20 E. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91105 (map); 626-793-3010; kingsrowpub.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This cheeseburger's great dry-aged beef is undermined by the cheese
Want Fries with That? Yes; truly great fries
Prices: Dry Aged Rib Eye Burger (w/fries), $14
While it's true that an actual court awarded the the trademark for the term "cheeseburger" to Denver restaurateur Louis Ballast in 1935, young Lionel Clark Sternberger and the city of Pasadena seem to have won claim to the invention of said sandwich in the court of public opinion. This is in part due the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce recent bit of burger PR. They used this little controversy in burger history to motivate their Cheeseburger Week. As the story goes, it all began in the 1920s when a teenaged Sternberger was working the grill at his father's restaurant, The Rite Spot, on Pasadena's main drag, Colorado Boulevard (then part of Route 66). He topped an overcooked hamburger with a slice of American cheese to cover his mistake. Soon Sternberger's father would add his son's clever misdirection to The Rite Spot's menu as the "Aristocratic Burger: the Original Hamburger with Cheese."
To whom the actual origin of the cheeseburger credit goes may just remain mired in the disagreement between the competing historical narratives, but the participants in Cheeseburger Week settled on which Pasadena cheeseburger is best. One of the big winners of the week was chef Bob Rice's cheeseburger at Kings Row (also located on Colorado Boulevard). The burger and the restaurant are decidedly English (gastropub) in their inspiration, so I was curious to see how they executed this American original. As it turned out, the American (cheese) is a big part of what makes a cheeseburger great.
Rice starts his cheeseburger with a hefty and well-designed patty. The eight ounces of beef come from a rib eye cut that gets aged for 28 days before it hits the grill. They bake their own buns and toast them with butter and garlic. The onions are grilled to a rich brown hue in duck fat. Then, of course, there's the cheese. Unsurprisingly, the gourmet aspirations of this burger mean that American cheese wasn't an option. In fact, just one cheese wasn't enough: Rice puts on both Tillamook extra sharp white cheddar and a French double cream blue cheese.
Let's start with the good. There's little question that the patty is the strongest single element. The choice to dry-age the beef is always a bold one since the funky flavors that aging brings out changes the basic profile. I happen to love the preparation, and the Kings Row version is no exception. The beef flavor was deep and the medium-coarse grind crumbled nicely.
That said, my burger came out medium well, bordering on well done, despite my medium rare request. The saving grace of this overcooking was (perhaps much like young Sternberger's original) the extra fat introduced by the cheese (and onions). Since the meat to fat ratio of this patty is in the 80/20 neighborhood, the extra temperature was less of a problem (plenty of fat still evident even when overcooked), but still, so little pink in a patty this big is a mistake in preparation to me.
I'm not certain the onions demand a duck fat bath, but they were beautifully browned and full of flavor. The bun, too, gets additional fat with a slathering of butter—a slathering that isn't necessary in the face of the housemade bun's appealing freshness.
The real misstep on this cheeseburger was the choice of cheeses. Cheddar is a standard and, for me, a fine option, but the extra sharp variety has a very strong flavor. Add to that a blue cheese—the most intrusive cheese flavor you're likely to come across on a burger—and you've got two choices that seem out of place, especially considering Rice's choice to use dry-aged beef. The flavor that dry-aging brings out leans toward funky and is often likened to blue cheese. It seems a disservice to his very good patty to slather it in a cheese that competes so closely in flavor. In fact, both the blue and cheddar seem too strongly flavored for this patty. Ok, so maybe American cheese would be out of place here, but something with a milder flavor would be a worthwhile replacement.
The fries are handled beautifully. The fresh cut spuds came out of the oil piping hot and displayed great blistering on the exterior, which gave way to a smooth, creamy inside. They had a full potato flavor with that decadent richness that comes with a good frying. They were comparable to some of the best chips I had while in England.
In fact, a number of the other English-inspired dishes at Kings Row were quite good (if you aren't in the mood for a burger, try the fish 'n chips). That said, their burger was undone by that gastropub inspiration. Generally speaking, a burger is well-suited to the mild tang and easy melt of American cheese or a similar type. If you head to Kings Row, I'd suggest putting aside their cheeseburger awards and hold the cheese; order yours simply a burger.