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[Photographs: Damon Gambuto]

Connal's

1505 E Washington Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91104 (map); 626-794-5018; connals.com
Cooking Method: Char-broiled
Short Order: A classic Pasadena sandwich shop may have changed owners through the years, but it hasn't changed its commitment to quality, affordable burgers
Want Fries with That? I went with the Frings (fries and rings combo) and felt like the rings were better
Prices: Connal's Original Famous Cheeseburger, $2.89; Frings, $2.99
Notes: You can have a neon green avocado sauce poured over your fries if you're into that kind of thing. Also, there's a second location in Upland

One of the things that I love about living in the seemingly endless expanse of the Los Angeles area is how resistant it is to my best efforts to know it definitively. Even if it was a bit of delusion, my childhood's New York City felt like a place that, for a time, I could wholly know. Of course, new restaurants would pop up all the time, but by the time I was an adult I knew all the institutions—those places that anchored the city's identity. Here in the Southland, it's all too vast to feel as though I could ever have that same sense of knowledge. Driving through the outlying neighborhoods and small cities is an ongoing exercise in discovery of spots that the locals have known about for years.

A recent tip from a friend in Pasadena led me to one of those places. Connal's on Washington has been a Pasadena institution since 1958. Back then it was a family-owned shop called Sandwiches By Connal that made great burgers. These days it's still family-owned and still makes a great burger.

I had a chance to chat with a member of the Connal's new family, Anna Koroli, after tearing though a burger. She let me in on a bit of the history of Connal's. As you'd guess, it had been opened by a guy named Connal, but since 1987 has been owned and operated by the Gannos family (Tony being the face of the operation). They still operate with the same tradition that Connal's had from its humble hamburger stand beginnings: fresh beef and quality ingredients at a fair price. Thus it's no surprise that Connal's still maintains a loyal, local following. One customer even tapped me on the shoulder to be sure I would report how beloved the spot is by its regulars.

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The Connal's Original Famous Burger comes with the standard issue toppings for a Southern California drive-in: lettuce (leafed), tomato, onion, pickle, and Thousand Island. The bun is a fluffy and spongy commercial with sesame seeds. The patty is a standard thin-pressed quarter-pound of beef. I added a slice of American cheese to mine which, Anna said, was the way to go.

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This burger isn't full of surprises, which is exactly how I wanted it. The commercial bun had a classic structure: spongy and pliant. The vegetable toppings were fresh and satisfying and offered a nice balance to the char of the patty. Often quarter-pound, fast food-style burgers like this suffer from a lack of beefiness, but in the case of Connal's I really preferred the balance of a single with cheese. There was also a nice smoothness to the homemade Thousand Island. It was creamier than you'd get from most drive-ins and added a welcomed added bit of fat.

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I also managed to find room for a side of Frings, a half and half order of fries and onion rings, that glowed orange with a heavy dusting of secret seasoning. The fries weren't stand-outs, though I found the rings' crispy, highly-seasoned exteriors strangely appealing.

This, in the end, is the power of a great, local eatery like Connal's. Something old and familiar that, by dint of its quality and character, becomes something new and special.

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