Cheap Eats: Ssam Burger
The new Westside burger joint makes Asian fusion work
Asian fusion restaurants get a bad rap — all that high-concept food, clubby décor, and techno music. But Ssam Burger, a new Asian fusion burger joint on the Westside, proves not all fusion is created equal. Ssam Burger, which opened in early December, was originally meant to be Ssam Sausage. But the space turned out to be too small for sausage making. Chef Teresa Lee, a first-time restaurant owner and Georgia transplant by way of Los Angeles and Texas, switched to burgers just weeks before opening. It was the right choice. Ssam Burger's understated mix of Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese twists on the all-American burger make Ssam a must-try if you're in the neighborhood.
LESS IS MORE: The space is simple with plain, blue-gray walls. A wooden high-top counter snakes around the perimeter of the room. A community table in the center seats at least eight. Order from a stack of paper menus at the counter and someone, often Lee herself, will deliver your food within 5-10 minutes.
EAST MEETS WESTSIDE: Ssam's five burgers are $7.50 apiece and come with either potato chips, lacy lotus chips, miso soup, or glazed Korean sweet potato fries, quarter-inch wedges that are fried till almost crispy. There are two straightforward rice bowls for $6.50 each: Bulgogi with savory strips of marinated beef, and Korean Spicy Pork, both with lettuce and grilled carrots and onions.
OFF THE GRILL: Ssam's burgers are made with fatty, coarse-ground Angus beef. Three of menu's burgers are doused with a Korean barbecue marinade of soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, and sesame oil while grilling. I wasn't asked how I wanted my burgers cooked, but the ones I tried all came out on the well side of medium. The Kimcheese is topped with salty provolone and kimchi relish, which is more tangy than spicy and has an almost imperceptible fermented funk. The burger is tasty but borderline too salty. The Aloha was an unexpected treat. It came with grilled pineapple, bacon, and Sriracha mayo. The Saigon is grilled over fresh lemon grass, splashed with fish sauce, and dressed up like a banh mi with shaved cucumber, a heap of pickly shredded carrot and daikon, and cilantro. Ssam's soft but dense veggie burger is made with nutty kabocha squash and topped with shaved red onion and pickled radish.
LIQUID LUNCH: Lee is considering alternative bread options, but because of her marinating method, the burgers literally burst with each bite. Seriously, expect drippage. For now, all the burgers come on hearty H&F Bread Co. buns, which are dense enough to keep it together. In addition to sweet tea, assorted soft drinks, and bottled water, Ssam offers more than 20 green, black, and milk teas ($3.50 each). Make any one a bubble tea with chewy tapioca pearls or juice-filled popping boba that explode in your mouth. Unless Lee dials down the sweetness in the teas, it's probably best to stick with water. If you must have bubble tea, go with the relatively balanced black milk tea with tapioca.
WOMAN AT WORK: Lee makes no secret of the fact that almost two months in, she's still trying to figure things out. She is constantly taxiing between the kitchen and dining room to hand-deliver her food. She'll ask you in earnest if the veggie burger is too mushy, if the burger has enough seasoning, if the Thai tea is too sweet. You get the feeling Lee is aiming for perfection and she's willing to adjust and tinker until she gets there.