The remembrance of burgers past begins a block away. Prevailing westerlies carry the essence of the Apple Pan's hickory burger east down Pico Boulevard, past a bank building, and straight to my nose.
I'm not only smelling the burger ― ground sirloin to be precise ― but conjuring the full sequence of ingredients from the Tillamook cheddar and hickory sauce to the sharp crunch of lettuce. All that even before I make my order.
Better known for lats and lattes, Los Angeles would seem an unlikely burger capital. But landmarks like the Apple Pan are proof of L.A.'s thriving burger culture of counters, stands, and upscale restaurants.
John T. Edge, regional food expert and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, came to town while researching his new book, Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story (Putnam, 2005; $20). He tasted almost 40 burgers in five days ("a frightening thing to reveal") and was struck both by the prominence and variety of burgers found here. "It just runs counter to the expectation of L.A. as a place of calorie-parsing X-ray starlets," he says.
Burgers have been a big part of the Southern California scene for more than 100 years. In 1902, when a vendor named Mike doubled his burger price from a nickel to a dime, it made news under the headline, "Sensation on the Tamale-Cart Route." More sensational was the reputed 1922 invention of the cheeseburger by Lionel Sternberger in Pasadena. And Bob's Big Boy is considered the birthplace of the double cheeseburger, in 1937.
After World War II, burgers became synonymous with Southern California's car culture. "Burgertechture" dotted the cityscape as designers created buildings flashy enough to attract drivers' attention. With its 35-foot-tall tower, Wayne McAllister's 1949 streamlined Bob's Big Boy is the grandest survivor, and a long preservation battle saved Downey's 1953 McDonald's, the nation's oldest, which features the original golden arches design. But other classics succumbed.
The Apple Pan could have easily been one of them. Opened on April 11, 1947 (a date memorialized on the menus), the cottage-style building stands in humble defiance across from that gigantic celebration of the 1980s color palette, the Westside Pavilion. Martha Gamble, who owns and runs the restaurant with her daughter, Sunny Sherman, says that despite offers from developers, they never thought of selling the business her parents started.
"It didn't tempt us because I know how important this was to my grandparents," says Sherman. "There wasn't a thing they would want to have changed."
"We do like our little place," adds Gamble.
Walk through the double screen doors, and invariably all 26 counter seats are filled. There are no reservations, not even a sign-in list. Instead, an honor system prevails, and with new arrivals constantly pouring in, it's essential to do a quick calculus to keep track of your place.
Seconds after I sit, Hector is there for my order. He's wearing an apron and one of those little white paper diner hats: retro-chic elsewhere but never out of fashion at the Apple Pan. Along with Gordon and Charlie and Roberto, Hector is part of a crew that has worked at the restaurant for decades. Charlie has been here for nearly 50 years.
Quick nod, and Hector is gone with the order before popping back with two gray cardboard plates: one piled high with fries, the second empty until he establishes a generous hillock of ketchup. The hickory burger, wrapped in its waxed-paper cocoon, arrives with a slap on the counter. And that first bite is everything that I imagined it would be.
The very design of the classic Los Angeles burger is highly architectural, the by-product of a need for structural integrity mandated by eating on the go. Celebrated as the city has become for rococo creations that bring new meaning to the term gut check ― massive burger patties topped with pastrami, sliced hot dogs, ham, and Polish sausages, alone or in combination ― the traditional burger is a model of restraint.
John T. Edge believes that the two indigenous L.A. forms both come tightly wrapped in waxed paper: the chili-cheeseburger and the linear descendent of Bob's Big Boy, a cheeseburger slathered with special sauce. "The commonality is that there's a container for unwieldy ingredients," he says. "These are substantial meals crammed within the confines of waxed-paper envelopes."
When it comes to burgers, I have long been a strict constructionist. And so I am also a big fan of Pie 'n Burger, the Apple Pan doppelgänger in Pasadena. Opened in 1963, it's owned by Michael Osborn, who began working here in 1972, just after graduating from high school. He takes no credit for the burger's fundamental structure ― "a perfect cylinder with a magical fold of lettuce," as he describes it. Instead, like Gamble and Sherman, he sees himself as the caretaker of an institution.
