The Original Tops
3838 E Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena CA 91107 (theoriginaltops.com
Cooking Method: Charbroiled
Short Order: A classic burger spot is remade as a very good fast food spot
Want Fries with That?Yes, please. These are a truly great representative of the fast food varietal. A small is plenty though. It feeds two people at least.
Prices: Old fashioned hamburger $2.89; cheeseburger, $3.19; 1/2-pound cheeseburger (double patty), $5.09
Notes: Daily, 6:30 a.m. - 11 p.m.
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The first time I found myself at The Original Tops, I had lost my way. It was less an existential crisis than a gastronomic one, but it was a crisis nonetheless. We were on our way to have a beef roll and some noodles from a Chinese restaurant in one of the many fantastic spots east of Los Angeles (more on that in a future post) and I missed my exit. Some say I'd become distracted whilst telling some over-detailed story (can you imagine?), but I'm sure it was the hunger that distracted. By the time I realized that I'd missed my exit we were already thirty minutes past my being too hungry to think straight. You know the feeling. The kind of excited hunger that precipitates impetuous, self-destructive behavior, like tearing the roof of your mouth apart on the stale bread at a restaurant or pulling into a drive through on your way to a nice meal.
As I spun off the freeway, I was greeted by a glowing sign that tempted me toward the latter misstep. The Original Tops boasts "Home Spun Food" and a "Since 1952" on its signage. The snake might as well have offered me the apple with a 12-month Canadian cheddar and a pint of Guiness. I immediately made the decision to add a burger appetizer to my Chinese lunch. We'll call it a choice, but these are the circumstances that make a mockery of free will philosophical arguments. I don't really remember the act of eating the burger. The experience lives in my memory as pure emotion—that gentle afterglow of a delicious meal.
Experiences like this are crucial to enjoying our lives. They initiate ambition and love affairs. But do they give us an accurate view into the truth of a burger? As it happens, I am not usually too concerned with parsing the relationship between my cognitive states and my hold on reality. I'm comfortable with the fictions my mind generates to manage the world, but that doesn't mean you have to be. Let's head back to Tops under different circumstances and see if I can't tease out some burger fact.
A Burger Decision
Driving up to the restaurant along a nondescript stretch of Colorado Boulevard on the (way) eastside of Pasadena, I spy the lollipop sign that beckoned me the first time around. It's Sunday and it's lunchtime, which means Tops is hopping. The parking lot is full and the drive-thru line creates a minor traffic snarl at the corner. Here's a tip, Angelenos: Learn to embrace the short walk and you can avoid the anomie of a crowded LA parking lot. I grab a spot on a side street and spy a beautiful bird of paradise during my short amble to the restaurant. I walk into Tops and see the cars lined up to park haven't moved.
Once inside, the organizing principle of the wall-mounted, fast food menu and actually being in the physical presence of other people rationalizes the disorder generated by our car culture. I take a look at the vast menu and am overwhelmed by the options: burgers, pastrami, steak, chicken, a slew of Mexican dishes, soups, salads. Tops has a whole different narrative structure in their omnivore's dilemma. I waffle between the 1/4-pound and the 1/2-pound cheeseburgers. Here's a tip to those of you looking to open a burger restaurant: Split the difference. Between five and six ounces is a great size for a patty.
I notice the line behind me getting longer and quickly order the 1/2-pounder in the hopes that its mass and the cooks being rushed will up the odds of my burger being undercooked by their standards and thus "just right" by mine. When I hear that 1/2-pound just means "double patty" I immediately sulk about my choice. On my last visit I went for the single.
What's Old Looks New
I head to a booth and take in the surroundings. Tops is impressively clean. The staff is constantly in motion and much of that movement is dedicated to cleaning things. I'm a little taken aback by this hive of hygienic activity. At first it seems excessive, but considering the rate of cooking and eating going on, the speedy workers are actually just keeping pace.
Tops looks brand new, but the restaurant has actually been there quite a while. Steve Bicos opened a diner and walk-up window with his uncle in 1952 after spending years working the various restaurant jobs available to a young, Greek immigrant in Postwar America. The place I am sitting in actually opened in 1978 and is now run by Steve's son Chris, but it still feels every bit the institution.
A Failure in Ordering
Upon hearing my number called, I pick up my formidable tray of food. I've only added a small order of fries and onion rings to my menu, but the "smalls" at Tops could feed three people. You'll be tempted to ask if they've made a mistake when you see the portion. I plop down and try to find that burger-loving feeling Tops gave me the last go around.
The double-patty, 1/2-pound burger is big. It's piled with iceberg lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickle and is slathered with a full portion of Thousand Island. Wrapped in paper it looks every bit the part of a Southern California burger. The first bite is a collision of tastes, but it doesn't quite come together. I'm a little puzzled—I was expecting a symphony of flavor, but this feels like listening to the tuning portion of the concert. The meat is overcooked. The vegetables are fresh, but overpower the sandwich. The Thousand Island and water from the vegetables are quickly overwhelming the very nice, if mass-baked bun. There just isn't that rush of flavor and balance that I remember. I put the burger down and take stock of what's happening. Is my memory going? Was I just that hungry the last time?
A Second Chance At Burger Love
I decide I've made a misstep when ordering as the last time I was at Tops I went for a 1/4-pound cheeseburger. I go to the register and calmly order a single patty burger and ask if I can get it medium rare. The man at the register just smiles and says, "Sure." Aha! This is what I remember about Tops: It's food fast, not fast food. They'll let me pick my burger temperature!
I dig into the fries while I await my second burger. They are delicious—a fast food cut with some skin left on them. I need to throw on some salt to tease out the full flavor, but my, how it's a full flavor. The skin of the fry blistered from the oil and the interior flesh is smoothed to a perfect texture. The rings are nicely breaded with a coating that immediately gives off a hit of seasoning, but the overall effect is just okay. They seemed a bit overcooked and the onion itself was all texture and no flavor.
The second 1/4-pound burger comes out looking way more aesthetically pleasing. The single patty offers a visual balance that just isn't there in the double. The first bite sings—the flavors of the vegetables mix with the juicy meat to match the balance of this burger's good looks. It seems a softer hand has been used to top this one. The vegetables are still pretty standard issue with respect to their quality, but they don't overwhelm the patty this time. The meat itself can actually step forward. It's as close to properly cooked as I can expect from a fast food restaurant and a patty of these dimensions. Mixed with the fat of the melted American cheese, the meat gives off the substance that allows for the condiments to add their style. Halfway though and I am all the way back to that memory of my original Tops burger.
The Memory I Want
I walk out of the bustling restaurant overfed and happy. I was able to recreate the experience of my first visit to Tops with the second burger. Well, almost. Certainly this go round wasn't exactly the same, but I was still happy with it. It was good, but a little different. Or was it me?
Perhaps I had changed. Perhaps it's just the very fact of knowing militates against recapturing the experiences that live in our memories. Perhaps this is just how it should be. What I want out of the experiences and people I love is that they demonstrate the same set of qualities, rather than the quality of sameness. I want ambitions that change with me, not ones that change who I am. I want my love affair to grow up, not grow old. I want to remember my past, not live in it.