The Nickel Diner
524 S. Main Street, Los Angeles CA 90013 (map); 213-623-8301; 5cdiner.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This 'instant classic' neighborhood joint reveals its Achilles heel in the form of a bland burger
Want Fries with That? Yes. Seasoned and shoe-stringed goodness abounds, but don't miss out on the rings
Prices: Nickel Burger, $8.50
Notes: Open daily 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.
The dessert chef did time at Per Se, but doesn't let the fine dining aesthetic take over. Bacon donuts? Yes, bacon donuts.
Can we all agree that making a great burger is difficult? We've seen otherwise accomplished chefs reduced to flailing tyros when trying to recreate the burger with a gourmet flourish. Alternately, we've watched a simple cook's devotion to flipping and seasoning patties turn this humble sandwich into mouthfuls of balanced perfection. There doesn't seem to be a sure-fire formula for success, but a dedicated owner seems to tilt fortune in her favor. That's why when I heard that the restaurateur team behind Banquette had opened a straightforward diner along a seedy strip of Los Angeles' (slowly) gentrifying downtown, I marked it down on my list.
The Nickel Diner is the newest and quite heralded second restaurant opened by Monica May and Kristen Trattner. Their aforementioned first act, Banquette, is a small, French bistro in the bank district of downtown Los Angeles that hasn't so much enthralled me, but rather made me interested to see what comes next. The gastro-diner concept seems a good fit for this easygoing, but attentive duo.
The Nickel, as it is referred to by those in the know, showed up with a nickname and a patina that made the months-old spot seem like it had been there for years. The name of the joint is a reference to its location on Main Street just south of 5th. This part of downtown (centered around 5th Street) is Los Angeles' Skid Row and has long been referred to by locals and detectives in noir novels as "The Nickel." Despite years of the city attempting to redevelop downtown into a yuppified loft district, Skid Row persists. Even the newly minted Nickel Diner finds itself next to an SRO hotel. Instead of a full gentrification, Los Angeles has built an uneasy truce between hipsters, bankers and those in need. Not to make light of one of the great failures of my city's governance, but in the instant case, the one in need is this boy. He needs a burger. Let's see if the Nickel can keep the peace.
Even the exterior of The Nickel screams "old school"—days when cops were "coppers," coffee was "joe," and a hot cup of it cost you, well, a nickel. Walking in, you are met with a kitchen partially obscured by a half-wall on your right and a full wall of an old-time menu that reads as pop art to contemporary eyes. (It's purported to have been discovered during renovation).
We're greeted by Monica with a, "You're lucky to get here when you did." I'm disarmed by her and her presumption. What does she know that I don't? Doubtless a lot, but in this case she means the lunch rush has abated. It seems fortune favors the late-luncher as she's just checked off the last of the names from her list that had stretched to forty-five minute waits just an hour earlier. I always suspected punctuality was the devil's work. I sit down and take it all in.
The interior is large and loud. The ceilings soar to twenty or so feet, the banquettes are red leather (or some reasonable facsimile material), and the baseline volume level is not grandma-friendly. Even as the lunch service begins its wind-down, The Nickel is a hive of activity. Hipsters have taken over the back right corner, families to the left, and me—bourgie burger blogger—stuck in the middle. A crash of dishes falls to the floor and I notice Kristen, partner and front-of-the-houser, take charge. She's tall, lean, and most often wears a quiet, broad smile. When trouble hits, she's as strong as silent gets. I watched her on more than one occasion get her service staff into shape with a low-voiced talking to. I imagine her as the kind of boss you fear disappointing rather than simply fear. When she takes our order she is delightfully calm and efficient.
What'll you have?
Two Nickel Burgers, one with fries, one with house-made cole slaw.
A Mexican coke in the bottle.
Is that all?
Okay, coming right up.
Wait, wait. What about those bacon doughnuts?
I'll bring a sample plate.
