Colombo's Italian Steakhouse
1833 Colorado Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90041 (map); 323-254-9138; colombosrestaurant.net
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Leftover steaks get ground into a superior example of classic hamburgering.
Want Fries with That? No thanks. Frozen and bland—these guys are beside the point.
Prices: Burger and fries, $7.50
Notes: If you are going on Friday and Saturday you can only get the burger at the bar, but it would be a shame to miss out on a sliding into one of the classic crescent booths.
A recent spate of less-than-delicious burgers had left me wondering if, in my fifteen months of burger perambulation, I might have exhausted the supply of delicious patties in the Los Angeles basin. Could it be that the burger boom that I've been riding had finally gone bust?
Perhaps my difficulty locating a new, great burger is that I've only been looking in new, not-so-great places. That is to say, with all these new burger spots popping up, I may have taken my eye off the proverbial (meat) ball. In what seems like an arms race of ever-more expansive (and expensive) burger creations, I've found few that were worth my time, let alone the price.
Then a little birdie (that sounded a lot like the love of my life) whispered in my ear that there's an old-school Italian eatery in Eagle Rock that makes a simple burger that might sate my ever-renewed hunger for ground beef on a bun. I listened, and then I ate.
Colombo's Italian Steakhouse isn't where I'd usually go hunting for a great burger. While the accolades from the local community have piled up like the years (54 and counting), it has the look of a great chicken parmigiana, not beef hamburger. But it does call itself a steakhouse, and I've found more than one great burger at places that specialize in steak.
In this case, there is the added value of a storied tradition. Sam Colombo opened the restaurant half a century ago with dreams of serving the food that defined his childhood. He's passed on now, but an oil painting of the old guy tossing a pizza, presides over the dining room and his wife (also pictured) can still be found holding court in her favorite booth. It's the kind of history and tradition that makes me root for the food—but, then again, I also root for the Jets.
The burger arrived looking like the restaurant burgers of my youth. While I never ordered burgers at Italian restaurants growing up, I almost always did when I was at a Greek diner, and that's where the look of the burger at Colombo's sent my memory. The grilled eight ounces is set against a larger, seeded, commercial bun with a couple of bright orange slices of American cheese just beginning to melt from the heat of the patty. The lettuce, tomato, and limp pickle spear that decorate the plate are beside the point. From the look of the plate, I could have been at the Argo on 90th and Broadway in Manhattan in 1982.
The patty was a revelation of high-quality beefiness. Cooked perfectly, the grill's char was so extravagant that I could hear the crunching from the crust as I chewed. The grind was coarse, but even better was the gentle hand with which it was formed. The interior texture of the meat was so smooth and rich that I couldn't imagine I was eating a simple chuck blend. When I asked my server if they use the trimmings from the steaks, she admitted that she didn't know, but after a quick trip to the kitchen she came back with a confirmation of my suspicions. Colombo's actually uses entire steaks along with the trimmings. All of their cuts end up in their blend at some point. It makes for a rich and buttery patty that at $7.50 is a ridiculous bargain. The only failing I found was that it lacked a bit of salt. I opted to add some of my own.
The bun was chewy, and spongy, and—other than my preference for seedless—near commercial perfection. The American cheese (my choice) doesn't get the heavy melting so just the heat of the patty initiates a limpness that doesn't liquefy. This is—as they say—the right way to do. The veggies were the bland iceberg and factory-farm tomato that are often acceptable distractions, but on a burger like this, are totally unnecessary. The juice and depth of flavor from the beef, along with the added fat and tang from the cheese, is all that this beauty needs. There was no complicated set of toppings and bespoke buns in this place. It was just the simple, straightforward sandwich that I've loved my whole life executed without complication.
The previous weeks had left me a little pessimistic about my ongoing quest for new and better burgers in my fair city. Colombo's not only restored my faith in what is still yet-to-be-discovered, but also served as a reminder of what is so wonderful about the already known. Christmas, it seemed, had come early.