Try it, I dare you. Take a half-pound burger strewn with bacon, Chinese barbecue sauce, Shishito peppers and piles of crispy pepper onions on a pan de mie bun—and eat it while standing in the parking lot of on Catalina Avenue in South Redondo Beach.
It can’t be done, trust me. I had to go dine in my car, and even that didn’t prevent me from dribbling barbecue sauce into my lap as I tried to compress the burger into something resembling a manageable bite.
I ended up eating the burger topless—minus the top bun, that is.
Five napkins later, back inside the liquor store, I had to confess to Lowell Vernell Bakke III—the 27-year-old chef who dreamed up the idea for this novel, back-of-the-shop operation—that I wasn’t returning to until I could sit down at a table and eat like a normal person.
The only thing that might lure me back sooner is the food—a multicultural cuisine that has raised the bar for burgers and fries everywhere.
Fortunately, I won’t have to wait long to sit. Part of above-mentioned parking lot at Catalina Liquors is, as I write, being turned into an outdoor picnic area complete with tables, chairs (or maybe benches), a garden and decorative planters.
Within a week or two, The Standing Room, which opened just 14 months ago, will have seating.
To order their exotic burgers or Kalua-style shredded pork sammies (short for “sandwiches”), customers will still have to stand in line outside at the takeout window (some diehard fans have been known to wait 45 minutes), or else make their way into the family-owned liquor store and thread past the wines and chips and sodas to the back counter.
There, toiling in full view in the small, wide-open kitchen that he and his cousin designed, Lowell Bakke resembles a whirling dervish as he fills orders: three “Dressed” burgers (patty, bacon, caramelized onion, smoked gouda, a fried egg, etc.) and a couple of “Oscars” (deep-fried soft-shell crab, “Thai” mayo, avocado & onion on long pan de mie buns).
The self-taught, Hawaiian-born chef is either building high-rise burgers or taking orders (by phone or across the counter), and delivering soft-spoken instructions to Takayuki Matsushita, one of his five cooks and helpers, who seem as driven as Bakke to make every item a work of—well, a work of exceptionally good taste.
Like a proud parent, Bakke has bestowed names on all his sandwiches and specialties, which cost between $7 and $9: “Cash” (detailed at the start); “Elvis Burger” (a patty, tomato jam, peanut butter, bacon, BBQ, Kurobuta sausage, jalapeno, onion, spring mix, and smoked gouda); “Napoleon” (patty, bacon, gouda, cheddar, caramelized 0nion, spring mix, braised short rib, a fried egg.)
Oh, and truffle Parmesan fries.
Think crunchy, thin French fries cooked in truffle oil and dusted with Parmesan and furukaki, a Japanese spice—a combo that may have you licking the remnants from the bottom of your little cardboard container.
Despite a total lack of advertising—it’s easy to miss the small sign out front—customers were lined up inside the store well past noon, most of them repeats. The day I was there, Matthew Blanco was on his fifth trip to The Standing Room.
Blanco, his mini Pincer, Mocha, cradled in his arms, said he likes to bring people from out of state “because it’s pretty unique here.” He and his brother, John, both from Redondo, were waiting for their favorites, a Cash and a Bull (think a patty, cheddar, Korean marinated beef, Shishito peppers, etc.).
Mary Galante, who had come to fetch preordered burgers for her crew at on nearby Pacific Coast Highway, first heard about The Standing Room two months ago. “I came the first time with my son because he loves hamburgers,” Galante said. “He got the Naked (your basic burger) and I got the Bull.”
When people at her office decided they wanted hamburgers, Galante knew just where to go, she said.
Mary Ann Sanders and her son Rick, both of Torrance, discovered the burger bar two months ago. “It’s rather like gourmet food in the back of a liquor store,” Sanders said. “I started with the Cash, and I always think I’m going to order something else, then I get here and I remember how good the Cash is and keep getting it.”
A week or so ago, Sanders brought her other son to the establishment. “He was just amazed,” she said. “He’s the chef in the family, so he was very impressed with what they’re doing.”
Just what kind of fare is Bakke whipping up?
