The Origin of Fast Food at Wolfe Burgers in Pasadena, California


[Photographs: Damon Gambuto]

Wolfe Burgers

46 North Lake Avenue, Pasadena CA‎ 91101 (map); 323-254-9138;
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: An old-school burger joint that hearkens back to a time when "fast food" wasn't a pejorative.
Want Fries with That? Yes, please. Fresh cut and full of flavr. An extra frying would make them superlative.
Prices: Wolfe Burger, $4.35 (add $0.55 for cheese)
Notes: Breakfast is always an option at Wolfe Burgers and at exactly the right time: starting at 11 a.m.

Once upon a time, fast food was made from fresh ingredients and tasted pretty good. Considering the landscape of our fast food nation these days that reality does, indeed, sound like a fairy tale. World War II and the subsequent salad years laid the groundwork for what would become "Big Agriculture." In its inchoate stage, it seemed a beguiling triumph over nature. Food was now produced in huge quantities in the climates that sustained agriculture year round and there was a highway system that made trucking all that fresh food all over the country possible. Prices dropped dramatically and the cheap, fresh, quick meal was born. Now we know that, in many respects, the victory might have been Pyrrhic, but the wages of those sins bought us an American tradition.

Wolfe Burgers is the kind of restaurant built around this new American food system. It offers up a wide-ranging (and unchanging) menu filled with ingredients that used to be seasonal that we now think of as just standard year-round offerings. Of course, I've got nothing against a Greek salad, or a chicken taco, but I was hungry for the namesake.

The story goes that Dan Wolfe, a professional photographer, wandered into the wrong party and the right bowl of chili. He tracked down the chef, Josephine, and offered to buy her recipe. She demurred on that offer, but managed to come to a deal that led to a restaurant which has become an institution in Pasadena.


20100113-wolfe-corner.jpgI ordered the Wolfe Burger made of a 1/3-pound patty that comes with lettuce, tomato, and onion. I added a slice of American cheese and made sure that those onions got some grilling. This customization, rather than an affront to the traditions of Wolfe's, is exactly as they'd have it. That is to say, they want you to have your burger exactly as you'd choose. There is an impressive condiment bar that gets a corner of the dining room dedicated to it.

The burger is a large, classic-looking specimen. The bun is a seeded commercial that would smother most patties, but Wolfe's forms their fresh ground chuck into wide, thin rounds that reach to the edges. I added a little Thousand Island to mine in honor of the Southern Californian tradition.


My initial thought when biting into the Wolfe Burger was, "I've eaten this before." Okay, that's not a particularly surprising reaction for a burger reviewer, but in this case it was a more pronounced sense of familiarity. The burger managed to cut a flavor profile that tapped into my deeper sense of burger signification; that abstract place where words attach to ideas, feelings, and burgers.

This was a fast food burger. Not in the sad, wan food-like product we're used to getting nowadays, but rather the kind of meal that gave rise to fast food chains in the first place. The lean, svelte patty lacked seasoning like today's versions, but the fresh beef and cooked to my medium rare preference was a welcomed throwback. Like our late model fast food veggies, my lettuce and tomato were clearly industrially farmed and light on flavor, but had a crisp freshness that was pure Mid-centruy. The bun had a pleasant sponginess that formed to my hand as I ate and (other than a slice of American cheese) the element most similar to the what I'd expect walking into a chain these days. Wolfe made a burger that was familiar in its fast food-ness, but clearly it was something a little more. It was all perfectly ordinary, yet strangely satisfying. This wasn't a meal that ignites the senses, but rather it soothes them. It was the kind of burger that sates us because it neither disappoints, nor challenges expectations.

This experience is what I imagine to have been so pleasing to postwar Americans recovering from the sacrifice and trauma of the years that preceded. We'd made it though an era of uncertainty and longed for predictable pleasures that could be shared by all. A meal could, in its replication, become a shared American experience. This is, I imagine, part of how that short window of time gave birth to so many American mythologies (not to mention actual Americans). Wolfe Burgers makes a burger that is fresh, inexpensive, and ordinary. It's not a fairy tale, it's an American tradition.