Midnight Snack: Little Bear with Ryan Harkins

When you're flipping burgers for 16 hours a day to feed massive lines around the block, it can be tough to step away for a quick chat. But for Ryan Harkins, co-owner of the popular Grill 'Em All food trucks, relaxing with a drink and a good bite of food after a long shift of "crushin' burgs and gettin' people fed" helps to loosen the tongue.

Recently, we stopped in at Little Bear downtown to talk trucks, late night eats, and meeting Lars Ulrich.

Farley: So why did you want to come to Little Bear?

Ryan: I love everything that [Chef] Andre Guerrero does. His food is awesome. This place just opened, I've been here a few times since, the food is really good, and I love the atmosphere, and I just like this room a lot. It's a really cool restaurant.

Farley: He's from The Oinkster and Maximiliano, right?

Ryan: Yeah. I live right by The Oinkster and it's really hard not to go so frequently.

Farley: You did the Grill 'Em All pop-up there, too.

Ryan: That was insane. I hope we do it again this year.

Farley: I was there for that. The line was like an hour-and-a-half.

Ryan: It was brutal. In the first half hour, the flat top just started dying. I was like, shit. I asked Andre if there was anything in the back to use, and he whipped out some cast iron skillets to use and started par-cooking the burgers in the back and bringing them out. He was actually in the back flipping burgers with us, wearing a nice shirt and everything. That was a crazy night.

Farley: Have you had the burger here?

Ryan: I have not, which is actually kind of strange, because normally I do eat a lot of burgers. I've been trying to cut down on red meat a little bit. There was a time in my life when I was eating a solid burger every day, which was a little bit too much... The first time I came here, Andre just laid it on, it was too much. I left holding my heart.

Farley: So where else do you go when you're finally off work?

Ryan: I really like Little Tokyo. Honda-Ya and Daikokuya; those places kick ass. I like a place that you can just unwind in, and it's not a bad idea if you get tore up at. Good food, great drinks, and you can just relax. I mean, if I'm leaving the house, I want to be able to have a good time. That's the most important thing. Well, obviously, the food's got to be awesome. It's so easy to become a dick about food. Especially when you're out there getting criticized every single day, it gets real easy to be a dick.

Farley: Yeah, that's got to be tough. With Yelp, everyone's voice is equal, even if their product knowledge isn't.

Ryan: We got a one-star review from a some dude who said he loved the food, it was great, but we didn't put chipotle ketchup on the burger like he asked, we put it on the side. That's one star. Sure, it only affects my small business. Go for it. You eat a lot of shit in the service industry, that's for sure. That's why it's important to unwind. That's also why it turns a lot of chefs into crazy drunks.

Farley: So what's your daily routine with the trucks?

Ryan: The thing is, with a truck, it's not like running a restaurant, where you open, you close, you go home. With us, you get up in the morning, drive to the truck, drive that to the prep kitchen, then go to the lunch spot, back to the prep kitchen to reload, go to the dinner spot, back to the prep kitchen, back to the commissary, then go home. It's pretty brutal.

Farley: That pace has to be unsustainable at some point, right? What's the future of Grill 'Em All?

Ryan: Well, we currently have a restaurant broker looking out for us to try to find a space, which is nice because we don't have the time. We were doing it on our own, and that's a pain in the ass, man. That's the big plan for 2012, a Grill 'Em All restaurant. For lack of a better term, I'd call it a gastropub. There's this place in Cleveland called Melt, that's just a grilled cheese place that kicks ass. The wait is like two hours, but you're drinking the whole time. The beer selection is incredible, and you can also get a tall can of Pabst for $3. It's not intimidating, it's just a cool place. Drink while you wait for a table, drink with dinner, drink afterwards. I want that kind of thing. I don't see too much of that in Los Angeles.

Farley: You're seeing a lot of food trucks move to brick-and-mortars. Is that a sign of things to come?

