In Los Angeles, the beef is in the burger. Everywhere. And I’m sure every Angeleno has an opinion about which joint reigns supreme, answers ranging from original, landmark burger stands to popular chains to a trendy restaurant’s rendition of this classic American fare. For me, this represents the beginnings of a Los Angeles Burger Tour, a small slice out of the bigger burger picture. Here’s a sampling of the where and why:
Original Tommy’s: There’s nothing special about the bun. The patty is small, requiring complaining carnivores to order a double or triple. The fixings are simple and always the same: tomato slice, chopped onion, mustard, optional cheese. The fries are mediocre but serve one special purpose: to sop up excess chili. Without this generous slopping of gooey, original recipe chili on your burger, you don’t have a Tommy’s.
Since 1946, the original Tommy’s has remained put on the corner of Rampart and Beverly. It’s the only Tommy’s (out of 27 locations) that doesn’t provide fountain drinks; customers help themselves via the honor system to cans of soda out of several Pepsi coolers surrounding the stand.
Here’s what I’ve learned from the Tommy’s experience: don’t entirely remove the Tommy’s burger from the wrapper. If this mistake is made, all the chili will ooze out the bottom of the burger and meld into an even sloppier mess, creating chili-cheese paper which requires some serious fry-mopping.
Bob’s Big Boy: On a Saturday afternoon on the corner of Riverside and Rose in Burbank, the tables are turning as fast as a party of two can devour two Big Boy Combos and a vanilla shake. Hungry customers wait outside, sitting on benches surrounding the famous Big Boy statue which marks a true “state point of historical interest,” a designation given by the state of California in 1993. This location is the oldest standing Bob’s in America.
The menu is extensive (fried chicken, liver and onions...), but the Original Big Boy Combo is the way to go. A double-decker. Shredded iceberg. American cheese. Soft sesame seed bun. A signature ketchup-relish blend. You can’t get more classic. For me, it certainly brings back childhood memories. The accompanying dinner salad, though, has sadly been updated from simply a wedge of iceberg to what appears to be lettuce from a bag. But fortunately the bleu cheese dressing hasn’t changed.
Fatburger: Sure, it’s a chain, and a growing one at that (Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey…). But there’s something about ordering a cheeseburger deliciously complete with an egg over easy. The people at Fatburger market freshness, using slogans such as “Most onion rings come from freezers. We prefer onions.” I think it’s the fried egg that keeps people coming back. At least that’s what lures me in.
The original Fatburger, Fatburger #1, is located on Western Avenue at 31st Street in East L.A. But Fatburger offspring are everywhere in L.A. and surrounding areas. You can’t miss ‘em.
In-N-Out: Nothing screams Southern California more than a 4 x 4, Animal Style. That’s four beef patties and four slices of American cheese with mustard seared onto the meat, pickles, grilled onions and extra “spread,” a tasty Thousand Island dressing-type condiment. I prefer a double-single (two beef, one cheese), without onions or sometimes with grilled onions. Oh, and fries, arguably the most debated In-N-Out menu item. Some people love them. Some people hate them. All opinions aside, there are no other fries like them. Peeled and cut on location and deep-fried to order in very clean oil, In-N-Out fries aren’t the crispiest ever served. But out of all the burger chains, their fries are the freshest and the most, well, potato-like.
The In-N-Out burger itself is a well-thought out food item. The cheese is melted onto the toasted top-bun before assembly, which assures adherence to the remaining burger components beneath. However, to insure a complete, intact burger throughout consumption, the best technique is removing the un-bitten burger from all wrapping, crumpling up the first tissue-like pre-wrap and stuffing it into the outer wrap, then replacing the burger. This technique exposes the majority of the burger, providing leverage for ease of ingestion while still keeping the burger intact and fingers relatively clean.
The original In-N-Out, in Baldwin Park, is claimed to be California’s first drive-thru.
The Apple Pan: The Westside’s best burger? Perhaps. Burger joint with the most character? Definitely. The Apple pan is one of those places that’s packed full of regulars. As a first-timer, I almost felt embarrassed asking for a menu, which are tucked away, out of site. I wasn’t fortunate enough to score a seat, all of which surround the “kitchen” in a u-shaped counter. I settled for a to go order of the Original Steakburger with fries. As I waited, I stood and watched the place work.
Two mustachioed men work the counter, taking orders, serving burgers, sandwiches and pie, fetching cans of Coke (no fountain drinks here). They are lightning quick, especially with ketchup refills (no, you don’t tap the 57’s yourself). These guys pull Heinz bottles from under the counter and masterfully, under 2.3 seconds, thrust blobs of ketchup onto small paper plates. Amazing. The burgers are retrieved and planted straight onto the counter; no plates, no placemats to mess with.
My to go order didn’t merit any ketchup service, which disappointed me. The fries desperately needed something. Salt for sure. But I knew this place wasn’t known for its fries. The steakburger, never housing a tomato slice, gets Tillamook cheddar, not American. The top-bun (seedless) is slathered with a signature tangy-sweet relish sauce, reminiscent of Bob’s but tangier. A generous wedge of crisp iceberg gives the burger some girth. The steakburger stands on its own; it doesn’t even need the fries. But I would get them just for the ketchup service.
The Apple Pan (the original and only since April of 1947) is located at 10801 Pico, between Overland and Westwood.
The Father’s Office: I’m usually not a fan of the fancied-up burger, but at this beer, beer and more beer and wine bar on Montana in Santa Monica, the burger is pleasing to the eye and tastes like you’re paying for quality. Deeply caramelized onions and lively arugula lend a sweet and peppery compliment to the juicy, cooked-how-you-like-it, dry-aged beef patty. Maytag blue and Gruyere add a sharpness of flavor. The traditional bun is replaced by a French roll, which fits the patty's oval shape. Crisp, fresh, delicious piled-high “Frites” or “Sweet Potato Frites” can be ordered at additional cost, which I recommend for sharing. But don’t ask for ketchup; the place is devoid of Heinz bottles. Basic or blue cheese aioli, in ramekins, is served instead.
Fred 62:They call her the Juicy Lucy. She's held together by a what looks like a coffee stirrer with two potato chips fused together at the top with a parsley sprig in between. But that's beside the point. This burger shines for many reasons. For one, the bun is actually flavorful. On most burgers the tasteless bun merely acts as holding device; a vehicle to get burger to mouth. Juicy Lucy's bun lends a flavor and texture balance (perfectly toasted, soft with slightly crisp edges) to the other burger components. Second, the red onion (which, to me, is the better onion choice for burgers) is thinly sliced, providing just the right amount of sweet onion "background noise." Thirdly, the shredded iceberg melds with the Thousand Island spread, which minimizes drips while providing an interesting salad-like component. Finally, the patty, an eight-ouncer, blanketed in melted cheddar, is seasoned well and cooked to the perfect medium-rare. Yes, you can see a good amount of pink.
Fred 62 is a can't miss lime green and orange building on the corner of Vermont and Rodney in the trendy Los Feliz. The waitresses in all black mini-skirted Dickies outfits and waiters in black T-shirts reading a stark "FRED 62," serve up everything from Belly Bomb omelets to sandwiches called The Manhandler. And the Juicy Lucy has a little sister called the Wimpy Burger (just 6 ounces).
My Los Angeles Burger Tour has been fun and quite filling. I'm sure I've missed a contending place or two, or many. I greatly welcome any recommendations.
Photos: Father's Office burger image provided by The Father's Office. All other images by Kristin Franklin.