If you are looking for a proper representation of hellfire, the grill at Dino’s Burgers may be as close as you will get, a sulfurous, smoke-belching landscape of fire and ashes, sputtering gouts of orange flame, and stacks of chickens, dyed red as the pelt of Old Nick with chile and spices, neatly bisected at the backbone and ready to be flipped into the blaze like so many unrepentant sinners. If you have seen ruined, black earth fuming in the last stages of a forest fire, you will have some idea of what the grill might look like. But the Rudolphian hot-sauce redness of the fowl makes the whole scene slightly Dantesque. If you hit the chicken the right way, biting into a secret pocket of the tart, scarlet glaze that adheres to the beast, you may have infernal visions of your own, all heat and musk and dripping flesh, that no quantity of Orange Bang can dissipate.
Dino’s isn’t the fanciest place, you understand. It’s a burger stand in the Byzantine-Latino Quarter still owned by its founder Demetrios Pantazis, thoroughly discovered by the alt-eats crowd, and perpetually crowded as Pink’s after the bars close. The tables may or may not be wiped before you sit down at them, and the dining room is so filled with chicken fumes that it is frequently difficult to see all the way clear to the back. Christmas greetings are smeared on the windows in Spanish, English and Greek. The only utensil, even if you order steak, is a flimsy plastic fork that has probably melted from the heat of the food it’s been thrust into. At lunch time, you see a mix of jump-suited mechanics and pink-collar office workers down from the Wilshire business district; at dinner, it is all families, large families, battling over the last wing on the table and the last scraps of French fries left on the plastic tray. The half-chicken plates, which, the last time I conducted an informal count, were in front of 38 of the 40 diners in the restaurant, cost only $4.50 a pop, including fries and tortillas; steak platters with rice, beans and salad run maybe a buck more. Dino’s may offer more value for the dollar than any other restaurant in Los Angeles.
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There are hamburgers, of course, thin, charred, peppery patties tucked into big, damp buns, cushioned with lettuce and thick tomato slices, moistened with a white fluid that masquerades as Russian dressing, but is probably a dilute version of the Greek cucumber-garlic-yogurt sauce tsatsiki. If the restaurant doubled the meat, toasted the bun and sluiced the thing with extra sauce, it might be an interesting sandwich, like a hamburger inflected by the Greek flavors and burnt aesthetic of a street gyro. But taken on its own terms, the Dino’s burger has to be qualified as a failure, at least as compared with the great, chile-bearing Greek diaspora that has dominated local burger culture for so long.
The Mexican plate is kind of interesting, a dense bed of rice and beans surmounted by a taco and an enormous burrito, both stuffed with giant handfuls of extremely well-done ground beef — which is to say, the kind of Mexican food you would expect to find in a small North Dakota town that doesn’t see many Mexicans, although the cooks are Mexican, the customers are Mexican, and the burrito is actually pretty tasty in its 1950s-chic way. I am perversely fond of the carne asada, two quarter-inch-thick steaks that have been tenderized into submission, charred into 45-rpm discs, and seasoned with a mixture of salt and herbs. Again, there is nothing resembling cutlery. To eat the steaks, you jam your wobbly fork into the center of the meat and nibble around the edges as if you were working on an ice-cream cone.
Still, you are going to order the chicken. And the best part of the meal may be the dense stratum of French fries that lies under the chicken like the hot rock beneath the earth’s crust, hand-cut from fresh potatoes, fried to a tan, distinctly non-Belgian frizzle, and saturated with the greasy, capsaicin-rich juices of the bird. It may take a week to scrape the residue out from under your fingernails, but it will be worth the crimson shame.
Dino’s Burgers, 2575 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., (213) 380-3554. Open Mon.–Thurs. 6 a.m.–11 p.m., Fri.–Sun. 6 a.m.–mid. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only. Limited lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $8–$11. Recommended dish: chicken plate.