The Market Grill
525 S. Shamrock Avenue, Monrovia CA 91016 (map); 626-303-4314; The Market Grill on Facebook
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A new, neighborhood eatery makes fantastic, fresh ground burgers
Want Fries with That? Yes! These hand-cut spuds are delicious in their own right, but added homemade chili and cheese makes them sublime
Prices: 1/3-pound hamburger w/ fries or potato salad, $5.95 (cheese, + $0.50)
Notes: There isn't much I wouldn't recommend at The Market Grill. One tip might be to avoid the lunch rush during the work week as the local office parks make for lines that can snake out the door.
When people ask me what I like about living in Los Angeles, I can rattle off platitudes about the weather, the topography, and the diversity, but the answer that always raises an eyebrow is my affinity just how big the city is. It's not simply that there are a lot of us (there are about twenty million folks in what we call "The Southland"), but also the vastness of our sprawl. It sounds strange even to me. I would be the first to argue that no city should be planned like Los Angeles, but I've grown to love the constant discovery it affords. When you fly into the city the landscape rolls out like credits on a screen, but the movie-sized circumstance of life seen from above looks different up close.
All the glowing lights are real lives filled with hopes and dreams and, when I'm lucky, great burgers. A recent example of my city's vastness leading to greatness first arrived as a tip from my life's love. While poking around the internet in search of a place to lunch while we waited on her Volvo to get a check-up, she found a reference to a new burger spot called The Market Grill in Monrovia, a small town just a little northeast of Los Angeles. Now, I receive burger tips with such regularity that they usually blend into white noise, but when my favorite person talks, I listen and, almost invariably, learn. Of course, when the lesson comes in the shape of a burger, it goes down easier.
The Market Grill is a little more than nine months old, but it has the feel of a place that's been there for years. In some respects I imagine that's because it has. The building has been there since 1924 and has managed to support a convenience store and a food shop that share an entrance since then. The last owner ran a long time greasy spoon that hadn't really offered much more than proximity to the residents of the sleepy residential neighborhood just north of Monrovia's business district. When he left the place in disrepair, Alex and Tracy Ramirez decided to take it over and make something special.
They live just a couple of blocks from the restaurant and decided that they wanted to give their community a local spot that made some simple food very well. While Tracy is a lovely newcomer to the food service, Alex has grown up in the restaurant business. He's only 38-years-old, but has managed to accrue 23 years of professional kitchen experience and it shows. His menu is relatively straightforward, but he manages to make almost everything that hits the plate from scratch.
His burger is the result of months of experimentation which, once you chat with him, isn't much of a surprise. As soon as Alex starts talking about his food his quick smile straightens into seriousness. When I ask about the patties, which are fresh-ground every day, he cocks his head in apology—it's a secret blend. What he does reveal is that each patty is weighed out to an exact 5.5 ounces and that he does all of the grinding himself. The bun is also fresh and also not the result of a purveyor. They are baked in batches through the day and cooled on the windowsill. Lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and Thousand Island are included. Is the Thousand Island from a bottle? Nope; homemade also.
I ordered my first burger with everything and a slice of Joseph Farms cheddar. The bun is the first thing to notice: fresh and just shy of perfectly round so that you know it's made in a kitchen. The veggies and Thousand Island are fresh and excellent. The salad dressing, which is a Southern California burger staple, lacks the cloying quality of that can take hold with mass-produced stuff. The bun has fantastic flavor and is a treat all by itself. My one hesitation in calling it truly great is that it lacks the sponginess that I prefer with my burgers. But really those ingredients are supporting roles to the star: the patty. The superb coarse grind gets a prodigious crust from the griddle and the blend is rich and flavorful. I liked it so much that I tried a second burger that was just meat, cheese, bun, and dressing.
I couldn't decide which I liked better. The first had all of the flavors you'd hope for from a Southern California burger, but the patty can get lost in it a bit. With just the meat and cheese (and maybe a lighter dressing than I had) the burger finds a beautiful balance. I imagine it would be a decision based on mood, but the second version is the one I find myself dreaming of eating again.
The fries are, as you'd guess, fresh-cut. I tried them on their own and with some of the homemade chili and some cheese. Both were excellent, but the second iteration (not usually my preference) were surprisingly good.
That is, perhaps, how I'd describe The Market Grill generally. There isn't any reason to suspect that a little, corner diner would be anything other than ordinary. It had survived that way for years. But for Alex and Tracy Ramirez, "ordinary" means something different—it means making things as good as they can be. This is the gift of living in a place as big as Los Angeles. The city has room for people with dreams they're ready to make a reality and reminds that if you really listen to someone you love, the noise just fades away.