It is a hot day in Los Angeles, at least compared to what is going on back home in New York where my friends tell me the weather is quite inclement. I have a plane to catch in a scant two and a half hours, yet I am heading in the opposite direction from both my hotel and the airport. I am on a mission to eat what has been widely lauded as the best burger in L.A.
I arrive a quarter hour before opening. The sun beats down mercilessly on me as I stand in the street waiting for the clock to strike 5 p.m. and the doors of Father's Office to open. I am not alone—huddled parties of twos and threes lurk by the entrance, their eyes expectantly darting in the direction of the shuttered door at the slightest stirring behind it. When it finally swings open—an agonizing two minutes later than expected—there is a passive-aggressive stampede as the disparate parties conglomerate in an effort to funnel through the entrance first without appearing rude or pushy.
We spill out into the long, narrow confines of a room that is ensconced, floorboard to ceiling, in blond wood paneling and rush for the bar to place our orders. I have a distinct advantage here: I may not have arrived first, but since I know what I want, there's no need to peruse the printed menu or the chalk boards. I hasten to order the Office burger. The fact that "no substitutions, modifications, alterations, or deletions" are permitted leaves only two question. "Fries?" Yes please. When queried on my drink preference I instinctively order the most familiar label amongst the seemingly endless number of beers on tap and request Old Speckled Hen, betraying my English upbringing.
I take a number and a seat and begin sopping up my beer. When the Office burgerarrives, I realize that I have traveled half way across L.A. and risked missing my flight home to try a hamburger that is not a hamburger at all. What sits in front of me can be properly described as a submarine sandwich. The dry aged sirloin patty comes on a torpedo-shaped soft French roll (or should that be a Freedom roll?). Topped with a gooey mixture of caramelized onions, applewood bacon compote, Gruyère and Maytag blue cheeses with a salad's worth of arugula pushing the top half of the bun heavenwards, the contraption looks nothing like a hamburger. It is served bisected, which, given its size and shape, makes it easier to eat, but also causes the beef to lose its juices onto the wax paper under it. The bun is actually quite soft and compliant, molding around the stuffing and holding everything in place. Surprisingly, I do not object unduly to the bread of choice as it at least texturally mimics a proper burger bun, but that doesn't change the fact that it is not. The other components are more confounding.
The first bite of the sandwich elicits a panoply of exotic and delicious flavors and textures, but ones that bear little relation to a hamburger. A sweetness from the caramelized onions is balanced by the bacon compote, and while the effervescent arugula brightens the palate, it clashes somewhat with the beef. The latter is utterly exquisite, bearing all the hall marks of a dry-aged steak—a tangy, earthy, mineral-rich taste combined with a subtle smokiness imparted by the grill. Perfectly cooked to rare, I am immediately impressed by its flavor and find myself transported back East, the beef evoking the smell of the vestibule of Peter Luger Steakhouse, so pronounced is the dry aging.
Yet the other ingredients serve to obscure the patty's virtues and I find them superfluous, especially the blue cheese, which mirrors the flavor of the beef. I lop off the toppings from the second half of the sandwich, leaving an untidy pile on the paper. The result is a much better flavor balance between beef and bread. When you have meat of this quality it should be served as a steak or at least a steak sandwich. I often make the case that a burger should be better than the sum of its parts, but the Office Burger reverses the equation, taking ingredients that could make a gourmet meal and combining them into something that is muddled and schizophrenic.
At $12 including tax ($14 with fries) the burger is a more than fairly priced considering the quality of the ingredients; in fact, I am surprised it cost as little as it does and wonder if money isn't lost on every sale. The fries are of the shoestring variety and are very crisp and mildly flavorful. They are accompanied by a tangy garlic parsley aioli, but, sadly, no ketchup. French roll, aioli, no ketchup, no substitutions: What the hell is going on here? This is supposed to be an upscale pub, not a downscale fine-dining restaurant. My misgiving about culinary intentions aside, the fries are worth the $2 supplemental charge, even if they don't come served in a miniature shopping cart as they do when ordered separately (a la carte—get it?)
I polish off the sandwich, down my beer, unsuccessfully attempt to avoid eating too many fries and head out for my flight, which I barely make. I cannot deny that I consider getting another Office Burger to go, but that is the steak lover in me—not the hamburger lover—doing the talking. While what Father's Office serves may be delicious (with a little customization) and indeed luxurious, it is most assuredly not a hamburger: It is a haute cuisine submarine.
Father's Office 1018 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90403 (b/n 10th Street and 11th Street)