Jewel City Diner
629 Americana Way, Glendale CA 91210 (map); 818-637-8998; americanaatbrand.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A postmodern burger failure
Want Fries with That? No. Did I mention NO?
Prices: Jewel City Burger, $6.96
Notes: Wednesdays kids eat free. Maybe they won't notice how bad the food is.
The fact that full scale mixed-use mall complexes have begun to blossom here in Los Angeles is, like our penchant for storytelling, not such a big deal in and of itself. What makes the construction of these instant-communities of note is that our malls (and their culture) have a way of sneaking into the lives of people all over the country. Like the Hollywood narratives that have for years vied for attention in America's living rooms, Los Angeles' newest iteration of the shopping complex is angling to become your living room.
Billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso has re-imagined the mall as a mix of residential and retail space that is a funhouse attraction of the American Main Street seen through a Las Vegas lens. High-end shopping destinations and chain eateries surround facsimiles of the town square, anchored by gratuitous "dancing waters" attractions. Atop the retail outlets sit posh residences which allow shoppers to literally live at the mall. After a series of hugely successful developments across Southern California, Caruso set his sights on the sleepy bedroom community of Glendale and its waning credit limits.
The Americana at Brand is perhaps the premier example of Caruso's vision (thus far). Hundreds of millions of Caruso's own dollars were transfused into equally valuable land that the City of Glendale gifted him in hopes that he might stamp out another success from his tested mold. And what has Caruso gifted the Serious Eater in return? A meticulously kept, terrazzo-paved hamburger stand. Jewel City Diner is a paean to America's classic eatery and also, incidentally, a homage to one of Glendale's beloved restaurants from the bygone days. All this in mind, I set aside my mall aversion to try the Jewel City Burger.
The restaurant itself—a glossy, high-quality burger stand—sits in a crowded corner of the open-air mall. The inside space is limited, but beautifully rendered in light blues, whites, and stainless steel. Given Caruso's rumored obsession with cleanliness and this being his first foray into opening a self-owned restaurant within one of his own developments, it comes as little surprise that the establishment looks primped and designed within an inch of its life and ready for franchise expansion.
I order the Jewel City Burger, which comes with lettuce that boasts hand-torn status. I'm not exactly sure what hand-tearing adds to the lettuce's success on the burger, but I imagine I'll find out. There's also tomato, pickle, and onion. The cheese options exclude American. Yeah, I know—I don't get it either. I decide on a cheese-less burger and ask for it medium rare. I also ask for a 50/50 order of fries and onion rings.
The burger arrives looking like the American classic. It's an attractively paper-wrapped Southern Californian with a seeded bun that has seen some time on the griddle. Unfortunately, I quickly discover that this burger, like the putative town square outside, is pure simulation. I can barely believe how flavorless this sexy thing is. Like some dazzling postmodern art-piece that sucks you in with its beauty and reveals no substance, it's all signifier. Bun, patty, and toppings all looked to be in order, but when I enter a place like this, I'm looking for that taste I call home. I felt like Gertrude Stein going back to Oakland: There is no there there.
The bun tastes like a commercial exercise in dissembling. It appears to be a delicious, spongy bun, but is instead a dry, bready, bun-type mass more akin to generic brand white bread. The veggies look supermarket-ready with their attractive sheen, but reveal themselves to be the flavorless, waterlogged products of a commercial farm designed to squeeze every possible truckload of yield per acre. Even the most passionate rending by human hands won't save tasteless lettuce.
The patty itself is a dessicated, underseasoned, gray hockey puck that, at only a 1/4-pound pre-cooked, was already too small to stand up to the mass of bread and toppings. I can barely get through half of it before giving up.
The fries and rings don't offer any solace. Almost no crispness can be detected from the fries and the rings carry a sour tang that turns me off. When I take a look at the open kitchen I notice two disturbing realities. A patty sits unattended as its overcooking causes the meat to curl at the edges in some sort of inanimate gesture of surrender. When I spy the oil in the fryer, I notice a bubbling darkness that signals it's time for me to move on.
And so I do. I make my way back across the emerald green lawn and past the dancing fountains and notice a subtle uneasiness creeping up my back like the incipient fever of a sickness yet to be named. Everything looks fine. There is no sign that anything is amiss. In fact, just the opposite; The Americana is a landscape chirping with signs that are there to assuage, but it all only intensifies my dissatisfaction.
I must admit, disliking the burger to this extent was somewhat of a shock. Despite my intrinsic suspicion of glossy private spaces designed to look public, I did expect to like this establishment just a little bit. As in a Hollywood blockbuster, I retain hope of encountering so seductive a spectacle that my pleasure erases the idea that a plot ever mattered. In the case of the Jewel City Diner, unfortunately, I couldn't isolate a single aspect of their burger that pleased me. In the end, it seemed to counter those exact qualities the burger has come to signify about America: quality, simplicity, and accessibility. The Jewel City burger isn't American—it's just an attempt at Americana.