We own the hamburger. L.A. is burgertown, U.S.A.
We're passionate about our burgers, the way New Yorkers are about Cantonese food. Besides religion and politics, the subject you shouldn't raise at the dinner table around here is who makes the best burger. Or if you must, stick the Apple Pan people and the Fatburger people at opposite ends of the table.
We hear the patties sizzle, we smell the smoke from the grill, and a bell goes off. We're about to enter the burger dimension, a jolly jungle of rich browned meat, crunchy lettuce, tangy pickles, rude onions and sweet and sour condiments. Life is good. Life is adorable.
Why do we care so much about the hamburger? It's the symbol of eagerness and independence. It's the food of the car culture that has been the estate of L.A. youth since the 1940s.
That's why so many hamburger stands have kept their old-fashioned signs, and new ones often adopt a retro style. Going to the burger stand or drive-in suggests the whole James Dean, ducktail haircut, "American Graffiti" state of mind, and we know what that means: Go where you want, grab a burger when you feel like it, cruise with your homies. The world is your oyster -- or rather, your combo with fries.
It's no accident that so many national burger chains began here. Bob's Big Boy started in Glendale in 1936, McDonald's in San Bernardino in 1948, Carl's Jr. in Anaheim in 1956 and Johnny Rockets on Melrose Avenue in 1986. Fatburger, which was founded on the corner of San Vicente and South La Cienega boulevards in 1952, is just beginning a major national expansion. And we have loads of local burger haunts that have been around for decades.
And so has the hamburger itself: It's the iconic American fast food of the 20th century.
History on our side
The title of birthplace of the hamburger has been claimed by a number of places around the country. The problem is, they don't have evidence they were serving a fried ground beef patty as a sandwich (rather than as a "hamburger steak" on a plate) before 1904.
But there are news stories about hamburger carts in Chicago and Los Angeles dating from 1894. (Fine work, Chicago, but in the end you didn't have the vocation for it. Can anybody name a famous Chicago hamburger stand?)
So those other towns that have been claiming to be the home of the hamburger had better rethink their boasts. I'm talking about you, Seymour, Wis., Athens, Texas, and Summit County, Ohio.
And especially about you, St. Louis, Mo. For decades the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair has been called the origin point of the hamburger, but as of right now that claim is out of the question. Maybe the World's Fair publicized the hamburger, but face it, everybody -- this year isn't the 100th anniversary of the hamburger. It's at least the 110th.
People often say the history of the hamburger is shrouded in myth. It sure is.
Over and over, you read that Russians brought the idea of chopped meat to northern Germany in the 14th century, having learned it from the Tatars, "who shredded low-quality beef from Asian cattle to make it edible and digestible." According to this evidence-free tale, that's how the port city of Hamburg got the custom of eating chopped raw beef.
Well, come on. People have been chopping meat for a long time -- a 2nd century Roman cookbook has a whole chapter on chopped meat dishes. The Germans didn't have to learn about it from anybody else.
It's true that Central Asian people such as the Tatars have always been big on chopping meat, but it's hard to see how this could have led to the hamburger, even by way of 14th century Russians moving to Germany. Central Asians don't eat chopped meat raw -- or in patties. They fry it up loose, stirring carefully to keep all the fragments separate.
However it happened, chopped meat did become associated with the city of Hamburg, where it is said to have been popular with seamen. OK, now it would be nice to know how the "Hamburg steak" became an upscale dish in America. There's a menu from the famous Delmonico's dating from 1834 or 1836 that lists Hamburg steak. How did the fanciest restaurant in New York start serving a dockside snack?
The fact is, we don't know for sure that Delmonico's Hamburg steak was chopped, because some Hamburg steaks weren't. The "Hamburgh steak" in "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book" (1884) was round steak pounded thin and rolled around a filling of fried onions.
That sort of Hamburg steak -- and maybe Delmonico's, for all we know -- might not have anything to do with the German sailors' snack. Hamburg was one of the wealthiest cities in Germany, with many contacts with the outside world, so there were any number of reasons for a restaurant owner or cookbook writer to associate a dish with it.
We do start finding recipes for ground meat hamburgers in the 1880s. A typical one appears in "Aunt Babette's Cook Book" (1889): "Hamburger steak is made of round steak chopped extremely fine and seasoned with salt and pepper. You may grate in part of an onion or fry with onions."
