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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

American Meat

May 21, 1992|JONATHAN GOLD

Cassell's is a small restaurant in the Wilshire Center insurance district, a couple dozen tables, a cafeteria-style service line, a pile of rumpled newspapers on a table near the door. About the only ornaments in the place are an autographed 8x10 of Angie Dickenson, a red neon sign that beams the restaurant's name and a wall full of framed magazine clippings, all of which praise the restaurant to the skies. This isn't the space Cassell's has occupied for most of its 52 years in operation--that would be a location now occupied by a mini-mall a few yards west--but the restaurant feels almost as scruffy as the old place.

Apple Pan and Tommy's figure far more prominently in the consciousness of most Angelenos--perhaps because of Cassell's business-district location and abbreviated hours--and it is possible to lead a happy and productive life here without Cassell's existence so much as registering. Still, food types generally consider Cassell's hamburgers to be among the very best in the country: softballs of USDA Prime beef that weigh a full one-third or two-thirds of a pound, broiled in a special device of Cassell's own design, served naked on a toasted bun. Unless she was the sort of woman who liked to mix A-1 sauce or Lipton's soup mix into the patties, this is the kind of hamburger your mother used to make.

Calvin Trillin suspects that Cassell's burger is "probably the best one available in Los Angeles." Jane and Michael Stern have praised Cassell's burgers as the best in America and Cassell's as the Number 1 people's-food destination in Los Angeles. Cassell's generally wins hamburger surveys in magazines and in restaurant guides. Even when the restaurant is crowded with besuited businessmen gobbling a quick hamburger lunch, you can usually find a few foodie tourists nibbling on the horseradish-tinged potato salad and having a Culinary Experience.

Cassell's attempted to franchise itself in the mid-'80s, but the spinoff restaurants were far inferior to the original, and most perished quickly and unlamented.

You stand in line, you put your cutlery on a cafeteria tray, you order your burger by number and degree of doneness--31, medium--you wait until it is ready. (The counterman will make fun of you if you order yours rare, but your hamburger will come out nicely crusted and bursting with juice.) You push your tray down a kind of buffet line, where you can load your burger with lettuce, sliced onion and ripe beefsteak tomato, homemade mayonnaise, catsup and mustard, perhaps a dollop of 1000 Island or nicely gamy house-made Roquefort dressing. If you wish, you can make a small salad with the ingredients, or take a dollop of cottage cheese and a syrupy cling peach. You take a scoop of the superb horseradish potato salad, its texture somewhere between chunky and pureed. (Everything on the buffet is included in the price of the hamburger--or richly bland egg-salad sandwich.) You get a glassful of lemonade and pay at a register at the end of the buffet.

If Cassell's has a flaw, it is that the meat is too good, the preparation is too careful . . . so that, for instance, when you eat a cheeseburger you are perfectly aware of the awfulness of the processed American cheese; when you splash your burger with catsup, every gram of Heinz-borne sugar makes itself known. Hamburger buns are supposed to be crummy, but here the crumminess is unhidden by grease; iceberg lettuce is never all that flavorful, but it seems even less so when contrasted with cleanly grilled beef.

Cassell's hamburgers stand out not because they are typical of the Southland--which, after all, did unleash the chiliburger, the 1000-Islanded multi-deck Big Boy burger, the Woody's Smorgasburger and the Big Mac onto the world--but because they are apart from it, the sort of hamburgers you might expect at a quality-obsessed diner somewhere in deepest Iowa, a spartan, anti-exuberant hamburger qua hamburger in which each element tastes only of itself.

Cassell's

3300 West 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 480-8668. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lunch for two, food only, $7-$11.

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