Los Angeles, it goes without saying, is the world capital of stuff with chili on it: oozing chili dogs, stinking chili burgers, suppurating chili tamales, and chili fries hot enough to melt a plastic spoon. The odiferous tidal wave of chili may have originated at Ptomaine Tommy’s, a popular Depression-era diner that came up with a once-unavoidable gut bomb called the “chili size,” but it washed up at the unrelated Wilshire District hamburger stand Tommy‘s, where it has been aggravating ulcers since 1946. Jay, of Jay’s Jayburgers, started his professional life at Tommy‘s almost 50 years ago, and his chili burger — his Jayburger — tastes the way a Tommy burger might if it were put together by a chef instead of a fry cook. A Jayburger is almost elegant, a mutation of a gross, smelly beast into a genteel, multilayered sandwich. 4481 Santa Monica Blvd.; (323) 666-5204.
Seventy-five years before anybody thought to dress a squab salad with raspberry vinegar, Los Angeles was known across the country for French-dip sandwiches, sliced roast meat layered on a French roll that had been sopped in meat juice. The restaurant Philippe’s claims to have invented the sandwich when its owner accidentally dropped a roll into some beef drippings; Cole‘s P.E. Buffet claims that one of its cooks came up with the French dip as an accommodation to a customer with sore gums. Philippe’s is a splendid old place, with sawdust on the floors, hot mustard on the tables, and cabernets by the glass that you‘d pay $65 a bottle for at Chasen’s. And the lamb-and-Swiss sandwich rocks! But dank old Cole‘s, which is the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles and looks every week of it, has the best French-dip roasted brisket, prime rib or pastrami — carved to order, dipped, and served on a crusty roll. Philippe the Original, 1001 N. Alameda St., downtown; (213) 628-3781. Cole’s P.E. Buffet, 118 E. Sixth St., downtown; (213) 622-4090.
Country white bread
Several years ago, at dinner parties everywhere in Los Angeles, you started to see round, boulderlike things at the table, dusted with flour in sort of a stripy pattern, that few hostesses could manage to hack open with a knife. These loaves of country white, the crucial product from Nancy Silverton‘s La Brea Bakery, had profoundly crackly crusts, deep brown, speckled with fermentation bubbles, that gave way (and not without effort) to dense, chewy, moist interiors with the vaguely tart quality of fresh cheese. This bread, made with a naturally grown starter, was not new — you could find it in Paris or Berkeley if you knew where to look — but it was a revelation here. That loaf sparked a baking revolution in America — the best bread guys in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., are former disciples of Silverton — and inspired a dozen new bread bakeries here. It can be a little embarrassing to buy La Brea Bakery bread at a supermarket — since when isn’t regular Wonder Bread good enough for Americans? — but sometimes nothing else will do. 624 S. La Brea Ave.; (323) 939-6813.
Hot Dog on a Stick
It‘s a hot dog. It’s on a stick. It‘s fried in a sweetish corn batter and served by pretty college girls who wear tall, multicolored caps that look like something that might have been worn by a Pan-Am stewardess on The Jetsons. If you are an Angeleno of a certain age, a mere whiff of a Hot Dog on a Stick is enough to transport you back to the old P.O.P., where you probably ate your skewered weenie while waiting in line for the Bob-o-Sled or something with your mom and dad. Frankly, as regional hot-dog styles go, Hot Dog on a Stick may not rank with Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island or the Vienna dogs served outside Chicago‘s Wrigley Field, but the stands in those cities have no spectacle that even comes close to the sight of a short-skirted Hot Dog on a Stick employee pumping up a tankful of lemonade. At various food-court locations, including Santa Monica Place, Muscle Beach, Glendale Galleria and the Westside Pavilion.
The American hamburger, we’ll concede, was born in Connecticut. Somebody on the East Coast probably came up with the concept of the cheeseburger too. But practically every variation on the hamburger since the ‘20s — the Smorgasburger and the drive-thru burger, the bacon-avocado burger, the veggie burger and the sausage-garnished Hockeyburger — came of age in Southern California. The great McDonald’s beast was spawned here (or in San Bernardino, which is close enough); the double-decker Big Boy came of age in Burbank. Los Angeles was also the birthplace of the great lunch-counter hamburger, a drippy, paper-jacketed, multilayered sandwich of cheese, lettuce, pickle, tomato and a great, crunchy sheaf of iceberg lettuce, and a thin meat patty acting almost as a condiment. The lunch-counter burger is the burger that neo-‘50s joints try to replicate, the burger that Nepalese teenagers and young Masai tribesmen dream of. And the Apple Pan, which is practically a funky, onion-scented museum of 1940s Los Angeles lunchroom culture, serves a sloppy, hickory-perfumed lunchroom-style burger that is worth a Smithsonian wing of its own. 10801 W. Pico Blvd.; (310) 475-3585.
Chinois serves wok-charred tuna with fennel; Rebecca’s, rare-tuna tacos; Claude Segal, wherever he happens to be working, peppered-tuna “pastrami.” At Citrus, where the chefs are prepared to make you elaborate, multicourse French dinners at the drop of a toque, the most popular dish is probably the tuna burger — a brioche-sheathed hamburger made with, you know, grilled tuna. This is tunatown, Jake. 6703 Melrose Ave.; (323) 857-0034.