Hamburger historians may claim the modern beef in bread version of this dish emerged from some toaster like contraptions in New Haven, Connecticut (and served on toast to boot), yet can anyone deny hamburger culture emerged, picked up steam and steamrolled the country from Southern California, and that LA remains hamburger central? Now, hot dogs, many cities own a hot dog culture, does LA?
I've visited five LA hamburger places--well kinda six, but my taste of In 'n Out Burger came in Las Vegas and one LA hot dog place. I wish I could have tried more, but my kids crimped my sampling. The chowhounditas, especially the younger, took a quick and complete dislike to LA hot dogs and would not consider them after two bites at Pink's, and they thought Dad's need for hamburger breaks excessive and a tad embarrassing [ed. what happens when they actually become teens?] Still, I do believe I had a representational sample.
LA burgers come from three sources. First, there is the fast food style operation, authentically in the vein of McDonalds. This category includes the dueling not McDonald's, Fatburger and In n' Out as well as lesser known chains like Astro Burger. Second, there is the open air, sit on stool school, best exemplified by Tommy's. Third, there is the more traditional counter watch the grill man kind of place found in other cities; the two most known examples (I believe) in LA, Apple Pan and Pie n' Burger. Another way to divide the burgers would be by spread. As far as I can tell, the spread, the schmear condimenting the burger come three ways: chili, relish/relish based secret sauce and oddity (e.g., Harvey's avocado and bacon). Any and all of those toppings make the LA hot dog.
In my LA burger tastings, I have not sampled a bad burger. Not all the contraptions, however, met my tastes (my subjective tastes as Cabrales would say). I guess I have a bigger issue with LA chili than I have with LA burgers or hot dogs as I thought mediocre chili marred the Jayburger and Pink's. Here's more on three:
Pie n' Burger, Pasadena - Name fails to connote the expanded offering on their menu. Not just a burger specialist as it includes a full range of breakfasts and other dishes. This winding, low counter, like Pasadena itself, a little more connected to the USA to the east and not quite as modern, served by efficient waitresses seemingly from Central Casting (and even better because you know they are not) had my favorite burger. Here, more than any, the elements combined exactly. A series of contrasting textures and melding flavors. The pinkish secret sauce did not distract and the better quality burger stood up. Pie not bad either.
Apple Pan - Another counter place that would look at home in any old time city, also with a few offerings beside burgers. Intense attention by waiters. They never let you pour your own ketchup--a move copied by the LA to the world, Johnny Rockets--or go more than a few sips of coffee without a refill. The same intense attention goes on at the grill. Several cooks toil away at simple yet hiddenly complicated tasks. Apple Pan is in fact the Zen of hamburger stands. Where certain Japanese students can spend a lifetime mastering just the art of drawing a bow, certain Apple Pan cooks work endlessly just to tear the iceberg lettuce just right. While I appreciate, nay relish, this attention to detail, I'm of mixed opinion of the product. In fact it is the relish I do not relish. An overly sweet reddish mixture that too dominates. The namesake apple pie is likewise too sweet. I believe I will be happier next time without the sauce, perhaps trying the hickory stuff.
Jay's Jayburger - Speaking of sauce marring the burger, the condiments ruined a great hamburger here. I've read a fair amount about Jay's, and am generally predisposed to like something called a Jayburger, but I was not expecting such a tiny, Photomat sized shop on the edge of a dicier section of LA. Nor was I prepared for how glorious Jay's smells. Wow. Besides the aroma, what I liked at Jay's was the exact motion the grillman used to slide the hamburger between the condiments so that nothing spilled or dripped. It was a great old fashioned burger as right as say Camellia Grill in New Orleans, but the chili was mushy, heavy and bland as was the tomato. Like Apple Pan, I expect to be much happier next time, ordering differently.