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Hinano Cafe

15 Washington Blvd, Venice CA 90292 (map); 310-822-3902
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A beachside dive bar delivers a quality burger
Want Fries with That? Nope; chips only
Notes: Daily, 10 a.m. - 2 a.m., food until 1 a.m.
The weekend nights get packed so do yourself the service going at an off time

I woke up on Monday morning to the sounds of sheeting rain pounding against the rooftop and windows of my little tree house apartment in the Hollywood Hills. A rainstorm doesn't initiate a lot of thought or conversation in most parts of the country. The same sound outside your window might just serve as a reminder to bring an umbrella and wear some sensible shoes. Here in Los Angeles, it's something to talk about. You see, we don't get much rain. In fact, we don't get much in the way of weather beyond warm and sunny. I love it. I've lived with long, cold winters and hot, sticky summers—I now prefer only visiting that kind of weather. Today, the weather is visiting me. It's supposed to be a downpour all day.

What does a burger reviewer do with a rare rainy day in Los Angeles? Go to the beach! Well, go to the beach to have a hamburger, that is. I fired up the engine and this (sort of) young man headed West. The drive to the beach from the Hollywood Hills can be as quick as twenty minutes with no traffic, but that's like saying I could be in New York City in five minutes with a time machine. I hunkered down for my forty-five minute journey. As I made my way down the hill, I was reminded of one thing that I miss doing in cold weather. I turned on the seat warmers in my car. Cold nose, warm backside... Okay, seasons can be nice, too.

Today my destination is Hinano Café in Venice. Hinano's is a 46-year old Venice Beach dive bar that claims they and their burgers are "world famous." That might be a bit of a stretch, but certainly many folks in my extended network of foodies have mentioned it when suggesting places that I should try. (Truth be told, I've been to Hinano's. No matter, it was years ago and it wasn't raining that day.)

Before I get into the burger, I want to give a little credit to my buddy Grant. Grant is a husband, a writer, and a trusted eater. He is actually the person who introduced me to Bill's Burgers, which I reviewed in my debut post. When trading emails the other day he mentioned Hinano's. Interesting thought. I hadn't been in years. I don't want to give away the ending, but thanks for another good recommendation, Grant.

My Day at the Beach

Driving into Venice always makes me feel like I'm being transported into California subculture. I've never understood exactly why people like it so much. Don't get me wrong—I understand the allure of the beach. There's a whole segment of the population of Los Angeles that only sees the water a couple of times a year. That lifestyle is equally confusing when living next to Pacific. I won't murder it in a few sentences, but we'll agree that the ocean is numinous. You just don't have to live in Venice to see it.

Perhaps I'm being unduly harsh on this legendary beach community. Some of the people I love most in the world live or have lived there. For me though, it's like certain kinds of weather: I am happy being a visitor.

Venice of America

For those of you who don't know, Venice is Los Angeles's St. Mark's Place, Haight-Ashbury, and whatever other dirty crossroads of commerce, idealism, and responsibility-avoidance you can summon, all rolled up next to the water. It's a mix of creatives, drop-outs, and professionals who lean hippie. They are all fiercely loyal to the neighborhood.

Founded in 1905 by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney, the Venice, California, was originally called Venice of America and was supposed to evoke the feeling of its Italian namesake. It also helped that the canals Kinney dug to simulate the original also served to drain the marshland, thus allowing him to build houses and storefronts. Initially it was meant to have a Coney Island-esque, carnival atmosphere and be a vacation destination. That worked out about as well as Coney Island. These days its boardwalk is more of a sideshow.

The Lay of the Land

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The beach end of Washington Boulevard (or the Southern Edge of Venice) is home to a number of restaurants and bars. In my view, the only one worth any attention is Hinano's. It dates back to 1962 (very old by Los Angeles standards) when someone decided to open a dive bar by the beach that serves burgers. Forty-six years later...it's a dive bar by the beach that serves burgers.

I walk up to the open door of the aquamarine storefront, sensing the darkened room awaiting me. It's a dive bar, so I dive in. Normally, walking into the darkened space would be a visual adjustment from the bright sunshine outside, but remember—rain today.

20081217-hinano-menu.jpgThe kitchen is immediately on your left and basically blends right in with the bar. I don't think I even realized it was there the first time I went to Hinano's. This kitchen—such as it is—consists of a prep station and a fantastically old school-looking stove/griddle that's called a "Wolf Junior." The décor has the logic of a debris-strewn beach after a storm. There's stuff everywhere that's both old and new and most of it relates to the waterfront. A dark wood bar is punctuated by the bright colors of promotional items from beer companies and a handful of photos on the walls. A few surfboards and a Bud Light neon sculpture in the shape of a Woodie (the classic So Cal beach cruiser) seem authentic in that they feel circumstantial rather than thought out. Possibly the, "They were free so let's hang them," kind of aesthetic.

I pick a seat in the back area because it affords me a bit of privacy from the barflies who might blow my cover when they see the digicam pop out. Also, it's where the pool tables and free popcorn are kept. I order from the simple menu housed in an upright, promotional, plastic holder from Budweiser. The burger or the double? It almost seems unnecessary to tell you, but, of course, I order both. I opt for cheese. Two choices: Swiss or Cheddar. I choose the orange one so my burger photos will pop. Turns out it's Tillamook Cheddar. Color me pleasantly surprised. I'm a fan of Tillamook. I've had the pre-sliced version that will top my burger. It melts nicely and doesn't have the bite that I'd want from Cheddar in any other circumstance. On a burger, I prefer the milder flavor.

