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[Photographs: Damon Gambuto]

Burger Haven

42 South De Lacey Avenue, Pasadena CA 91105 (map); 626-768-9555; havengastropub.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A new gastropub serves up burgers that are both inspired and high quality
Want Fries with That? Yes; the freshcut spuds are great and the rings are even better
Prices: Haven Burger, $10; McCormick Alley, $10; Here's the Kicker, $9

Perhaps it's not really a surprise that Haven Gastropub's chef, Greg Daniels, knows his way around a burger. Sure he received name brand culinary education and obsessed over the intricacies of fine dining, but his story is much more than simply mastering mother sauces and mis en place.

Daniels started his adventures in the restaurant industry as a wide-eyed 15-year-old working at a fast food joint. From there he made his way behind the bar slinging drinks while holding onto to dreams of becoming a chef. He finally made his way to the Le Cordon Bleu program at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena before teaming up with his buddy Wil Dee on the first Haven Gastropub in Orange, California. The pair were so successful in their the balancing of casual and fine dining they were, in short order, able to open a second outpost in Pasadena.

Their burger was a big part of their success—so much so, in fact, that they decided on putting together a little burger-only pop-up restaurant in the back of the new joint. I am suspicious of pop-ups if only because I'm old and fear change. This one changed me. The burgers at enter-on-the-alley Burger Haven in the back of the Pasadena Haven Gastropub are the real deal.

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I tried three of the burgers on the stripped down menu and all were very good. The first was the eponymous Haven Burger ($10). The chef influence on this one is readily apparent. The nine ounces of Imperial Valley beef is a blend of 65 percent chuck, 15 percent short rib, and 20 percent pork fat that's topped with pickled red onions, roasted red bell peppers, wild arugula, and the powerful St. Agur blue cheese. This is all piled atop a brioche bun from the OC Baking Company that gets a slather of garlic aioli.

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It's a beautiful and complex burger. The beef blend is full of depth and, as you'd guess, rich from all of the fat. It gets a heavy sear, but mine came out perfectly pink and thus ridiculously juicy. The brioche bun was surprisingly soft and spongy like it should be and was able to stand up to all of the beef and toppings. The eating experience is addictive—one bite demands that you take a second, and so on. I was through half of it before offering my dining companion a taste. The pickled onions and red pepper added a subtle acid undertone that played nicely with the fatty beef and the arugula gives a peppery kick.

If there is a weakness to this construction it's the St. Agur blue cheese. I know this a well regarded blue, but its high marks come not only from its double cream smoothness, but also from its powerful veins of mold. I found it a bit too heavy of a portion on my burger.

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The McCormick Alley ($10) is a more traditional cheeseburger construction with a 100 percent grass-fed chuck from a ranch in Paso Robles that is topped with a two-year aged Grafton cheddar, a bacon stout jam, and butter lettuce set atop a roasted shallot potato bun. It was undoubtedly my favorite. The patty on this one is junior to the Haven both in size (six ounces) and juiciness, but still, the grass-fed beef was coarsely ground and given an added hit of fat from the delicious bacon jam. The brown, viscous mass that sits atop this burger won't win any beauty contests, but my, how congenial it is. Add to that the full-flavored cheddar and simple butter lettuce and you've got a burger worth a ride to Pasadena. The final component, the shallot potato bun, makes an argument for having it as the go-to bun for all the Haven burgers. Its spongy texture approached my ideal.

The Here's the Kicker ($9) burger has the same six-ounce, grass-fed patty as the McCormick, but things get a lot hotter from there. This one is topped with habanero and smoked serrano powder, blistered jalapeƱos, pickled ghost chile, and radish salad and served on a jalapeƱo potato bun. Oh, they do throw some sour cream in the mix to cool things off. I'm a wimp when it comes to spicy, but even my pepper-addled dining partner tapped out on this one. The flavors are actually quite good, but the heat hit me so fast and hard that couldn't get past a couple of bites.

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I tried the fries and rings here, and you should too. The fries are simple enough: Fresh-cut Russets get get a double dip in the fryer (canola), so they have a great crisp along with full flavor.

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But while the fries are very good, the the onion rings are truly special. The yellow onions are coated in a tempura batter that is near perfection. The crispy exterior gave way to a smooth and flavorful interior. I had eaten three before I even registered how great they were.

The idea behind creating this little back-of-the-house pop-up (you'll be sitting by the kitchen) was born from a desire to showcase Haven's take on the fast-casual burger trend. They're clearly having fun with the menu as this isn't a series of serious burgers. The creations are whimsical, but still they deliver a high quality product that's worth your time. I'm told that the success of Haven Burger means that it's sticking around for the foreseeable future. I sure hope that's true; there are few more burgers I have to try.

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 seriouslydamon@gmail.com.

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