What's it all about?

What's it all about?

Big Daddy's Grill opens right next door to In-N-Out Burgers

By Dan O'Heron 04/05/2012

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It seemed reasonable to me that when Big Daddy’s Fire Grill started smoking hamburgers right under the nose of In-N-Out Burgers, medium rare might turn into bad blood. In opening next door to a legend, isn’t a place highlighting burgers either in trouble or asking for it?

In comparing probabilities, and by ignoring how Ben Franklin regarded competition —“He may well win the race that runs by himself” — owner Dennis Constanzo admitted, “Everyone in the industry thought I was nuts.”

In checking his credentials, skeptics should have had more confidence in his ability to carry off the challenge. This was no country bumpkin, getting plowed by real estate agents into buying a pig in a poke. From 1986 to 1991, in the conversion of the Huntington Hotel to the Ritz-Carlton, Constanzo was the executive in charge of development. Later, when Twin Palms became the talk of the town, he was named its CEO and chairman of the board.

From the beginning, as the hammers stopped clanging on the building four months ago, it was clear to Constanzo that all doubts were ironed; it was predictable that he could capitalize on the monster crowds that In-N-Out brings to the neighborhood. “By selling only gourmet burgers, sandwiches and sides, we are in a different and excellent marketing position,” he said.

The basic “Classic Burger” earns a big chunk of the market. At $4.95, I was stricken dumb with amazement at the price/quality ratio. “This really tastes good,” I said to a pal. And again, “This really tastes good.” And to give plain glee greater weight: “Absolutely, it’s ‘a once bitten, twice sighs’ adult hamburger experience.”

While the “classic” is topped with carefully measured amounts of tomato, lettuce, onion and a house-made aioli, it’s the pure flavor of 100 percent Angus beef that dominates. There’s no need to smack the side of a bottle for a splatter of ketchup or grab paper towels to sop leaks of Thousand Island, and none of the rudeness of onion pileups to take a fresh breath away.

But more than the quality of the beef patty, and the chuck cut that gives extra moisture to burger, delight derives from unique wood-fired cookery. Most places cook the burgers on a flat grill, which tends to burn the meat because of the loss of fat.

Big Daddy’s burgers (named with serendipity at backyard barbecues by Costanzo’s three children when they cried out, “We want daddy burgers”), and all of its sandwiches, hot dogs and sausages are cooked on a ridged lattice grill. This allows the fat to drip onto oak wood coals, which infuse the burger with both the smoke flavor of wood and natural fat. And, the patty is embossed with appetizing charcoal markings. For a final touch of perfection, the chef has a light hand with a spatula: hard pressed flattening can result in dry burgers. And, to not waste smoke flavor, the patties are covered with a helmet between presses.

While the pure Angus “Classic” was unbeatable on my menu, more customers favor the “Daddy Burger.” This Angus chuck is marinated overnight with 10 seasonings for $5.95. By adding 50 cents for a melty slice of Gorgonzola, a colleague at the Weekly said it becomes a masterpiece. Before final ratings in art history, I’ve got to try the filet mignon sandwich on a French roll — seven ounces of meat for only $10.95.

“My mission,” said Constanzo, “is to serve gourmet fast food at the most reasonable price in town.” And to help court an even wider patronage, “I have a sea of free parking.”

For the most finicky tasters, he has fine beers and wines to mate with the food. And for up and coming burger snobs, there’s a wall chart to lead them on.

Onion rings, cooked in fresh peanut oil and flaked with panko breadcrumbs and tempura batter — none of the rusty, heavy coats — should attract more customers. The final straw to woo me in comes with a 16-ounce chocolate shake — 11 ounces of real ice cream infused with Ghirardelli’s chocolate, the black gold of candydom.

I can’t think of a better place in town to grab a burger, a shake and a parking place.

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