A 2008 visit to Claremont seemed to coincide with a culinary renaissance that included the sleek mixed-use Packing House and a destination restaurant named Three Forks Chop House. Sadly, Three Forks was gutted by a fire just months after my visit. What I didn’t know at the time was that another point of excitement sprouted around the corner from the Packing House on June 10, 2008, when John Solana opened The Back Abbey. Los Angeles has plenty of options for burgers and Belgian beer, but so many people praised The Back Abbey that a drive to Claremont to nab the duo suddenly made sense.
The Back Abbey occupies a former icehouse and packinghouse for citrus, which was constructed in 1907. The space was most recently office space for Edison, not that you could tell. The spare room features a rusted corrugated metal roof, drop down, caged light bulbs with exposed filaments and a slab walnut bar. We sat at a central communal table with views of the open kitchen and 27 tap handles. Red leather banquettes and an outdoor patio are your other seating options.
Beer tins frame the Specials Menu and advertise Belgian breweries that are available at The Back Abbey, including St. Bernardus, Chimay, Kwak and Scaldis. If you don’t want your beer on draught, The Back Abbey stocks dozens of bottles ranging in price from $5 (De Konink Pale Ale to $32 for Cantillon Grand Cru. There aren’t many Belgian beer selections as good in Los Angeles proper.
The Back Abbey’s Kennebec fries are blanched in duck fat and soybean oil, then fried in soybean oil. They were served skin-on, in a cone, and were fairly crisp, though they don’t clear the bar set by Wurstkuche. The fries came with a trio of dipping sauces: ketchup, lemon-herb remoulade and horseradish aioli. The last option was the best since horseradish added pretty good pop, though the fries were good enough on their own.
The signature Back Abbey ($13) burger was crafted with a blend of dry-aged ribeye, chuck and sirloin. The patty had a good sear, was cooked to order at medium-rare and didn’t have the buttery texture of lesser beef. The soft brioche bun also contained melting shavings of aged Gouda, a slightly spicy mustard aioli, caramelized onions, meaty Niman Ranch bacon and a thatch of micro greens.
The Seasonal Burger was crafted from an identical beef blend, but wasn’t as satisfying as the signature burger due to the toppings. The Red Monk ($12) benefited from tangy feta and bitter arugula, but could have done without the overly sweet cranberry and apple chutney. The cranberry mustard aioli also wasn’t as rewarding as the straight-up mustard mayo.
I asked Executive Chef Leslie Lakeman for her approach to the burger, and she said it’s to “try to have something that nobody else has…good, honest food.” That includes banning a freezer from the premises and only buying ketchup and mustard. Other than that, everything’s fresh, and it shows.
Since the burgers weren’t very large, we had enough room for a house-made dessert. We ordered apple-filled, powdered sugar-dusted beignets, which were fresh-fried, featuring crisp crusts, custardy cores and firm julienned apples. It was a solid dessert, but couldn’t compete with the pretzel or Back Abbey burger.
The Back Abbey warrants a drive to L.A.’s eastern fringe, and there’s even word that the Packing House is about to regain Three Forks by April 1. The culinary prognosis is once again promising for Claremont.