El Cholo Café
260 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena CA 91101 (map); 626-795-5800; elcholopasadena.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: An outpost of the classic LA Mexican restaurant makes a sad burger
Want Fries with That? Pass; have the rice and beans instead
Price: Cheeseburger (w/rice and beans), $9.95
It may seem like folly trying to hunt down a delicious burger at a Mexican restaurant, but allow me to present a few pieces of evidence that argue in my favor. First off, there's the recent review by my colleague Wes describing the awesomeness to be found at Mexican joint in San Francisco. Earlier this year, fellow AHT'er Erin found a great chorizo-topped burger at a Mexican restaurant in San Diego. More locally, one of my favorite local burger lunch options is Yuca's in my sleepy little neighborhood of Los Feliz. Lastly, if you go hunting at one of the outposts of the legendary LA Mexican restaurant El Cholo, you'll see a reproduction of the original menu from 1923 that served up a "Hamburger Steak." Oh, did I mention that I was out for dinner on Cinco de Mayo? There's that, too.
So there I am at the Pasadena location, El Cholo Cafe, margarita in hand, mariachi band blaring, ready to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a fantastic Mexican meal that would include the restaurant's historical cheeseburger. How was it? Well, let's say that the Mexican food was tasty and the cheeseburger should be relegated to history.
El Cholo Cafe's version is so completely unappealing and underwhelming I loathe to summon my memory, but alas, let me power through the description of this burger so that others needn't suffer through it.
The six ounces of ground chuck came out so overcooked I thought it might be a practical joke. It was a desiccated and leathery mass that was barely better than what you'd find at the worst of fast food outlets. Think airplane cheeseburger and you're getting close.
The cheese, which you'd imagine to be a strongsuit for a restaurant that must go through hundreds of pounds of the stuff every day, was barely melted and offered little solace to the dry and juiceless patty. The bun wasn't all bad as it had a nice sponginess and was reminscent of an authentic bolillo. And that's it. There isn't anything else to talk about with this burger. A little jalepeño to spice things up? Nope. A little mayo to add fat and flavor? No sir. Just a wan, dry patty, some bland cheese, and a bun.
I went with the rice and beans as a side to keep with the Cinco de Mayo theme and they delivered. El Cholo's version is straight up refried tradition with short grain rice. Simple and pleasing is perfectly acceptable and this side dish is just that.
Now, I actually don't mind a meal at El Cholo and that's because I usually go with the blue corn chicken enchiladas. I ordered them as a backup and thank goodness I did. They remain an entirely satisfying take on the classic enchilada plate.
In the end, perhaps that's all one should ask for from a Mexican spot; that is, good Mexican food. Add to that a convivial atmosphere and some margaritas (both of which were in abundance on Sunday evening) and you've got a resturant worth going to, burger or not. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, I've discovered a delicious burger at a Mexican joint in the past as have some of my colleagues. Perhaps the burger I got at El Cholo is what I deserved since I ordered it on Cinco de Mayo.
...Scratch that, no one deserves a burger that bad.
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.