LOS ANGELES > CULVER CITY
Culver City is a subtle stretch of Los Angeles lying low on the West Side, but there's nothing low-key about one of its oldest eateries, Howard's Famous Bacon and Avocado Burgers. The strip mall that eventually grew to surrounded Howard'sa block of dreary businesses that looks more like a series of black-market fronts than the realization of its tenants' entrepreneurial dreamslooks like it wants to keep a low profile. No such luck, however: Howard's Circus Circusstyle sign is a beacon of flashing lightbulbs and screaming colored letters announcing itself to Sepulveda traffic far and wide.
Dating to 1971, Howard's claims to be the first to have dressed a burger in that celestial combination of bacon and avocado that now makes a mint for chains such as Carl's Jr. We're glad Howard's introduced these toppings to our beloved all-beef patties, but I had serious doubts as to whether it was worth recommending. Still, something had kept it there for more than 30 years good and bad times, and I needed to find out what it was.
I had been to Howard's Famous shortly after moving back to Los Angeles and long before joining the AHT staff. Sad to say, I was not impressed by the old man at the time. My burger's beef patty looked disturbingly like a veggie burger, and, truth be told, even the initial excitement of avocado and bacon wore thin. The divine green fruit was sparse, and the bacon was limp and flavorless. Despite this bad experience, I decided to give Howard's another try in the name of hamburger journalism and, of course, as a service to our readers.
Stumbling into Howard's, I was taken with the nostalgic charm of its surroundings. L.A. used to be quite a different monster, and I'm sure Howard's was once a perfect fit in the more rural Culver of the long-gone Beach Blanket Bingo era. Now, a rustier vibe pervades, that of a lost seaside shanty in slow collapse, left inland by a shrinking sea. It seemed I was the only visitor that evening, with the movie posters on the wall and the hand-painted menudelightful beyond beliefmy sole sources of companionship.
I ordered a quarter-pound burger with cheese, slumped into one of the booths, and took in the old-timey digs with a radio-broadcast NBA game as my soundtrack. Howard's has many options, from hot dogs, turkey burgers, and patty melts to tacos and chili, all topped or filled with as much avocado and bacon as your veins can stand. Burger-topping options are egg, chili, and extra avocado or bacon. Onion rings and thickly cut fries are on the menu as sides. Keeping an eye on the grill, I noticed the patty placed on it looked to be of the generic frozen variety.
As the sun started to sink, though, the joint picked up. First came a work-weary lady ordering burgers to go, followed by some of L.A.'s finest, um, security guards. By the time an Asian b-boy strode in, my order was up. Grabbing it from the counter, I was amazed by its appetizing appearance. Weighty and freshly topped, it was not the puny excuse for a manwich I remembered from the last time I visited.
The taste of this cheeseburger defied my expectations. It was hot and soft, a subtle salad dressing mingling with the cheese on the bottom bun, providing that gooey mess that I love. The tomato and lettuce toppings were fresh, and, overall, the burger was hearty and scrumptious. The beef patty was still not anything to go out of your way for; it was flat, gray, thin and only a slight upgrade from a McDonald's patty. But the silky, ripe avocado and crisp bacon were there in spades, making for a unique and tasty burger. It exhibits good orchestration as far as toppings go, but the sandwich would benefit from pickle or onion for an extra note in the medley of tastes. The bun, not all that special looking, wins points for being soft yet firm and easily chewed. This Howard's cheeseburger was bun and lettuce above the first one I'd tried some months back.
Howard's Famous Bacon and Avocado Burgers wins points for a fun experience, but it's more McDonald's-gone-SoCal than a great revelation in hamburgerdom. The burger might be inconsistent, but there's something enjoyable about being the restaurant's old-school environs, which evoke a more innocent time without the Happy Days theatrics of Fatburger and In-N-Out. And after this second round of Howard's, I'm tempted to say it won't be the last time I get a hankering for all these great tastes that taste great together. Still, the place will have to fight hard to maintain its game amidst such mediocrity. The concept is golden, but the execution is bronze. Maybe Howard's could keep the sign and update the burger?
HOWARD'S FAMOUS BACON AND AVOCADO BURGERS
Location: 11127 Venice Blvd. (at Sepulveda), Culver City, CA 11127
Cost: Quarter-pound burger, $3.05; half-pound, $4.45
Short Order: Crazy atmosphere yields favorite ingredients on an inconsistent burger