Diving In

20081217-hinano-pool.jpgI decide to have a game of pool while my burger cooks. Three quarters slide into the aging, bar-sized table and I soon hear that pleasant thud of the balls. I try to recapture the skill I developed as a teenager when my friend Kelly and I would head to a Greenwich Village pool hall after school. We'd play Nine Ball for $4 an hour while the small time gangsters smoked and gambled around us. I'm not really sure why we liked it so much—neither of us loved the game, but I imagine we were both pretty good at it. We never wagered and if one of the aspiring hustlers tried to rope us in, we'd invariably be on our way out. When I think about it now, we probably played for the same reason I was playing at Hinano's: It's nice way to fill the time and not focus on the realities outside that darkened room. The few afternoon beer drinkers around me seemed a little less tragic. They too just wanted a place to pass a little time.

My burgers arrived within a few minutes and I sat down at a small table. My coke came with a truly frosty mug. Nice touch. Somehow coke always tastes better from a frosty mug (or a bottle). The burgers are served in awkward paper dishes and come with a pickle, some hot peppers, and a bag of Lays potato chips. No fried anything here. I set the chips aside. I don't like Lays chips with a sandwich—they are too flimsy. I can enjoy a Ruffle, but the Lays just don't hold up as a side dish for me. I snap into the pickle. Really good. Where-did-they-get-that-pickle kind of good. The hot peppers aren't for me, but this is Los Angeles and hot peppers show up everywhere. I've grown so accustomed to seeing them that mentioning them is like pointing out parsley. Doubtless there are many of you out there with strong opinions about which are the best. Opine away. I set them aside to prepare for the good stuff: my burger.

A Burger Lights Up The Darkness

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I decided to start with the single. Why? Because one comes before two in most situations and I'm less of a rule-breaker than I'd like to be. It's a nice mouthful. The bun is big, seeded, and full of spongy goodness. It's an egg bun, so it has a hint of sweetness and a bit more substance. The holy work of that magnificently old and seasoned griddle is readily apparent—there is a crusty char on the meat. It's also really heavily seasoned. I get a nice salty bite that cuts right through all the toppings and condiments, which is no small task. There is a lot of stuff happening on this burger. It comes with lettuce, tomato, red onion, relish, mayo, and "a dab" (according to the bartender/chef) of mustard. I tasted more than a dab, but it was still a nice medley of flavor. Oh, and that cheese? Just right. I throw a little ketchup into the mix and am closing my eyes in pleasure as I devour the burger.

20081217-hinano-double.jpgIt all adds up to a sloppy mess of flavor that demands a lot of napkins. I like it. I get halfway through the single before remembering that I should begin comparing the double before my stomach starts sending my brain signals that I've had a proper, human portion of food. If you are wondering how I get all these burgers down, the answer is simple: speed. I eat faster than both my stomach-to-brain signaling system and my brain-to-self-loathing mechanism can work. What can I say? It's a gift.

The double has all the same components with an extra helping of meat and cheese. It defies my long-held belief that more is more. The single works better. The patties are roughly four ounces of just good quality meat. It's not the kind of beef that shines with a large helping. The single is the way to go.

Rainy Days and Mondays

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I pull the strap off the feedbag to take a breath and take in my surroundings. It's a calm Monday afternoon at Hinano's. The bartender/chef is studying the jukebox to use up the credits someone has left behind, an aging businessman speaks a little too loudly into his cell phone, and a regular shares a pitcher of beer with himself. I decide to stay a while longer. I head out to drop a few more quarters into the meter and come back in to find the bartender/chef griddling up another burger.

I take a seat at the bar and watch him work. Cooking the burger is so woven into his routine that it barely seems to interrupt the rhythm of his day. He's back at his stool reading the paper while the meat sizzles and steams on the blackened griddle. I decide to find out some history.

He tells me that the beautiful antique griddle is actually older than the bar. It was bought used when Hinano's opened in '62. Its blackened top is the result of years of use and a cleaning method that doesn't involve any steel brush scrubbing. The patties come from Fulton Provision Co. out of Portland. Interestingly, they became the first meat processor and distributor in the U.S. to receive certification by Food Alliance for their sustainable business practices. Nice. The patties are of the 80/20, pre-formed variety and the grind is medium.

I ask if they salt and pepper the meat when I see a shaker taken to the patty on the griddle. The bartender/chef smiles and says, "Sure, you can say salt and pepper." He lets on that there's more in there than just those two ingredients, but that's as much information as he's willing to spill. The buns come from Giuliano's Delicatessen and Bakery, a local outfit that has a few retail locations along with their wholesale business. You could do far worse for your next barbecue than the egg hamburger rolls used by Hinano's. Sadly, he's not sure about the origin of the pickles. Same goes for the bar's name, but knows it has something to do with one of the owners taking a trip to Tahiti. He thinks it means princess, or flower, or something like that. I can't be sure, but I do know there's a Tahitian beer named Hinano.

Here Comes the Sun

I continued chatting with him and then with that fellow with the pitcher of beer. We talked about bars, burgers, and what's happened to some of our favorite places. We didn't exchange names. We didn't need to. We weren't trying to make friends. We were just passing time. Mine, unfortunately, was up. Real life summoned me.

When I walk out of the bar I squeeze my eyes shut. The bright light outside is an adjustment from the hour and a half I spent knocking around in the Hinano's half-light. I open my eyes to a squint and take in the view down Washington Boulevard. Slowly my eyes adjust and I look past the beach to the Pacific beyond. Above the horizon the clouds have broken. The sun is shining again...if only for a little while.

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