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Food

Newsletter: A bucket list burger at Hawkins House of Burgers in Watts

The Hawkins House of Burgers’ storefront declares it “The Best Burger in Los Angeles.”
Hawkins House of Burgers is a landmark on the corner of Imperial Highway and Slater Street in Watts.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

We all have those bucket list restaurants — places we’ve been meaning to visit for months, even years, before we finally go. Until recently, Hawkins House of Burgers, the esteemed Watts burger restaurant, was at the top of my list.

Hawkins is known best for its baroque Angus beef burgers; its Instagram is less promotional tool than a slideshow reel of temptation: shot upon glorious shot of densely built burgers bursting with char-edged patties and wagging tongues of thick apple-smoked bacon.

Located inside a plain two-story building along Imperial Highway, the restaurant has a walk-up counter and no dining room beyond a few patio tables on the sidewalk. The business got its start as a neighborhood market operated by James Henry Hawkins, who came to Los Angeles from Arkansas in 1939.

In 1982, his daughter, Cynthia, added the small burger restaurant, which is shoehorned into the side of the building. Today, she runs the restaurant with her daughters, Dawn and Danielle Gibson.

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The Leaning Tower of Watts burger at Hawkins House of Burgers
The Leaning Tower of Watts burger at Hawkins House of Burgers: Three ground beef patties, pastrami, bacon, a chicken wing, a couple of fried eggs, melted cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato and onion rings.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

The thing to order at least once is the Whipper Burger, a double-patty burger with pastrami and a hot link, Dawn told me recently.

Maybe it was my sun-addled brain — the mercury was crawling into the upper 80s on the day I visited — but I found myself ordering the statuesque Leaning Tower of Watts instead, which is like three Whipper Burgers smashed together on a bamboo skewer.

The burger is the stuff of championship eating competitions: a sturdily built colossus bursting with three half-pound beef patties and thick deposits of pastrami. There are a hot link and a couple of fried eggs tucked into the heart of the sandwich; a chicken wing and onion rings pinned to the top; and at least three burgers’ worth of condiments squeezed in between four toasted buns. It costs $27 and comes with fries and two drinks.

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Yes, reader, I ate it. I skimmed some off the top for dinner, then Dawn kindly wrapped it up for me in aluminum foil so I could take it home and keep eating it. And every time I scraped at the burger the next day, it was exquisite: rich, salty, comfortingly familiar but never boring. The secret is the coarse ground beef, gently seasoned and hand-packed into loose patties, charred just enough so that it tastes freshly plucked off a backyard grill.

The massive portions are not only for novelty, although there’s a whiff of that. They reflect a commitment to plenitude and value.

There is a dish called the Farmer Otis — a two-foot-long burrito layered with pastrami, cheesy beans and chopped-up hot links — designed by Gibson’s uncle to feed a family of three or four.

“He liked the idea of being able to order one thing and feed everybody,” Dawn told me.

The restaurant has expanded its menu over the years to offer breakfast and lighter options including veggie burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches. But you’ll come for the burgers and to spend a few moments lapping up the hospitality, itself a kind of sustenance missing from fancier spots.

Hawkins does not often show up on lists of classic L.A. restaurants — but it should.

So what’s on your L.A. restaurant bucket list? Tell me about it at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com.

The Single Baker cheeseburger at Baker’s Drive-Thru.
The Single Baker cheeseburger at Baker’s Drive-thru. The first location of the regional burger chain opened in San Bernardino in 1952.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)
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Ask the critics

What’s your favorite fast-food place in L.A.?

— Richard D., Instagram

I’m going to stretch the definition of Los Angeles here to tout my favorite fast-food restaurant: Baker’s Drive-Thru, the Inland Empire-based fast food chain that has been active in Southern California since the early 1950s. My husband and I make a point to stop in every time we go to Riverside to visit family.

I could write a sonnet dedicated to the Single Baker, a minimalist, sparingly dressed burger oozing cheese and sodium (try it with the restaurant’s spicy ketchup). I appreciate the restaurant’s “Twin Kitchen” concept, which helped set it apart early on from other local burger chains. Founder Neal Baker added casual Mexican food items (burritos, quesadillas, tacos) to the menu back in the 1950s. If you were raised with one foot in American fast-food fare and another in Mexican cooking, as I was, Baker’s feels like home.

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A chili burger with a little sign on a toothpick that says “Certified Real Tommy’s.”
The original Tommy’s chili cheese burger.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

  • And speaking of burgers, this week, reporter Daniel Miller dives into a local burger mystery: Why are there dozens of L.A.-area restaurants that appear to be knockoffs of the Original Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers?
  • Is Slab Barbecue home to the best brisket in Los Angeles? Restaurant critic Bill Addison considers the smoked meats (and curiously short wait times) at the Beverly Grove restaurant.
  • Jenn Harris reports on the dazzling new Compartés chocolate shop in Hancock Park. (I’ll take two of the chocolate bars made with Primo’s doughnuts, please.)
  • Cooking columnist Ben Mims has your easy weekend cooking project: Turn all those sweet-tart fall apples into a refreshing shaved apple and peanut salad.
  • Last but not least, I reviewed La Diosa de Los Moles, a restaurant in Paramount from L.A.’s mole goddess, Rocío Camacho. (Try the mole de pistache.)

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