Main Course: Holsteins Shakes & Buns

Inventive burgers meet grown-up shakes at South Coast Plaza

I’ve never had a hamburger I didn’t like at Holsteins, and I’ve sampled 10 of them. OK, that part’s out of the way. I’ll circle back with details. Meanwhile, when people ask about the new spot, which replaces Charlie Palmer’s at Bloomingdale’s South Coast Plaza, I invariably tell them about my dinner with Ydali, my first at Holsteins, when she was our server.

I’m dining with three teenage boys. Never mind that, like the original Holsteins at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, it’s a fairly grown-up destination serving a Billionaire burger with a Kobe-style patty and foie gras along with “bam-boozled” (alcoholic) shakes. But the boys are taller than I am, and the shakes can be ordered without the alcohol.

A shakes list is brought with the regular menu now, but in the opening months it was provided only on request, suggesting shakes were considered stand-alone or dessert items. When I think about it, I was a teenager the last time I actually enjoyed a shake alongside my burger, and there doesn’t seem to be any question in the boys’ minds that they go together.

“Can I have a virgin Drunken Monkey?” one of the boys asks Ydali to mirth all around. It’s made with crumbled Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, banana, and malt—hold the Frangelico. The others order the A-Chocolypse Now and Red Velvet Cake, sans alcohol, and I get the Nutella Crunch with caramelized hazelnut pieces—with the Frangelico, please.

Ydali hands each of us a Holsteins business card with her handwritten name, in case, she says, we want to call her out on Yelp or request her in the future. She also writes it out phonetically: ee-thah-lee. Her confidence is impressive, and it’s not misplaced. She anticipates our needs throughout, our orders arrive seamlessly, and she’s fun.

The former Charlie Palmer space remains much as it was, though the entry now displays a life-sized neon-pink-spotted cow and a huge painting of a many, many layered burger held together by a skull-topped toothpick. Whimsical images of the cute-cow mascot line the dining room.

A little bucket of popcorn is set out on every table, with revolving seasonings such as one called Buffalo Breath. Appetizers are a mixed bag. The truffle-lobster mac ’n’ cheese delivers lots of lobster in a petite but delicious package. It’s hard to imagine not ordering the buttermilk onion rings; the coating is tasty and ideally crunchy. The fried dill spears are slightly more herbed. The secret to their deep-fried perfection? “K.I.S.,” chef Phillip Kaufman later explains. “Keep it simple.”

The artichoke “guac” is remarkable in that it’s devoid of avocado, made instead with hummus, olives, piquillo peppers, and lots of artichoke hearts. The Korean bulgogi quesadilla bewilders: The marinated steak, kimchi, and chile aioli are overwhelmed by asadero cheese.

The aforementioned Billionaire burger is the star of the show in Las Vegas; here, it’s off-menu. Foie gras adds unctuousness to the ideally charred patty, and port wine-onion marmalade and truffle mayo take it up another notch. It’s rich, all right, and at $30 is twice the price of the other burgers.

The ones I’d return for offer larger-than-life flavor profiles and loads of textural interest. The Rising Sun includes crispy little yam slivers that I can’t get enough of; the generous patty overhangs the bun, and the rice seasoning and the mayo’s spice are nice overtones. El Caliente, which is muy caliente and comes with crunchy pork chicharrones, tops the list, too. I love the Nom Nom burger’s potato chips topper—but if you don’t dig right in, they can get soggy. Like the Billionaire, the Rising Sun and Nom Nom are made with Kobe-style beef.

Sheer depth of flavor is what makes the Gold Standard so memorable with its dry-aged sirloin patty, smoked bacon, aged goat-cheddar, and garlic-chive aioli. Less exciting but still good are the Fun-Ghi (“Fun Guy”) with mushrooms, the Steakhouse burger, the Big Fat Greek with lamb, the California Turkey, and the vegan Urth burger. Fries are excellent, thin cut with a delicate crunch; for $2 you can substitute onion rings or sweet-potato fries. The warm and wonderful buns, fresh from local fave Bread Artisan Bakery, glisten with an egg-wash sheen.

Most of the shakes deliver outsized flavors, too. Our favorites: the Nutella Crunch, Drunken Monkey, and the coconut-and-raspberry Fruity Vegan. The Oreo crumbles in the A-Chocolypse Now can’t make it through the straw, so ask for a spoon. I’m still working up to the Fat Boy, with UV Candy Bar Vodka, Reese’s, Cap’n Crunch, Oreos, crumbled Butterfinger bars, pretzels, and sprinkles.

If you’re not in the mood for a burger, Holsteins offers big plate choices as well, but their quality lacks that of the namesake items.

Nitro Meringues in strawberry, peppermint, and stout beerWe expect flavors to pop in a dish called Firecracker Shrimp, but despite copious quantities of the tasty sea creatures as well as piquillo peppers, the dish is a dud. The pan-roasted chicken is dry and over-herbed, and the filet mignon is mediocre. With burgers this good, who needs big plates? Chef Kaufman might take his own advice here and keep it simple.

Apart from Ydali, service often is subpar. It takes a really long time for that steak to arrive, for instance, so a server takes a shake and dessert off our bill. On another occasion, a waiter brings our food before our drinks, and that takes a long time, too. When we ask if they have a lemon lager, our waitress goes MIA.

The beer list is impressive and growing—with a short-term goal of 600 choices—but for the first few months, they were in rough order. They’re now listed alphabetically, which helps. At night, you’d need a magnifying glass to make out the wines, and you have to weed through them to determine which are available by the glass. Nevertheless, the lounge is hopping.
Noting the dedication to beer, we try the Mesa Michelada cocktail with lager, tequila, muddled strawberries, and agave nectar—unusual, since most micheladas resemble beer bloody marys, neither fruity nor sweet.

Nitro Meringues—$1.50 apiece and in flavors of strawberry, peppermint, or stout beer—bring that first meal with the boys to a sensational Vegas finish. We’re told to toss the liquid-nitrogen-frozen meringues between our hands before popping them into our mouths, which “smoke” as the meringues melt to release their lovely flavors. Totally cool.

As we are leaving, a busser offers the service line of the year: “Would you like any waters to go?”

3333 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa

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