A burger on the menu is a fail-safe item for when nothing else interests you–not the braised rabbit; not the lamb skewers with couscous; not the grilled quail with cherry sauce. It's a solid stand-by. You know what you're getting with a burger: a bun and a patty of beef. However, when it's rendered unfamiliar, you can feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under you.
This past weekend, I met my friend Carmen for late brunch/early lunch in DTLA. She had been in her home country of Switzerland for months and we were long overdue for a catch-up. As we hit the streets, she suggested we go around the corner and check out Manuela, the restaurant that recently opened in the same building that houses the art gallery Hauser Wirth & Schimmel.
Originally, she thought we could casually grab a burger at Umami Burger, but discovering something new together sounded far more enticing. The restaurant had been open for less a week and we easily found two seats at the white marble bar. Louise Bourgeois' Spider sculpture loomed behind us in the open courtyard.
After skimming the menu, we engaged in the usual "what are you having" exchange. The dishes on Manuela's menu were distinctly rooted in Tex-Mex cuisine yet infused with a locally-sourced and seasonal spin. Everything was elevated for the sophisticated and in-the-know crowd--the duck breast is cured, the chicken is smoked and the hot sauce is fermented.
"What are you thinking?" I asked Carmen, still undecided.
"I think I might get the burger," she replied, clearly intent on it. "Wait, what do you think they mean by 'deer burger'?"
"Deer... Like venison. You know, a cute little deer."
"Oh my god, no... I can't do that. I can't eat a deer!" she exclaimed with widened eyes. "Especially not for brunch! Why would they do that?"
We both envisioned sweet, little Bambi weeping before us with thick wet lashes. Needless to say, our reliable burger option was effectively nixed off the list. Meanwhile, the biscuits and gravy sounded too heavy, the cornmeal pancakes seemed too breakfast-y at that hour, and we weren't quite hungry enough for the BBQ ribs. It was at that moment that I knew what to order.
"What's that?" she wondered.
How could I explain this hot mess to a Swiss-Italian person? "It's tortilla chips sautéed in a tomato-chile salsa. Some bits are soft and some are crispy and then they put a fried egg on top."
You really can't lose with what is, essentially, breakfast nachos. I was delighted to have seen it on the menu. Manuela's version was top-notch. Every chip was perfectly coated with the tangy, spicy salsa and simultaneously soft and crispy, which is key. The delicious pile of chips was garnished with guacamole, crumbled queso fresca and a drizzle of crema. The egg, which came from one of their 12 rare-breed chickens from the garden out back, was truly the cherry on top.
As we were chowing down, a waitress breezed past us carrying a classic-looking hamburger. You could say that if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck...
"That must be the deer burger," Carmen remarked. "It looks good... But it's still a deer."
Ironic how what she thought was unfamiliar turned out to be more familiar than the seemingly familiar. We continued on with our chilaquiles.