Los Angeles: The Not Quite Old School Burger at Nick's Cafe
1300 North Spring St., Los Angeles CA 90012 (map); 323-222-14500; Website
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This truly old-school diner wins points with some new-school updates, but is undermined by a weak patty
Want Fries with That? Yes; these homemade fries aren't as crispy as they could be, but very tasty
Prices: Cheddar Burger (w/fries), $7.50
How good will I look when I'm 64? Doubtless not nearly as good as Nick's Cafe, the beautifully maintained, classic diner that was born in 1948. Located on Spring Street just north of the downtown bustle, this classic, blue collar eatery is a vision of mid-century Americana. The exterior could be mistaken for retro when driving by, but a closer look reveals the authenticity of the facade.
Inside you'll find a horseshoe counter and walls decorated with memorabilia of the long life of Nick's. These days you're just as likely to find a gaggle of hipsters bellying up for the famous ham and egg breakfast as you would the current crop of working regulars who call Nick's their home away from home: the LAPD.
After years of driving by and wondering just what the food is like at Nick's, I finally pulled the car over and tried the food. It was lunch of impulse (please forgive the photos—my usual camera was not on hand), which is odd considering classic spots like this one are among my favorites in Los Angeles. Perhaps it was a sixth burger sense that had kept away. As I ordered my cheeseburger I noticed none of the men in blue alongside me (clearly regulars) had chosen the same lunchtime option. They, it seems, had already figured out what I was about to learn.
Nick's burgers tout their sirloin origins. The regular burger is 1/3-pound of ground, hand-packed sirloin topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo on what they call a buttermilk bun. The truth is it's much more akin to a brioche, but more on that later. At lunch time you can add french fries and a soda for a very reasonable $8.95. (You can also turn your burger into a "Monster Burger," which means you get a full pound of ground beef. How does the saying go? "Just because you can"... Well, you get the idea.)
I ordered mine with both and added some cheddar (an extra 50¢). I requested my preferred medium rare temperature, though I knew full well that getting it served medium would be a victory.
The worst thing about this burger is the touted sirloin grind. Mine came out well done, which I know is less of a crime to most of you than it is to me, but when dealing with a grind this fine it really does make a real difference. The patty itself was dry as a bone and mostly flavorless. Despite the well done center there was little to no char or crust on it. It's a fatal flaw that was, if I'm completely honest, a surprise. The hand-packing made me think this would be an old school loosely-packed patty, but no such luck. It was a taut, leathery puck of a patty that ruined what was otherwise a nicely constructed sandwich. The lettuce, tomato and onion all showed a crisp freshness and the cheddar and mayo added some nice extra fat. Even the brioche-like bun had a nice flavor and surprisingly good texture.
The fries weren't a revelation, but they were fresh cut and full of flavor. I actually found myself rather smitten with the homemade profile. They reminded me of the fries my father used to make: full of fresh potato flavor though lacking the crispy exterior that comes with good deep frying technique. No matter about the lack of crispy exterior, you'd do well to order these with whatever you get at Nick's.
And by whatever you get, I mean not the burger. A patty as weak as this one just undermines the whole experience and makes my favorite sandwich feel like a waste of a lunch order. Nick's, you're 64 and I wouldn't hesitate to say that Los Angeles still needs you; I just wish you'd feed me a better burger.
About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.