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[Photographs: Damon Gambuto]

Gold Star Hamburgers

1623 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale CA 91204 (map); 818-243-6261
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A fine example of the Southern California charbroiled burger tradition.
Want Fries with That? Sure. These slim-steak fries had a surprisingly clean, potato flavor.
Prices: Cheeseburger Combo (fries and a drink), $5.99
Notes: The wafer-thin patties mean that a double might be in order if you are looking for a meatier meal.

Burger spots like Gold Star Hamburgers in Glendale are a Southern California tradition. It's a drive-in with a charbroiled burger backbone that supports a range of menu options. They are the inspiration (and in some cases the very origin) of most fast food chains across the country. These were, for years, the dominant eateries here in the Southland, but the intervening corporatization of fast food has meant most of these drive-ins got driven out of business.

The truth is most of the remaining "originals" aren't particularly tempting. The frozen beef patties and low-cost condiments have made them facsimiles of the chains that copied their original format in the first place. Luckily, there are exceptions. I headed to Gold Star Hamburgers to see about a burger.

Gold Star is located on a corner of Brand Boulevard in the Glendale neighborhood of Tropico that boasts a history that is, from what I can gather, interesting in its constancy. While it certainly saw its share of development after the little municipality was annexed by Glendale, its basic profile remains. It's still a solid middle class neighborhood that is a ethnic mash-up both in its population and its eateries. You can find a falafel just as easily as a burger, and usually in the same place. It has the quiet charm that makes learning that Baskin-Robbins started there not such a surprise.

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The restaurant itself is a gleaming, gorgeous example of Mid-Century burgerdom. I was immediately struck by the frozen-in-time d├ęcor and cleanliness.

At $5.99 the cheeseburger combo is as easy on the pocket book as most chains, but on a quiet Monday night mine was delivered to my table.

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The burger with "everything" is served up in traditional Southern California-style with lettuce, tomato, onion, and Thousand Island. The patty itself is fresh, if preformed and supremely thin. The commercial bun is hulking atop the scant four ounces of beef. Normally burgers with this little beef and such a mass of other ingredients seem to evanesce as eating experiences as quickly as they arrive, but the Gold Star burger had a strange staying power. To be sure, the patty—thin as a Cliff Notes pamphlet—seemed like a shortcut, but there was an added seasoning and whiff of char that pointed to more of a story.

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I couldn't place the distinct seasoning and was told it was just salt, so perhaps it was just a seasoned grill that gave it the extra kick. The lettuce and tomato were fresh and crisp and the Thousand Island gave a nice balance of fat and sweetness. The bun was a commercial success, but its relative size overwhelmed the beef a bit. While the single is good, it seems that the double is worth the extra money.

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The fries, slim-cut steaks, were surprising full of flavor. It may have been a fresh change of oil in the fryer, but I didn't get a hint of greasiness. The crispy exteriors gave way to a silky smooth interior that was akin to a fresh cut fry that had a proper soaking (though I'd be shocked if they didn't arrive at the restaurant frozen and in a bag).

The Gold Star burger was a welcomed return to bygone days of burgers. It's clean and comfortable and full of affordable pleasure. In most respects it delivers on the promise of the fast food chains can't seem to keep. They don't make one of the best you'll find, but for the price your other option would be buying a burger from a clown. I'd take the Gold Star over the golden arches any day.

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