Sometimes a great notion: Golden State's sweet-potato fries
The Golden State burger is among the best in Los Angeles.
A Golden State beer float.
Might your idea of dessert be expansive enough to include a beer float? Because if you are open-minded about these things, it really can be a mind-blowing way to complete a meal, a marriage of cold creaminess and explosive fizz, innocent sweetness and a blast of pungent, hoppy bitterness that rides the back of your throat like a cottonmouth on a waterslide, a mouthful so perfectly refreshing that it is hard to understand why the concoction isn't as strong a summer tradition as milk shakes or lemonade, frozen margaritas or kegs of Miller Lite.
As served at Golden State, an ale-intensive Fairfax gastropub whose owners would probably bite down on a cyanide capsule before they would allow Miller into the sanctity of their bar, the beer float is practically a sacrament, a scoop of splendid brown-bread ice cream from the cult gelateria Scoops, moistened gently with Old Rasputin Imperial Stout - caramelized intensity playing against caramelized intensity, brown against brown, rich against richer, with a strong back taste that reminded a Russian friend of the fermented-bread drink kvass. Beer floats are not uncommon in serious beer bars, and I love the hoppy beer float at the Linkery down by the San Diego Zoo, but Golden State's version is a step or two beyond, a marriage of gelato king Tai Kim's quirky vision and pub owners Jason Bernstein and James Starr's highly specific malted-barley fever dreams. Everybody should try a scoop of Kim's ice cream in their beer.
Los Angeles is in the middle of a boom of amateur restaurants at the moment, a flotilla of teashops, wine bars and lunch counters run by latecomers to the world of cuisine. Amateur restaurants - and I mean "amateur" in the best sense of the word, driven by love instead of by profit - tend to be marked by extreme enthusiasm and endearing awkwardness, smacking more of connoisseurship rather than knife skills, of exotic ingredients rather than limpid stocks, of cookbook collections rather than hard-won technique. If the new cafe around the corner sells eight varieties of French chocolate from the takeout counter, you are probably in an amateur restaurant. If that same cafe features cured meats from Paul Bertolli, Intelligentsia coffee, McGrath lettuces and Niman Ranch pork, yet everyone around you seems to be eating hot dogs or grilled cheese sandwiches, you are definitely in an amateur restaurant, driven as much by passion as by aptitude, with a menu as carefully curated as next fall's MoCA exhibition.
The second-career restaurant is a California tradition: The impetus behind a lot of what we think of as New American Cuisine came from people who had abandoned careers in music, architecture, teaching or the law, and the depth of their midlife obsessions is rarely equaled by fresh-coddled culinary-school grads. My favorite wine bar is run by an escapee from the computer world; my favorite bakery by a former burn-ward nurse. It occasionally seems as if half the former studio executives in town are now making cupcakes, chocolates or jam.
Golden State, about 14 feet too close to Fairfax High School for the comfort of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, is in the vanguard of serious beer bars in Los Angeles, a cramped storefront with a smaller beer selection than Blue Palms or the Verdugo but a greater emphasis on the food, the kind of place your 12-year-old nephew might like to eat even better than you do. It's a center in this heavily Jewish area of what I have come to think of as evolved chazzerai: burgers, dogs, tuna sandwiches, BLTs and fries. At the moment, no alcohol is served before 5 p.m. on weekdays, but there is Virgil's root beer served from cask. During the day, the place has become the default ice cream parlor of the neighborhood.
The conceit of the menu, developed by consultant Samir Mohajer, who was the first chef at Rustic Canyon and is now at Cabbage Patch, is that everything comes from California and is grown as sustainably as possible. Bernstein and Starr, refugees from the business world, curate the food and the beer. The hot dogs, served with things like roasted peppers, aioli and grilled onions, come from Let's Be Frank, which makes Golden State the only outside outlet, I think, and the sausages are from Paul Bertolli in the Bay Area and Huntington Meats just down the street. The crunchy, mushroomy veggie burger is actually worth eating, as is the chunky potato salad. The dreamy BLT with avocado is made with applewood-smoked California bacon, and the muffuletta, smeared with housemade olive salad, is made from California charcuterie. In addition to the usual French fries, you can get spicy cabbage slaw spiked with sliced jalapenos, an herbed cucumber salad, or sweet potato fries arranged into a kind of log cabin on your plate.
Will Bernstein spend five minutes helping you decide whether the vanilla-scented Allagash Curieux, aged in bourbon barrels, might go better with your BLT than a glass of the Pasadena-made Craftsman 1903? Will he recommend a dark, old-fashioned lager from Pizza Port caramelized by superheated rocks thrown into the mash? Will he push the controversial Rouge from Ommegang, a Belgian-style sour beer with unmistakable porta-potty overtones from the brettanomyces bacteria encouraged to go wild?
One thing is certain: The burger, made with aged Harris Ranch beef, blanketed with cheese from the Central Valley's Fiscalini, often considered the best cheddar in America, garnished with bacon and cooked to a dripping, bloody rare if that's the way you like it, is among the best in Los Angeles. With the burger, Bernstein will insist that the superbitter Racer 5 India Pale Ale is really the only possible choice.