Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Cut Above Fast Food - The Oinkster

The Oinkster's concept is wonderful: "Slow Fast Food", where everything is made from scratch (even their Ketchup and Thousand Island Dressing), with a focus on quality ingredients. It's an attempt to bridge the gap between the quality you'd find at a nice, sit down restaurant and fast food, headed up by Chef Andre Guerrero, the Filipino-American chef behind So Cal restaurants MAX (now Marche) and BoHo. And it's because of those principals and pedigree that the Oinkster is going on four years strong, and has legions of devoted followers.

Remodeled to pay tribute to the classic diners of the 1950's and '60's, The Oinkster is seemingly always busy, and it's not unusual to see a line of customers out the door. With 2 large flatscreen HDTV's broadcasting the latest sports events, the focus on quality ingredients and the ability to pick from ~18 - 20 choices of cold beers, it's hard not to see why.

Glancing over the menu during my first visit brings me hope: It's a focused menu, with only a few key items (and variations of those items) - House-Cured Pastrami, Burgers, Pulled Pork and Rotisserie Chicken - and I decide to start with their BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich.

For one of their signature items, it turns out to be surprisingly bland. Chef Guerrero's recipe calls for brining Pork Butt with Soy Sauce and Honey, then smoking it with Applewood, before slow-roasting it overnight. It sounds great in concept, but in execution, it's disappointing. There's almost no hint of smokiness, but at least the Pork itself tastes fresh (i.e., not reheated / leftovers). There's a nice soft, shredded consistency, and the Caramelized Onions, Red Cabbage Slaw and their own Carolina BBQ Sauce help to try and prop up this Sandwich, but in the end, the missing depth of flavor brings this dish down.

But the next item is something that makes up for the Sandwich in spades: Their Belgian Fries, which are so popular that it's the sole reason some customers come to The Oinkster, and it inspired Jonathan Gold to gush on and on about its greatness.

Their Belgian Fries are hand-cut Kennebec Potatoes, twice-fried, once in Beef Fat, and then finished off in Rice Bran Oil, and during my first visit, they are spectacular. It's luscious, with a big crisp crunch, with a soft center. They're delicious by themselves, but then I try a dip in their housemade Garlic Aioli Sauce and it's even better: A rich, creamy, powerful Garlic wave hits the mouth along with the crispy crunch of the Belgian Fry. Outstanding! :)

Sadly, it's their consistency that's the downfall with their landmark dish: Of the 4 times I've ordered their Belgian Fries, one time the Fries were downright cold(!) and a bit dried out, but still crunchy; another time, they were lukewarm, limp and not crunchy at all. :(

I can't resist a good Chili and luckily, The Oinkster's Chili is another winner.

The Chili has a light spiciness with subtle complexities. It's not too greasy, and the flecks of Ground Beef give it a satisfying edge. It's also bright and fresh, tasting like something just off the oven. When combined with their Belgian Fries (when they're good), this is easily a contender for one of the best Chili Fries in LA. :)

Another of their cornerstone items is their Rotisserie Chicken.

Like their Belgian Fries, consistency seems to be the weak link in their offerings. The first two times I've ordered their Rotisserie Chicken have resulted in salty, but moist, flavorful Chicken. It's a bit too salty for my tastes, but otherwise it's quite good for a local neighborhood eatery.

But the 3rd time resulted in an overly dry, salty, mediocre 1/2 Rotisserie Chicken. :( A far cry from the results of 2 previous orders. The Leg, Thigh and Breast were all dry, and the Wing was inedible (an overcooked, rock-hard "shell").

The Oinkster's House-Cured Pastrami Sandwich is arguably their most popular item from the main dishes, cured for 2 weeks before being smoked with Applewood.

I'm excited to see if there's an alternative to Langer's to satisfy my Pastrami craving, and I anxiously take a bite: It's on the lean side, with a decent bit of fat, and it's juicy, spicy with a huge Black Pepper punch to finish it off. It's not even close to Langer's, but it's better than other So Cal establishments like The Hat.

But sadly, on another visit, their Pastrami Sandwich is completely dry, stringy and very tough. :( Clearly, quality control seems to be a recurring issue.

Their Beet Salad is an example of something you'd almost never find in a local burger joint.

The Mixed Greens are fine, but then you get a bite of outstanding, fresh Candied Walnuts, and a generous portion of Red Beets (there seems to be more Beets than anything else in the Salad). The Balsamic is sufficiently pungent and brings a nice acidity, but then you get the Goat Cheese Ball: A crispy fried ball that breaks into a slightly gooey, creamy, pungent and fragrant explosion. Excellent. :)

On my 4th visit, I knew I had to get their famous Ube Milkshake at least once. :)

Made with Fosselman's Ice Cream, the Ube Milkshake is a surprisingly powerful, perfume-y burst of Ube (Filipino Purple Yam), along with a deep creaminess. It's also way too sweet for my tastes (but I normally like my desserts and sweets on the low-key side).

