Nostalgia is a tricky commodity to hawk. This is particularly true in Los Angeles, a city rich in establishments that are practically unchanged since 1919 or 1942 or 1982 or whenever. If you have a strong affinity for an era of the past century, chances are there's a bar or restaurant in L.A. that can transport you to that time, not because of slick replication but simply because no one has bothered to change the menu or refresh the wallpaper in the decades since opening.
What Cassell's Hamburgers is trying to do is far more difficult: Take a venerated and historic burger stand, move it to a new location and give it a new set of objectives. Do we love it because it's shiny and new or because it represents something tried and true? Is it even possible to remove a burger from its home and its creator and retain the things about it that made it beloved in the first place?
The original Cassell's was opened in 1948 by Al Cassell. Cassell was famous for a few things, most notably his burgers cooked on a crossfire broiler. For many years those burgers had the reputation of being the best in the city. Cassell served his burgers plainly, made his own mayonnaise and refused to serve french fries. Instead, he made potato salad, tingling with hot mustard (or was it horseradish?).
Before his death in 2010, Cassell sold the business, after which it slowly declined in popularity and reputation. In 2012, the restaurant closed and the name, recipes and equipment were acquired by Jingbo Lou, owner of the Normandie Hotel in Koreatown. And so, Cassell's — joined by Le Comptoir and the Normandie Club — became part of the hotel's revitalization. All of these businesses operate out of storefronts that face the street; Cassell's takes up the primo corner spot. The look and vibe is all clean, white retro diner, complete with mirrored spinning refrigerator case filled with pies. It's a loving re-creation of our fantasy of the 1950s. You feel as if you could go from Cassell's directly to the sock hop. Gee whiz, and all that.
Lou brought from the original location some of the signage (which lends a lot to that vintage vibe), the recipes, the tables and chairs, some wood that was used to build the countertops and the original meat grinder and grill. He also brought on Christian Page, who used to head up the kitchen at Short Order. Page insisted that the menu was to remain true to the original Cassell's as well, though some additions — breakfast, espresso, cocktails — would make this an all-day, all-needs-meeting affair.
As at the original Cassell's there would be a burger, a cheeseburger, a patty melt, a few other sandwiches, milkshakes and that distinctive potato salad. There would be no fries, and Page insisted that, unlike at Short Order, he would not be cheffing up the burgers. The whole enterprise was to be a tribute to Al Cassell and his vision.
Six months later, there are fries. They're pretty good, though far less memorable than that spiked potato salad. I suppose Cassell himself was better at dealing with fry-demanding customers than the management here.
Some of the other additions to the menu are far less successful. I can't recommend the cocktails, which come full of ice and tasting like the mixology version of my teenage dalliances with my parents' liquor cabinet. One drink tasted like watery booze and Fernet; another stung the palate with far too much ginger liqueur.
I also can't recommend the pies from that spinning case, as impressive as they look; the massively towering slices are blunt in their sugary excess. A mixed-berry pie a few weeks back was particularly disappointing, the abundant fruit somehow leached of its flavor, the crust too thin and stiff to provide the buttery contrast that might have saved it.
What I can recommend is the burger. This is a thing of simple beauty, served on a Parker House bun, with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion on the plate for you to utilize at will. You can add bacon or a fried egg or even avocado if you'd like, but it really doesn't need any of that. Cheese is also optional, and I'm not going to tell you whether a cheeseburger or plain burger is for you. What I will tell you is that it's the burger itself, its tangy, meaty juiciness, that's going to make this a great few minutes of eating. Page grinds Colorado Angus chuck and brisket daily for the patties, using the original Cassell's grinder. Maybe it's the meat, maybe it's the grinder, maybe it's the magic of that grill. Whatever — it's a damn fine burger.
The same goes for the patty melt, served on toasted rye, though I preferred the soft Parker House bun myself. But the rye is everything it's supposed to be — and lays the groundwork for a stellar tuna melt as well.
The milkshakes are also pretty fantastic, owing mainly to the use of McConnell's ice cream as a base, though I'd prefer the chocolate malt to be a tiny bit maltier. There's often a more creative “seasonal” milkshake on offer, but that's not why you're here. Go purist: chocolate or vanilla.
That's the best way to experience this place, with a kind of traditional intent. In this era of tomato jam and foie gras bordelaise, Cassell's captures the nostalgia of everything good about a simple burger and milkshake — a tray of food that's as American as reinvention.
CASSELL'S HAMBURGERS | 2 stars | 3600 W. Sixth St., Koreatown | (213) 387-5502 | cassellshamburgers.com | Sun.-Thu., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 8 a.m.-mid. | Burgers, $7.99-$15.99 | Full bar | Valet parking at the Normandie Hotel