It's Friday night, and cars are streaming into Tommy's on Beverly and Rampart — not the big spillover lot across the street but the tiny main one. Miraculously, no matter how crowded it gets here, spaces always open up as you approach. Still, it's claustrophobic here because the small asphalt rectangle is packed not so much with cars as small tanks — hormonic vans, steroidal pickups and gargantuan SUVs — all shiny, new and polished. Homies, arties, newlyweds and old couples eat sitting on their hoods, sprawled in their flatbeds or lying down in the gaping maws of flung-open back doors. Tucked into a loud, low-income neighborhood, Tommy's reminds us that Will Rogers' famous Great Depression aphorism about Americans being the first people to drive to the poorhouse in cars needs to be amended: We are the first people to drive there in a Sierra long bed.
There are no places to sit at Tommy's, only long stainless-steel counters at which to eat standing up, but that's part of the place's democratic charm — we're all alike here, the way pilgrims making the haj or dipping into the Ganges are. And Tommy's is such a holy site, a food Mecca to which we must return, regardless of how high or low our positions. Rampart Tommy's has two serving huts, located at opposite ends of the parking lot. Most people instinctively gravitate to the older, "1946" hut near the corner of Rampart and Beverly. It feels more traditional, and Tommy's is all about tradition and ritual.
The food casts the curative spell any speedball consisting of beef, salt, chili and raw onions will, which is why we visit Tommy's both as a prelude to a long night of partying and pay our respects here just before cock's crow: The burgers are both prehangover cuisine and hangover food proper. These hamburgers are an ugly mess — adjusting a double chili burger is like changing a diaper. And there's no way to devour a carton of chili fries with dignity; we're strictly extras in a zombie flick when we chow down here. There are other places where Los Angeles' rigid class and racial barriers melt away in the warm, collective glow of eating (the Apple Pan, Philippe the Original, the Pantry, any hot dog line at Dodger Stadium), but here is where we stand to eat what we want without a care. (A single chili burger weighs in at 490 calories, 55 mg of cholesterol and 1,020 mgs of sodium; an entry-level hamburger at Burger King rates 290 calories, 35 mg cholesterol, 560 mg sodium.) These days I just order the #1 package, which for $6 gets you a double cheeseburger, fries and a drink. The only thing missing is a red balloon, and if they started handing out those, I'd keep 'em for my angioplasty.—Steven Mikulan