If Los Angeles had a culinary Hall of Fame, Al Cassell, who died June 2 at the age of 98, would be in it. Al's talent was displayed in the not-so-humble realm of the hamburger. He was making "gourmet" burgers from USDA prime chuck long before the current fad for truffles and Wagyu beef.
In L.A. it's easy to provoke a spirited discussion about the "best" hamburger in town. Father's Office? Apple Pan? Mo's? Upscale Arnie Morton's? Far from upscale Tommy's? The Counter, or Barney's in Brentwood? The In-N-Out chain? For me the answer has always been Cassell's.
I discovered Cassell's, then called Cassell's Patio, in 1969, because Mike Salisbury, then-art director of the Times' Sunday Magazine, West, wanted to do a photo spread on L.A. burgers.
His idea was a photo of each burger with a caption detailing how much meat, the configurations, condiments and price. A dream assignment! I ate my way to eight nominees, including Apple Pan and Bob's Big Boy. Cassell's, open only for lunch, was clearly superior.
It started with Cassell's patties — a choice of a third or two-thirds of a pound of USDA prime, ground daily by Al, cooked to order on a special grill. The condiments were remarkable because the potato salad, mayonnaise, Roquefort dressing and lemonade were made by Cassell's.
You lined up, ordered when the countermen called to you and then shuffled forward to get your burger after it was cooked. One counterman was short and had a crew-cut. Regulars called him Al; a customer told me the guy was the owner, Al Cassell.
The décor of the place, at 6th Street and Berendo, was minimalist; a side door led to a pleasant outdoor seating area.
My burger was perfectly cooked (I specified medium-rare) and marvelously flavorful. I sampled all the homemade items; they were first-rate.
So I added one sentence to the caption for the Cassell's burger photo: "Best in the City." The piece was scheduled on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. The preceding Thursday I got an advance copy, and, ignoring journalistic ethics and common sense, showed it to Al, who clearly put his heart into his burgers.
When Al read the words, "Best in the City," he got tears in his eyes. He said, softly, that it meant more to him than anything, because it recognized what he was trying to do with his life's work.
I warned him that there might not be any effect on business, since the issue was appearing over a holiday weekend. Was I wrong: Tuesday at noon I drove to Cassell's. The line stretched out the door and half a block west on 6th.
Later, fascinated by his devotion, I talked to Al very early one morning, as he was trimming and grinding the day's beef. He'd mustered out of the Navy after World War II with the idea of serving great burgers and opened across from Bullock's Wilshire. He put money into decorating his place, but then his landlord raised the rent.
Al took his most important possession, the grill, and moved a few blocks away, never again to be "trapped" by investing in decorations.
I asked why he didn't serve French fries. He said, "They're not in my picture." That was the word he used, "picture." His vision did expand slightly beyond the burger: ham sandwiches (naturally, he cured his hams), egg salad (made on the premises), and tuna salad (ditto).
Finally, after 40-plus years, Al thought about retiring. A deal with some butchers went sour and he sold to the Koreans who now own Cassell's. They've added fries, and in a nod to changing eating habits, turkey and veggie burgers. The place is now a half-block east on 6th, with no patio.
Is Cassell's as good as it was? Some online Chowhound postings grumble, but every time I go, the meat has been terrific, still flavorful. Is it out of loyalty to Al that I never order fries?
I can still picture him behind the counter, an almost-beatific smile on his face, occasionally chanting, "Here comes another one, just like the other one," as he serves up his picture of perfection, one burger at a time.