Tuesday, 13 January 2015
Pono Burger / Santa Monica
Who are they?
Pono Burger are a burger joint with Hawaiian influences and are based in sunny Santa Monica, north of Los Angeles. I could have chosen any place to go out for a Saturday night when I was in the States, but a quick Google search while I was out on the town and I was heading up from the beach to see what all the fuss was about. After all, how bad could this be after the awful Fatburger?
Nestled in a curious outbuilding on a street corner far from the madding crowd, Pono Burger looks less like a restaurant and more like a large air-raid shelter or surf shack, decked out with plenty of seating and wood furnishings, giving this a very distinctive look. Put simply, you're not going to miss it driving down the street! Even at 7pm on a Saturday the place was nearly packed out - which is always a good sign if the locals go there. They also have a small outdoor area to enjoy burger al fresco and given that 30+ degrees in November was very much a novelty for me, I picked a table outside the kitchen building and decided what to go for.
A quick glance at the menu told me that Pono was going to give me a decent burger over the average main street vendor, espousing the use of organic beef married with a thoughtful choice of extra ingredients in each menu offering, all encased in a brioche bun. In short, something along the lines of what I am used to enjoying from places in London but different in terms of the Hawaiian inspiration.
With only a few stock burger choices, which do seem to change with the season, it does ease the decision making somewhat. In this case, I went for the Paniolo, a 1/3 pound patty with English mature cheddar, bacon, housemade BBQ sauce and housemade buttermilk fried onion rings. Add some "pomme frites" (aka posh skinny fries) and a lovely cold Utah-brewed IPA and you're set to go.
Service is friendly and fast, with all three components served up in under a quarter of an hour despite the busy evening trade. While the burger is bulked out by the three large onion rings, something I have complained about in the past, it's a simple chore to remove the offending articles from within the toasted brioche to enjoy them separately and with a generous portion of chips, it's unlikely that you will still feel hungry afterwards
Speaking of fries, the sheer volume of them means that you can justify picking up a few of these very crispy fries at once. While the use of salt, rosemary and thyme is a familiar and well chosen combination, I'm not entirely sure that the use of "kosher salt" really enhances the flavour that much. I suspected that this might be a case of Emperor's New Clothes syndrome, but after tasting a few of them any concern vanished under the taste. The accompanying onion rings are also just as excellent, with a well cooked yet still slightly moist coating encasing a generous slice of onion. This scores highly in my book as they have really got the balance right between soggy and completely dry batter and I do think three of these seem to be the right amount - any fewer and I would want more, any more than three and I might just have left them.
As for the burger patty, it's certainly a cut above the average patty and a lovely, juicy piece of beef to boot. Yes, it's a little less than what I'm used to over my usual side of the pond, but this did leave more room for a potential pudding or extra beer for later. The mature cheese is always a good choice for a strong accessory along with the crispy bacon, but for me it's the prudent use of Pono's homemade BBQ sauce that gives this particular burger a standout character for me. It imbues a slightly smokey yet oh so sweet flavour with every bite, while not completely overwhelming the taste of the other elements of the burger and perhaps the greatest BBQ sauce I have come across so far. Strong and well deserved words, with a sauce that exhibits the Hawaiian influences of this burger joint in fine fashion.
Don't let the liberal use of the word "organic" and over-the-top descriptions of the individual ingredients on the menu fool you, Pono Burger know what they are doing when it comes to hamburgers. The one I had was great, especially with the lovely individual, homemade touches, and I could have quite happily gone back to try one of the other options for a completely contrasting flavour. Add quick service and a reasonable price makes this place a no-brainer if you happen to be in town.
So far, America has one solid entry and a clearly awful one when it comes to thorough nice burger restaurants in my book. The next trip I make to the 'States will be to New York, so if you have any recommendations, let me know in the comments and I'll take a look!
Where can I find them?