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.