Burger city

Take a charbroiled tour of these
classic L. A. burger joints

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  • Charlie Collins presides over the counter at the Apple Pan a Los Angeles hamburger institution for nearly 60 years.

    Burger Charlie

    Daniel Hennessy

    Click to Enlarge

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.




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