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Santa Monica.
The Good Life.

Something about taking the 4th/5th street exit off the 10 feels like I’m taking a mini vacation. The beach, the tourists, the fact that I live east of La Brea, all have a hand in doing that. But more important than vacation, are burgers, and Santa Monica has a pedigree when it comes to that department. Father’s Office, Nook, The Counter, Rustic Canyon – I could go on but the point is this: if you are trying to sling burgers in this part of town you need to bring your “A” game. Enter Pono Burger, new kid on the block, chef driven and priced just close enough to be placed in the Bang for your Burger Buck territory.

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The dream team

The menu reads like a Stop Monsanto email from MoveOn.org: Organic grass fed beef, rBHG free dairy, GMO free rice bran oil and organic produce. Quality ingredients mean top purveyors who charge a premium; the fact that the base burger comes in at $7, pre tax, on an in-house baked bun is Bang for the Burger Buck right there and we haven’t even put beef to lips yet.

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Several burger combinations, including Chef Makani’s signature “Posh Burger” (Mycella blue cheese, House made truffle aioli, sauteed mushrooms, arugula on their in house baked brioche) hit the $12 mark; fine if your last name is “Z” and you are married to Beyonce, but not necessary as the basic Pono Burger comes in at $7. Now that is high for Bang’s standards, so you will really question me for green lighting a $1 cheese option. But it was warranted. Mycella blue cheese took 1st place in the 2010 World Cheese Cup. Yeah, I just said World Cheese Cup. I can only imagine a trophy that would rival Stanley, and for $1, how can you say no?

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The sight of a true medium rare burger will always be a welcomed sight here at Bang and also is telling of the excellent burger composition happening at Pono. Plenty of meat to bun, and the toppings are ever so delicately placed over the top seared patty. Both sides well charred would have been ideal but not at the risk of overcooking such quality, and being grass fed, lean beef.

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where’s the cheese?

Several bites in, I began to ponder where the cheese was. It was there, but in small doses which ended up being a good thing. As decadent and over the top as blue cheese is, and what it does for truly in your face burgers like the Pug at Hungry Cat, it can also be simply too overpowering. A little goes a long way and the Mycella gets along quite well with the rest of the toppings. Another detail to take note is the razor thin sliced onion and pickle, almost comparable to a shiso leaf being placed over Hirame Nigiri(Halibut sushi). One forgets how a sliver of flavor can leave such a lasting impression. If God is in the details, I think He was nestled in between some white onion and pickle.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, we have your ringer

And it actually isn’t the very excellent house made Pono sauce but here is a hint: it has to due with the red hue you have been noticing in the pictures of the patty. The game changer Chef Makani pulls off here is red oak. These burgers are grilled over it. Now some of you may say “Hey, I have a Weber at home”. Well, Pono Burger has one of these:

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That is a $10,000 Santa Maria style grill, fired up exclusively on red oak wood. It is the Backyard BBQ Burger of your dreams and you didn’t even have to spring for lighter fluid. More importantly, the smokey component is complimented well with a sweeter than average brioche. Normally I find sweet buns a distraction from savoriness, however at Pono it is all part of a chef driven burger of balance and commendable high concept. Bottom line: $8 with cheese, pre tax. PonoBurger, when kept in toppings check when ordering, delivers high end, save the planet like Captain Planet and the Planateers, Bang for your Burger Buck.

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I think the Captain would approve of this logo.