photo by Kathleen ClarkEVEN IN LOS ANGELES . . . WHERE IT IS possible to eat not only wood-fired goat-cheese pizza with duck sausage and sun-dried fennel, but also reasonably authentic Merida-style cochinita pibil and properly made Cambodian catfish amok, hand-ground of course, steamed to a fine fluffiness and garnished -- why not! -- with a single, perfect banana blossom . . . sometimes only a hamburger will do.
The Apple Pan
Here is the homey plaid wallpaper; the worn wooden walls; the clean, warm funk of frying meat. Here is Coca-Cola poured into paper cones snug in plastic holders. Here are the long, thick French fries that are customarily served with a separate cardboard plate for the ketchup. No matter how many waiting people may be crowded in behind you, the countermen will always draw you another cup of coffee from the gas-fired urn. When nostalgia-mongers attempt to duplicate the Los Angeles hamburger experience, it is to the Apple Pan hamburger that they should turn. The top and bottom buns of an Apple Pan hamburger are both crisped and slightly oily, crunchy at the edges, working toward a near-complete softness at the middle; the pickles are resilient dill chips; fresh iceberg lettuce furnishes a dozen-layered crispness at the core. The beef, generally cooked to a perfect, pink-centered medium, is juicy and full-flavored, and the cheese, half-melted to a kind of sharp graininess, is good Tillamook Cheddar. I really like the sandwiches they make here with smoky, thinly sliced Virginia ham, but I suspect that I will never get around to ordering one of my own. 10801 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 475-3585. Open Tues.Sun. for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $10$15. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.
Though other burger stands figure more prominently in the consciousness of most Angelenos, those who know consider Cassell's hamburgers to be among the very best in the United States: softballs of freshly ground USDA prime beef that weigh a full one-third or two-thirds of a pound, broiled in a hinged inferno of Mr. Cassell's own design, served naked on a toasted bun. Even when the Wilshire District restaurant is crowded with besuited insurance executives gobbling a quick hamburger lunch, there are usually at least a few foodie tourists at Cassell's, nibbling on horseradish-tinged potato salad from the buffet and having a Culinary Experience. If Cassell's has a flaw, it is that the meat is too good, the preparation is too careful . . . so that when you splash your burger with ketchup, every gram of Heinz-borne sugar makes itself known. A Cassell's hamburger stands out not because it is typical of the Southland, but because it is apart from it, the sort of hamburger you might expect at a quality-obsessed diner somewhere in deepest Iowa, a Spartan, anti-exuberant hamburger qua hamburger in which each element tastes only of itself. 3266 W. Sixth St., L.A.; (213) 387-5502. Open for breakfast and lunch Mon.Sat. Lunch for two, food only, $8$12. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.
The Jay behind Jay's Jayburger is a defector from the Tommy's chiliburger empire, and in fact a Jayburger tastes the way a Tommyburger might if it were put together by a chef instead of a fry cook: It is a small essay in textural contrast that just happens to have a glob of chili at its core. Smeared on the top bun, almost subtle in its effect, is the chili, portioned no more lavishly than Thousand Island dressing on a coffee-shop hamburger -- a presence, a cumin-laced meatiness, but still only a condiment. A Jayburger for dinner will not wake you up at 3 in the morning. The preferred side dish at Jay's, as at Pink's and Tommy's, is a bag of potato chips -- there may not be an open-air hamburger stand in Los Angeles that serves decent French fries -- and the preferred beverage either freshly squeezed lemonade or Coke from a can. 4481 Santa Monica Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 666-5204. Open 6 a.m.11:30 p.m. Sun.Thurs., Fri.Sat. 24 hours. Breakfast, lunch or dinner for two, food only, $6$8. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.
Meet Mike. Mike used to play a little hockey himself, and has the photographs to prove it, right up there on the Hockeyburger Wall of Fame. Another wall boasts autographed photos of celebrities that you've actually heard of, Dolly Parton and Larry Hagman, among others. Mike may be the most prominent restaurateur in Vernon, California, an industrial town that seems more like an enormous, truck-choked loading dock, and his sign, which depicts a giant hockey player, was "borrowed" for the doughnut shop in Wayne's World. But what Mike is proudest of is the Hockeyburger itself, which is essentially a cheeseburger garnished with a sliced, grilled all-beef hot dog. Some people theorize that the concoction is called a Hockeyburger because the burger symbolizes the puck and the hot dog the hockey stick; some say that the trisected hot dog resembles the grille on a Zamboni machine. Some people think that Mike is just a fool for hockey. But although the Hockeyburger may be fearsome to behold, it is actually almost as delicious as it is indigestible. "Try a Hockeyburger," Mike's sign reads. "Made Out of Old Pucks." You can't say he didn't warn you. 1717 S. Soto Ave., Vernon; (323) 264-0444. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Mon.Fri., closes at 4 p.m. on Sat. Lunch for two, $6$8. Beer. Takeout. Cash only.
Pie 'N Burger
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This is the best neighborhood hamburger joint in a neighborhood that includes San Marino and Caltech, which means the guy next to you may be reading a long physics proof over his chili size as if it were the morning paper, and the Barbara Bush pearls the woman at the end of the counter is wearing could very well be real. Like all good hamburgers, Pie 'N Burger's are all about texture, the crunchy sheaf of lettuce, the carbonized surface of the meat, the outer rim of the bun crisped to almost the consistency of toast. When compressed by the act of eating, they leak thick, pink dressing and soft, grilled onions -- available upon request -- add both a certain squishiness and a caramelly sweetness. The slice of American cheese, if you have ordered a cheeseburger, does not melt into the patty, but stands glossily aloof from it, as if it were mocking the richness of the sandwich rather than adding to the general effect. The burgers here come jacketed in white paper and are compact enough to remain intact through three-quarters of their life -- they tend to be as genteel as the Pasadena neighborhood, these hamburgers, only a distant relation to the greasy monsters that explode into pungent goop. 913 E. California Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 795-1123. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $10$15. Beer and wine. Takeout. Cash only.
The Shack is a manly place, a place that hosts Jaegergirl promotions, a place where a man can watch the Dinah Shore Golf Classic on TV and drink a Rusty Nail. The Shack is also an archetypal beach hamburger dive, the kind of vaguely nautical-looking place where most of the clientele seem to treat the food as something to soak up the beer. Patty melts are sweetened with great gobs of Beaver mustard; something called Fire in the Hole slicks two open-face hamburgers with house-made bean chili. But the basic unit of exchange at the Shack is something called the Shack Burger, a quarter-pound of charred ground beef and a Louisiana sausage crammed together in a bun, which tastes like something your cousin Lenny might have come up with at your last barbecue in Griffith Park. The Shack Burger seems repellent on the surface, and it will seem repellent an hour after you eat one, but like your favorite punk-rock song, a Shack Burger is three minutes of pure greatness, all grease and smoke and snap. 185 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey; (310) 823-6222. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $8$12. Full bar. Takeout. AE, Discover, MC, V.