Checking One Off the List at The Bucket in Eagle Rock, California
We make lists. Lists that remind us what’s left to be done and lists that represent a life well lived. The first variety lends structure to our days; they remind us that time is something that can be measured with accomplishment. The latter is a reminder that time is limited so we better decide what it is we want to accomplish. While I am a fastidious to-do lister, I’m not one for those bucket lists (and the movies they inspire). They seem overdetermined and too forward thinking. It’s like my keeping one wouldn’t be in keeping with my commitment to live in the present. Every experience would be attenuated by its predetermined value.
That said, as a matter of personal organization and professional pride (or is it the other way around?), I do keep a list of places I want to eat. Coincidence (and writerly contrivance) has placed The Bucket on my burger list. It lays claim to a storied history and a victory in a Los Angeles Times “Best Burger” poll so I knew I had to give it at least one try. As it turned out, I gave it two.
Buckets of History
This roadside burger stand dates back to 1935, but there isn’t a straight line that leads you from then to now. It’s gone through a number of owners and, to hear the locals tell it, a number of ups and downs in quality. Originally designed to provide a quick, affordable, and tasty lunch for Eagle Rock’s blue collar residents, The Bucket trundled along with little fanfare before finding its celebration: a new owner with a Basque bloodline, a large helping of garlic for his burgers, and an even larger helping of salt for his clientele.
Julio ran The Bucket with a cantankerous appeal that people still consider the defining characteristic of his years at The Bucket. He would openly insult you before throwing your burgers down and then—should you behave in a manner that didn’t meet his caprice—no burger for you! The garlic-laden burgers and insults added up to long lines and a devoted following for years at The Bucket.
What’s Old Is New Again
The most recent owner, George Eckley, has reclaimed Julio’s legacy with burger recipes inspired by the bilious burger maestro. He’s cleaned up the space, added some flat panel televisions, and made a casual outside seating area to make the old new again. This revamped version of The Bucket is far from spic and span, but the new paint and name-brand neon make it feel like a throwback rather than an original.
My first visit brought me to The Bucket for an early evening burger dinner. Sitting outside at the bar-height tables is not the open air, Los Angeles idyll for which so many restaurants strive. A fabric overhang and basketball game on the plasma screen make it feel more like a smoking patio. The Harley-Davidson logo on the wall seems to have done its job as bikers have claimed The Bucket as their own.
The rudeness-quotient—thankfully—has flatlined. I am met with Danielle, the most cheery and pleasant server I’ve come across in a while. I go for The Bucket Burger—lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, mustard, and ketchup—and The Julio, which is all that plus a pile of cabbage and a neon orange “Julio sauce.” When I ask Danielle if I should order fries or rings she offers me a split order for the price of just rings. Nothing rude about that.
The burgers arrive looking attractive, each in their own way. The Bucket Burger is a vision of burger classicism, while The Julio looks to be some sort of smothered Mexican dish. I’ll dispense with the Julio first: It’s a mess. There is just too much on the burger to make it feel like one thing. The sauce is all garlic and orange, but the tang from the copious amount of yellow mustard is the flavor that dominates. I can barely get through two bites before I give up.
The Bucket Burger is less exciting to look at, but now my mouth craves a little simplicity. The commercial bun, while attractive, lacks the sponginess to hold together the morass of toppings and the eight ounces of beef. The grill has made its mark attractively, but had way too much time with my patty. The meat is overcooked, which is especially sad because it seems to be pretty good quality. Again, I get a strong hit of garlic that seems unnecessary with all the other competing flavors. I can’t quite place why the meat and its fat are stepping forward to save the day.
The standard frozen, fast food-style fries are stripped of their last hope when I taste the seasoned salt that is unevenly applied. The rings—also frozen—are a surprising high point. They are perfectly cooked and full of flavor. The onion and batter have struck a nice ratio and they do my mouth the favor of staying connected after I bite into it.
I head home feeling uneasy about my first experience at The Bucket—it felt like there was unrealized potential in my meal. I decided to head back for one more visit to see if I could tease a little more out of a Bucket Burger.
A Second Chance
This time around I lose the mustard and add some American cheese to see if that tones down the tang and ups the fat. As I watch the cook prepare my burger, I discover where things go awry.
The meat is delivered fresh daily and is hand formed into the substantial eight-ounce patties. Moments after it hits the grill I see the problem: The cook squeezes a mighty helping of Worcestershire sauce over the patty and then follows it up with a layer of garlic powder so thick that the entire top of the burger is white. My eyes go wide as the patty goes from white to orange as a layer of seasoned salt obscures the garlic powder. Then the cook proceeds to poke the patty, releasing the fat. My hopes go up in smoke. Some meticulous turning on the grill makes for a lovely pattern and an overcooked burger. When it finally makes its way to me, I’m almost without hope. Again, the burger is overcooked, and whatever satisfying fat and savor of the beef that might be left is masked by the copious seasoning.
Initially I was disappointed to have missed Julio and the distinctive experience that people talk about when describing his version of The Bucket. After tasting his recipes, I am happy to have the new Bucket and the solace of an entirely friendly staff and an atmosphere that makes for easy conversation.
I finish my lunch chatting with some guys that have come back to The Bucket after many years away. One of them tells me stories about what the place was like when Julio was around. He laughs about how rude and uncomfortable the experience could be. We talk about the pleasure of burger lunches and drinking beer during the daytime. I couldn’t have planned a better experience and I can barely remember anything on any of my lists.
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