The Lazy Ox Canteen
241 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles CA 90012 (map); 213-626-5299; lazyoxcanteen.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This skillfully crafted burger falls short of excellence as it is undermined by a mediocre bun
Want Fries with That? Yes. Expertly wrought and addictive despite an unnecessary hit of dill
Prices: The Lazy Ox Burger (with fries), $14
Notes:While the street it's on looks ordinary, you are just steps from the heart of LA's Little Tokyo
For years, Los Angeles' downtown only felt like a city during the day. Wholesale markets would percolate to life as the sun rose. By lunchtime the lawyers and bankers descended to ground level for a quick break from their high-rise offices. The streets would bustle with activity and, for a few hours, we were a walker's metropolis. Then as night fell, the truth of our commuter culture revealed itself. Freeways would fill, streets would empty, and the hopes of restaurateurs trying to build a dinner business would fade out like brake lights in the distance. In large measure the rule was: People would visit Downtown, but they wouldn't live there.
That's all changed. Developers finally realized that their favorite aphorisms often have footnotes. If you build it, they will come...as long as there are supermarkets and other services that make the actual living part of living in your sexy loft-space, well, livable. Now restaurants pop up for all those folks who've decided to call Downtown home. The Lazy Ox Canteen is a recent addition and, in my circle, the most talked about. The word has been almost uniformly positive and not just because its seasonal, tapas-influenced, gastropub menu throws its arms around up-to-the-moment restaurant-ing. It's seems that the guys behind it really know their way around a kitchen. At the very least, they had the good sense to put a burger on the menu.
It's not a surprise that chef Josef Centeno serves food that people are talking about. He's worked in some of the finest kitchens in the country, including Daniel and Le Cote Basque. In Los Angeles, he made a stir at Meson G and Opus. His partner, Michael Cardenas, made his mark as part of Innovative Dining Group, which brought high-design to the dining room with Sushi Roku and Katana among others. Interestingly, their collaboration The Lazy Ox seems a departure for both of them. Sure there's a sheen to the décor and the food is meticulous, but in both directions the restaurant lacks the fuss that defined those in their rearview mirrors.
The Lazy Ox Burger is an expression of their new aesthetic. It's a simple, unfussy dish that gets an involved reworking. Centeno sources his blend of freshly ground chuck, sirloin, and short rib from Premiere, but he is certainly its author—he throws in some additional beef suet (the fat around the loins and kidney) for additional flavor. The smallish patty is formed into a thick round, and the burger gets a homemade poppy-seeded bun, sliced red onion, lettuce, aioli, and Carmody cheese. Okay, it sounds fussy, but doesn't eat that way.
Both bun and patty got a proper grilling; both arrived with a healthy crust. The patty was, as you'd imagine, the dominant flavor of this burger. There was a richness and depth to the meat that makes you feel like Centeno didn't waste his time figuring out his very specific blend. The onion and aioli are both welcomed, as is the buttery Carmody. The lettuce didn't seem necessary, but with all of the fat, maybe I'd call it a relief.
The letdown was the bun. The texture was too chewy—reminiscent of a sourdough or hard roll—to match the succulent patty and toppings. That and the odd tall and narrow construction made it seem as though the burger was at once too big (to easily bite) and too small (to feel like a meal).
Certainly The Lazy Ox is a restaurant worth your time. I tried a number of dishes and while some, like the watermelon salad, were too clever by half, others were the kind of bites you tell your friends about (try the blueberry muffin). The burger is both. The meat and toppings were so delightful and full of flavor that you can feel that The Lazy Ox is on to something special, but with a mismatched bun and uncertain architecture, you feel like they've outsmarted themselves.