One Man’s Burger Odyssey, Pt. I

The hamburger as we know it was born in Southern California, where in another time guys in hot rods would pull up to drive ins where girls named Betty and Fran would saunter up on rollerskates and take their orders for a cheeseburger and milkshake, while kids on the East Coast were still eating hoagies.

A dear and too-soon departed friend, Dann, hailed from Louisville (“Louvull,” as he called it), Kentucky. He was a fan of White Castle. It reminded him of home. He used to buy them frozen in a Santa Monica grocery store. “Not so much because they taste good,” he would say, “but because they’re comforting.” A decade before, I was witness to White Castle’s one ill-fated attempt to take the west. The sparkling new White Castle opened across the street from my high school in the San Fernando Valley. We were all curious and lined up. What strange food items were these, small square buns hiding thin half-dollar-sized patties and a sprinkling of rehydrated onions? They made a standard McDonald’s burger seem positively herculean. In addition to misjudging California’s appetite for microburgers (and predating the slider trend by a good 10 or 15 years), they had the misfortune of opening a couple hundred yards from an In & Out Burger.

The curious spectacle of a White Castle burger

Head to the airport to pick up a friend or loved one returning to Southern California after a long absence, and often the first place they want to go is In & Out. There’s even one conveniently located just below the flightpath of landing planes (making it sometimes difficult to order at the drive thru). As one of those rare native Angelenos who through the decades has logged hours at So Cal burger stores from megachains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s to the legendary Tommy’s, I feel entitled to crown In & Out the “Top Patty.” I love the simplicity of the menu. A few burgers, fries and shakes. No spicy chicken sandwiches, no fajita wraps, no Asian salads. Do what you do best. I love the freshness of everything — nothing is ever frozen, the lettuce is crisp and the tomato slices bright and firm. It’s a classic burger, nothing fancy, done perfectly. My go-to burger, same since high school — the Double Double with extra grilled onions.

A close rival for best indigenous burger chain is Fatburger. In addition to some of the most spectacular advertising taglines ever (“Heatlamps. Where burgers are sent for bad behavior.” “Do you really think man clawed his way to the top of the food chain to eat soy?” and “Attention carnivores: Fatburger’s this way. Attention vegetarians: Hey look, a tree.”), Fatburger has some of the tastiest, freshest burgers around. Once again, their success is a sum of the parts — same parts lots of other places use, but for some reason the alchemy hits here. I like chili on mine, and the turkey burger is nearly as good as the beef if you’re feeling either guilty or overfed.

But beyond the native chains both good and bad, Southern California also gave rise to the gourmet burger. One of the earliest stars of this scene and still the standard bearer is Father’s Office. I used to walk to the original FO from my apartment in Santa Monica. There was sawdust on the floor, they served no food, just beer, and the owner was a jolly old dude with a bow tie. Then young pedigreed chef Sang Yoon took over, swept the floor, added track lighting, and began turning out the famous burger. And you couldn’t find a seat. For those of you living in other places or beneath rocks, the Office Burger is one thing: fine dry-aged ground beef, arugula, caramelized onions, a crumble of Maytag blue cheese, a bit of Gruyere, bacon compote and a soft roll. Don’t ask for ketchup. Sadly, the FO burger gave rise to a new breed of expensive, fussy burgers which saw chefs begin stuffing their patties with fois gras, drizzling them with truffle oil, serving them on brioche or ciabatta… Every gastropub, brew pub, beach pub, izakaya pub, tavern, bistro, café, wine bar and their cousins serves a gourmet burger — often disguised as “sliders,” most inspired by or indebted to the FO burger. So I won’t even bother adding those to the itinerary. Well, unless I’m hungry and one happens into my path.

F.O. burger

What is the secret to a great burger? More than anything, it’s that alchemy of ingredients I was talking about above. It’s not even about secret sauces or the best quality meat — I remember a few years back eating at a joint described as “The Best Burger on Kauai,” a roadside stand infested with feral chickens called Ono Char-burger. I got the teriyaki burger, a small McDonald’s size patty on a soft white bun with sticky sweet teriyaki sauce, mayo, shredded lettuce, tomato and pickle. It looked limp and pathetic, but tasted ethereal — again a perfect alignment and proportion of ingredients. I’m always suspicious when a burger restaurant gives me too many choices and too much influence — I want you to serve me your best burger, don’t ask me what I want. Consider Father’s Office for inspiration. Don’t give me ketchup unless you think I need it.

My pilgrimage to the burger Meccas of the place that invented them is neither scientific nor comprehensive. I am but one man, and can only eat so many. Plus, burgers are a highly subjective matter. It is an emotional journey, a valentine if you will to one of the defining foods on my life’s path through the City of Angels. And a snapshot of a moment in time of a city in love with its burgers.

Next time: Tommy’s, Howard’s Famous Bacon & Avocado Burger, Umami Burger, Hole in the Wall and beyond

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mom
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 04:05:48

    My Dad and I used to look forward to While Castle burgers like one would anticipate dinner at Sean’s house. The one little slice of pickle was like the fudge inside a tootsie pop for me. All over by the time I was 9 but I remember it clearly and fondly.

    Reply

  2. paul
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 15:23:52

    I think it would be hard to saunter in Rollerskates but if it can be done my bet is on SoCal . . . My vote for Hamburger: Simple is better. Hot cast iron skillet, don’t press the burger with your spatula, grill the onions (thickcut Vidalias from GA) with the burger until the ends get dark brown and sugary, arugula/romaine mix, mayo, cheap white Publix Supermarket buns and make my beer an ice-cold Anchor Steam.

    Not now, Not evah . . . any burger with the last name of “Castle”

    Reply

  3. paul
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 14:45:15

    Leave it to my state to come up with the Cheeseburger and Fried Ice Cream sandwich at the Florida state fair. Why does Florida wish to compete with Texas as the stupidest state in the nation? Will these folks never quit?

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Sep 03, 2011 @ 15:07:37

      That’s just wrong.

      Reply

      • paul
        Sep 03, 2011 @ 16:15:23

        Chapter one, verse one in the First Book of Wrong:

        And verily from the mount he spake, “Thou shalt never, not now not evah, place ice cream of any make or kind upon the cooked beast of the field in patty form that has been put upon the summer bun used to house the medium rare offering of said beast. Also thou shalt under penalty of high criticism of sanity and taste never mix two kinds of dairy such as a savory cheese with a sugary cream.”

  4. g
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 02:04:49

    The key to White Castles is that you have to do it after 10 pm, be high or drunk, and order at least four.

    Reply

  5. g
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 02:05:28

    Oh, and be under 25 years old

    Reply

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