Los Angeles: Mediocre Burgers at Masa of Echo Park
1800 West Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026 (map); 213-989-1558; masaofechopark.com
Cooking Method: Char-broiled
Short Order: A hipster hangout only manages to get the bun right on their mediocre burger
Want Fries with That? Yes; properly crisp and the krinkle cut on these spuds is a nice touch
Prices: Echo Park Cheeseburger w/fries, $8.45
The Eastern stretch of Sunset Boulevard that runs through Silverlake and Echo Park has long since gentrified into the black heart of Los Angeles hipsterdom. But once upon a time there were the few earnest pioneer restaurants that blazed the trail that led to the parade of overpriced, locavore outposts and "urban" taquerias that pop up with alarming regularity. One of the early (if not actual pioneers) is Masa of Echo Park. Rob Rowe and Rhonda Reynolds opened their fun and quirky (if uneven) restaurant in 2004 with the idea that they could put together a menu that reflected the diversity of the community.
They've certainly put together a varied menu of what they describe as "comfort style bistro food" that combines Italian, French, Spanish, Cuban, and what they term "Chicago-Midwest-American cuisine." This is most notable in their Chicago-ish deep dish pizza.
But of course, I didn't come for the dough. A recent midday meal found me ditching work for an elongated burger lunch at Masa that, while not a total disappointment, left me wondering what might have been.
The first thing I should mention about your options at Masa is their Cuban roll. You'll see them arriving (piping hot) from the kitchen with a bread knife protruding from the top inviting you to devour the soft, warm, fresh bread with murderous abandon. You should do just that. It has a mild yeasty quality and beautifully doughy center that plays against the gently crusty exterior. I can remember more than one pizza dinner at Masa in which their signature Chicago style pies played second fiddle to the bread. The good news is that they serve their burger on the same roll. Sadly that's about the end of the good news.
The Masa's Echo Park Cheeseburger ($8.45) is an eight ounce patty of (what I'd call) commercial chuck. The throw some awkward spears of Romaine lettuce, a few mediocre tomato slices, and some red onion on it and give you a choice of cheese. I went with cheddar. The bun is, as mentioned, that homemade Cuban roll that is (oddly) cut into a square. They'd likely claim it's for burger to bun ratio, but it seems worth forming a smaller round in this case.
Let's start with the patty because that's the biggest problem with this burger. While the grilling gave it a very nice char balanced against a properly medium rare middle, there was little else appealing about it. It was under-seasoned (and not just according to my salty palate) and featured a rather desperate fine grind. The middle took on that pasty quality that ground beef can go to when ground too fine. I'm not calling this pink slime, but certainly it wasn't the quality I expected from Masa.
The toppings were clearly thrown on without much thought of how a diner would actually eat the burger. It took about ninety seconds of futzing with the burger just to get the top half of the bun to stay on. The cheese was nicely melted and pleasant enough, but again, nothing more than mediocre. Finally, that fantastic Cuban bun felt neutered with the square cut. Certainly a good bun is deeply meaningful when assessing a burger's greatness, but even a tasty number like this one feels like cold comfort when paired with a patty like this.
The fries were krinkle cut, which I've warmed to. I'm sure there are legions of Shake Shack devotees who are thinking, "What took you so long." Little secret: I don't think Shake Shack fries are anything special. I'd probably say the same about the Masa fries, but Masa's—like Shake Shacks—are completely adequate. And on a day that I wouldn't finish my burger, they filled in nicely.
I've always been of two minds about Masa. I've never thought their food was anything too special, but I liked the vibe and that Cuban roll was worth the price of admission. After trying their burger I find myself with little new to report. That Cuban roll is still a thoroughbred, but it can't save the burger.
About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.