A Fine Cheeseburger at the Spice Table
by Serious Eats, March 21, 2012
With the spate of Asian fusion restaurants popping up all over Los Angeles in the last few years one could easily forget that it was a smiling Austrian who made Americans stand up and take notice of the culinary genre about thirty years ago. This isn’t to dismiss the power a Korean taco has had on our foodscape, but rather to say what we’ve known for some time: Fusion works.
Among my favorites of the recent movement has to be chef Bryant Ng’s restaurant The Spice Table. Ng, one of the chefs that served alongside Nancy Silverton when she opened Mozza, left excellent pizza in the rear-view mirror and set his sights on Singaporean/Vietnamese cuisine (Ng is Vietnamese and his wife and co-owner Kim is Singaporean) when shaping the menu at his restaurant. Even though lunch is a much more casual affair than dinner at The Spice Table (oh, how I wish I didn’t have to order at the counter), it retains in almost all respects the craft and precision that are the mark of this talented chef. The interior embraces the handsome, brick-walled aesthetic of the building that houses this Little Tokyo restaurant. It seems well-suited for a high-end chef’s Asian fusion dreams.
So how did a burger get into the mix? Last year when Eater LA reached out to Ng to participate in their Burger Week, Ng responded with a much lauded Southeast Asian Cheeseburger. It was so well-received that Ng decided to put it on his regular lunch menu. I decided to eat it and lots more.
The now renamed Spice Table Cheeseburger takes its cues from Ng’s personal preference for the classic Southern California cheeseburger. He cites Pie ‘N Burger,Apple Pan, and In-N-Out as his influences and, thankfully, they show. His cheeseburger shows up wrapped in paper like the classics. One could be forgiven for thinking this was a very attractive, classic cheeseburger (perhaps with a little hickory sauce), but since this is Ng’s take on the classic, the flavors he mixes in are anything but.
The five-ounce patty is a very tight grind of short rib that gets a kick of shrimp paste. The toppings include iceberg lettuce, tomato, and Kraft American cheese, but he adds shallot mayo, curry pickled cucumbers, tomato, and sambal.
The bun is a truly exceptional commercial bun that betrays this chef’s taste for precision with the subtle grill marks on top. I must admit I found myself smiling when I first saw them.
The rich, fatty beef gives off that distinct short rib flavor (Shake Shack lovers know what I’m talking about), though I’d prefer a coarser grind and looser packing. I suspect the shrimp paste gets mixed in too early and the additional salt tightens up the meat a bit. The cheese helps things out a lot. Ng’s choice of Kraft American is a good one; it’s rich, creamy, and melts great. The shallot mayo is a homemade delight, and the lettuce, tomato, and even curried pickle hit the notes of the classic burger that I crave. Oh, and that classic commercial bun—I think it’s nearly the Platonic ideal of burger buns. (I’m working on getting the provenance out of Ng.)
So whence comes the fusion? Clearly it’s the sambal and it’s not served in small portion (it’s the red sauce in the photos). The chili-based condiment adds a hefty spicy kick, but it’s more than just heat; there’s an acidic bite to it that at times overwhelms the other flavors of the burger. Although I liked the sambal, I would’ve preferred just a little of it. If you’re looking for a milder burger I’d suggest ordering yours with this sauce on the side.
The fries are professionally handled and, when seen from above, a bit of artistic handiwork. The skinny cut spuds are perfectly fried and although not the most flavorful on their own are accompanied by a fantastic dipping sauce. The depth and delight Ng teases out of his yellow curry is something to experience. The guy should bottle the stuff.
Out of the other dishes I tried, the one best suited as an additional side to a burger would be the slaw. The combination of minced cabbage and carrot accompanied by some peanuts makes for a balancing coolness to all the heat and spice you’ll be devouring in your other dishes.
In the end, isn’t proper balance what all chefs are striving for? Perhaps none more so than the ones undertaking a fusion of cuisines. At Spice Table they take on this project with gymnastic flare. And when it works, like all great balancing acts, it’s exhilarating.