4001 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90010 (map); 213-738-7898; kalbiburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A Korean spin on the burger is two parts hit, one part miss
Want Fries with That? Sure—frozen, skinny cut spuds are just OK, but combo order gets you fries and a drink for just a couple of bucks more
Prices: The Kalbi Burger (with fries and a drink), $9.95; burger only, $7.95
You could say it was just a matter of time. A burger joint with a Korean twist seemed like a Los Angeles inevitability. A city that claims the origin of the fast food burger and Asian fusion cuisine mixed with the largest Korean population outside of Korea is a veritable cultural recipe for the Korean-styled burger spot.
With the recent addition of Kalbi Burger to our ever-expanding burger kingdom here in the City of Angels, the Korean burger joint has arrived with a purpose. Sure we've had Korean-influenced burgers hit a few local menus (I reviewed the one at Gyenari a while back), but Kalbi Burger is a glossy, out-of-the-box restaurant that seems to have designs on growing itself and the signature dish into a full-fledged American tradition.
The strip-mall storefront of Kalbi Burger is on the Western frontier of our rapidly expanding Korea town. I'm probably going to get the explanation of the name a little wrong so I encourage those in the know to give us the heads up in the comments, but I'll try to do it a modicum of justice. Kalbi Burger is named after the Korean dish most familiar to Americans: barbecue. Kalbi (or galbi) while literally meaning "rib" can actually refer to a number of different grilled dishes. The kalbi referenced here is the Korean marinated short rib. Traditionally made with Korean soy sauce, garlic and sugar, it can also get a little kick from some rice wine, sesame oil, and chili paste. It's a savory and sweet flavor that is, quite simply, delicious. Does it work for a burger? Depends.
The signature Kalbi Burger is made with a blend of short rib and chuck. The owners make note that all their meat is both Angus and humanely raised. It's also free of hormones and antibiotics. All prospective burger chains should be so conscientious. They top the burger with American cheese, Romaine lettuce, tomato, red onion, a Korean vinaigrette, and kalbi aioli.
Interestingly their default temperature is medium well, but not for the reason you'd guess. They aren't worried about getting you sick. Rather, they are worried about you getting sick of their burger. When I asked for mine medium rare, I was directed to medium. The explanation: medium rare results in a "too buttery" burger. I was suspicious and hopeful all at the same time. Medium it was.
The Korean influence on this burger is apparent from the get go. The vinaigrette and aioli stepped forward immediately and made for a delicate sweetness that was beguiling. It matched the healthy portioning of lettuce, tomato, and onion really nicely. The beef itself wasn't as full-flavored as I'd hoped, but this was, in large portion, due to its portioning.
The flaky, almost hard roll-style bun and toppings weren't in proper ratio with the beef. Further, an otherwise tasty patty got an odd grind grind. It was especially fine giving the meat a smooth texture that just doesn't work for a burger. In fact, I'd guess a coarser and more loosely packed Kalbi patty would allow for a cooler temperature to work on this burger. That said, all of the flavors were great. Well, all except one. The American cheese struck me as out of place. The distinctive tang didn't match the rest of the burger and felt like one topping too many.
I also tried the Saigon Burger. This Vietnamese-influenced burger is a straight Angus chuck patty topped with cucumber, jalapeno, cilantro. pickled carrot, radish, and Saigon sauce. Again, the distinctive Asian flavors popped. The toppings on this burger were truly excellent and certainly an argument for East meeting West.
I tried the regular and salt and vinegar fries. Both start as frozen skinny cuts that get one go in the oil. The regular fries are just good, but that's good enough. The salt and vinegar, while having excellent flavor came out soggy, which was a turn off. I also tried the homemade chili, and if you go to Kalbi Burger you should too. It's deep, developed all-meat chili that gets its flavor as much from the earthiness of some herbs (bay leaves, et al.) as it does a hit of chili powder. Mixed with cheese and red onion it was a surprising treat.
Kalbi Burger doesn't make the grade on all counts, but not every aspect of the burger has to be an A. Yes, their grind should be worked out and their bun issues could be solved with a simple commercial order from Sysco, let alone using any of a number of great local bakeries, but there is still something to like about this place. Did I just say that I don't like the grind and the bun, but I still think there is something to like about a burger? I guess I did. Strange as it is, I still enjoyed aspects of my meal despite the burger-ness of Kalbi letting me down. The toppings were really tasty and I think they have promise for being part of a great fusion dish. For now, it's just OK.
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