734 Foothill Blvd, La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011 (map); 818-790-53556; dishbreakfastlunchanddinner.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A quality burger and fries at a fair price; why aren't they all this good?
Want Fries with That? Yes, please! Kennebec's fried to a lovely crisp.
Prices: Dish Burger, $8.95
Notes: A well-edited and affordable selections of wines along with a great kids menu makes this one of the better takes on the modern family-friendly resto that I've come across.
This week's burger came in the form of a reunion. I headed north of the city to catch up with an old friend and meet her baby. This urban, single woman who had once led the charge into the night as we'd martinied our away across Los Angeles has recently found herself in love, a new mother, and exurban. While I know the reality of the transformation is all hers, I can't help thinking about what it says about me.
These days, traveling past the outer edges of Los Angeles into the surrounding bedroom communities sends me into competing flights of fancy and terror about a life that might have been. A life of married tranquility, soccer games, and dreams deferred. It is at once a fantasy and nightmare. Growing up in Manhattan during its fully blossomed anomie of the '70s and '80s made the idea of living in one of these purposefully faraway communities devoted to stability seem, well, far away. Since then, with or without intent, I've labored to keep them that way.
In response to my fears of commitment and compromise, I fashioned an adulthood that has been married to urban landscapes and self-indulgence. Now, as realities of age and a love affair announce themselves on my body and heart with concussive force, I find myself wondering what a life of normative, married compromise might look like on me. Where would I live? What would the burgers taste like there? La Cañada Flintridge's Dish is the restaurant where I went looking for answers.
A Suburban Landscape
La Cañada Flintridge is, even in its name, an exercise in compromise. The two distinct communities (La Cañada and Flintridge) decided to incorporate in 1976 without sacrificing a single letter (it has the second longest city name in California). It was born of a post-war boom mentality that was willing to sacrifice the convenience of the city for the sleepy safety of a posh suburb.
Nestled along a nondescript stretch of Foothill Boulevard in LCF, Dish looks every bit the stucco façade that I imagine hiding the desperation of America's suburbs. Heading inside, I'm pleased to find a space of rustic appeal (mercifully, just shy of shabby chic). It's a strange contrast, but the exterior, rather than hiding ennui, is merely a container for what looks to be an establishment of means and style. When I learn that La Cañada and Flintridge's median family income is more than $150,000, it starts to add up. This, the 18th wealthiest city in America, isn't compromising quite as much as I thought.
A Menu of Quality Ingredients
The Dish menu is a compilation of contemporary American fare with entrée-sized salads offered alongside mac and cheese. The Dish burger claims to be ground sirloin served on a La Brea Bakery sesame bun. The accompanying french fries are made from Kennebecs. Despite all this high-end sourcing, Dish manages to keep its burger (and most lunch items) under $10. Maybe I can get used to the suburbs. Medium-rare with American cheese, please.
The burger arrives as a modern take on the classic diner combo. Toppings of healthy-looking green leaf lettuce, tomato, pickle, and red onion are on the side for me to do with what I will (which is put on my burger) and the Thousand Island is served in a ramekin. They label the last condiment a remoulade, but I think my classification summons the flavor profile a bit more accurately.
Before digging in, my friend's beautiful baby reveals that her beguiling eyes are more than an artifact of the evolutionary advantage of cuteness but rather the signature of a superior germline. Her chubby hand reaches for my burger. All in good time, baby Tessa. This one's for Damon.
A Burger That Makes Me Proud to Be an American
The first bite reveals that collaboration of flavors that is the pure pleasure of American ingenuity; the charred fattiness of the meat, the sweetness from the remoulade, the crunch of the veggies set against a pliant bun all built to fit inside my hand. This is classic American hamburger. It's a lovely mix of quality meat and Southern California aesthetic.
The high-quality bun is full of a beautiful balance between sponginess and stiffness. It complements my fully dressed burger nicely, though I could imagine it being too much if one were to opt for just bun and cheese. The reason for this is, despite a sizable portion of meat, the patty is formed into a slightly too-thin round. This has the doubly negative effect of not creating a perfect ratio of meat and making its overcooking more likely. My patty is certainly well past medium-rare. That said, the meat still manages to add flavor and decent texture to the mix. The veggies are all snappy and fresh, and that remoulade, while lacking viscosity, is a true stand-out burger condiment.
I find myself fighting back the urge to devour the thing as fast as possible. I get halfway through the sizable sandwich before I realize I have taken bite after bite with nary the pause for a swallow. So I pause ... to eat french fries. About a quarter inch cut on these Kennebecs, along with a proper cooking, makes these an excellent iteration. I think I might be moving toward the camp that puts the Kennebec up as best potato from which to make a fry.
I order up a kitschy "Hostess" cupcake for dessert. The homemade variation one of my childhood staples is good, but not the sugar-meets-chocolate-and-cream eye-rolling extravaganza I'd hoped for. Still, I'd eat again (particularly if it came individually wrapped and sold to me by a cartoon character).
The Burgers of Adulthood
My friend and I finish up our lunch and say our goodbyes. Baby Tessa begins to show signs of fatigue. How can the world possibly expect her to get by when she's denied a proper burger lunch? My friend wraps up her magical little person in safety devices that, if they existed when I was a boy, my parents felicitously hid from me. Now it would seem (and be) criminal not to use them. That's not the world that I grew up in, but it feels right nonetheless. We say our goodbyes and I reflect on the reality of adulthood and the way it separates friendships and lives; if not emotionally, then at least geographically. Her life and mine, they just aren't lived in the same place anymore.
My friend has found herself in a place where her family makes sense. I live in one that allows my life to make sense. Each is fraught with compromise. The two versions seem closer now though; like I'm cresting a hill and can start to make out the places I'll go. It may not be a suburban life, but it won't look exactly like the one I've lived. It's still a bit hazy, but some things are clear; it will be bound to the woman I love, the family we'll make, and the burgers we'll eat.