Burbank, California: Tasting History at Bob's Big Boy
"Bob's Big Boy is historically significant and in its day was truly revolutionary, inspiring a slew of imitators, most notably McDonald's iconic Big Mac."
Bob's Big Boy
4211 Riverside Drive, Burbank California 91505; map); 818-843-9334; bigboy.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A classic, historically significant burger that in the current state of things is probably a bit too bready and a bit too un-meaty
Want Fries with That? Yes, they are very good, crispy, golden skin on ones
Price: Combo (includes hamburger, fries and salad) $7.79; milkshakes, $3.89
I hate flying, but strangely I don't hate airports. I like the unifying, egalitarian reductionism of the security line. It is here that one's character reveals itself. It doesn't matter if you are a first class traveler with expensive luggage or a ratty teenager with a back pack—you are all funneled through the same security line, made to take off your shoes just like everyone else and walk through the metal detector. The way you cope with it says a lot about you. I love the contrasting reactions, from incredulous and entitled to humble and good natured.
But something else I like about airports is just how bad the food is in general. It's not that I like bad food—it's that I relish the challenge of finding something delicious amongst all the dreck that is usually sold in these contemporary caravanserai. The thrill of finding a diamond in the rough, so to speak. Of course, this doesn't always happen—there are some airports that just do not have anything decent to offer.
Such is the case at the humorously named Bob Hope International Airport in Burbank. I say "humorously named" not because Bob Hope was a comedian, but because it is still called an international airport. I grant you that there may be flights heading to Mexico and Canada (although I doubt it), but to call the terminal building with a little patch of runway that is shorter than the jets that land there an international airport seems to be the aviation equivalent of Sarah Palin's foreign relations experience: She can see Russia from her house the way Burbank airport can see international flights flying overhead on their way to LAX.
Being as small and parochial as it is, Burbank has rather limited dining options even during peak hours. For instance, there is a small outpost of the Cheeburger Cheeburger chain that I have never tried because it always seems to be serving breakfast when I get there. Fortunately, the oldest surviving Bob's Big Boy is located a short distance from the airport. Before I downed two Lorazepam and gulped down half a glass of wine, I managed to stop by the original to try the double decker burger and revel in a bit of history.
The burger at Bob's Big Boy has been made the same way since before the current restaurant was built in 1949. The origins of the sandwich date back to Bob Wian's original restaurant called Bob's Pantry near Glendale. The story goes that a group of musicians asked for something different than the standard hamburger. Wian became inspired to cut a regular bun into three rather than two slices and stuff two patties into it. The name "Big Boy" came later on when a rotund child walked in and Wian greeted him with a friendly, "Hello big boy." The name was soon applied to the double decker sandwich, which had become so popular that it was prominently emblazoned on the front of the restaurant.
Bready and saucy is probably the best way I can describe the sandwich. The prototype might have been carved from a normal bun, but the current incarnation clearly has a custom loaf that could easily contain a massive 10-ounce patty—or two undersized ones, as is the case with the classic Big Boy Burger, which holds two relatively thin patties totaling only five ounces. I can't help but feel that if the sandwich were introduced today it would be a colossal failure, the beef-to-bun ratio being so skewed in favor of the latter.
As if the voluminous bread weren't enough to overpower the beef, there is also an excessive amount of tomato relish slathered on the top patty. While it does nothing to offend—it's quite ketchup-like with a mild sweetness—it further obscures the already elusive beef flavor. The loss of flavor is a shame since the patty, despite being cooked through, had a pleasing fresh chuck flavor and was quite tender, if not overly juicy. It actually tasted far better than it looked, which was sort of like a pale pork breakfast sausage with a very crispy, almost burnt, circumference. The bottom deck is topped with a slice of cheese (you will barely notice it), shredded lettuce, and "special sauce."
The combo comes with a salad (I don't know why you would need this, as there is lettuce on the burger) and some very good, golden skin-on fries. But don't miss the enormous classic-style milkshakes that come in the metal tumblers that they are blended in. The shakes aren't overly thick—you can easily sip them with a straw—nor are they too sweet, almost as if no syrup is added to the milk. In other words, they do the opposite of modern, fast food milkshakes. The result is a creamy, rich experience that allows the vanilla flavor to come through.
While I'm glad I ate the original Big Boy, I probably wouldn't order one again—it's just not beefy enough. Fortunately, there's a more contemporary version of the sandwich on the menu that offers the same bread with twice the beef and cheese called the Super Big Boy. While I have yet to try one, I imagine it is probably very good, perhaps fulfilling the double decker concept's true potential. Having said that, I have tremendous respect for the original sandwich. It is historically significant and in its day was truly revolutionary, inspiring a slew of imitators, most notably McDonald's iconic Big Mac.
But like Bob Hope International Airport, the Big Boy Sandwich is an anachronism. No one would design a sandwich with so much bread these days any more than they would build a small airport like Burbank in the shadow of LAX. Despite this, I am comforted that the Big Boy still exists, virtually unchanged, allowing us to quite literally "taste history."