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Jan 6, 2004 10:47 AM

Hot dogs and hamburgers - Part I (intro, Pie n'burger, Apple Pan, Jay's)

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Hamburger historians may claim the modern beef in bread version of this dish emerged from some toaster like contraptions in New Haven, Connecticut (and served on toast to boot), yet can anyone deny hamburger culture emerged, picked up steam and steamrolled the country from Southern California, and that LA remains hamburger central? Now, hot dogs, many cities own a hot dog culture, does LA?

I've visited five LA hamburger places--well kinda six, but my taste of In 'n Out Burger came in Las Vegas and one LA hot dog place. I wish I could have tried more, but my kids crimped my sampling. The chowhounditas, especially the younger, took a quick and complete dislike to LA hot dogs and would not consider them after two bites at Pink's, and they thought Dad's need for hamburger breaks excessive and a tad embarrassing [ed. what happens when they actually become teens?] Still, I do believe I had a representational sample.

LA burgers come from three sources. First, there is the fast food style operation, authentically in the vein of McDonalds. This category includes the dueling not McDonald's, Fatburger and In n' Out as well as lesser known chains like Astro Burger. Second, there is the open air, sit on stool school, best exemplified by Tommy's. Third, there is the more traditional counter watch the grill man kind of place found in other cities; the two most known examples (I believe) in LA, Apple Pan and Pie n' Burger. Another way to divide the burgers would be by spread. As far as I can tell, the spread, the schmear condimenting the burger come three ways: chili, relish/relish based secret sauce and oddity (e.g., Harvey's avocado and bacon). Any and all of those toppings make the LA hot dog.

In my LA burger tastings, I have not sampled a bad burger. Not all the contraptions, however, met my tastes (my subjective tastes as Cabrales would say). I guess I have a bigger issue with LA chili than I have with LA burgers or hot dogs as I thought mediocre chili marred the Jayburger and Pink's. Here's more on three:

Pie n' Burger, Pasadena - Name fails to connote the expanded offering on their menu. Not just a burger specialist as it includes a full range of breakfasts and other dishes. This winding, low counter, like Pasadena itself, a little more connected to the USA to the east and not quite as modern, served by efficient waitresses seemingly from Central Casting (and even better because you know they are not) had my favorite burger. Here, more than any, the elements combined exactly. A series of contrasting textures and melding flavors. The pinkish secret sauce did not distract and the better quality burger stood up. Pie not bad either.

Apple Pan - Another counter place that would look at home in any old time city, also with a few offerings beside burgers. Intense attention by waiters. They never let you pour your own ketchup--a move copied by the LA to the world, Johnny Rockets--or go more than a few sips of coffee without a refill. The same intense attention goes on at the grill. Several cooks toil away at simple yet hiddenly complicated tasks. Apple Pan is in fact the Zen of hamburger stands. Where certain Japanese students can spend a lifetime mastering just the art of drawing a bow, certain Apple Pan cooks work endlessly just to tear the iceberg lettuce just right. While I appreciate, nay relish, this attention to detail, I'm of mixed opinion of the product. In fact it is the relish I do not relish. An overly sweet reddish mixture that too dominates. The namesake apple pie is likewise too sweet. I believe I will be happier next time without the sauce, perhaps trying the hickory stuff.

Jay's Jayburger - Speaking of sauce marring the burger, the condiments ruined a great hamburger here. I've read a fair amount about Jay's, and am generally predisposed to like something called a Jayburger, but I was not expecting such a tiny, Photomat sized shop on the edge of a dicier section of LA. Nor was I prepared for how glorious Jay's smells. Wow. Besides the aroma, what I liked at Jay's was the exact motion the grillman used to slide the hamburger between the condiments so that nothing spilled or dripped. It was a great old fashioned burger as right as say Camellia Grill in New Orleans, but the chili was mushy, heavy and bland as was the tomato. Like Apple Pan, I expect to be much happier next time, ordering differently.

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  1. Another characteristically fine post. As for hot dogs, some like Pink's, some like Cupid's (there's one in the Hollywood & Highland complex of buildings), some like Rubin's (in the Valley). Hamburger Hamlet in the old days used to do some good tricked up dogs but that was yesterday. I've heard positive stuff about Skooby's (on Hollywood blvd in the same complex as a Spanish language church!). Many prefer the street dogs available from vendors around town, particularly at night, which are grilled on the spot and wrapped in bacon. Then, if your stomache can take it, there's the bacon or pastrami wrapped dogs at Oki Dog (the one on Pico, not the Fairfax branch) as celebrated by J. Gold.
    There are excellent, if expensive ($10-12), large and creative burgers at 26 Beach Cafe at 26 Washington Place in Marina del Rey. Not as good as the late lamented Thai American Express Cafe burger, but pretty close.

    11 Replies
    1. re: mc michael
      Vital Information

      What is the thinking about "large" or gourmet burgers. Hamburger Hamlet, Father's Office, I do not know. Or steakhouse burgers. Like here in Chicago places like Gibson's are known for really special burgers. What about, say Dan Tana's. Now, is this considered part of LA burger culture. For me, the 3 versions described seem more truly LA, but I could be near-sighted. Needless to say, I have yet to try an entrant in the large burger derby in LA.


