206 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles CA 90004 (map); 323-466-4860; facebook.com/BiergartenLA
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: This Korean-German-American fusion restaurant makes good on the culinary promise of a mash-up metropolis like Los Angeles and serves up a fantastic burger to boot!
Want Fries with That? The tempura battered fries have a crunchy appeal, but the Korean-inspired potato salad was the star spud for me.
Prices:The Americana, $11
One of the many reasons I love my adopted hometown of Los Angeles is its vibrant collision of cultures. This idea was literalized (and then turned back into metaphor) in the Oscar-winning movie Crash, but in my experience the result is less fender-bending, racial tension and more horizon-expanding deliciousness. Case in point: Biergarten. This year-old restaurant is a 21st century mash-up of contemporary Korean-Americana and classic German fare.
The owner, Neil Kwon, is plainspoken about his inspirations. After migrating to the United States when he was five, Kwon came of age in Los Angeles's Koreatown just as the neighborhood began its boom. His family had always been in the restaurant business so his future as a restaurateur was clear. The question became, "What would his restaurant look like?" He loved the Korean food he was raised on just as much as the burgers he ate with his friends after school, but straightforward Korean fusion didn't cover all of his desires. A trip to Germany as a young man gave him a love of the all-ages inclusiveness of the German beer gardens. So what kind of restaurant did he decide to build? A Korean-American-German spot called Biergarten, of course. I, for one, couldn't be happier about it.
The recently revamped menu at Biergarten runs the gamut of the three main cuisines, and while there isn't a distinctly "German" burger available, the Germanic origins of the quintessential American sandwich are a given. The first one I tried, the Americana is named that for good reason: It's an exercise in burger classicism. The six and a half ounces of "premier blend" Angus beef from Premier Meats is formed into a slim but still substantial round. It's matched with lettuce, tomato, red onion, cheddar, and bacon. All of these classic ingredients are heaped on a King's Hawaiian burger bun.
Kwon hired Eddie Hah from 8 Oz. Burger Bar so it's no surprise to find that some of the architecture of this burger is akin to what you'll find there, but this promising young chef is clearly better served when he's in full control. His version of a straightforward (if heavily topped) topped burger at Biergarten is better than anything I've had at 8 Oz. The sear on the patty was top notch and it clearly got the heavy seasoning that brings out the meat's natural appeal. The toppings are all in perfect balance which, given my reticence about bacon, was a delightful surprise. The King's Hawaiian bun added a satisfying sweetness and might just be the spongiest roll out there.
Once I got my mouth around that first burger I knew the die had been cast with respect to the rest of the eating I'd be doing that day. I immediately ordered up the other two burgers on the menu: the Korean and the Glutster. The Korean is a beef patty topped with shredded daikon, a spicy Korean sauce, and Spam. Kwon explained why that last ingredient is actually a Korean favorite: The influx of canned American meats during the Korean War led to the creation of a stew called budae jjigae or Military Soup.
As a burger the fusion flavor is quite bold and makes for an enjoyable nontraditional twist. The beef still manages to hold up to the strong Korean flavors, but the spicy sauce and daikon play a prominent role in this version.
The final burger of my ridiculously over-indulgent lunch is aptly named The Glutster, named after one of Los Angeles' great food bloggers (and now Saveur contributor!), Javier Cabral, a.k.a. The Glutster. Hah and Cabral are buddies and they got to texting and then talking about burgers. Cabral came up with some ingredient ideas and the conversation turned into a delicious melange of Mexican flavors. The patty is actually ground pork and is topped with guacamole, heaps of onion, black beans, epazote salsa, and a fried green tomato.
The fries are called tempura fries because of a light tempura exterior. I thought they'd be farther afield from the standard issue version, but they're actually quite recognizable. There's a little added crunch, but otherwise these are solid, medium cut fries. The other spud option that comes with the burger is a Korean-style potato salad, which I actually preferred over the fries.
Recently I've stumbled upon a number of burgers I've truly enjoyed, but it's been a long while since I found myself as charmed by a place and an owner as I was by Biergarten and Neil Kwon. The decor may not give off traditional biergarten, but his welcoming demeanor and palpable desire to please his guests certainly does. Add to that some burgers worth going out of your for and it seems likely that Kwon's version of Los Angeles fusion is here to stay.
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