Jake's of Pasadena
38 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena CA 91105 (map); 626-568-1602; jakespasadena.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A classic Los Angeles burger joint that is still great 66 years later
Want Fries with That? Yes! These skinny cuts are truly great
Price: Jake's Original Burger, $5.99; fries, $2.59
After all these years covering the Los Angeles burger scene there is only one thing I can say for not having reviewed the classic burger joint Jake's of Pasadena earlier: I apologize. Is there an explanation for the oversight? Sure, but that doesn't change the simple fact that I should have long ago lauded this simple burger joint and its high quality burgers. Let's get past my litany of excuses and cut to the facts: Jake's makes some truly great burgers.
Jake's first opened its doors in 1947 on the stretch of Route 66 that took you through (what we now call) Old Town Pasadena. Its menu was the foursquare simplicity of the mid-century Southern California burger stand—we're talking burgers, fries, shakes and not a whole lot more. These days the menu has expanded a bit and the interior been gussied up (albeit with an attractive retro flair).
The ordering process starts with a checklist page (think: The Counter) so you can build your own. I started filling mine out when I realized the pre-configured Jake's Classic Burger ($5.99) was pretty much exactly what I wanted. It comes with their standard five-and-a-half-ounce beef patty, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and Thousand Island all atop a commercial, seeded bun, nearly my Platonic ideal. The only thing missing? American cheese. As it turned out, I didn't miss it.
The Jake's Classic and my side of fries came out looking like burger joint perfection. It's the kind of food styling you'd expect to see on some fast casual burger chain's obnoxious advertisement. Here's the thing: this one tastes better than it looks.
The patty is sourced from Ingardia Bros.. Yes, it was griddled to a near perfect medium rare and yes, it was properly seasoned, but it's the grind and loose packing that set this one apart. You can almost see just how crumbly and delightful it is. (It might be harder to see the warm, pink center due to the sizable portion of Thousand Island.) The classic lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle toppings were so fresh and pleasing I was almost taken aback. Perhaps I got a bit lucky on that days vegetable delivery, but these were all noticeably high quality. The Thousand Island is a bit less creamy than what I'm used to, but had a nice flavor (though could have been applied with a lighter hand). The bun is a seeded commercial one that is the perfect balance to the patty.
The whole of the experience of eating this burger is pure delight. A full-flavored and warm patty meshes with the crisp, cool toppings all held together with a nicely griddled bun (which adds chew to the sponginess) in such a way that it left me in eye-closed delight—that near perfect burger moment of salty satisfaction that is the signature of this sandwich.
What's more? The fries ($2.59) are excellent, too. These skinny cut spuds are display a beautiful blistering on their exteriors from a properly hot fryer. The soft, silky potato center combines with the salt and oil to make these the french fries of your burger joint dreams. I'd only rate a perfectly executed Belgian fry above them.
There is really very little I didn't like about Jake's. I imagine I could pick at the kitschy clipboard ordering or self-consciously retro remodel, but they are so beside the point. My food was so satisfying that I hardly noticed that stuff. Add to this a young and enthusiastic server (Luke) who made me feel like a regular within minutes of me taking a seat at the counter and you've got the ingredients that made the burger joint the preeminent American restaurant. A burgermeister in the know could fairly mention that Jake's biggest weakness might just be its proximity to the American classic Pie 'N Burger, but that doesn't mean Jake's burgers are faulty. In the end, the only real fault lies with me. I should have told you all about it sooner. Luckily, Jake's doesn't look to be going anywhere.
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.