Most recipes suggested a perfectly reasonable patty thickness, half an inch. But the cookbooks were always talking about hamburger steaks, served on a plate with gravy or melted butter, eaten with a knife and fork. They weren't hamburger sandwiches. (As late as the 1940s, "The Joy of Cooking" was a little unclear on the concept; "The Joy's" broiled hamburger was toast smeared with ground beef and stuck under the broiler.)
When cookbook writers did use hamburger patties in sandwiches, the results could be bizarre. In 1939, Louis P. de Gouy, chef at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, wrote a "Sandwich Manual for Professionals" that evidently used hamburger patties cold, in club sandwiches!
One of them involved putting a burger patty on raisin bread with watercress, cream cheese and raspberry jam. Another paired it with sliced eggs and marmalade on nut bread. Is it any wonder a good hamburger is still hard to find in Gotham?
When I say "people" did this sort of thing to the hamburger, I'm mostly talking about Easterners. For much of the 20th century, the East was loyal to the hot dog, rather than the burger. It was immigrant tradition; Europeans had been used to sausages as a street food. Only with the prosperity that followed World War II, and the triumph of chains that specialized in all-beef hamburgers (in many places, hamburger had been a way of using up kitchen scraps), did the hamburger turn into a national favorite.
Giving the burger its due
In Los Angeles, we had always taken the hamburger seriously. In 1935, when $1 was the usual tab for a whole meal, the swank Brown Derby in Hollywood had a $1 hamburger. "And worth the price," marveled a restaurant guide.
We have taken the hamburger in new directions, although, like everything about hamburger history, this is disputed. It's not yet settled where or when the idea of putting lettuce and tomato on a hamburger started, but it's pretty likely it was here in the fresh vegetable capital of the country.
In 1944 a court awarded the copyright to the term "cheeseburger" to the owner of a restaurant in Denver, Colo., who claimed to have invented the concept in 1935. But Pasadena boy Lionel Clark Sternberger said he'd invented it in the 1920s. Backing up Sternberger's claim, there is evidence that we were putting cheese on hamburger patties around here well before 1935. A 1928 menu from O'Dell's Fine Foods (4922 S. Figueroa St.) listed a "cheeseburger," though this happened to be a cheeseburger steak, not a sandwich.
New Orleans, of all places, claims to have invented the chiliburger in 1934 and even celebrates an annual Chiliburger Day. Now, everybody agrees that a 24-hour L.A. chili parlor with the wonderful in-your-face name Ptomaine Tommy's invented the chili size, a burger patty smothered in chili, in the 1920s, and it's a short jump from there to the chiliburger. New Orleans already has popcorn shrimp and jambalaya, and blackened redfish, and it wants to claim the chiliburger?
For that matter, someplace else probably claims to have invented the double burger, the bacon cheeseburger and the double chili-cheese. Let it go, let it all go. We've got things to do, places to go and burgers to eat.
A driving tour of the best burgers
How the top burgers were selected, in three distinctive categories.
When you list the Southland's top hamburgers, respect for the opinions of burgerkind requires that you spell out the philosophy behind the choices.OK. No chiliburgers, they're an entirely different thing. No restaurant burgers. No foreign chains from outside the area.
And a frank recognition of the three schools of hamburger is in order:
The beloved old-time grease bomb: The meat is ground primarily from the cut of beef called plate: basically, what's left once the brisket and the short ribs are removed. The result is a thin, chewy patty that gets its flavor mostly from the frying process, its own fat and the lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, etc.
To many people, this will always be the true burger. Some 99¢ burgers taste like a salad in Thousand Island dressing mounted on a chewy protein layer -- but hey, nobody can say that's not tasty.
The charburger: The self-respecting middle-level L.A. burger today is made from the same sort of ground meat, but the patty weighs a quarter pound and it's grilled over flame and served on a large sesame bun. It's big and has that irresistible charred flavor.
The primo patty: This is a thicker patty ground from more expensive meat. The result is a more tender burger with a more steak-like flavor.
To show off the meat, many primo patty places stick with plain buns, rather than sesame, and fry their burgers, rather than grilling them.
