the burger: Double Fast Burger: two 3oz patties of enlightened grass fed beef, house made American cheese, custom burger sauce, lettuce, tomato and onion
the bucks: $8
the coordinates: Los Angeles, CA
One of the most compelling debates on how to make great food erupted perfectly on Twitter a few years ago between Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert over which factor was more significant: technique or ingredient. Bourdain’s argument for technique sort of “won”, as he pointed out that whole cuisines developed around humbling circumstance thereby elevating “lesser” ingredient into what we now know as American Soul Food or Countryside French. Ripert’s retorts for the case of ingredient highlighted the fact that in the food world of today, Chef’s who demonstrate good technique have an almost unparalleled access to fine ingredient, making the debate somewhat moot: Technique and Ingredient are equally significant though don’t always exist in perfect harmony.
The debate haunts my mind with every great meal I encounter. Few times is there true balance between technique and ingredient, and when it comes to Bang for your Burger Buck, often it is technique that is taking the spotlight. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying this fine debate but ingredient comes down to bucks, and saving a few means technique has to step up. There are loads of excellent burgers that I don’t cover and the reason is price. Though I don’t want to think of Bang for your Burger Buck as a “$10 and under club”, it kind of is. Because of this journey that is driven by value, of feeling compelled to make “the find”, I have deprived both you and I, the pleasure of encountering and documenting an “ingredient” driven burger. Until now. After visiting many a burger joint, primarily in Los Angeles, I have come to a place where I am overwhelmed to make the following declaration: the Fastburger at Belcampo Meat Company is the best Bang for your Burger Buck in Los Angeles. Yup, I said it. I don’t do the stars thing – every burger in here is a case for value, but the Belcampo Fastburger is the best deal in town and this is because the burger embodies the balance of excellent technique and superb ingredient. Even crazier than making that kind of contentious “throw down the gauntlet” kind of statement is that the sheer greatness of this burger, the Bang for your Burger Buck, does not stem from the quest of making a great burger but rather from the philosophy of sustainable food. Ethical farming seldom enters the forum of Bang for your Burger Buck but exemptions are made when a burger tastes this good. Add to that an asking price of $8, and this double cheeseburger is an exception welcomed with jaws and wallets, wide open.
One would assume the star of this show would be the grass fed, organic, sustainably raised, 21 day dry aged beef, but it’s not. Nor is it the perfectly sourced burger bun from Giordano’s bakery, the butter lettuce(I’m a sucker for that leaf) or the house made mayonnaise or ketchup – yeah they really make their own ketchup. The star of this show is Belcampo itself, or really the “Belcampo Way“. See this isn’t just a high end butcher shop with a menu. It is also a farm, and the place where these well-raised animals are turned into food. Belcampo is involved in every step, from life to death to sustenance. For the record, that death part of the process isn’t the easiest thing for me to casually mention. I suppose there really isn’t a nice and tidy way to describe a slaughterhouse. The ugly truth for most of us carnivores is that we don’t have the cojones to take the life of an animal in order to eat meat. It is that “ugly truth” that modern farming and supermarkets have sought to shield our eyes from. Eating meat means raising animals for that purpose and we who were raised on animated movies and Saturday Morning cartoons where farm animals can sing and dance, let alone talk, makes the whole notion of killing one for food seem so brutal and wrong. But damn if that burger doesn’t taste good enough for me to forgo a couple of these modern day morality quibbles and just play ball with the Industrial Beef system and accept that “dirty work” as part of the game. And that’s what we do. By the boat load. And the result? An endless demand for meat, at competitive prices to boot, thereby creating a less than utopian system where our furry friends are turned into Sunday Roast.Enter Belcampo Meat Company, who on the surface could be seen as just another artisan food purveyor, selling trendy food labels at stiff prices. I shook my head when I saw chicken breast was going for $16 a pound. But I also cringe when I see what goes in the poultry farms of Arkansas. Upon taking the first bite of a burger at Belcampo, my introductory reaction was my brain interrogating my taste buds to determine what forces in all of the culinary universe could create such a decadent rich taste, my second reaction was “worth it”. The net result of the “Belcampo way” is meat that costs at least double or more, when compared to the conventional grocer. Beyond the price is there a better tasting product? Of course, but like many of the finer things in life – it ain’t for regular folk on a regular basis. $40 a pound steaks spells “special occasion” in my book and many other’s as well. But $8 for a burger that saves the world and comes with cheese? Now that is something I can get down with.The Fastburger at Belcampo is a clear nod to some of the finest drive thru burgers in the business, where the tenet of maintaining a perfect ratio of beef to bun to topping is as crucial as the quality of the ingredients. All it takes is an overly thick slice of tomato or onion and your burger suffers from serious sandwich slippage. This may seem insignificant until you get down to your last third of the burger and half your bun is gone. Perfect burgers are perfect sandwiches and that means care was taken not just in assembly but in conception. What might seem like a slightly meager serving of tomato and onion on the Fastburger is in fact a deliberate act of a Belcampo burger perfectionist. This revelation of ratio came to light time and time again when I approached the very last bite of my Fastburger. For some the end of the meal can be a