Osborn has done everything he can to preserve the restaurant and its burgers. He has even kept the original placard on the pie case that reads, "Take one of our world famous home made pies home for that special occasion or just when you want to live it up." Friends sometimes razz him for that decades-old "world famous" claim, but as Osborn puts it, "When you start making changes, it's a slippery slope. One thing is different, then 10 things are different."
Difference is the very point at the Counter, a midcentury-style build-your-own burgery in Santa Monica. John T. Edge sees a certain freedom in not fussing with special orders and instead surrendering to "the prevailing burger gestalt" at a given establishment. But here that gestalt is all about surrendering to yourself.
The Counter's universe of possibilities is exhilarating. You check off preferences on a sheet that offers nearly as many choices as California's recall ballot: 10 cheeses, 26 toppings, and 17 sauces. It's positively algebraic.
If the Counter represents a creative collaboration between cook and customer, two other Santa Monica eateries are clearly more chef-driven. Father's Office is renowned for chef Sang Yoon's burger combining Gruyère, Maytag blue cheese, and smoked bacon-caramelized onion compote, as well as its most un-Counter-like resistance to diverging from Sang Yoon's design. That extends to a notorious refusal to provide ketchup.
West of the Apple Pan on Pico, Josie Le Balch of Josie restaurant serves up one of the area's grandest burgers: a $28 epic starring ground buffalo sirloin filled with Gruyère and topped with caramelized onions and foie gras on a brioche bun made by her in-house baker, Jonna J. Jensen. Le Balch grew up in Chatsworth, California, the daughter of French-born parents. For her, burgers, if not exactly a forbidden pleasure, certainly represent something uniquely American. And extravagant as hers is, it's more traditional than it initially appears.
"I'm into classic burgers, and I wanted this to be a true burger," Le Balch says. "It has to have a great bun. And if you do seasonings and onions, then it becomes a meat loaf. But I like grilled onions, and I also wanted something far-fetched, like foie gras. I like ketchup too. When I wanted to upset my dad, I would put ketchup on omelets."
Burgers invariably spark memories of family or of neighborhood. L.A. isn't a very traditional place, of course, but you could almost organize it into districts by burger joint. For example, I lived for a while in, let's call it La Zona Irv's, the burger-sphere of the little shack off Crescent Heights that nearly fell victim to a Peet's Coffee. Then I moved to the Arrondissement Apple Pan. So when I smell that hickory burger, I not only am anticipating a damn fine meal, I'm also coming back home. Sherman and Gamble seem to get that. The Apple Pan's motto is "Quality Forever," and I'm a believer.
"It stays the same," says Sherman. "What else stays the same in this town?"
Gamble mulls it over, then smiles. "I don't know. I really can't think of anything else."
Bob's Big Boy. Fine coffee-shop-modern design. $; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 4211 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake; 818/843-9334.
Father's Office. Sublime burgers. $$; dinner daily (under 21 not permitted). 1018 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; 310/393-2337.
In-N-Out Burger. Kanner Architects' Westwood outlet is a burgertechture classic. $; lunch and dinner daily. 922 Gayley Ave., Los Angeles; 800/786-1000.
Irv's Burgers. Irv's survival is cause for celebration. $; breakfast, lunch, and dinner Mon-Sat. 8289 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 323/650-2456.
McDonald's. Golden arches and memories. $; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 10207 Lakewood Blvd., Downey; 562/622-9248.
Tommy's. Iconic L.A. chili-cheeseburger. $; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 2575 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; 213/389-9060.
Fine points from the experts
Josie Le Balch at Josie recommends:
• To keep the juices in, don't overwork the meat mixture.
• To prevent sticking, preheat grill; make sure it's really hot and clean.
• Once you put a burger on the grill, leave it alone ― just turn it once.
Jeff Weinstein at the Counter recommends:
• Choose ground beef that contains 18%-20% fat.
• Wash your hands with cold water before handling the ground meat; you want to keep the fat in it cold.
• Put cold condiments such as lettuce, tomato, and pickles under the burger, and hot condiments on top.
Martha Gamble at the Apple Pan recommends:
• Use lettuce from the inner section of a head of iceberg, between the heart and the outer leaves.