491 N Lake Ave., Pasadena CA 91101 (plus locations all over the Los Angeles area) (map); 626-449-1844; thehat.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A classic Los Angeles sandwich stand has blossomed into a mini-chain behind the salty goodness of their pastrami
Want Fries with That? Skip the fries (although the chili cheese fries are impressive if only for the size of the portion)—instead go for some crispy and delicious onion rings
Prices: Pastrami Burger, $6.99
Notes: The portions are sizable so go with friends and share single orders
I've made the argument before that the burger's preeminence as "the American sandwich" is a debt owed to Los Angeles' postwar burger boom. The griddled, thin-pattied, paper-wrapped present that came to define the Southern California-style burger gave rise to fast food chains that built their brand on the backs of beef and buns. The simple, sweet and salty flavor of our SoCal burgers remains one of the special tastes in my life (let alone my burger life). It's at once a return to the past and look into the future. A memory of a bygone era and signifier of an industrialized food economy.
What's also true is it's not our only burger style worthy of local pride. We've heard about the famous mess that a Tommy's Chili Cheeseburger is, but less attention has been paid to our other over-the-top option: The Pastrami Burger.
Here in Los Angeles you could find pastrami at most privately-owned fast food spots long before it became a marketing tool for a big chain. To be fair, Utah lays some claim to this meat on meat affair as well so I know some will clamor about who is the rightful owner of this burger as a regional style. Let's just say it probably originated here in Los Angeles and it can thank its popularity to pastrami-centric places like The Hat. I stopped by The Hat's Pasadena location to sample their putative "World Famous Pastrami" in the most sensitive location possible: on top of my burger.
Before I put the massive, pastrami-topped burger under the microscope I wanted sample the regular cheeseburger in the massive lab that is my stomach. The paper-wrapped classic The Hat is an exercise in Southern California-style burger disappointment. A thin, gray patty is topped with lettuce, tomato, and American cheese with the care one imagines Charlie Sheen takes in his romantic decisions. That said, certain elements were satisfying—the commercial bun was particularly good. So why such an ordinary and under-seasoned burger? The answer: pastrami.
The pastrami burger is, as Kenji revealed in his masterful Burger Lab, a bold yet balanced burger. The Hat's pastrami is sliced to almost wafer-thinness in contrast to the traditional deli pastrami cut. It's powerfully salty (we're talking "bring your water bottle to lunch" salty) and piled in a messy heap on top of the patty. The once bland burger became a salty, rich mess of flavor that delivers one of those deeply satisfying, over-the-tip mouthfuls that define great burgers. On its own the burger cuts a boring profile. The pastrami sandwich is a titch too salty to offer any competition to the great version of the sandwich (Langer's anyone?). But when combined the sandwich find its balance. It isn't any real competition to the great Southern California-style burgers, but it's a taste worth adding to your list.
The pastrami burger is, on its own, such an exercise in American excess that the only rational recourse is to embrace one's doom. I also ordered the chili cheese fries and onion rings. The former is a ridiculous helping of food that more than likely comes with a calorie density that would make a relief aid food scientist proud. It's a mass of (frozen, not fresh cut) potatoes smothered in bland chili and cheese that slowly melts on top. The only thing small about this dish is its flavor. More, in this case, much less. There is little reason to order it beyond justifying all that money you spend on Lipitor.
Conversely, the onion rings are crisp, dirty-oil perfection. They too surely go from freezer to bubbling oil, but the flavor, rather than mealy and wan, is robust and fantastic. It was one of those onion ring experiences that makes you wonder why you don't order them more.
The Hat isn't without its faults to be sure. Bland french fries and wan burger patties aren't small mistakes. That said, when adding a little pastrami The Hat delivers a burger of enough distinction that makes the argument for, at the very least, making room in the Southern California burger category.