In Philadelphia, a few weeks ago, I spent a couple of days chasing down the perfect cheese steak, bouncing from sleek places in trendy neighborhoods to rough shacks on the wrong side of town. I checked out a stand recommended in Gourmet, a couple of uncrowded family-run joints, the popular concession in the Reading Market.
I could've saved the cab fare. The best cheese steak, predictably, was at the South Philly stand Pat's: the famous cheese steak place, the place where the sandwich--an unlovely concoction of overdone meat, wilted onions and Cheez Whiz--was invented. When it comes to a city's signature grease bomb, the crowds are never wrong.
Los Angeles, of course, is the world capital of stuff with chili on it (chili dogs, chili burgers, chili fries, chili tamales) and, just as all odoriferous pizza slices in Manhattan seem to originate at some place or another named Ray's, most of our chili comes from stands named Tom: Tom's #5, Fat Tomy's, Big Tommy's, Tam's.
The proliferation of all things Tom could derive from Ptomaine Tommy's, a long-defunct Highland Park lunch counter often credited with originating the gut bomb called the "chili size," but probably, it almost goes without saying, it comes from the original Tommy's, the temple of the chili burger, the Rampart Division champ since 1946.
No Tom's, Tim's, Tam's or Tums even come close. Late-night jaunts to Tommy's are a USC tradition, a UCLA tradition and undoubtedly also a tradition at every institution of higher learning from the Fuller Theological Seminary to the Truckmaster School of Trucking. Tommy's, which turns 50 this week, has probably been responsible for 500,000 cases of heartburn, 436 triple bypass operations and chili sufficient to sluice the L.A. River from Sherman Oaks to Wilmington.
The original Tommy's is a Los Angeles phenomenon. New Mercedes crowd into the terraced parking lot next to decaying B-210s, vibrating boom cars next to Volvos just stopping by on the way home from the Hollywood Bowl. You can hardly call yourself a citizen unless you've stood at least once at the counter here, shoveling down chili burgers shoulder to shoulder with your fellow man.
Unlike the executive-size hamburgers served at places like Hamburger Hamlet or Cassell's, where half a pound of good beef is served largely unadorned, a Tommy burger is a sloppy, uncouth thing oozing chili and raw onion that takes over your system for the better part of a day. The high cumin smell of the chili seeps from your pores, haunts your breath, adheres to your lips no matter how many paper towels you use to wipe the orange grease away.
There's no way around it: Eating a Tommy burger is an aggressive act. You can't stop at Tommy's and expect to go back to the office; you can't inhale a Tommy burger at 1 in the morning and expect your spouse to kiss you when you get home.
Tommy burgers aren't really street food--most Tommy's seem to be in distinctly pedestrian-less locations--and they can't really be considered car food either, unless you're OK with orange grease spots on the upholstery and an aroma that lasts longer than most AirFreshners. (Actually, the new Hollywood branch of Tommy's, a drive-thru exquisitely positioned right off the Hollywood Boulevard exit of the 101, makes it possible to coast in off the freeway, load up on chili burgers and cruise back toward downtown in a scant minute or two, though I wouldn't recommend it.)
Tommy burgers are generally measured out in units of double chili cheese burgers: meat, chili and American cheese on a soft bun with pickle, chopped onion and a slice of beefsteak tomato that is usually one degree riper than you'd find at a supermarket. The cheese is sliced thick, more slab than slice, and melts directly into the chili, as opposed to gilding the patty.
At a place like McDonald's, you're generally better off not tasting the meat; at Tommy's, the beefiness of the hamburger (the two patties are slammed directly together in the middle of the sandwich, boom-boom) seems to be pretty much the point. On the most primal level, a Tommy burger is as satisfying as a steak.
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WHERE TO GO: Tommy's, Beverly Boulevard at Rampart Street, Los Angeles, and many other locations. Open 24 hours, 7 days. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $3-$6.
WHAT TO GET: double chili cheeseburger, chili hot dog, chili tamale.