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.