La Grande Orange
2000 Main Street, Santa Monica CA 90405 (map); 310-396-9145; lagrandeorangesm.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A beautifully crafted burger from a very professional operation
Want Fries with That? Yes, please. The skinny-cut spuds can get weighed down by the added seasoning, but shine when hit with some salt straight out of the fryer
Prices: Cheeseburger, $11.95
Notes: While the easygoing, cafe feel of lunch is beach-ready, the sit-down restaurant service at dinner makes for an easier go of it
The first time I found myself eating at one of the now growing list of LGO Hospitality restaurants I was visiting my lovely and amazing older sister in Phoenix. The most storied meal I've had in sis's adopted hometown came to be so because, well, I decided to tell the story. It was a very personal tale of a very ordinary hamburger lunch eaten on an extraordinary weekend. While my family's narrative is an essential part of me, that experience didn't tell the whole story when it comes to my Phoenix food experiences.
One hot (surprise) Sunday morning we headed to La Grande Orange Grocery. We fought through the Sunday brunch crowds to eat what would be one of the more memorable new pizzas I've had in the past few years. It was a surprise to find such a satisfying pizza in what looked to be a gourmet shop that had sprouted restaurant wings. It was an even bigger surprise to find that the my pizza brunch compared favorably with the truly excellent pizza dinner I'd had the night before at the heralded Pizzeria Bianco.
Now La Grande Orange is making waves with its beach-close location in Santa Monica. When I heard it was the same folks who'd made me my memorable Sunday morning pizza I was excited to find out how they'd handle my burger.
The Santa Monica location of La Grande Orange is actually the second outpost of the restaurant in the Southland. The first sits in the charming train station in Pasadena, a location that I think has kept that restaurant on the sidelines of Los Angeles food conversations. This latest iteration, however, has found itself literally and figuratively on Los Angeles's Main Street. The folks at LGO teamed with the massive restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You to build a massive and impressive space in a location that was, once upon a time, a beachy, sixties, Bohemian destination called Le Boulangerie. There is little left of Main Street's hippie roots (the LGO building is decidedly bourgie and brand spanking new), but then again, it's a lot of those same hippies that demand leaf-patterns in the milk of their morning lattes.
Walking into the large and attractive dining room is an exercise in orienting. The room is so big and the activity level so high that it takes a few moments to figure out what and where everything is. Additionally, they've gone with a design feature that demands customers tentatively walk from the front area (that presents a case full of delicious baked goods) through a narrow hallway that's shared with the staff who are frantically keeping track of their orders popping out of the open kitchen.
At lunch you order and pay at the northern end of the restaurant, take your number, and then head south through the hall, past the kitchen, and take a seat. Oh, and your grab your own flatware and drink if you, as I did, order an iced tea. This cafe style is becoming more common in Los Angeles, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. It all feels like some behavioral economics gambit that's designed to convince me that I am not spending as much as I am actually spending. I have yet to be convinced.
When I came back for dinner, a restaurant had blossomed and table service was there to be had. The experience was more enjoyable and thus no gambits necessary to make me part with my cash. With a chipper server there to take my order and bring me my iced tea, I was ready and willing to drop twelve bones for my cheeseburger and fries.
Speaking of servers, lets stop for a moment to take in the (mostly) pleasing spectacle that is the LGO staff. If the rumors are true, the hiring process at La Grande Orange came together like a Hollywood casting call. A reported 1,400 people applied for the 80 positions at the restaurant. In an aspirational city like Los Angeles the result is a staff that is young and attractive in the way that reminds me that I have been given a face for blogging. Oh, and a belly for eating. I salve my ego with a burger order and imagining what my server scored on her SAT's.
At times these shiny youths seem to be gifted with more genetic advantage than (let's call it) restaurant experience, but they are certainly trying hard to get it right. In the end, a well-run restaurant is a moving target and these folks are chasing it. Managers all give off a friendly, professional air that balances the frenetic prettiness of some of the servers. The whole affair feels like the work of a professional restaurant group.
As it turns out, this is exactly what is. Lettuce Entertain You you gets to stamp their imprimatur on this eatery, but the real engine behind this enterprise is LGO Hospitality founder Bob Lynn. Lynn spent twenty-five years building the Houston's brand and its menu. Many of that chains (surprisingly great) meals are the direct result of his recipe work. Lynn is a lifelong food autodidact (as a 1,200-volume cookbook library attests) and his studied nature has been brought to bear on the LGO burger.
The cheeseburger arrives open-faced and attractively plated. The most notable design element is the large pile of unmelted, shredded Tillamook sharp cheddar. It's an excellent cheese choice, but I am a little concerned with the preparation. When constructed, the burger is late-model burger perfection. Round topped and well-proportioned, it's as attractive as the people who brought it to me.
The first bite reveals that this beauty is full of substance. The beefy flavor cuts right through the additions of lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickle. The grind is superb—coarse to the point of just being able to hold its form it breaks apart in my mouth and allows the fat and juice to do what they were meant to do: please me. The meat is 100 percent chuck from Premier Meats that I would guess tips the scales at a 20 percent or more fat content. It's full of char and smoky flavor from the wood grilling (hickory, mesquite, white oak, and cherry) that makes for a nice balance against a sizable flavor profile cut by the additional ingredients.
Now for the concerning cheese presentation. Shredding is not an unheard of choice, but eschewing a good melt was surprising. Turns out, this surprise is a pleasant one. I don't think I'd go so far as to say that I prefer it to fully melted, but the shredding increases the surface area of the cheese so its fat and flavor mix nicely with the loosely bound meat. The heat of the patty gives it just a hint of melt before it goes down. It's a nice effect. If anything, the heaping portion I'm given is a bit too much. Next time I'll ask for a little less cheese as the sharp cheddar doesn't need so much mass to balance against the beef.
I've saved the bun for last because it was my favorite part of this burger. It's a homespun recipe by Lynn that LGO farms out to a local bakery. He's managed to strike a beautiful balance between breadiness and sponginess. It forms to my hand as I grip into my burger, but holds its structure against the hefty juice of this beautifully medium rare patty. With its slight crunch from a quick toasting and a slather of Russian dressing (a recipe Lynn cadged from his Mom) it may very well be my favorite bun in town.
I also downed a chile burger, which comes with a grilled poblano. The smokiness of the pepper is appealing, but I am lightweight when it comes to Scoville units so I tap out early on this one. It's got great flavor and would be the option for those among you who both want and can handle the heat.
Lynn has created a professional operation without losing the personal touches that separate a great burger from the merely good. My memory, it seems, had served me—the LGO burger confirmed my fond recollections of the quality of my Sunday pizza brunch in Phoenix. And what could be better than a great burger find? A great burger find along with some great pizza. LGO in Santa Monica is due to begin serving pies in a few months.