West L.A. favorite relocates to new digs in Santa Monica, while a Westchester newbie gets charitable with American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life
By Michael Aushenker
By now, the phrase “think out of the box” is such a cliché that saying it is no longer “thinking out of the box.”
But how else to shorthand the innovative avenues of a pair of new Westside burger spots than to say they’re thinking out of the box, compared with Jack in the Box, In-N-Out and other fast food chains, to make the hamburger experience “fresh” again.
While not exactly “new,” Hole in the Wall Burger Joint is new to Santa Monica. Opened by Chef Bill Dertouzos, the original West L.A. location encountered landlord issues and was forced to relocate from a spot behind a Winchell’s donuts near Sepulveda and Santa Monica boulevards to its shiny new digs at Colorado Avenue near 20th Street in the center of Santa Monica’s tech-company corridor. The aesthetic of the place has gone from faux Brooklyn dive to a glossy, upscale-looking sterility that might not be out of place in Irvine.
Thankfully, Hole has traded its exhaust pipe-subjected outdoor seating for an expansive patio and, most importantly, the high caliber of Dertouzos’ menu has not suffered with the move.
“Bill is an amazing dude when you crack his tough guy facade,” said Santa Monica resident Scott Pregerson, a longtime customer of the West L.A. shop who was “immediately hooked” the first time he tried Hole’s prime attraction, a provolone patty in a pretzel bun. “It’s great to eat a burger created by a gourmet chef.”
On Hole’s current “Burger of the Week” rotation: the pastrami burger and the Philly cheese steak burger as well as a Spam burger, a chorizo burger, lamb burger and bleu cheese burger.
Hole was born after Dertouzos’ work catering with Hotel Nico in Beverly Hills tanked with 2007’s crashing economy. The Brooklyn native, who once worked under “‘70s kings,” Chef Terrance Brennan, Patrick Clark and Jonathan Waxman – as well as at the Waldorf-Astoria – decided to open a simple-yet-effective burger shop.
In April 2008, his West L.A. location opened its doors, followed by a West Hollywood sequel in September 2011. Two months ago, he finally sold the latter (now Biscuit Bakery).
“I wasn’t getting the volume of business I needed,” he said.
After closing down the West L.A. shop last Dec. 15, he opened in Santa Monica by Jan. 2.
Dertouzos admitted he favors the old address.
“I miss it terribly” he said. “It was very bohemian. It was a dive place next to an alley behind a building, completely obscure.”
The Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, who keeps a boat in Marina del Rey, took the move as an opportunity to add healthier fare, from a range of salads (Greek, Tex-Mex) to a spicy buffalo chicken breast burger.
“I try to make (the new place) as rustic-looking as I can,” he said. “It’s still kind of shiny.”
From the beginning, Dertouzos has imported fresh beef from a small Kansas ranch where cows are raised on grass and finished on corn.
“I personally don’t like 100 percent grass fed meat,” he said. “It’s kind of gamey.”
While he offers manufactured ketchup, Dertouzos resents resorting to corn syrup, vinegar and food coloring. So to create his own, Dertouzos uses 100 pounds of tomatoes that yields three gallons of his concoction, into which he mixes only 3 pounds of sugar.
“If you want good condiments, you have to make it yourself,” said Dertouzos, who also creates ranch and thousand island dressings.
As for the signature pretzel bun? – his former business partner from his catering days started that trend. He has since applied it because “I had a pizzeria. It’s not the cheese or the tomatoes or the crust. It’s all the things.
“Before it was mostly investment bankers 30 and above,” continued Dertouzos, who runs his establishment with his ex-wife Susan McAlindon.
“Over here, it’s 30-and-younger gamers. But they get it, it’s a big, healthy delicious burger.”
Wedged between the Loyola Marymount University and Otis College of Art and Design campuses in Westchester, the college-friendly eatery Humble Potato features the philosophy of its young owner, Eric Ong, on its walls: “Simple food. Happy people. Humble lasts, hunger shouldn’t.
Where there’s good will, there’s good eats. Eat well. Feel good. Live humbly.”
The colorful, cartoony J-Pop vibe brings a dash of Sawtelle’s Giant Robot store (or even Comic-Con) while Humble Potato’s purposely finite menu stubbornly revels in doing a few things right instead of risking blandness with myriad options.
Very much a celebration of localism, Humble Potato enlisted Otis College students to paint the 1970s-style anime-laden decor, where imagery and figurines from “Gatchaman” and “Speed Racer” stare down from the shelves alongside Marvel superheroes, Garfield, Superman, Super-Mario and Darth Vader.
“I’m a hybrid,” Ong, 33, told The Argonaut proudly, explaining that his mixed-Asian background informs his postmodern aesthetic. “I love design. Simple words, light colors, making it fun.”
Born and raised in Jakarta by a Taiwanese mother and Indonesian father, Ong spent four years living in Japan (his parents met attending Keio College), where he was exposed to its cartoon pop culture.
“My dad launched a Japanese fast food concept in Jakarta,” he said. His father grew that chain restaurant, Hoka Hoka Bento, into one of Indonesia’s biggest franchises.
Ong came to L.A. to attend Santa Monica College, later transferring to Cal State-Northridge, where he received his degree in business administration in technology. For 12 years, Ong managed the data center infrastructure at Beach Body and rode a wave as the Santa Monica-based fitness venture grew from a staff of 30 to a billion-dollar company.
Ong said he’s indebted to the company for giving him across-the-board hands-on training.
However, the time came when he longed to create his passion business – an eatery with “an environment that’s unpretentious with great quality.”
Ong took over a failed Quiznos on Lincoln Boulevard and, on Oct. 25, when Humble Potato’s opening night drew 250 people through its Westchester doors, so began Ong’s daily odyssey of people asking if his restaurant focuses on potato products (no, although several types of French fries, including Shichimi and garlic parmesan, are served here).
Humble Potato features Angus burgers bearing wacky names (the Hambàga, the 9 to 5) and fusiony items such as Yuzu jalapeño slaw. Ong insists on Indonesian-style tempeh over soy or garden patties for vegetarian customers and their only shake is the defiantly unsweetened ice-blended avocado confection, livened up with Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
“There’s no strawberry or chocolate shake,” Ong said. “That’s not who we are.”
Ong became a new dad in 2012 – a year filled with highs and lows when his wife Keiya gave birth to their daughter Kendra while he birthed his first business, and his mother contracted with breast cancer. As his mother recovered, Ong embraced joining forces with Pastor Doug Lee of Catalyst Evangelical Covenant Church in Westchester and getting involved with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, which takes place Saturday, June 8 at Venice High School. Humble Potato will cater the fundraiser at no charge to attendees.
So when Lee was approached earlier this year to chair Relay for Life, he thought of Ong, calling him “a passionate leader who wants to make a difference in the community.”
Only in its second year in Venice, the event, Lee said, is a chance to unify the community “through a common cause – finding a cure for cancer. I can tell you already that we have more than tripled the participation and money raised from last year’s event.”
Lee, who has lost family members to cancer, looks forward to “walking to celebrate my neighbor, who survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year, my friend’s sister, who survived breast cancer after being diagnosed while pregnant with her fifth child, and my friend’s wife, who just won her fight with uterine cancer. I am walking because (finding a cure) is a human challenge, and we are all in this together.”
Ong feels as humble as his restaurant’s cartoony potato mascot for “being able to connect with people and being part of a community (through his restaurant). I never fathomed I would be. I get so much warmth and people from different cultures. It’s an amazing feeling.”
American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life will take place at Venice High School, 13000 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista. Information, RelayForLife.org/VeniceCA.