4301 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90019 (map); 323-936-0366
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: This classic Southern California drive-in will make you look forward to a fast food dinner.
Want Fries with That? YES! These are fresh-cut, skin-on, fast food perfection. Why can't they all be this good?
Prices: Double Cheese Burger, $3.25
Notes: They'll make it exactly like you want so go ahead and tell them. You may not be a regular, but your burger will get the same attention.
Once upon a time describing food as "fast" wasn't pejorative. During the rapid (sub)urbanization of post war America, the slow-cooked supper that was the punctuation mark on the agrarian workday no longer fit the grammar of contemporary life. Enter fast food: quick, reliable eats that satisfied the needs and wants of a changing population. "Fast" was a promise to be proud of.
In Southern California the drive-in hamburger stand filled this demand of the market with the delicious velocity of the griddle-cooked, thin-pattied burger. In those days they didn't arrive frozen and preformed on eighteen-wheelers and then cooked in advance of the lunch rush; more often that not, fast food burgers were fresh and cooked to order.
Driving home from the airport the other day the amber twilight stretched across Pico Boulevard and delivered me to one of the few remaining Los Angeles spots that reach back to this glorious burger past. Hungry and in a hurry, I pulled into the parking lot of Capitol Burgers and found myself transported to a time when a quick meal was something to linger over.
Despite some noticeable elbow grease, the small shack that houses Capitol Burgers shows its 45 years of age. In this case, fading signage doesn't signify faded glory. Owner George Stamo made his way to Los Angeles by way of Alabama over 50 years ago, but he's still behind the griddle and overseeing his American dream. His son, Jim, has been at his side for the last 35 of those years and now is the driving force of this burger operation. He told me about his family's history and how they're committed to keeping their contribution to the decaying Los Angeles history alive. Jim calls it "character" and certainly that's what Capitol Burgers embodies.
Along with great classic Southern California-style double doubles, there's an effort to keep the prices affordable for the hundreds of regulars who've been the backbone of the business for years. I handed him a ten-spot for my towering double cheese burger and heap of fries and he gave me back five and a quarter. That's $4.75 for enough food to feed at least two reasonable adults (or one gluttonous burger reviewer).
The burger is a exercise in SoCal burger classicism. Two thin, fresh quarter-pound patties get a healthy seasoning and then some griddling before making their way to a hefty but beautiful commercial bun. Lettuce, tomato, and pickle will come even if you don't ask for them, but, that said, at Capitol they'll make it however you take it. When I asked how they made their burger, it was clear that this wasn't one of those "my-way-or-the-highway" joints. I added two slices of American, some grilled onions, mustard, and mayo.
The beef isn't the star of this burger, but that's not how it's meant to be eaten. With the fatty, gooey American cheese and blend of all the toppings, this is—like all great burgers in the category—an exercise in synergy. The flavors and textures combine in a way that seems to compel bite after bite with nary a break for a breath. The grilled onions (chopped fresh for my burger) weren't cooked to full softness and added a great, if nontraditional, layer of texture and bite. The veggies were unassailable and the bun delivered on its promise with a hand-forming sponginess.
The fries, which arrive in a mountainous portion, were truly excellent. They are fresh-cut skinnies with the skins left on. Fresh from the oil my order was full of potato flavor and a mix of greasy and salty goodness. After tasting these it's hard to understand what some revered Southern California burger chains (cough, In-N-Out) are up to with their fresh cut fries. The Stamos' method should be documented and studied at burger universities.
I arrived, ordered, chatted, and ate my meal in under 30 minutes, but it felt like the most relaxed and pleasant dinner I've had in ages. After countless high-end restaurant burger dinners that have lasted too long and tasted like over-complication, it was a delight to fall into the lap of simple, quick meal that left me wanting for nothing. Driving away from this classic Los Angeles spot I saw the distinct Mid-Century lines of Capitol's aging structure silhouetted against a darkening sky and found myself, for the first time in a very long while, thankful for a dinner of fast food.