Damon Gambuto's 14 Most Memorable Burgers in Los Angeles and Beyond
It's nearly impossible for me to imagine a world without burgers and only slightly less difficult to envision one without reviewing them here on A Hamburger Today. Sadly, the latter imagining is about to become a reality: I'm relocating back to my hometown of New York City and thus ending my Los Angeles burger column.
I find myself full of nostalgia about our little burger community and what it's meant to me over these last six years. It started with an email from AHT founder Adam Kuban offering me a little side job as the Los Angeles burger reviewer and has become, in many ways, a part of my identity—a story about whom I've become played out in over 250 burger reviews. Along with making strides in my food writing and TV career, I've made some amazing friends like former colleague Nick Solares, Serious Eats founder Ed Levine, and, of course, my truly amazing editor Robyn Lee who has presided over every one of the more than a quarter of a million words I've written about burgers.
It's odd to think there could be so much to say about such a straightforward dish. But looking back across the landscape of AHT it becomes clear that burgers are like any kind of love: something that can delight or let you down in so many ways. They can be overcooked, undercooked, too salty, too sweet, and on and on. In some respects, I think this is why I've been able to continue to eat and review patty after patty after all these years. A burger is like a sonnet. It's a strict form with some strict rules and some evolving conventions. Yet it feels limitless in its expression.
How do I love AHT and burgers? Let me count the ways. Well, let's look back at 14 of them that mattered to me most, in chronological order.
Bill's Hamburgers, Van Nuys
It seems appropriate to start at the start. I ventured out to an industrial strip in Van Nuys for my very first review and found myself meditating on the idea of living in a car culture, community and burger lunches.
As my meal wound down I listened to the other customers. Most of them Bill knows by name. A few are grown men whose fathers brought them to Bill's as little boys. Now they bring their children. Mostly they talk to Bill, Sharon (ex-wife #4 and order-taker), or whomever they came with, but every now and then they chat with each other. The conversations tend to focus on how long they've been coming to this little hamburger shack. Some of them remember when the boulevard was all dirt. Some of them remember when Bill still opened on Saturdays. They eat, share a little space, and talk about the experience of coming to Bill's. Then they head back to their cars and drive.
The Oinkster, Eagle Rock
In a little bedroom community just north of downtown Los Angeles I found a chef and burger that I'd revisit time and again over the years.
The motto at The Oinkster is "Slow Fast Food," and this clever word play reveals itself as an ethos in a number of ways. You order at the register from a wall menu that looks like a traditional burger joint's bill of fare until you look a little closer and see that it's filled with the chef's take on some lowbrow staples. Guerrero developed his own pastrami cure; a homemade, Carolina-style pulled pork; and a fancy chicken salad. Of course, at The Oinkster, as in life, just because there are other things to eat besides burgers doesn't mean I have to try them. I ordered a cheeseburger.
Delux Burger, Phoenix
A trip to visit my sister was the backdrop of what was undoubtedly my most personal burger review. The inauguration of President Obama was the day before this review published and it got me thinking about my family, my country, and burgers.
I thought about my burger and my country. Delux is not at all bad. Truthfully, it gets a lot of things right. The ingredients are quality and the atmosphere is friendly. It just seems to have gotten a little caught up in the bells and whistles of New American excess. Maybe that's fading everywhere. Our new president encouraged us to not simply hope for a better America, but to sacrifice for a better America—to focus on the things in our life that matter.
Hinano Cafe, Venice
A Venice Beach dive bar summoned me on a rainy day and a long drive across town rewarded me with a great burger and a little unexpected sunshine.
I decided to start with the single. Why? Because one comes before two in most situations and I'm less of a rule-breaker than I'd like to be. It's a nice mouthful. The bun is big, seeded, and full of spongy goodness. It's an egg bun, so it has a hint of sweetness and a bit more substance. The holy work of that magnificently old and seasoned griddle is readily apparent--there is a crusty char on the meat. It's also really heavily seasoned. I get a nice salty bite that cuts right through all the toppings and condiments, which is no small task. There is a lot of stuff happening on this burger. It comes with lettuce, tomato, red onion, relish, mayo, and "a dab" (according to the bartender/chef) of mustard. I tasted more than a dab, but it was still a nice medley of flavor. Oh, and that cheese? Just right.
Umami Burger, Los Angeles
Before Umami Burger took over the world, there was a young man named Adam Fleishman who was an AHT reader with a small restaurant space on La Brea Boulevard and a dream. He extended an invite to me before he'd even opened the first Umami Burger and I happily accepted the look inside his operation.
When I ask Adam what he is trying to do at Umami his answer comes fast, furious, and audacious: "We're trying to improve upon nature. That's what a burger is doing. It's taking the good things about nature and fitting them in your hand." While Umami's iteration is certainly a reworking of the tastes of a traditional burger, Adam is insistent that he remain loyal to the form. "We're trying to focus on what appeals about burgers in the first place. We're trying to make something you crave." He sounds like someone who is both passionate and committed to food. He sounds like an eater who is, well, serious.
25 Degrees, Hollywood
One of my first reviews of the then new trend of premium burgers was at a cool spot on Hollywood Boulevard that delivered on its promise of a patty that was a cut above.