When trying to plant a label on the Asian-influenced food that is at once American, yet deliciously foreign and mysterious, he rejects the term “Hawaiian-fusion.”
Modest and unpretentious, he says his style of cooking is a blend of home (the Island of Oahu); his heritage (his mom, Deborah, is Korean; his dad, Lowell Vernell Bakke II, is Caucasian), and good old-fashioned barbecue.
“The thing I miss the most from Hawaii would be all the backyard barbecues,” said Bakke, a tall man with a fringe beard and soft, sweet eyes. “To just relax and cook up food that we all love to eat.”
He wants to duplicate that fun, relaxed feeling in The Standing Room: “just a couple of guys, hanging out having fun and pushing out great food.”
One thing is for sure, The Standing Room is a family affair. While Bakke III slaves happily away in the kitchen, his dad holds forth at the liquor store counter, clearly elated at the success of his son’s effort.
“It’s been all his,” Bakke Sr. said, beaming as he spoke between waiting on a stream of customers paying for lunch. “He’s always wanted to have a niche of his own, and this is the first stepping stone before we started thinking about investing in a full restaurant.”
Bakke Sr. and his wife, Deborah, who live in Hawaii, take turns helping out at the liquor store, as does Lowell’s younger sister, Alicia, who designed The Standing Room website and regularly posts photos on Yelp, where the burger bar rates 4-1/2 stars.
The family bunks with Chef Bakke in Harbor City when they are in town. “Now that I’m so busy, I need one here to help me all the time,” he said.
Although Bakke Sr. has owned a number of liquor stores in Hawaii, the Redondo Beach property belongs to a nephew, who “came to Hawaii a couple of years ago and asked us to come help bring the (faltering) store back,” Bakke Sr. said.
Chef Bakke said the nephew “asked us to come and help with the store because my parents have a lot of experience in the business.”
The building, which had once been a deli, had a large storage area blocked off in back, which young Bakke, fresh from working at Hy’s Steak House in Hawaii, realized at once could be turned into a kitchen.
“Already, I had a dream of a restaurant,” he said. Eventually, Bakke hopes to open two additional sit-down restaurants, one on the beach in the South Bay and another in Hawaii.
To consult on the design of the kitchen and the day-to-day operation of The Standing Room, Bakke enlisted the help of another cousin, Thomas Kim, a trained sushi chef. Before the two opened for business at the start of 2011, they allowed themselves a practice phase, concocting and refining recipes and handing out free burgers to liquor store patrons.
“People were kind of looking at us like, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?’” Bakke said, recalling his answer: “We’re making burgers out of the back of a liquor store, have one!”
A lot of recipes came from Kim, an alum of Roy’s chain of Pacific Rim restaurants, he said, but the specials are all Bakke’s inventions. “I was in the kitchen every day, watching my cousin, and you just kind of grow with it, try things out," Bakke explained. "Basically, I just like to cook food that I would eat myself.”
Although Kim left a year ago to begin a business of his own, trial and error, along with reactions of customers, have refined Bakke’s menu choices. For burger buns, for example, he went from Hawaiian sweet bread to brioche before settling on pan de mie from the Bread Bar in El Segundo.
Just as flavoring his hamburger meat with ground short rib trimmings contributed to juiciness, he found that many of the Asian spices his mother had always used amplified his food.
The frequency of fried or soft-boiled eggs in his various concoctions was “a touch my cousin added,” Bakke said. “It’s actually a very popular thing nowadays”—especially in Hawaii, where a staple known as a Loco Moco consists of a hamburger patty, gravy and a soft boiled egg on top.
“If I could put a fried egg on everything, I would,” he said, breaking into a grin.
He does all the buying himself, necessitating a lot of early morning shopping trips, and he is usually at the store until 6 or 7 at night. And while he’s managed to date a couple of girls since coming to the South Bay two years ago, he’s just way too busy to think of any of that now.
About all Bakke has time to do once in a while is pick up his guitar and play some music. Nothing Hawaiian, mind you. Better rock by Sublime.
The Standing Room is located inside Catalina Liquor at 144 N. Catalina Ave. in South Redondo Beach.