The Golden State
426 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90036 (map); 323-782-8331; thegoldenstatecafe.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A couple of childhood friends opened up a neighborhood spot that serves up a very good burger
Want Fries with That? A weak point that is easily handled by the option of substituting numerous tasty alternatives
Prices: The Burger, $10
Notes: Sun. to Thu., 12 p.m - 12 a.m.; Fri. to Sat., 12 p.m. - 1 a.m.
Important note: Great and fairly priced beer and wine choices mean that this casual eatery is destined to be a hipster watering hole.
What kind of restaurant would you open? If you're reading this review, I'd wager you've asked yourself a version of that question. Have you imagined opening a casual, yet elegant room with a perfectly executed menu? Perhaps it's a corner bar where your friends can come for a beer, a visit, and some great food. Maybe it's even a reworking of some family recipes that you've long treasured and dreamed of making available for public consumption.
I have a more intimate relationship to that particular query than most. I grew up measuring my own aesthetic for a restaurant against the one that was the dream of my father. Pop owns a restaurant in New York City called Caffe Cielo. While I am duty-bound to say that it's very good, as the old man will quickly remind me when I offer up some constructive criticism, it's certainly not mine, nor is it my vision, However, it is a part of me; I've done every job (other than chef) that one can have in a medium-sized restaurant. That means I grew up imagining what my restaurant would one day look like.
When I heard a couple of childhood friends opened up The Golden State on Fairfax Boulevard with the notion that they'd build their version of restaurant perfection I was more than a little intrigued. I wanted to hear what their dreams were and see how the reality measured up. Looking at the menu for the first time left me with a warm and hopeful feeling. The first option offered me? Simply, "The Burger."
Walking through an unassuming and not particularly big storefront, I'm met with an expansive interior that is attractive in that intentionally simple manner. Exposed brick and soaring ceilings give the restaurant a loft-like feel. Most of the space is vertical, but it makes for a comfortable sit in the otherwise small dining area. I walk through the center aisle created by the rows of tables lining either wall. Directly ahead is the open kitchen with a gelato display serving as battlement. Standing guard are two young and committed restaurateurs.
Jason Bernstein and James Starr grew up in West Los Angeles. Before setting out to open The Golden State both had budding careers. The wrong career path, despite all that security (or is it because of it?), can feel like a life sentence. James went looking for a pardon. He sent Jason an instant message:
"Want to open a bar?"
To their credit, they turned their idle chatter into action. After realizing they could build a restaurant that served beer and wine for what it would cost them to get a license to open a bar, they decided to focus on the food.
A Restaurant Makeover
They found a little restaurant space on a hip stretch of Fairfax Avenue and, a mere eleven months later, they opened The Golden State. Yes, you read that correctly: eleven months. Now, my background means that I give folks in the restaurant business the most generous of doubt benefits, but eleven months sounds like a ton of time even to me. It turns out they had quite a job on their hands. The previous space had been more art project than restaurant. The alien planet-themed Nova Express Café was a novelty act that lasted longer than, I would guess, even its creators had imagined. You can take a look at what The Golden State duo were up against here. All those months of toil birthed a simple and comfortable room that Jason claims might be the most up-to-code restaurant space in the city (another reason for the long lead time).
The menu came together with a simple aesthetic. The Los Angeles-bred pair decided to make food that they like with ingredients that are all from—you guessed it—California. They call it a "talent show" for California's food and drink. When it came to the beer and wine, Jason had the abiding affection to act as sommelier. When it came to the food, they both had an idea of what they wanted, but lacked the training to develop a menu all their own. Luckily James plays basketball...with a great chef. Samir Mohajer helped create the seasonal menu at Rustic Canyon and more recently opened up his own joint, Cabbage Patch. He was happy to help James and Jason put together their menu.
Local Boys Make Good...Burger
First item on the list: the burger. I order the burger—medium rare—and fries at the counter and decide to try an artisanal cola (Virgil's). Back at the table I'm disappointed by the cola, which I find tart and not sweet enough. Another example of the artisanal letting me down. Ed recently wrote about a similar phenomenon.
The burger arrives looking beautiful with another perfectly round, brioche bun. The menu describes the burger as coming with arugula, Fiscalini Farms cheddar, brown sugar glazed bacon, a house-made aioli, and ketchup. I have to say, I sometimes get a bit suspicious of a menu that sources every product for me. It can feel like I'm being bullied. I get it—you buy your products from places that have names and reputations.
After biting into the burger my suspicion is transformed into burger joy. The Harris Ranch beef, which they pick up from their butcher Huntington Meats twice a day to insure a fresh grind, is beautifully balanced at 22 precent fat and full of flavor. The grill has given the exterior of the seven-ounce patty a healthy char without doing damage to the interior. The temperature of the meat is near perfection. The Fiscalini Farms cheddar is nicely melted and has adds its sharpness without being overpowering.
The bun is from the Röckenwagner Bakery and is a delight. While I'd normally take issue with brioche on my burger, this one has a chewy sponginess that feels more like a classic burger bun. It holds up to all of the fat from the meat, cheese, and bacon. Speaking of the bacon, this is another choice that I would usually take issue with. I find bacon a distraction on a proper burger—it feels like a cheat to get around lesser quality beef. Well-ground, properly-seasoned, quality meat has plenty of flavor for me. But in this case, I find myself enjoying the salty sweetness of the two slices atop my burger. That said, suspect my future orders will be sans bacon and arugula for that matter. This burger is a delicious example of the grilled variety and can stand up to a simple preparation.
The only misstep is a bland french fry, but the numerous and tasty side dish alternatives make that less of a disappointment than an ordering preference.
Collaboration Pays Off
Talking to Jason and James you immediately feel their enthusiasm for their venture. They work the restaurant every day, all day. In fact, when I ask Jason why he heads over to the butcher himself to pick up the meat, he admits that he likes the break from the restaurant. I also suspect that he enjoys a chat with the Huntington guys (they were my butchers for years).
The restaurant feels like a team effort. James and Jason have offered their passion and friendship along with their business and what they've gotten in return is a group of purveyors who act as partners. They've managed to snag the only tap of Allagash beer (one of the few non-California products) in Los Angeles. Their gelato comes directly from the heralded Tai Kim, who has decided that The Golden State would be the only place to get his Scoops gelato other than his store. Of course, Samir checks in on his basketball buddy's progress as well.
The Golden State is a restaurant that feels like a collaboration headed by a couple of guys who think of their restaurant as a dynamic dream, one that is open to suggestion and grounded in the real life work it takes to realize it. It's not mine, but it's certainly my kind of restaurant.