Pie's the Limit

It's an unprepossessing place, Pie N' Burger, a neighborhood hamburger restaurant with the funk of coffee and grilling onions, a long counter and a couple of tables and the sort of wood-grain Formica that brings to mind '60s stereo-speaker veneer. Regular customers slide onto their regular stools, their regular orders long memorized by the waitresses--say, one poached egg with homemade tomato salsa, toast and jelly, a small plate of fresh parsley as an appetizer.

"Hi, howya doin'?" a waitress says to a customer down at one end. "I put in your order when I saw you coming through the door."

Of course, the neighborhood is just around the corner from Pasadena's elegant Lake Avenue shopping district and just a couple of blocks from Caltech, which means the guy next to you may be reading a long physics proof over his ham and eggs as if it were the morning paper, and the Barbara Bush pearls the woman at the end of the counter is wearing could very well be real. Pie 'N Burger is locally famous for its big omelets, its pancake breakfasts, its crisp, slightly oily hash browns. This is one of the few places around where you might meet both a truck driver and a socialite.

Like all good hamburgers, a Pie 'N Burger burger is about texture, the crunchy sheaf of lettuce, the charred, slightly friable surface of the meat, the outer rim of the bun crisped to almost the consistency of toast. When compressed by the act of eating, the hamburger leaks thick, pink dressing that is somewhat more tart than it may look; soft, grilled onions, available upon request, add both a certain squishiness and a caramelly sweetness.

The slice of American cheese, if you have ordered a cheeseburger, does not melt into the patty, but stands glossily aloof from it, as if it were mocking the richness of the sandwich rather than adding to the general effect. The burgers here come jacketed in white paper, and are compact enough to generally remain intact through three-quarters of their life--it's kind of a genteel thing, a Pie 'N Burger burger, not one of those greasy monsters that explode into pungent goop when you so much as look at them.

There is chili, thick and mild, served with a sprinkling of chopped onion and a slice of that unmeltable cheese; there is a chicken-pot pie, too sweet and with an unpleasantly bready crust; there are turkey sandwiches on white bread with tomato and mayonnaise. French fries, the finger-thick kind that taste mostly like potato, are exemplary, crisp outsides giving way to steamy, firm interiors, and a single half-order is easily enough for two. Cokes are hand mixed with syrup and seltzer, which means you can order them to your liking; the chocolate shakes are dense as plutonium.

But mostly, there are burgers and pies: ultra-sweet pecan pies, custardy coconut creams with marshmallow topping, banana creams oozing from beneath tall lashings of meringue, gummy fresh-strawberry pies and classic canned-cherry pies, none of them great, but the ideal conclusion to a genteel hamburger lunch.

* Pie 'N Burger; 913 E. California Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 795-1123. Open Monday-Friday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. No alcohol. Cash only. Takeout. Lunch for two, food only, $9-$14.

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