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It's an L.A. thing

Our burgers are the best, with good reason: We made them here first.

June 09, 2004|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

We do start finding recipes for ground meat hamburgers in the 1880s. A typical one appears in "Aunt Babette's Cook Book" (1889): "Hamburger steak is made of round steak chopped extremely fine and seasoned with salt and pepper. You may grate in part of an onion or fry with onions."

Most recipes suggested a perfectly reasonable patty thickness, half an inch. But the cookbooks were always talking about hamburger steaks, served on a plate with gravy or melted butter, eaten with a knife and fork. They weren't hamburger sandwiches. (As late as the 1940s, "The Joy of Cooking" was a little unclear on the concept; "The Joy's" broiled hamburger was toast smeared with ground beef and stuck under the broiler.)

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 12, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Hamburger history -- An article in Wednesday's Food section said the first Fatburger stand was at San Vicente and South La Cienega boulevards in Los Angeles. It was on Western Avenue between 30th and 31st streets.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 16, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Hamburger history -- A June 9 article incorrectly said the location of the first Fatburger stand was the corner of San Vicente and South La Cienega boulevards. The stand was at Western Avenue between 30th and 31st streets.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Phone numbers -- In a listing of hamburger stands in the June 9 Food section, the wrong phone number was given for Woody's Smorgasburger. The correct number is (310) 414-9344. Also, in a review of Eastside Market & Italian Deli in Wednesday's Food section, the wrong area code was listed. The correct number is (213) 250-2464; the fax number is (213) 250-8064.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 23, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Phone numbers -- In a listing of hamburger stands in the June 9 Food section, the wrong phone number was given for Woody's Smorgasburger. The correct number is (310) 414-9344. Also, in a review of Eastside Market & Italian Deli in the June 16 Food section, the wrong area code was listed. The correct number is (213) 250-2464; the fax number is (213) 250-8064.

When cookbook writers did use hamburger patties in sandwiches, the results could be bizarre. In 1939, Louis P. de Gouy, chef at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, wrote a "Sandwich Manual for Professionals" that evidently used hamburger patties cold, in club sandwiches!

One of them involved putting a burger patty on raisin bread with watercress, cream cheese and raspberry jam. Another paired it with sliced eggs and marmalade on nut bread. Is it any wonder a good hamburger is still hard to find in Gotham?

When I say "people" did this sort of thing to the hamburger, I'm mostly talking about Easterners. For much of the 20th century, the East was loyal to the hot dog, rather than the burger. It was immigrant tradition; Europeans had been used to sausages as a street food. Only with the prosperity that followed World War II, and the triumph of chains that specialized in all-beef hamburgers (in many places, hamburger had been a way of using up kitchen scraps), did the hamburger turn into a national favorite.

Giving the burger its due

In Los Angeles, we had always taken the hamburger seriously. In 1935, when $1 was the usual tab for a whole meal, the swank Brown Derby in Hollywood had a $1 hamburger. "And worth the price," marveled a restaurant guide.

We have taken the hamburger in new directions, although, like everything about hamburger history, this is disputed. It's not yet settled where or when the idea of putting lettuce and tomato on a hamburger started, but it's pretty likely it was here in the fresh vegetable capital of the country.

In 1944 a court awarded the copyright to the term "cheeseburger" to the owner of a restaurant in Denver, Colo., who claimed to have invented the concept in 1935. But Pasadena boy Lionel Clark Sternberger said he'd invented it in the 1920s. Backing up Sternberger's claim, there is evidence that we were putting cheese on hamburger patties around here well before 1935. A 1928 menu from O'Dell's Fine Foods (4922 S. Figueroa St.) listed a "cheeseburger," though this happened to be a cheeseburger steak, not a sandwich.

New Orleans, of all places, claims to have invented the chiliburger in 1934 and even celebrates an annual Chiliburger Day. Now, everybody agrees that a 24-hour L.A. chili parlor with the wonderful in-your-face name Ptomaine Tommy's invented the chili size, a burger patty smothered in chili, in the 1920s, and it's a short jump from there to the chiliburger. New Orleans already has popcorn shrimp and jambalaya, and blackened redfish, and it wants to claim the chiliburger?

For that matter, someplace else probably claims to have invented the double burger, the bacon cheeseburger and the double chili-cheese. Let it go, let it all go. We've got things to do, places to go and burgers to eat.

*

A driving tour of the best burgers

How the top burgers were selected, in three distinctive categories.

When you list the Southland's top hamburgers, respect for the opinions of burgerkind requires that you spell out the philosophy behind the choices.OK. No chiliburgers, they're an entirely different thing. No restaurant burgers. No foreign chains from outside the area.

And a frank recognition of the three schools of hamburger is in order:

The beloved old-time grease bomb: The meat is ground primarily from the cut of beef called plate: basically, what's left once the brisket and the short ribs are removed. The result is a thin, chewy patty that gets its flavor mostly from the frying process, its own fat and the lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, etc.

To many people, this will always be the true burger. Some 99ยข burgers taste like a salad in Thousand Island dressing mounted on a chewy protein layer -- but hey, nobody can say that's not tasty.

The charburger: The self-respecting middle-level L.A. burger today is made from the same sort of ground meat, but the patty weighs a quarter pound and it's grilled over flame and served on a large sesame bun. It's big and has that irresistible charred flavor.

The primo patty: This is a thicker patty ground from more expensive meat. The result is a more tender burger with a more steak-like flavor.

To show off the meat, many primo patty places stick with plain buns, rather than sesame, and fry their burgers, rather than grilling them.

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