The first bite is juicy and satisfying in the way that reminds you money can buy certain kinds of happiness. It's a full, rich mouthful that hits me with a rush of pleasure akin to hearing the curtain whisk close behind me as I walk into a plane's first class cabin.
Jewel City Diner, Glendale
As I mentioned earlier, burgers can let you down in all kinds of ways. A trip to a throwback diner at a 21st century mall managed to disappoint on just about every level. On the upside, Jewel City Diner is now closed.
I quickly discover that this burger, like the putative town square outside, is pure simulation. I can barely believe how flavorless this sexy thing is. Like some dazzling postmodern art-piece that sucks you in with its beauty and reveals no substance, it's all signifier. Bun, patty, and toppings all looked to be in order, but when I enter a place like this, I'm looking for that taste I call home. I felt like Gertrude Stein going back to Oakland: There is no there there.
Tavern, Los Angeles
I celebrated my birthday with a fancy burger at a restaurant in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles because, well, you know...a burger is a gift.
The burger looks to be about eight ounces of beef that gives off a hit of intense fat. It tastes as though much of this is due to an additional swath of butter or oil (on the bun and perhaps on the patty itself). It's a nice effect, but I find myself wishing for a looser grind that would help the beef flavor step forward. Still, the overall mouthfeel is fantastic and the patty is cooked to a perfect temperature. When I try adding the toppings, I find them, and my burger, better on their own. The burger's juiciness and fat seem out of step with the added texture (and water) of the toppings. I'm content to eat them as a salad.
Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica
I'd say the title "One of L.A.'s Best Burgers at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica" says it all, but the truth is Rustic Canyon's then chef, Evan Funke, is about as inspired and inspiring as they come. His burgers were superlative like everything else he cooks. (Note: The burgers are no longer on the menu.)
Despite the mass of toppings, the strong, yet spongy bun manages to hold all of this deliciousness together. The first bite is first kiss headiness: The flavor of the beef, salty and juicy, is awash in a complex of fat and sweetness that is nearly pitch perfect. Even the arugula—a lettuce choice that usually steams into mushy submission—vanquishes me. Its peppery bite, along with the pickle, cuts the sweet of the onions. The rémoulade blends into the flavor experience adding yet another layer fat and desire. The meat manages to hold its own against all these flavors; salty and wonderfully griddled, it has an intense crust that crumbles into each mouthful.
Comme Ça, Los Angeles
The New York Times set off a sensation of response when it deemed the burger at Comme Ça "perfect." I went in and tried it for myself and found it excellent and a kind of perfect.
And then it arrives—a rush of beef, fat, and salt that sends me into paroxysms of perfect, primitive pleasure that could only have been wrought through thousands of years of civilization. Well, almost, perfect. There is a mass of iceberg lettuce bathed a creamy, slightly spicy dressing that disturbs the otherwise beautifully balanced flavors. The effect is that of a wide wale of coleslaw dripping over the burger that strikes me as out of place. A few more bites confirms this--off it goes. I am left with a simple, yet highly refined sandwich of meat, cheese, and bread.
The Grill on the Alley, Beverly Hills
I found my self reminiscing about my Hollywood career over a fantastic burger at a high-end eatery in Beverly Hills.
The day I ate there the dining room was dotted with celebrities, Beverly Hills wealth, and the shadow elite of Hollywood. They may not all feast on a lunch like mine—a burger and martini—but they still come in droves. It seems that what I ordered has become, in today's world, a measured decadence meant for a holiday. The Grill makes me long for the working lunch of Hollywood's past
Hawkins House of Burgers, Los Angeles
I studied a little Los Angeles history and one of the very best spots in its burger landscape with a trip to the Watts section of the city.
Sometimes I think that places like Hawkins are all I ever need from my burger restaurants—quality ingredients matched with their kind of tradition. Not simply a tradition born from age, but a tradition that is renewed each day with an owner's daily votive that she make her customers happy with simple and delicious food. More than once, Cynthia told me that she serves "only the best" for her customers. I'd have known it without her saying a word.
Irv's Burgers, Los Angeles
This review will be a tiny piece of the historical record about the original Irv's Burgers. Its Route 66 location is now shuttered, but the memory won't ever fade. If you didn't make it to the original, don't worry—you can still visit Irv's at their new location a few blocks from the original.
I went back recently to give Irv's another look and have a chat with the matriarch of the Hong family, Sonia. She has kept the fires burning on the 66-year tradition behind this American classic that sits on the Western end of the iconic Route 66. You'll find her there every day with her indefatigable smile serving up some of the city's very best burgers.
Mar'sel, Palos Verdes
I felt privileged to introduce the world to what remains one of the best burgers I've ever had at the upscale Mar'Sel in Palos Verdes. It was a revelation and a lesson in burger reviewing.
I can dismiss amateur burgers in a few hundred words or exalt a properly cooked patty with a few recognizable turns of phrase without much anxiety. But Fiorelli's accomplishment goes beyond that. He's created a dish that defies ordinary expression. His is a burger that transported me to that magical place where eating slips into the emotional. Where I become consumed by act of consumption. A place that is at once familiar and utterly new—and is a challenge to properly express.