The Apple Pan in West Los Angeles is as famous as its bones are bare. A simple horse-shoe counter brimming with customers, behind which two cooks and three servers (all long-in-the-tooth, sweet gentleman rocking white paper hats and aprons) scurry like chaps on a mission, its guts are not much to behold. Instead, the effort goes into the few items that dominate the sparse menu, from fruit pies to ham-and-tuna sandwiches to, of course, the famous burgers.
The Apple Pan resides in a charming wood-and-brick house (see photos at top) that faces the Westwood Pavilion like an indie David facing off against corporate Goliath. Stepping inside instantly transports you to the 1950s, with local families enjoying the same awesome burgers and famous pies that they have for generations. It's not the 1950s recreated à la Fatburger or In-N-Out. No, the Apple Pan harks back to a more rural Los Angeles and a time when this location was surrounded by farms and orchards. Despite innumerable offers from developers, the Apple Pan has remained in the same family since its founding in 1947. It is now run by Martha Gamble, whose parents, Alan and Ellen (cute, right?), started the restaurant with an early focus on one of their parents' pie recipes as a star attraction. Today, the Apple Pan is an L.A. institution and serves a hamburger worth coming a great distance for.
Walking into the Apple Pan with my two associatesMike, a visiting warrior from Swaziland, and Brooks Rosenquist, former New Orleans public school teacher/warrior and current hard rockerthe Pan's every last seat was filled, as usual. The wait died in five minutes, however, and we bellied up to the counter, catching sullen looks from some middle-aged men in the corner who no doubt used to munch here while ditching the high school bell, now seemingly ditching the ball 'n' chain.
Though the seats have too little space for some burger loving butts, it is an honor to sit before the harried staff of the Apple Pan. A lot of people say the servers are gruff, but they are just old school, looking as if they have worked here since they were teenagers, as some sort of Sisyphean punishment to serve hamburgers until the day North Americans have had enough. In other words, they are not about to introduce themselves like "Stacey from Torrance" does at your favorite California Pizza Kitchen location. They average about 70, and you know serving burgers to a bunch of punks and their padres at that age has to suck. Essentially, if it's not on the menu, don't waste anyone's time asking for it.
The Apple Pan busts two famous hamburgers: the Steakburger and the Hickory Burger. Both are amazing, so my crew and I mixed it up with a few of each. Watching the servers in action as they placated and fed normal-looking Angelenos (they exist) helped pass the time fast enough. Mike broke down the significance of the cow in Zulu culture, making us feel a venerated gravity in anticipation of one of Los Angeles's best.
First the fries arrived on teensy paper plates (left) to stave off the salivation, coming thick but with a good balance of lightness and crunchthough not really anything to spazz about. Our waiter, ever the hardcore pro, flipped his Heinz bottle like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, pouring a thick blotch of ketchup all over our plates in a flash, before moving on to the next victim.
In another minute or two, the burgers were literally slammed down before us. The Steakburger, slathered in its own special sauce, with a dark-gold Tillamook cheddar melted over a big, soft-looking patty that appeared on the earlier side of medium, containing pickles and a gigantic wedge of lettuce. It looked like a tiny work of art, an archetypal hamburger even. The first bite confirmed the magic behind the legend.
Juicy and crumbly, the burger oozed into my mouth from under its paper wrapping. The thin bun is grilled, its shell caving in to fluffiness and a slightly sweet flavor, and is almost too small for the rest of the burger. The texture of the meat is coarse but tender, coming apart in its own slight moist juiciness and melding so nicely with the Tillamook. It quickly became messy, with every bite a new taste of ecstasy. In addition to the main ingredients, a tangy relish coated the top bun and provided a nice counterpart to the deeper flavors of the burger and gooey cheese, as well as a mayo sauce that was excellent. The whole experience was delicious and warming, full of a mix of flavorsand, fortunately, repeatable with a whole different type.
The Hickory Burger was just as soft and juicy as the Steakburger but even better, though it's a difficult comparison given the difference in taste. This burger had roughly the same components but was covered in a hickory barbeque sauce. I'm typically not one for barbecue sauce on burgers, but here, it really works, the sauce perfectly equalized with the meat and toppings. The burger is not huge or tiny, sort of just right, about six or seven bites' worth. The grill seems to imbue it with a savory dark flavor, slightly smoky, which counteracts the hickory's sharpness. All rolled together, these burgers are an amazing meld of ingredients, simple in arrangement and multifaceted in flavor. And their texture completes the experience, arriving crumbly, hot, and lusciously succulent.
We hated to complain about a thing. Not a one of us has 58 years of experience behind us, but two-thirds of our party identified the Apple Pan's only flaw: the huge bank of lettuce in the burger that we removed a lot of. It distracted our tastebuds from the burger's true taste. Often times, the crew here reads one's mind and you can barely spit your order out before they've marched on to the next topic of desire, but still, I recommend saying "easy on the green."
The Apple Pan is a requirement for any burger or food lover. It should be one of the first stops on anyone's burger tour of Los Angeles, as it has been in John T. Edge's Hamburgers & Fries and Sunset Magazine's recent look at Los Angeles's best burgers. Its mojo is powerful, its room filled with ghosts past and present. Every attempt I took to capture our beloved servers in action resulted in mysterious blurry images and see-though waiters, while patrons and cooks came out clear as day ... perhaps these historic meatslingers are made up of burger-serving spirits keeping U.S. quality alive on Pico Boulevard.
THE APPLE PAN
Location: 10801 West Pico Blvd. (at Westwood Blvd.), Los Angeles 90064
Short Order: Two classic burgers dating to the '40s still amaze tastebuds with individuality and kick-ass quality in old-school diner digs.