Shortly after undertaking my exploration of Los Angeles's burgers, I heard more and more whispers about Irv's, the classic West Hollywood hamburger stand in constant danger of being turned into yet another redundant chain store, thanks to its precarious month-to-month lease on some prime real estate. As my burger search intensified, so did the pressure to bring the word about Irv's to AHT readers; support is desperately needed for its plight. A surprising plight, considering Irv's shows up on every food critic's top-Angeleno-burger list.
Irv's is one of few remaining Post-WWII California roadside diners that sits along Route 66, that fabled stretch of highway that once ran from the Pacific Ocean through the Southwest to Chicago. There used to be hundreds of joints just like it, quickly dispatching burgers to Cali's erupting car culture. Irv's, dubbed Queen's Burgers in olden times, was the beloved burger of '70s heroes like Cassavettes, Rowlands, Hendrix, Janis, and Mr. Mojo Rising. Linda Ronstadt even featured Irv's on one of her LP covers in her superhottie days (see photo, above right). Check their history on their website, a true testament to Irv's value in this city and nation's heritage.
Today, it is owned by the incredible Hong family, striving to keep their business at Irv's as much as the community is clamoring to keep them. Locals formed a vigilante crew, the Burger Brigade, dedicated to defending Irv's from ubiquitous corporate greed.
Last Saturday, during an action-packed tour I was giving to a visiting Floridian amigo, I swerved from Melrose to Fairfax to Santa Monica, hunting down Irv's, which has been stationed there since 1950. Wading through Saturday-afternoon traffic, I spotted my destination at Sweetzer, realizing I had passed the corner 80 times in the past six months without once spotting Irv's. Upon inspection, I saw that it proudly stands, 55 years of burger history, behind a colorful hand-painted hut, sporting simple patio seating blanketed with homemade roofing.
At the counter, a beautiful, friendly face, illuminated by a bright-pink shirt, popped out from the stand's shallow confines. I was sweetly greeted and asked for my order. With each request and ensuing adjustment, my sweet young order-taker showed a knack for warm-hearted prophecy. "I know you wanted a cheeseburger," she said, noting, "Grilled onionsgood for Saturday." Never have I had service with such genuine smiles and spirit. The sugary lass is Sonia Hong (see photo, left), owner of Irv's. She clearly has a genuine passion for serving burgers to her neighborhood fans, evident in the flavor of the eats. She even posed for pictures, something the Apple (Dumplin') Pan Gang didn't seem into (Apple Pan review to come).
When my Irv's cheeseburger hit the easy, breezy tables, I was truly touched by the hand-drawn blue shirt and inscription, "Just for You," on my paper plate (see photo, second row from top). It gave me feelings of specialness I'd never felt before. Sonia has a reputation for customer interaction that goes above and beyond, often knowing intimate details of her burger-, breakfast-, and teriyaki-addicts' lives and hollerin' at 'em by name. Cute, sweet, and funny (sigh). But can she pull a burger bachelor's dream quartet by serving a perfect burger?
Holding up my medium-size cheeseburger, I sensed a certain sizzle in the meat but found nothing predominantly unusual about Irv's burger. Ah, until the bun! Toasted to a nice crispness, its soft bread encased in a light crusty shell, it is the first wonderful feature in the Irv's experience. Upon my first bite, I was moved to new heights.
The texture of the patty was as close to perfect as I'd had in a few weeks of burger grubbing. It was coarse and roughly hewn, collapsing gently in my mouth in a spicy mix. The patty had a salty taste that complemented and balanced the smokier flavors from the grill. The patty is thin, but its rough surface caries many craters of flavor and juice. There was mention of a secret sauce, but I couldn't really tell, not that anything more was needed than the meaty mix of cheese, burger, bread, and cold, crisp ingredients.
Onion, lettuce, tomato, and pickles played backup but came in second to Irv's crumbly patties and crunchy bun. The melted cheese looked like American but gained savory sensations from Irv's magic grill, tasting more like a sharp cheddar when blending into its foil. Irv's burgers are delectable. Definitely some of L.A.'s top treats. My friend Cody and I even considered getting another but had to hit the road (which led, not surprisingly, to Venice beachside hamburgers at a friend's party).
Irv's french fries cannot be missed, either. They are some of the best I've experienced in the city. Though they are thick (which I normally don't like) and appear double fried, (double my dislike), they were still the softest fries, near liquidy in the center, oozing apart under their thin, crisp skins. Deceptive, they looked spiced and seasoned but actually didn't have much zing. Nonetheless, from texture and taste, these fries are an excellent indulgence worthy of the early coronary.
I guess sometimes you really can believe the hype. Irv's is all it's been cracked up to be and truthfully deserves historic status. At the very least, I hope Irv's will remain for years to come. I was totally seduced by Sonia's sweetness and hamburgers, and envision repeat visits for as long as possible.
Sonia is leasing the place from Irv himself, and things aren't looking great. With more than 1,400 people on their side, the Hong family (Mama, Sean, and Sonia) continues the fight against corporate Goliaths.
Losing a treasure like Irv's for another stretch of homogenous storefronts would only sound a further death knell for U.S. ingenuity and individual entrepreneurialism. Irv's Burgers represents our history and is an asset to Californian tastebuds. If it takes burgers to rouse our collective brother- and sisterhood and defend the little guyin service for posterity and the preservation of our pastthen the burger we shall rally 'round.
Location: 8289 Santa Monica Blvd. (at Sweetzer), West Hollywood CA 90046
Price: Hamburgers, $2.91; cheeseburgers, $3.10; double burgers, $3.75
Hours: Mon. through Fri., 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed Sundays
Short Order: Legendary Route 66 survivor boasts killer hamburgers and needs your support.