Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bonsai yes, Bonzai no

We used to rely on the Red Robin chain for Bonzai Burgers, their take on the pineapple/hamburger idea I consider the foundation of any gourmet burger menu, as well as superb fries (with the skin still on). We used to eat there often with Bit and her friends- a very kid-friendly place, emphasis on "fun" as much as reliably good burgers. Fumiyo, rarely interested in the existence of food, suddenly had a hankering for Red Robin the other day, so after the absence of several years, we went to lunch. It was surprisingly empty. We usually have to wait and wait to get in, this time we were seated instantly. The menu had changed, at least in appearance. There was a fruit drink that looked interesting, heavy on the pineapple juice which I thought would go splendidly with the pineapple-laden Bonzai burger I always ordered at Red Robin. We were both very hungry, as you have to be to eat lunch (usually a small meal for me) there. Like a Japanese Commodore Perry, the Bonzai burger arrived. Cheers rocked the room (for someone else's birthday, but still!). It looked the same. And it tasted, well, almost what I was expecting. The wonderful pineapple/meat combination, smothered in lettuce and tomato, was just what I craved, but the bun tasted like a refugee from MacDonalds. OK, I've never eaten a Macdonalds hamburger, but I have nightmares. It used to be a gourmet bun for a gourmet burger. Fumiyo reported the same with her chicken burger. It tasted so FAST FOOD. And the downward trend continued, even accelerating when we tried the fries. What once were a very good reason to eat at Red Robin now tasted like the salty fries you get at any taste-insulting chain with its billions of tongues tortured.
The Mai Tai, which began with enough of a pineapple kick to seriously accompany of the Bonzai, deteriorated into bitterness the more of it I consumed.
I started eating meat in general and hamburgers in particular when I was 11. LA had a wide variety of available tastes in burgers in those days. A restaurant called Jolly Rogers at the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square (long ago morphed into something else) used to have a Teriyaki burger that was my first experience of hamburgers with pineapple. Until I went to Japan a decade later, I just assumed Teriyaki meant "with pineapple."
I'd had ham with pineapple before I had the Jolly Roger Teriyaki burger so I already appreciated how well pineapple went with meat. Other great burgers of my childhood were the Bob's Big Boy double decker (when Bob's was a tiny local chain, not the empire it later became), the cheeseburger with exquisite cheddar- which I'd enjoyed meatless in my previous incarnation as a vegetarian, at The Hot Dog Show, and both the Russian Burger (Russian dressing) and the Filet Mignon burger at Hamburger Hamlet all glow in my culinary memories. On a recent trip to LA, I noticed that there were no more gourmet burgers at the Hamlet- it's as if the concept of a gourmet burger, once cherished by hamburger lovers in lA, had vanished like the city's old trolley system. Sadly, the Red Robin chain has joined the rush to the bottom. Is it because the fast food joints have so corrupted the taste buds of the masses that there was no longer a market for a really good burger?
Fumiyo and I left Red Robin increasingly drawn to vegetarianism. Memories are fine, but you can't eat them.


At 10:50 AM, Blogger Elayne said...

From time to time Mark Evanier has lots of posts on his blog bemoaning the current state of LA hamburger chains, fondly remembering burgers in his past, etc. You and he should compare notes. :)


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