There's something special about the walk-up burger stand, that post-WWII staple of American eating that has slowly started to fade from view. There are still zillions of madre-and-padre burger operations around Los Angeles, pressing beef into ageless cast iron griddles, but many of them have opted for larger digs and expanded menus. You'll find indoor fluorescent lighting, plastic booths and maybe even a drive-thru window.
You know the old saying: “Give a man a drive-thru window to order from, and he'll eat for a day. But teach a man to stand outside, in the dark, quietly waiting for the right to politely ask a surly old cook if he can please have a cheeseburger, then lean on a newspaper box or squeeze onto a dumpy picnic table while he eats, and that man will have a greasy smile on his face for a lifetime.”
Maybe that's not the exact quote, but it's close. Sometimes, there's just no substitute for greasy burgers from a smoke-black griddle inside a precarious shack that time — and building inspectors — seem to have forgotten. Places where “cash only” means don't even think about asking, your fries are dumped into a cut open Bud Light box and served to you through a barred up prison window, and getting snarled at by the cook is just part of the fun. And so, in celebration of the ongoing National Burger Month, here are our five favorite old school burger stands.
There are other great, simple burgers west of La Cienega (the nearby Apple Pan, Hinano Cafe in Venice), but Marty's stands tall as the long-running walk up window that's been slinging burgers and Vienna beef dogs since the mid-1950s. It's an eclectic mix at Marty's, considering their gas station-adjacent location on Pico Boulevard. You'll find midday golfers from the Hillcrest Country Club up the street, sharp suits and dingy editors strolling over from the Fox lot, firefighters from next door and — on Saturdays — scores of Little Leaguers lining up for a post-game bite. The warm spiced chili is as soupy as always, the Orange Bang still makes your veins run neon and the Vienna dogs are regularly shipped in from Chicago. But what you're after is The Combo, a meat powerhouse that stacks beef, cheese, bacon, chili and a split hot dog all under a puffy white bun. It's the sort of paper-lined, over-greased handheld burger behemoth that will set you back a few years. Or, like Marty's, it may shoot you all the way back to the '50s. 10558 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.
You don't even have to live in the neighborhood to know about Irv's Burgers. Owner Sonia Hong and the always adorable Momma Hong have been battling for nearly a decade to keep this delicately dilapidated burger stand alive. The problem, as always, is money: Irv's sits squarely on a hot piece of Santa Monica Boulevard real estate, and certainly doesn't jive with all of the glass-and-metal mixed-use projects going up around them. But what Irv's lacks in the looks department, it more than makes up with flavor and service. Sonia knows most of the patrons by name, and even if she's never laid eyes on you before, when your beefy burger plate arrives it'll be scrawled with the simple words “Just for you!” and — if you're lucky — a little doodle. The burgers, for their part, are an American classic. Draped in a slice of iconic yellow cheese, griddled to a warm, crusty brown and laid thick with shredded lettuce and a red tomato wheel, this is the sort of burger that doesn't change, because it doesn't need to. Hopefully, Irv's Burgers doesn't change either. 8289 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 323-650-2456.
Do you want some BBQ with your burger? How about on your burger. You can have it just about any way you want it at J N J's, a smoky corner stand on Adams Boulevard. The one story building is actually a meaty duplex, of sorts. On the right-hand side is the order window for all things barbecue, with burnt ends and slathered ribs emerging from a wood-fired smoker built to look like a locomotive. To the left is the burger and hot dog window, with single cheeseburgers, double cheeseburgers, turkey burgers and an assortment of specials available. A straightforward JNJ double cheeseburger is all any sane person could need, especially with an indulgent strip or two of crispy bacon. But for pure burger prowess, step up to the paper plate and order the Four Finger Burger. It's a 20 minute wait under the adjacent open-air, lawn furniture dining annex, but what emerges from the kitchen is nothing short of impossible. There are two burger patties, two slices of American cheese, three slices of bacon, two split BBQ hot links poking out from underneath the bun — and a fried egg. Ask for a smoky side of BBQ sauce for extra slathering, and then call a cab home. You're going to be in no position to drive. 5754 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-934-5390.
When it comes to old school burger stand owners, Bill Elwell is in another league altogether. The man has been putting beef to heat since 1965 inside his minuscule space along an industrial stretch of Van Nuys. He loves riling up customers and isn't afraid to eat raw patties in front of them just to “bug the customers”. He's also not afraid to cook up one hell of a burger. Most of the love comes from that long-blackened griddle, which imbues each burger with a hint of the salt and fat and seasoning from generations past. The patties are ground fresh and delivered daily (which is why Bill can get away with pulling off a taste in front of wide-eyed customers), and maintain a distinct juiciness despite their thin profile and well-charred exterior. Fully stocked cheeseburgers top out at under $4, even with a bag of chips. But the real feast is for your eyes, watching surly Bill interact with the regulars as he nonchalantly flips patties over a decades-old grill. 14742 Oxnard St., Van Nuys.
If you want to tick off every burger stand expectation you have on one single trip, head to Capitol Burger. Location: not great. Cool vintage burger sign: absolutely. Owner: old and awesome (bonus points for his beefy son Jim who helps out daily and looks like a scarier version of Tex Cobb). Takes credit cards: don't even ask. Serves your food inside a cut up beer box, lays on the chili hot and thick, and forces you to eat at an old picnic table where so many pigeons are after your food you may not make it out alive: check, check and check. And the burger itself? It's pure, classic Southern California style. Two thin slips of quarter-pound beef are seasoned and seared, with a couple of perfectly melty slices of American cheese on top. Pickles, vibrant red tomato rounds and a thick crunch of iceberg lettuce finish off the affair, with a toasted commercial white bread bun holding it all together. Mayo and mustard are slapped on before sending your burger through the bars, and the results are drippingly, gooingly, juicily apparent. This is what being a burger stand is all about. Don't forget to order a box of fries, too. An order comes in exactly one size: humongous, and each spud is salty and wonderful in every way. 4301 W. Pico Blvd., Mid-City.