Probably the most disappointing item from Chef Andre's menu would have to be their Classic Burger 1/3 Pound.

I realize hoping for the second coming of a Father's Office Burger (or any of the top Burgers in LA) wasn't going to happen, but I never expected their 1/3 pound patty of supposedly fresh Nebraska Angus Beef to taste so... bad. :(

What arrived was a completely well-done Burger, cooked to the point that it was nearly imperceptible from a generic fast food Burger (no hyperbole). Our server never gave us a chance to specify our preference for doneness and with the ruined, overcooked, dried out Beef patty, no amount of homemade Thousand Island Dressing or fresh Onions, Lettuce and Tomatoes could save it. If small operations like The Golden State can belt out outstanding Burgers in their tiny kitchen, there's no excuse here except the lack of skills in the kitchen.

Their Old Fashioned Chicken Salad Sandwich fares much better, due in large part to the fact that they roast their own Chicken in-house.

Taking a bite, the Chicken Salad Sandwich reveals a sweet pickle crunch with a creamy, clean mayo and moist, chunky Chicken Breast. The Focaccia Bread is soft and doughy and matches the Chicken Salad well.

Service at The Oinkster is pretty basic and fits the style of the eatery: You order at the counter, receive a number and your order will be brought out to you, whether inside or outside on the patio. Their homemade Condiments (Homemade Ketchup, Chipotle Ketchup, Garlic Aioli, etc.) are self-service at the counter as well. Prices range from $2 - $3.75 for sides; $4.75 - $9.49 for main dishes. We averaged about ~$12 per person (including tax and tip).

Having "quality fast food" where everything is made from scratch, inspired by a veteran chef sounds like the formula for instant success, and judging by the crowds I've witnessed during each of my 4 visits, The Oinkster seems to have achieved that goal. Unfortunately, their lack of consistency is their greatest Achilles' Heel: A House-Cured Pastrami that's moist and juicy on one visit turns out to be totally dried-out and tough on another visit; their Rotisserie Chicken is juicy and flavorful (albeit a bit salty) on one visit, but on another, it's overcooked and every part of the Chicken is dry, with some parts being inedible. Even their famed Belgian Fries suffer from this problem: Absolutely amazing two of the times I've tried it, and dismal, cold and limp on other visits.

Our server admits that Chef Guerrero doesn't really get a chance to stop by very often (probably busy with his other restaurants), and it's clear that there's a lack of quality control. It's not always reasonable to expect a founding chef to be cooking in the kitchen of each new venture they start up, but it's sad when their proteges undermine the great concepts and menus that they were founded upon. One can only hope in the future, Chef Guerrero gets more quality control at The Oinkster, or else this will be destined to be a locals-only joint, popular for convenience more than outstanding food which is what it was meant to be about.

Rating: 5.2 (out of 10.0)

The Oinkster
2005 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock, CA 90041
Tel: (323) 255-6465

Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight
Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.


weezermonkey said...

Really thorough review -- thanks. I've heard mixed opinions, but the inconsistency is reason enough for me not to waste my time at this place.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Thanks. :) Yah, when it's on, it's worth a visit (especially for their Belgian Fries :). But after multiple visits, their inconsistency is frustrating and really makes one's visit a gamble as to whether you're getting the good version or not so good version that day.

Food, she thought. said...

Thank for the review, EK. I feel like I went myself, as usual with your reviews. While not really my go to kind of food, especially this year, and now I think I can skip it. Too bad since it is so close. And clearly from the lines very popular.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

Thank you. :) It's definitely too bad (the consistency issues), otherwise, it'd be a nice little place to stop by once in a while.

H. C. said...

Thanks for the comprehensive write-up! I've only been about 3 times over the past 2 years, each visit has been pretty good but I haven't gone back since the food, even if it IS "slow fast food", is pretty heavy stuff.

Heh, and pretty awesome AND weird that their fries are fried in beef fat AND rice bran oil. Makes it sound so heart-attack inducing and wholesome healthful at same time.

Let me know if you ever have the occasion to return to Eagle Rock to eat, would love to check out that area's eateries with you.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi H.C.,

Thanks. :) You lucked out in hitting their "on" days I guess. Thanks for the invite as well. :)

Anna A. said...

The last time I went to Oinkster there was a hair w/ bulbous root double fried into my fries. Kinda grossed me out. The beet salad does look good so I may have to give it another go for that.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Yikes! That's not good. Just one more unfortunate problem with the eatery. Thanks for the report back. (The Beet Salad was good, though :)

PulledPorker said...

Spot-on review. The reason I don't go there more frequently is the inconsistency. The pastrami really isn't that good (most of the time) and the burger could be much, much better. And you never know how the fries are going to be.

The pork bears no resemblance to actual barbecue, but it's still tasty when doused in their vinegar sauce and is my favorite item there.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi PulledPorker,

Thank you. :) And thanks for your thoughts on the place; I'm sorry to hear you ran into the same consistency problems that my guests and I have encountered over the years.

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