A Greece-y Burger at Astro Burger in Los Angeles
5601 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90038 (map); 323-469-1924; astroburger.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A drive-in spot foregrounds its healthful preparation and backgrounds good flavor
Want Fries with That? Yes, if you're in the mood, but if you're trying to stay healthy, a passable Greek salad might be a better choice
Prices: Astro Burger, $3.39
Notes: A drive-thru gives you the option to grab a reasonably healthy meal at a fast food pace
As a boy my burgers weren't usually the chain, fast food variety. Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan meant most of my burgers came from diners; specifically, the storied Greek diners that proliferated just after the turn of the twentieth century. Most of the country doesn't have this particular strain of vinyl and Formica eateries, but you probably know what I'm talking about; impatient waiters tapping their feet as you peruse omnibus menus that can read like a history of twentieth century American immigration.
It's true that the Greek diner is largely an East Coast phenomenon, but its pop-cultural signifiers have long since gone national. The Saturday Night Live sketch "The Olympia Restaurant" (a.k.a "Cheeburger, Cheeburger") based on Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern is among the shows most memorable, and the New York to-go cup has managed—even in the age of Starbucks—to remain the signifier of American coffee culture.
My local was The Argo on 90th and Broadway (now City Diner) and somehow it always felt special to me despite the rubbery patties and soggy fries. During my high school years on the Lower East Side, Ambrosia's cheeseburger deluxe was a lunchtime standard. So you can imagine that when I headed to the Greek-owned Astro Burger on Melrose Avenue I was more than a little aflutter with hopes of a nostalgic lunch of my childhood's New York and its diner culture.
The Astro Burger on Melrose sits across the street from the Paramount Studios and is a bit of a landmark for me. After finishing up one of my first "big time" meetings that marked the beginning of Hollywood writing career (such as it isn't, these days), I sat down there for a little post mortem on how things went. (Note to self: Say yes when they ask you to write a movie about snakes on a plane.) No burgers were eaten that day, but I remedied that with a recent lunch order.
The Astro Burger contains a quarter pound, wafer-thin patty and comes with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and onion if you want it. I didn't, but I did want cheese so I added a slice of American to my order. The whole affair is pure Southern California presentation with its paper wrapping inside a paper bag. It would be fair to call it fast food-style, but the look of it is a step up from the big chain versions. That said, the meat tasted (that is, lacked taste) much like those selfsame chains. I was surprised by the bland, chewy beef because the meat is actually delivered fresh, but perhaps the sub-$4 price point should have tipped me off.
This burger is less a meat intensive experience, and more of a burger-as-toppings experience. The flavors were all in the measure, but nothing really popped; the lettuce and tomato were fine; the cheese and mayo added some welcome fat, but there wasn't much more going on. The meat could have just as well been a Gardenburger which, as it turns out, they offer along with a lot of other Greek-themed, "healthful" alternatives on the menu. In fact, a lot of the restaurant's champions seem to be arguing for these options rather than the traditional burger.
The fries were just good. Again, nothing special about them, but they were competently executed. The one standout flavor of my meal came from the Greek-inspired sour cherry shake. The fruit is called vyssino (pronounced VEE-see-no) and is a Greek favorite for early summer preserves. In this case, it made for a surprising and tasty American shake. If anything, I would have liked even more cherry to along with my ice cream.
Astro Burger has the look of a classic Los Angeles drive-in, but there is little about its burger that warrants any special attention. The overall experience was, if I'm honest with myself, not unlike what the diners of my youth actually offered. They weren't the special meals that my childhood's imagination made them into. They were just okay, and, for the benefit of mom and pop, eminently affordable. My tastes have grown up a bit, but now that I pay the bills, I see the appeal of a cheeseburger like this one.