Imagine my delight. That last part of the order might be a surprising offering to some, but doubtless many of you do little more than yawn when you hear "bacon doughnut." Well, for those of you who don't stay abreast of bacon news or aren't from Portland, bacon on a doughnut—as it is on most things—is good. It's also worth noting that the pastry chef, Sharlena Fong, did time at Thomas Keller's Per Se. I hear he can cook so I guess it's fair to say that counts as bona fides.
The sample plate is a trio. The doughnut holes—strawberry, house-made Nutella, and maple-glazed bacon—are beautiful little spheres of deliciousness. I think mine may have had a bit too much air-time before they made it to my mouth (the texture had just a hint of chewiness), but the flavors were all in order. Plus, they come to me as some kind of gastro-diner amuse-bouche which is...well, it's just lovely.
I take in some more of the palpable energy of the room and the once excited state of the restaurant has found its ground. I am strangely relaxed by it all. Monica swings by the table to see if things are going well. She is our chef, but today she's helping out in the front of the house. She seems committed to making her comfort food more comfortable to eat. She rubs my back as she asks if everything is all right. Normally, this would feel awkward—an uninvited touch—but in this case, I didn't mind it at all. The Nickel feels inviting and Monica feels like the kind of person who asks you that question and wants an honest answer. I smile back and tell her that everything is great so far.
The burgers arrive in one case amidst a basket of fries and alongside a bowl of slaw. The bun, lettuce, tomato, and onion slices are thick and imposing. It's all very attractive, but I'm trying to build a relationship here. I'm concerned about what the conversation will be like once all the looking and lusting subsides. My first bite is a mouthful of bun and toppings—the substantial, grilled patty is lost underneath it all. I'm not even getting that nice hit of fat from the cheese.
I slice the two burgers and see that the separated patties are clearly not equal. One is almost medium rare, though still a bit unevenly cooked, and the other is just gray. Sigh. I'm not sure if the grill is giving off uneven heat or if it's just a function of the still busy restaurant, but these are not perfectly cooked specimens.
After I make my way through most of the burger, what's left behind tells the story: A third of the bun and toppings are still on my plate. The burger isn't balanced. I found myself fending off bun and toppings to get at some good (nicely charred) meat and cheese. The bun is a particular offender: Not only is it large, but it also has the texture somewhere between Kaiser roll and straight white bread. It just doesn't work here. The patty would be well served on proper light, fluffy, low-end hamburger bun.
The sides stand up hale and hearty against the wan burger. The fries—while not my favorite style—are a very good example of the class and have a nice hit of seasoning (chili powder, et al.). The slaw is fresh and tasty, if a bit under-seasoned for my taste. You see, I love slaw. I order it all the time. I suck it out of those paper cups at at the Greek diners and I'll even put in on my sandwiches (try it on yours!). This means I want there to be that tangy, slaw flavor when I crunch into the cabbage and carrot and whatever else you chop and serve to me. In the case of The Nickel slaw, it's lovely and fresh, but just a little too mild. That said, my guess is that it's more universally pleasing than the kind I prefer.
The onion rings come at me in a mountain of fried potential. They are coated in bread crumbs and fried to an orangey-brown. They look trashy and delicious—they're what I want. I suspect they have a more fast food aesthetic than some aficionados would have them, but these really work for me. The crunch is impressive and the onion stays put after a bite rather than slithering out of the beer-battered coating and burning my lower lip.
On our way out, Kristen chats with us and some other customers who have just lunched. We've all ordered something to go. In my case, a red velvet cupcake; in theirs, a bunch of cupcakes. She hands them their box and smiles when she counts out one more than they ordered. Gratis. For me, she asks for three bucks instead of the three and a quarter for ease's sake. It's a nice gesture that makes the restaurant feel like a place you want to come back to. A place where the owners care about their food and their customers. Like almost everything at The Nickel—except their burger—it feels right . But then again, we knew that would be hard.