moment of melancholy, but in the case of the Belcampo Fastburger, when you have taken your sweet time getting down to that perfectly complete final bite, the moment becomes a time to relish in excellent burger cookery. Though it comes wrapped in paper, what holds this burger together was no doubt many a kitchen trial in creating an homage to a classic drive thru style burger rebooted with premium product.With lips smeared with ketchup and held in a frown, my old man would lament at the sauce tactics employed by the likes of the Whopper, calling any wet stuff on a burger “junk”. While I wholeheartedly disagree with his derision of sauce, I do think that less is more. Such is the case with the Belcampo Fastburger where any sign of the house sauce, a classic combination of homemade ketchup and mayonnaise, was undetectable by sight. Taste was another story. My immediate reaction to tasting the Fastburger was my brain demanding an answer to how a burger that appears so modest on paper can taste like truffle season. A quick fire series of questions directed at my server eliminated any gluttonous cheating like a liberal baste of truffle oil or the dousing of butter. I knew Kobe Beef wasn’t the answer because if it was a Kobe burger, it would be called a Kobe burger. While I tip my cap for Belcampo for going the extra mile in making their own American cheese and ketchup in house, these elements of the burger were not the source of such an astonishingly rich finish. The conclusion I have come to is that the sheer richness of the Fastburger hails from the one-two punch of the house made mayonnaise’s olive and canola oil blend coupled with the distinct taste of the rendered fat from the grass fed beef patty. The power of aioli on a burger is familiar enough for the casual burger aficionado. Egg yolk emulsified with olive oil and spiked with garlic as standard protocol in back of house is cause enough for some to go out to eat. Take that same decadence but forgo the garlic and what do you have? A rich finish without the pungency – a more subtle decadence. Then we have that grass fed beef. So much talk about it too. It’s leaner. It has as much Omega 3 fatty acids as salmon. It costs more. What doesn’t get brought up quite as much as the health benefits is not just how good it tastes but how good the fat tastes. My food for thought on the debate of grass vs grain fed beef is this: grass fed beef fat tastes superior. When you pick up a Rib Eye or New York steak at Belcampo you’ll notice the fat cap looks more yellow than the standard white found in those same steaks at a conventional grocery store. It has been noted the yellowish hue in the fat of grass fed beef is due to elevated levels of carotenoids: organic pigments that give color to foods such as tomatoes and salmon. Research has shown that carotenoids have significant health benefits such as the stimulation of white blood cell production, a key tactic to fighting and preventing cancer. More compelling at Bang for your Burger Buck is if these carotenoids taste good. The 21 day dry age process, which also contributes to the yellowing of the beef fat, no doubt plays a factor, but either way, the fat of grass fed beef possesses a remarkably distinct and satisfying taste. And given the standard ratio of 80/20 meat to fat in ground beef, the added fat ensures more flavor bang for your grass fed beef buck. As the resulting jus settles at the bottom of the plate and mingles with the like minded richness of that canola and olive oil blended mayonnaise, as well as the tartness of the house made ketchup – you have a plate that has serious potential to get licked clean. More noteworthy than the idea of diners lifting empty plates to their mouths is that this list of head turning ingredients: the enlightened beef, the homemade American cheese, ketchup, and mayonnaise aren’t just top notch ingredient but they are also examples of top notch technique. They make their own American cheese. They make their own ketchup. They dry-age grass fed beef that they raised. To source great ingredient is one thing, to make as many of them in house as you can is beyond commendable. Technique and Ingredient seldom comes together in such perfect balance. And in an $8 double cheeseburger? That screams Hallelujah at Bang for your Burger Buck.
Beyond the Fastburger(which at $5 for the single patty option is also some serious Bang for your Burger Buck), the Belcampo way ain’t for everybody. The philosophy in practice is a radical departure from the conventional grocer experience where saving money and appealing taste are the absolute goals. Goals that are somehow harmoniously merged into a whole chicken fryer for $2 a pound. While value and taste are certainly laudable goals – it is the “harmony” at which the two must sit that has brought us modern industrial farming, and with it some ugly truths and unfortunate to sometimes dangerous side effects. You may not be able to afford it nearly as often, but if you can recognize what has been left out of modern industrial farming, like the life of the animal, the land it was raised on, the health of the consumer, the quality of life for the people involved in raising an animal, and last but certainly not least, the taste, you can appreciate sustainable farming. And maybe realize that the money we save at the checkout stand does indeed come with a hidden cost. This doesn’t mean that from now on I’ll be forgoing all the other amazing burgers out there that rely on conventional farming. After all, it was the $8 price tag for the Belcampo Fastburger makes it a Bang for your Burger Buck slam dunk. But what makes me call out Belcampo for having the best bang in the city of Angels is a balanced effort of ingredient and technique. Some chefs go to great lengths to source fine ingredients. Some stellar burger joints apply good to great technique in enhancing modest ingredients. Belcampo blurs the lines. They crank up the treble and the bass. And they only charge $8 to blow your eardrums out. What else can I say but “damn, is that some Bang for your Burger Buck”.
Belcampo Meat Company
at the Grand Central Market
317 S. Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013
with additional locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara