Speeding toward Original Tommy's at Beverly and Rampart at 3 a.m. early Sunday morning, the first thing my drinkin', dining, 'n' driving companion and I spotted was not the blaring red signs famous across Los Angeles for marking the location of the city's favorite chiliburgers, nor the parking-lot shack that started it all 54 years ago. What really caught our eye was the ring of about forty cops standing in the neighboring lot, as more and more squad cars pulled up for support. Had the Crips and Bloods backed out of their truce? Was Robert Downey Jr. on the loose and jonesing again? Had the Governator flipped a circuit and gotten stuck on kill mode?
Tommy's considerable legend began when first-generation Greek-American Tommy Koulax opened his shop in 1946 and praise spread through word of mouth, as it does still does today, as Tommy's does not advertise. Known for its legion of imitators and for the hamburger-eating contest it supports at USC, it is recommended that you ward off charlatans using and abusing the Tommy's name by looking for the shack depicted on the red sign. This location, the first of 27 Tommy's, serves more than 15,000 hungry burger lovers a week, according to well, Tommy's.
We took our place in the considerable line, made up completely of well-dressed and even-better coiffed Latino twenty-somethings (think Y Tu Mama También, not American Me) and the gorgeously put-together chicas who love them. Three thugged-out and tattooed security guards clung tight to one another in anticipation of some skulls to bust, buoyed by the presence of the entire LAPD next door.
As the line speedily snaked along, the parking lot provided more than enough scenery to take in, with a collection of bangers and bros getting together to talk cars, girls, and burgers. Plus, as you get closer to the heat of the grill, you can watch the burgers a-cookin' by the white-uniformed staff. Although faint shit-talking was detected, possibly spawned by the length of the line or the presence of an out-of-favor army of Rampart cops, the love emanating from the kitchen was palpable. Once our five-minute wait was up, the burgers were our only point of focus. Stepping up to the repetitive-motion-stressed cooks, we made our order, which was met instantaneously by our delectable chili cheeseburgers being plopped in our hands for under $2 a pop. Could they be using the new HyperActive Bob technology or are they just "that damn on it" at Tommy's? We can only wonder.
The strategy behind eating one of Tommy's delicious burgers after a night of copious liquor, quaffed to the tune of an 18-piece Brazilian band at Little Pedro's Blue Bongo, is questionable for sure. Even more so when that sucker is unwrapped from its thin wax paper at the chairless counters that dominate Tommy's. Chili gets everywhere. Yes, everywhere. The bite is what matters though, and Tommy's does not disappoint. Although the patty and bun look a little more Ronald than Angus, the taste is simultaneously comforting and new, warm chili contrasting brilliantly with the fresh toppings of a double-cheese, pickle, onion, and beefsteak tomato.
Sometimes a messy burger is in order, and the generous amount of oozing chili intermingled with the soft patty and melted cheese at Tommy's make for an unrivaled taste combination that is both delicious and nutritiousOK, well, one out of two ain't bad. As the burger quickly soaked up a stomach of vodka and Newcastle, I was tempted to go for a second, something my stomach and the other passenger in the car would undoubtedly regret.
Scarfing down the last bites, it became apparent what some of the adjacent fuss was about. Although 50-plus cops seems to be an overwhelming response to one skinheaded gangbanger, it was one more dude off the streets and a lesson to those who seek to menace hamburger lovers the world over. Overlooking Rampart one last time, my partner-in-crime jumped behind the wheel of his low-key Nissan Maxima and we headed West toward a new horizon, a new day, and new burgers.
Location: 2575 West Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles CA
Photos by Colin "El Gillipollo Loco" Browne