      1. re: Vital Information

        Not sure. More is more? You get more meat and can taste more meat, particularly if ordered medium rare, whereas on the thin, tile like patties the meat is more a delivery device for the condiments, as opposed to a thing in itself. And we haven't even gotten into patty melts and chile sizes yet! I think J. Gold has held forth on different styles of LA Burgers and IIRC his most recent fave is the burger at Campanile, available only at lunch, only some days.

        1. re: Vital Information

          In the mid sixties, when I first began driving, and the parents foolishly allowed me to use the family car (the cheap one, not the "good" one that mom drove) my buddy and I loved the Hamburger Hamlet. The burgers were truly special then, big, 8 ounce patties (with the "Hamlet Burger" option) with cheese and bacon you could taste, with Russian dressing and some sliced tomato and lettuce on the side. The meat was juicy and tasty and the large, sesame seed buns were baked according to a special recipe. The fries were good then (none of the, in my opinion, inadequate "steak fries" that were introduced later) and the chocolate shake was a pimply faced boy's thick sweet dream. (The only better shake was found at Bob's Big Boy, truly legendary, you *had* to use a spoon to eat [not drink] them.) All of the waitstaff in HH at that time were female and would not have seemed out of place (and I am saying this with great afffection and respect) looking after the family as trusted retainers of color.

          Alas, the HH burger is not quite what it once was, but it is still a pretty good burger, and if you like cheese, they do a very adequate patty melt. What really keeps my going back to HH is the opportunity to have a nice bowl of their lobster bisque as a first course to my burger. I have never had better bisque, even though it is festooned (sp?) with mostly chunks and shards of crab instead of lobster, it is beautiful, thick, rich, sort of salmony colored and lobstery flavored nectar.

          Have not been to Father's Office, but next time you are out I wouldn't mind checking out their burger.

          Oh, and of course, now instead of a chocolate shake, when I am at a high end burger emporium it is a schooner of cold beer for me.

          1. re: Vital Information
            Dave Feldman

            After reading both of your posts about hamburgers, I was so happy to see you bring up the subject of Hamburger Hamlet. This is, I think, the most important missing element in your Los Angeles burger education. I think at its prime, HH did offer a better burger than Pie 'n Burger, Cassell's, or the others you've mentioned.

            As Chino Wayne mentions, they had the advantage of starting with great ingredients, and a flaming hot charcoal broiler.

            But its importance wasn't just in the quality of the food, but the expansion of the idea of what could go on a hamburger. You can argue about whether the changes were good or bad, but they were instrumental in developing the designer hamburgers we see today. Without HH, it's hard to imagine a Fuddrucker's or Islands (a small, California-based chain of sit-down restaurants, or the Cheesecake Factory, for that matter.

            HH looked like a(n upscale) coffee shop, but the menu offered many items never seen in one before. It's too bad that young Californians, and others who saw feeble versions in other states, never got to see why at one time it was a powerhouse.

          2. re: mc michael

            It does seem like the Valley has taken over in the category of hot dogs. As you mentioned, Rubin's Red Hots is an excellent choice as are either the Weiner Factory on Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks or the newest choice, the Stand, also on Ventura Blvd. in Encino. These are all so close together it would be very easy to do a "roving dog fest" anytime one felt so inclined.

            1. re: WLA

              Now I'm up for a roving dog fest along Ventura Boulevard anytime.

              1. re: Chino Wayne

                Sounds like something we should work on getting together for. The World Weiner Tour '04 t-shirts will be sold at the event.

                  1. re: mc michael

                    I think the car even looks a little bit like the "Hermanator" if you squint just a bit.... (g)

                    1. re: WLA

                      Definately one of Herman's cousins...

                      1. re: WLA

                        LOL. Like Chino Wayne, it's a classic.

            2. Thanks. Good post. I like Jay's but I never get the chili burger there. My fave as a kid was Fisher's burgers at the old town and country on Third and Fairfax across from the Farmers Market - now very gone.

              I would suggest if you're still into this quest next time, Cassell's on 6th (they moved over on 6th for locals who remember the old place). No fries, but a wonderful garlicky pototo salad last time I was there.

              And for a stand, there's Irv's Burgers in west hollywood, quite traditional.

              IRV'S BURGERS
              8289 SANTA MONICA BLVD
              WEST HOLLYWOOD

              3266 W 6TH ST
              LOS ANGELES

              3 Replies
              1. re: Jerome

                Try the quad burger at Irv's. Gimme a bottle of anything, and a glazed donut - to go!

                1. re: Jerome
                  Vital Information

                  Irv's DID look cool. There are so many. How's Astro Burger, All American Burger, Jake's, etc., etc., etc.

                  Also, somewhat of an aside, but do people really eat the pastrami at these places, and if so, why, I mean where did that come from?

                  1. re: Vital Information

                    Forget All American Burger. As for the pastrami at most burger joints, it's bad. Fried to a greasy cardboard consistency--several worlds away from the wonder that is Langer's pastrami.

                2. No one mentioned my favorite hamburger joint- Mo Better Meaty Meat Burger on Fairfax @ Pico. Ghetto fabulous chargrilled burgers made to order. Great fries and 7-Up cake as well.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: jkitte

                    MBMMB -- closed forever.