for air while eating it so as not to lose the heat and juice of the patty. My one disappointment was that they overcooked my patty—not so much so that I sent it back, but enough to make me think about it.
Overall, it's a really strong burger, but when I first came to The Oinkster a couple years ago, I ran into neither the sloppy service nor the sloppy presentation. Perhaps it was the rush of customers getting to them on this day, but there was a definite sense of imprecision about the meal. It seems almost unfair to say that when you are eating an $8.50 combo meal (which is a truly great value, especially considering the ingredients). That said, Guerrero's pedigree and the execution of the restaurant in general makes me take in the experience differently. From what I can tell, it seems like the few weak spots that keep The Oinkster from being a transcendent experience for me would bother Guerrero too. I'd wager that you're not likely to run into these same issues on most visits.
One last tidbit about The Oinkster's food that I want to share is that they do dessert. They have become somewhat heralded for their cupcakes and there's one in particular that I'd have a hard time resisting if I ever resisted food. The Peanut Butter and Jelly cupcake is a beautiful, little mound of happiness. Its sleek exterior is garnished with a few peanuts and the jelly that awaits you on the inside reveals why we loved PB&J's as kids—they're dessert! The cupcake is another (small) addition to the menu that separates The Oinkster from traditional burger spots and makes it a place that I go back to again and again.
A Dream Hamburger
Heading out of the restaurant I am sort of aflutter with all the different faces and looks gathered for burgers, pastrami, chicken, and more. Young families, old(er) folks, hipsters, laborers, artists (or at least artist-types), and on and on. The clientele is multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and spans socio-economic strata; to me, it's what an American community should look like. There's a place for everyone at the table and someone making the food who cares a lot about its quality.
Yes, there are still a few kinks to work out, but that's what growing into one's self is all about. The Oinkster is a great re-imagining of a burger stop born out of the best impulses of the post-war eateries it references: quality, affordable food that attracts all members of the community it serves. It seems that the fast food restaurant is growing up.
The same can be said of Eagle Rock. Certainly it's not perfect—public transport is lacking and big box retailers seduce the population away from the locally owned businesses that used to thrive. But we forgive indiscretions if lessons are learned, and aims are true. We are, after all, a nation in becoming.
Later that night, I drifted off watching one of my favorite movies: Raising Arizona. Like Nicholas Cage's character H.I., I fell asleep with a calm belly and a head full of dreams. I dreamt of those magical suburbs from my childhood's imagination, places where people from all walks of life came together to laugh and play and eat.
This whole dream—was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleeing reality like I know I'm liable to do? It seemed real. It seemed like us and it seemed like, well, our home. If not Eagle Rock, then a land not too far away. Where all parents are strong and wise and capable and all children are happy and beloved. I don't know; maybe it was Portland.