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[Photographs: Damon Gambuto]

Hawkins House of Burgers

11603 Slater Street, Los Angeles, CA 90059 (map); 323-563-1129; n/a
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: One of LA's original burger stands is still serving one of the city's best
Want Fries with That? Yes; these steak fries may start frozen, but Cynthia fries with love and hits them with some good seasoning. She's working on her fresh-cut fry technique
Prices: The Fat Cheeseburger, $4.29
Notes: After eating your burger, head over to the LA landmark Watts Towers

Hawkins House of Burgers has been an institution in the Watts neighborhood of Southeast Los Angeles for decades. The owner, Cynthia Hawkins, has a quick smile and the easy manner of an old friend, even if you've only known her for a few minutes. She's the youngest of the fourteen Hawkins kids and speaks with pride about her father, who came to Los Angeles from Arkansas in 1939 as a part of The Second Great Migration that brought Southern African Americans to Western urban centers. He first opened Hawkins as little more than a food stand, but the years and a growing reputation as one of the best burgers in town helped it expand into a larger, if still basic, restaurant. Lucky for me, when it comes to burgers, basic is often better.

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I started with the Fat Cheeseburger. It weighs in between six and eight ounces and Cynthia makes sure it's high quality Angus chuck. I had mine with everything, as she recommended. That means my hefty patty got a treatment of mayo, mustard, shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. It's all served on a beautifully rendered commercial bun that gets its fair share of griddle time before it takes on the rest of the ingredients.

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Cynthia let me watch as a bevy of burgers were griddled to life. Even as they cooked, I could tell there was something different from my usual burger escapade. It wasn't simply Cynthia's gentle demeanor and devotional attention to her creations. It was also a noticeable coarse grind matched with a loose forming of the patty much like Kenji does. It's less a secret than a burger making choice, but being that so few places choose to do it this way it's beginning to seem like a secret. I feel like Cynthia's wink and nod at me as she flips the patties signals that she knows exactly why I'm about to eat something special.

The patty is just as I'd hoped: beautifully seared with a thick crust that holds together the crumbly, loosely packed meat. The toppings are all fresh and satisfying. The bun is pliant and spongy. The overall effect is truly special. The meat has a nice bit of seasoning such that it stands on its own (I tried a bit all by itself), but against the cheese, bun, and veggies it's greasy burger bliss. It isn't the height of refinement, but it's not aspiring to be. It tastes homemade in the way that nostalgia remembers home. The only thing I'd change is holding back on the mustard. It is too strong a flavor applied a bit too heavily.

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Cynthia insisted I try the Whipper Burger as well, but she did so with a wry smile. I think this massive Hawkin's original is a source of pride for its excess, rather than its flavor. Two patties are layered with cheese, egg, pastrami, onions, lettuce, tomato, pickle, mustard, mayo, and (perhaps the source of the name) a deep fried hot link. It's a behemoth that is far too big to experience as a single entity. I try the ingredients on their own and find it all tasty, but as a sandwich it's more than I can handle.

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The burger queen herself, Cynthia Hawkins.

Sometimes I think that places like Hawkins are all I ever need from my burger restaurants; quality ingredients matched with their kind of tradition. Not simply a tradition born from age, but a tradition that is renewed each day with an owner's daily votive that she make her customers happy with simple and delicious food. More than once, Cynthia told me that she serves "only the best" for her customers. I'd have known it without her saying a word.

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