Ryan: The entire time for us, the truck has been a vehicle to get us a restaurant. Literally. I do think some of the trucks are maybe a little too anxious to open up restaurants, because for me that's something I plan on having for the rest of my life.

I also think the whole truck thing, if it hasn't already, is very close to jumping the shark. It's insane. When we started, we were truck number 32 or 34, and now there's truck, like, 400. And a lot of it is people who have never stepped foot in a kitchen in their life. They serve shitty food with shitty concepts, and it ruins it for people.

I hate to say it, but I think a big portion of that comes from that show we were on [the Great American Food Truck Race]. It brought a lot of attention to mainstream America to what was going on with the whole food truck scene. It's sort of a blessing and a curse in that way. I mean, I can't say it's really been a curse. For me, it's been the biggest blessing in the entire universe. It's just crazy.

Farley: Winning that show must have changed everything for you.

Ryan: Oh yeah. Actually, Metallica found out about us after The Great American Food Truck Race, and their management came to us and told us that they weren't pissed about our logo.

Farley: Oh, wow. They're notoriously poor sports.

Ryan: Yeah, everyone kept asking if Lars was breathing down our necks. They sent us a contract and put a few restrictions, but it was great. They're giving us the use of their image for $1 a year. One of the actual bullet points of the contract is that we had to create a burger after Metallica. That's awesome. So I made the Jump in the Fryer Burger, where the buns are waffles, there's fried chicken, burger, cheese and maple syrup with Sriracha.

And I did have a burger for awhile called The Lars Burger, and it had seared foie gras with potato chips. Just a white trash burger that thinks it's not, because he collects art and all that shit, but his root is just a total white trash metal head. I made it the 'elegant trashy' burger. Surprisingly, foie gras works with potato chips.

I actually met him once. We've had the pleasure for the past two years of going to the Revolver Golden God Awards, which kicks ass. The VIP room of that is unreal, dude. The first year, Dave Mustaine was hitting on my old lady, and I was like 'yeah, go for it!' It was surreal, because we had met Dave Grohl, and he's a big fan of the truck. We're sitting there ordering beers and Dave jumped over the bar, like "What's up, motherf---ers!" All these people are looking at us like who are these two assholes? We asked him if he'd introduce us to Lars, and he said sure. So I introduce myself like, "Hey Lars, I'm a big fan, and I run a burger truck called Grill 'Em All." And he says, "Oh, you do Grill 'Em All? That's awesome!" And I just thought, no way. The sixteen-year-old me was crying and shitting his pants at the same time. It was the most surreal moment ever. Like, there's no way anything I do is ever on that guy's radar.

Farley: Now that you've been in L.A. for a few years, what does Cleveland still have that you wish was out here?

Ryan: Oh my God, there's a million things. The main thing is Polish food. We have a severe lack of Polish food in this town. My girlfriend honestly had no idea what a pierogi was. I was devastated. Maybe because it's so warm and sunny, it wouldn't play out here, but just give me some heavy Eastern European food.

Farley: Before we take off, I've got to ask: don't you secretly think, in the back of your mind, that heavy metal sucks?

Ryan: (laughs) No way man! Come on, that's sacrilege. I'll say this: I've never been a full-on long-haired Hessian ripper. But I was in fifth grade, listening to Nine Inch Nails or something weird, and my old man comes into my room. He's a square dude, not a hippie or some metal dad or anything cool like that, just a square guy from Duluth, Minnesota. He stops the music and says "What is this?" He takes the tape out and puts in Judas Priest's "Hell Bent for Leather" and said "THAT's what you listen to." I'll never forget that.

Little Bear
1855 Industrial Street, 213.622.8100

[Photos by Hagop Kalaidjian]


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About the Author

Farley Elliott is a freelance food writer and comedian. He currently writes for KCET.org, SeriousEats.com, LAist.com, and L.A. Weekly. You can catch Farley doing comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood.
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