What Makes the Hamburger So Important to L.A.
Dick and Mac McDonald's BBQ stand in San Bernardino became their first hamburger restaurant in 1948. Only part of the original sign remains.
Photo courtesy Cogart Strangehill
America has given the world many culinary gifts. Where would society be without cotton candy? Without Velveeta? Would you really want to live in a universe without cocktails? But the most recognizable, iconic food item America has given humanity is the hamburger. The hamburger — for better or worse — gave rise to fast food. The hamburger serves as a symbol of our country's ingenuity and excess, our populism and capitalism, our gastronomy and our gluttony. People say "as American as apple pie," but McDonald's has not served 100 billion apple pies worldwide. The burger is the ultimate American foodstuff.
It's not a particularly controversial statement to say that the burger reigns as King of American Food. So let's try this on for size: Los Angeles is the burger capital of America. This does not mean we have the best hamburger in the country (though we might), or even that we have the best range, or the most hamburgers per capita. But in terms of the give-and-take of cultural influence between a city and its burgers, L.A. has been more shaped by burgers, and burgers have been more shaped by L.A., than any other city.
Modern fast food was invented here. Greater Los Angeles has spawned both the biggest and the best when it comes to the fast-food burger: McDonald's began here, and the McDonald brothers came up with the streamlined system we now call "fast food" in order to sell as many burgers as quickly as possible. And though you might think there's a better fast-food burger than In-N-Out, which was founded in the San Gabriel Valley in 1948, you'd be wrong.
We also care about our burger culture enough that many of our historic burger shacks have been preserved. Places such as the Apple Pan and Pie 'N Burger certainly existed at some point in most American cities, and there are still historic burger joints all over the country. But no other place has the quality and quantity of continuously operating, beloved burger spots.
Our burger wealth is due in part to one of our greatest flaws: L.A.'s lack of decent public transportation and our resultant dominant car culture makes for a city that runs on drive-thru. Los Angeles needs burgers more than other large cities, because burgers are the perfect food to eat while driving. This was certainly the understanding of Ray Kroc, who took the McDonald's system and made it national and then international, and it's the reason fast-food burgers have dominated the food landscape of the country for the last 60 years. New York has its hot dogs and pretzels, which are easily eaten while walking, and we have our burgers, which we consume while sitting at counters and navigating highways.
But the importance of the burger extends beyond fast food and history. In recent years, L.A. has entered the modern burger era with gusto. Sang Yoon's burger at Father's Office arguably started the gourmet burger movement. Daniel Boulud's DB burger in New York often is given credit for beginning the high-end burger craze, but Yoon was ahead of him by about a year, and the intent of the Father's Office burger — a chef-created burger that's still affordable and meant to go with fries and beer — laid the foundation for the American gastropub trend.
Since then, amazing L.A. burgers have proliferated. Some have come and gone. We can only hope that one day Evan Funke will find a place to resurrect the burger he cooked when he was chef at Rustic Canyon, which was considered the best in town by many of the burger obsessives I know. The most recent addition to the epic burger lineup, the Petit Trois burger, is destined to become a pilgrimage-worthy item, its deep, beefy excess perfectly calibrated for the soul of a burger fanatic.
In this issue, we aim to parse out which of our city's most iconic burgers is actually superior, and it's no easy feat. I asked a number of our city's most voracious burger lovers to pit one beloved burger against another, to dig deep into their reserves of critical thinking and eating and ask themselves the hard questions. But first, I had to decide if I myself was worthy of the task.
Ray Kroc understood that burgers were the perfect food for L.A.'s car-centric culture.
And here's where I must make a confession that I recognize amounts to sacrilege: I have had a hard time, especially in recent years, caring much about hamburgers. There's something about the hamburger and its prominence in food culture that makes me uneasy. The hamburger has perhaps come to symbolize so much of what irks me about the current conversation around food: the gluttony but also the tendency to lift a particular food item to a realm of rabid obsession that makes no sense. In the grumpiest recesses of my soul, it seems as though it's a short distance from burger fetishism to long lines for cronuts and articles such as "Look at this tiny model eat a huge burrito!" and "Watch a brunette give a blonde a ketchup facial!!!"
This, of course, is completely hypocritical of me, because I adore hot dogs and fried chicken and tacos, and can obsess over all manner of other high- and lowbrow foods as much as the next idiot. I simply never crave a burger — though I quite enjoy it when I eat one — and therefore too much of my ire gets directed at this American icon.
So it was an interesting project, to wrangle this particular competition. I take my job seriously, even when the subject matter is a burger bracket. I sat with Zach Brooks, Midtown Lunch founder and Food Is the New Rock podcaster, over a burger and fries at Father's Office and engaged in the kind of high-level burger theory that only the dorkiest of food dorks might be able to achieve. What makes something a burger? When does it become a sandwich? Does excellence of ingredients matter when you're judging something that became iconic based on qualities other than quality? If so, how much?
I spent an hour on the phone with L.A. Weekly contributor Garrett Snyder, and another sitting with him at the counter of Pie 'N Burger, both times discussing the purity of achievement of the In-N-Out burger, the SoCal idealism sandwiched in that bun. Could it eclipse the very thing it aimed to replicate? Had it risen above its master?
And I found, through these conversations and others, that I do care about burgers. Because, like any other item that catches the imagination of food obsessives, a burger isn't just a burger. It's a repository for our history, our values and our culture.
I hope you enjoy our burger issue as much as I enjoyed morphing into a person who cares way too deeply about ground meat shoved into a bun.
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