Photo by Anne Fishbein

WE CAN BE PROUD OF MANY THINGS, WE AMERIcans, from the Declaration of Independence to Elliot Carter's string quartets, from quantum physics to the interstate highway system, from Martha Stewart to the . . . Spamburger. Which is to say, an inch-thick slab of Spam, seared on a hot griddle and slid into a toasted hamburger bun with ketchup, mustard, tomatoes, lettuce — the whole nine yards. A Spamburger is sort of crisp, the Spam part of it anyway, which is abundantly speckled with those crunchy black bits, and sort of sweet — actually, very sweet, a corrosive, penetrating sweetness that lingers on your palate for about the same length of time as the faded pomegranate notes in a great, old Côte Rotie. You've heard of those nuanced lunch-counter hamburgers where each ingredient lends its own layer of crunch and the scorched meat patty acts more as a condiment than as, well, the meat of the sandwich? This isn't that, baby . . . a Spamburger is all about the Spam, its cloying, porky essence, the overgenerous nature of salty, fatty food manufactured for and revered by folks for whom salty, fatty food is, or used to be, the ultimate in unobtainable luxury. Spam is what this country is all about, a pig in every can and two cars in every garage. (In some parts of the Pacific, the average consumption is something like a can per day per person.) Spam tastes like America.

Spamburgers with sliced avocado and teriyaki sauce taste even more like America, or certain parts of it anyway, at least as served at Mago's, the Culver City hamburger stand that is to Westside Japanese-Americans what El Tepeyac is to Eastsiders and a Pancho's enchilada plate is to people who grew up in the South Bay. Mago's tastes like Culver City. I used to go to Mago's a fair amount in the late '70s, when I was dating a woman who lived a few blocks away, and even then I was astonished by the diversity of the burger stand's menu. You could get a million different kinds of shakes back then, and every variety of fast food prepared in every possible way and described with Magic Marker on paper plates Scotch-taped to the windows. I swear I once had a sashimi burrito at Mago's, with beans and onions and everything, although nobody will bear me out on that one. I also had such oddities as fried calamari tacos, teriyaki sticks threaded with avocado, taquitos with soy-laced guacamole and a cherry soda so good that I can still conjure up the particular tingle of it today. (None of which are on the menu anymore, although you can still get regular teri sticks, taquitos and [awful] fried wonton. Mix 'em up yourself.)

Mago's may have been chopped and channeled, outfitted with an indoor seating area and a beer-and-wine license, acres of bright Formica and an array of smiling cat totems, but it really hasn't changed much if you discount the fact that nothing about the place really seems that weird anymore. There are a whole lot of Hawaiians on the Westside now, so the existence of classic teriyaki plate lunches — one scoop mac, two scoops rice — is less than an oddity, even if the restaurant is pretty explicitly Japanese-American.

The neighborhood (and the staff) leans Chicano — across the street from Mago's is a classic, East L.A. taco stand — so the street-level fusion, the tricultural incorporation of Asian ingredients into Mexican structures with American flavors, seems almost natural. Witness the delicious tacos stuffed with slippery chunks of ripe avocado and slices of sweet, red-rimmed chashu, barbecued pork. Note the fat burritos swelling with grilled strips of teriyaki-greased beef, avocado and cheese, or the hamburgers composed of chashu and avocado, or really, the resplendent Spamburger. Which, as we've previously noted, tastes like America. Don't miss the banana shakes.


4500 S. Centinela Ave., Culver City, (800) 900-MAGO. Open Mon.­ Sat. for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. Lunch for two, food only, $12­$15. AE, DC, DISC, MC, V. Recommended dishes: Spamburger, chashu avocado taco, teriyaki burger with avocado, banana shake.

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