Below the top level you find a lot of burgers of pretty uniform quality, and it can be hard to tell one charburger, for instance, from another. There are quite good charburgers, mind you. It's just hard to single one out.
Cassell's. The best-known purist's burger shop is all Formica tabletops, mismatched chairs and yellowing magazine clips on the wall. But the one-third-pound patties, ground on the premises, have a real beefy flavor with a faint, appetizing tang of blood in it. They're cooked in a proprietary griddle-oven, and you dress the burger to your taste from an assembly line of toppings. $5.20. 3266 W. 6th St., L.A., (213) 480-8668.
The Bucket. An Eagle Rock dive that dates from 1935; generations of burger-eating have gone into its patina of age. The meat is outstanding, very tender and mild, almost like ground steak. The Bucket also makes the baroque cardiac burger ("guaranteed to flat-line"): a double cheeseburger topped with bacon, ham, mushrooms and all the usual trimmings. $4.50. 4541 Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 257-5654.
Apple Pan. West L.A.'s longtime darling uses a very good beefy patty and emphasizes its sweetness and freshness by putting no tomato or mustard on it, just lettuce and a bit of ketchup-y pickle relish. Apple Pan is loyal to some quaint 1950s practices, such as serving soft drinks in paper cone cups. $5.45. 10801 W. Pico, (310) 475-3585.
Carney's. This mini-chain has a gimmicky look, because both locations are in recycled railway cars, but the half-pound burger is a fine one, more flavorful than the regular size (or the double burger, which is simply two patties stacked up). $4. 8351 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 654-8300; 12601 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 761-8300.
Woody's Smorgasburger. The relatively thick, beefy patty comes to you naked on the bun; garnish it from a salad bar of toppings. This is the bargain among primo patties. $3.19. 755 N. Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo, (310) 414-9345.
The Habit. This polished modern chain, based in Santa Barbara County, is stealthily moving into the Valley and points north and west. The burgers have an outstanding char flavor. $3.98. 22651 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 225-2231; 249-F N. Glendale Ave., Glendale, (818) 246-6095; 25948 McBean Parkway, Valencia, (661) 291-1575; and locations in Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, Newbury Park, Santa Barbara and Goleta.
Hamburger Central. Good char, mustardy and you can actually wash it down with a beer or a glass of wine ... though not in the drive-through lane. $2.39. 241 N. Central Ave, Glendale, (818) 243-0014.
Astro Burger. Good char flavor, better meat than most charburgers. Open till midnight. The most openly Greek-run hamburger stand in town, with a wide range of Greek specials. $2.49. 5601 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 469-1924.
Baker's Drive Thru. A sizable chain in Riverside and San Bernardino counties; it makes irresistible 1940s-style burgers. The old-fashioned style shows most clearly in the buns, which come browned and crunchy from the griddle, faintly misted with grease in the pre-McDonald's manner. $1.55. 188 E. Foothill Blvd., Upland, (909) 946-1852; 4750 Riverside Drive, Chino, (909) 628-8033, and 33 other locations in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
In-N-Out Burger. The legendary Southland chain makes an old-fashioned burger with a meatier patty than most chain burgers. $1.50. 56 locations in Los Angeles County.
Yuca's. Well known as a taco and burrito stand, this popular Los Feliz spot also makes an excellent example of a particular school of grease bomb, a paper-thin patty fried so brown it's almost crisp. $1.75 (including tax). 2056 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 662-1214.
Original Texas Barbecue King. The thick patty at this downtown barbecue place is smoked, and it weighs a pound, overlapping the 5-inch bun by about half an inch all around. A major burger; good luck finishing it. Get it with fries and ask for them fried good and brown. $4.75. 867 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 437-0885.
Sirloin Burger. North Hollywood's nonconformist burger joint has gone its own way since the 1950s. The chewy patty comes with nothing but fried onions and a lick of Thousand Island. Hint: Give it a squirt from the hot sauce dispenser to get the proper effect. $2.30. 6733 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 765-5555.
The Shack. The most over-the-top burger, topped with lettuce, tomato, grilled Polish sausage, mayonnaise and fried onions, comes in the beachiest environment (add cheese for 25 cents). Grab some napkins and hold on to your metabolism. $5.25. 185 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey, (310) 823-6222; 2518 Wilshire Blvd., (310) 449-1171.
-- Charles Perry