Hole in the Wall Burger Joint
11058 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles CA 90025 (map); 310-312-7013; holeinthewallburgerjoint.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: This self-styled "working man's gourmet burger" is undermined by its haute influences
Want Fries with That? No thanks. Not as tasty as they are attractive
Prices: Beef Burger, $7.95
Notes: Daily specials, or "Grumpy Bill's Stimulus," are true deals.
Sometimes I want my burger luncheon to be a midday hideout—a place to temporarily evade my life's welter with the stabilizing pleasure of a foursquare meal served on a round bun. A place that is hard to find for everyone who doesn't know just where to find it. A burger joint that is little more than a hole in the wall. Imagine the height of my burger hopes when I traveled to the impressively nondescript environs of West Los Angeles in search of Hole in the Wall Burger Joint.
This self-styled "working man's gourmet burger" sits behind a doughnut shop just off Santa Monica Boulevard, but the (slightly) off-the-boulevard locale is where the similarities to that proverbial private spot ends. This relatively new addition to the Los Angeles burger landscape is a painted, polished, and promoted burger theme restaurant. In most respects, this kind of place is the antithesis of its namesake. The stand-up sign that points the way to the entrance means this is no hideout, but its simple message is its own defense: "Burgers."
A pleasant outdoor eating gives way to a jarring, orange interior. The whole affair reminds me of an Epcot-like simulation. (In fact, the expertly painted patina was rendered by a Hollywood scenic artist who took the job between movie assignments.) The chef/owner behind this operation is the CIA-trained Bill Dertouzos. He's a transplanted New Yorker who can sound mad at you at even if he's just relaying the weather.
Bill tells me about some of the details of his place. The sun shade that makes the outdoor area a comfortable option even at midday is actually Bill's old sail. He's rigged it to retract with a cleat system like you'd find on his boat. The beef is a proprietary blend of Angus, chuck and some others from a Texas rancher he found online. All of the toppings are high quality, if not organic, and he makes his condiments on site—including a ketchup that he claims is reduced to 1/40th of its raw volume!
I order at the register by filling out an order sheet that lets you check boxes and build your own burger. There isn't a standard house preparation so I make two of my own: one with an old fashioned white bun and one with a much talked about pretzel bun. I go for all the free toppings—lettuce, tomato, red onion, house pickles, and onion mayo—along with some cheddar cheese for an extra buck. All burgers are cooked to medium unless otherwise specified. I specify: medium rare, please. Oh, and some fries and a coke.
After my name is called over the PA, I head back to the counter to pick up my meal, which is delivered in a paper bag. Inside my brown bag lunch I find my burger and fries wrapped in yet another layer of paper. The insistence on this "brown bag" presentation is part of the show, to be sure, but it seems wasteful if, like me, one is eating his meal at that restaurant.
When unwrapped the burger looks a bit sloppy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I am sort of pleased to not find yet another perfectly presented burger. What distresses me is the heaping portion of lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion. After my first couple of bites I have to remove the lot of them—when placed next to my burger they could pass as a salad. They are all high quality, but they are also too much.
Once freed from its fetters the burger can face its demise with dignity. Meat, cheese, and bun—get in my belly. The patty is billed at a half-pound and every ounce seems to be accounted for. It's large, salty, and remarkably flavorful. The seasoned griddle, along with a proper portion of seasoning, make for a lovely crust that steps forward in every bite. The dark brown exterior gives way to a medium rare middle. This is a wonderfully cooked patty.
All this lovely beef is, unfortunately, caught between a substandard bun. The "Old Fashioned Plain Bun" is actually a very modern potato bun, from bakery Dolce Forno, but it has the texture of a Kaiser roll and—considering the pedigree—is surprisingly underwhelming. The texture is too firm and chewy for a burger.
The vaunted pretzel bun doesn't do much for me either. Although a better product than the potato bun, the flavor doesn't complement the beef patty as well. I imagine it might work with a less flavorful patty like the turkey or veggie varieties, but I prefer to restrict those varieties to my imagination.
The cheese is neither strong enough in flavor nor properly melted to justify its addition. I find myself wishing I hadn't checked that box on my order sheet. The fries are beautiful-looking skin-on's that are hot out of the oil and generous in portion. They are nicely salted, but there is an earthiness to them that makes for an uninspired spud. They certainly aren't terrible, but I find myself eating them for sustenance rather than pleasure. Ideally I'd be getting both, but my gluttonous nature is more concerned with the latter.
I finish up my lunch and watch the blue-shirted, business types roll in—one after the other—for a recession-friendly lunch. The days of the lingering lunch hours at the gourmet restaurants are bygone. These days they'll settle for a gourmet burger in a bag.
When I realize that these are the "working man" for which Hole in the Wall is making its burger, the missteps seem preordained. It was never about summoning the glory of the mythic hole-in-the-wall. It's more of a burger theme restaurant that puts much of its effort into flourish. Making a delicious, straight-forward burger in the tradition of the hole-in-the-wall, greasy spoon means elevating the essentials and not over-complicating the accoutrement. Hole in the Wall seems dedicated to doing both. Certainly there are worse sins. All in all, it's a good-not-great, affordable option for the working folks in the area who are looking for a lunch on the run. Unfortunately, I was looking for a place to hide, if only for a little while.