You go out of the way for some restaurants because the food is craveworthy. Others you merely go to because it’s an option within reach.
Unfortunately, it’s only the latter.
This is frustrating partly because Los Angeles is probably the burger capital of the world, and the laundry list of top-notch signature sandwiches seems to have no end in sight. Want old-school? How about Apple Pan, or perhaps a timeless Double-Double from In-N-Out? Want cutting edge? Check out the re-engineered, platonic-ideal burgers at Plan Check or Umami Burger. Perhaps a compromise between both worlds? Father’s Office beckons.
Then there’s Built, which infuriates because of how little it wants to prove. It has no glamour to stunt behind — the burgers are made to order in a cafeteria-style line to each diner’s specs, and there are no signature burgers to prove Built’s creative worth. And it has no ambiance — though the interior is pleasantly dressed in warm wood and modern furnishings, the oft-bustling, cramped dining area is no place to enjoy a relaxed meal.
What it does offer is the temptation of control: Here, you get to craft your own burger experience, picking from four proteins (beef, turkey or vegan burgers or chicken breast), six cheeses, four types of buns and a smorgasboard of toppings. Gluten-free and salad-bowl options are also offered.
But be warned: The base price of $6.75 for a quarter-pound burger can skyrocket quick. Specialty cheeses, including blue cheese, come at a supplemental cost (often 50 cents, as with a recent selection of manchego). You also get three toppings included, but premium options — including sauteed onions, sauteed mushrooms, avocado and bacon — require a buck more per. You get just one choice of sauce, albeit from a wide palette, with extra servings running 50 cents each.
This compares somewhat unfavorably with the nearby Five Guys, which offers two patties and an unlimited, though more concise, slate of toppings for $6.59. Granted, springing for the combo (fries and a drink) at Built also allows you to get an additional premium topping at a small discount. But a combo with a base burger still costs a little under $11.
Add a couple more toppings and you might as well go to on-campus joint Morton Fig, where the $15 burger and fries are a clear cut above fast-casual offerings.
That being said, the end results of Built’s system can be very tasty. There’s always satisfaction to be had in fresh ingredients paired with nicely cooked burgers, and it’s no different here.
The beef burger sometimes arrives handsomely charred and blushing perfectly pink in the center, the happy result of a careful grill hand. Try pairing that with Tillamook cheddar cheese, roasted red peppers, pickles and jalapenos, all smeared with a little roasted garlic aioli: a winning combination, for sure.
But more often than not, the burger arrives hungover on heat, beat helplessly against the currents of fiery propane until gray, mealy and tough. And nothing can save that, not even premium toppings or more sauce or Built’s addictive shoestring fries (cross your fingers for a fresh batch).
Ostensibly, diners don’t have much of a say in how the patties are cooked: The restaurant says its burgers are cooked medium-well, with a well-done option for the few individuals who want it. This is done because large crowds and the cafeteria setup make cooking to custom temperatures an impossibility.
But Built’s beef patties, which are considerably thicker than those at Five Guys or In-N-Out, would be juicier and more tender if served medium-rare or even medium. When the cooks err on the side of pink, eating there makes more sense. When they err on the side of well-done, it feels like a waste, both of money and of time.
Unfortunately, Built’s inconsistency and lack of flair just add to the general dining woes of the surrounding USC community. The classic joints, chiefly Chano’s, La Taquiza and La Barca, have stood the test of time (it’s no coincidence they all serve Mexican food). But otherwise, few restaurants really stick out as exceptional, as places you would aggressively suggest, time and time again, to every visiting relative and high school friend.
Consistency and a distinctive style is what makes a restaurant, and especially a burger shop, reach the divine heights of Los Angeles’ food scene. Places such as Plan Check or Umami do so by sticking to a philosophy and executing brilliantly, day-in, day-out, to transcendent results.
For now, Built resides firmly in the purgatory of the generic — neither particularly cheap, nor craveworthy, nor charmingly unique. At best, it offers decent burgers and toppings for an acceptable, if not value-oriented, price. At worst (i.e. when the burger’s overcooked), it’s a reminder not to come back, no matter how convenient the location might be.