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A Red Hot Chili Day at Tommy's

Thousands turn out to help celebrate the 60th anniversary of the chain's first eatery.

May 16, 2006|Arin Gencer | Times Staff Writer

The chili-smothered tamales lured Ron Farris, now 72, to the famous red-shingled shack to satisfy his then-pregnant wife's 2 a.m. cravings.

The double cheeseburgers with extra chili prompted Kody Johnson to once pay $55 for a cab ride to the same corner stand from Los Angeles International Airport before boarding a flight home to Logan, Utah.

And the mere thought of the tantalizing chili rustled 17-year-old Charles Harris and his friends out of bed at 3 a.m. Monday to make the drive from San Francisco so they could line up with hundreds of other customers who shared similar cravings -- and stories.

All were on hand Monday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Tommy's Original World Famous Hamburgers, the 24-hour eatery at the corner of Beverly and Rampart boulevards near downtown. Tommy's is now a chain with 29 outlets, but this is where it all started. In honor of the occasion, Tommy's was selling a chili-topped cheeseburger and drink for 60 cents.

The location, which normally serves 15,000 customers a week, had 15,000 hamburger patties and 400 gallons of chili on hand for the special promotion.

In health-conscious, sushi-loving Southern California, Tommy's is as much an institution as it is an addiction for lovers of its greasy fare.

"The chili is what draws us more than anything," said Farris, who shared his family's obsession with Tommy's and was honored as the winner of the restaurant's Ultimate Fan Contest.

For the Farris family, Tommy's is a tradition. As a high school baseball player, Farris won the fast food joint's "Orchid of the Week" award for best athlete. His wife, Tommie, remembers the frequent "Tommy runs" she and co-workers at Western Airlines would make. And their youngest daughter, Lori, had a hankering for a Tommy's burger when she was pregnant, her husband trekking all the way from Pasadena.

If it's decor or ambience you want, Tommy's is not the place.

Most customers stand at wooden counters lining the walls next to the parking lot as they gobble chili-drenched burgers, tamales, hot dogs and fries. Paper towel dispensers line the walls. And patrons fetch their drinks from large coolers.

What do you expect for a $1.70 burger?

Low prices are what made regulars of Claire Zimmer and her then-boyfriend back in 1964, when she was 18.

"He was cheap, and that was our dinner," said Zimmer, who lives in Lompoc but decided to visit her old haunt. "He brought me here just about every date."

Kody Johnson and his brother, Kameron, also are big fans.

"This is my birthday present," said Johnson, who turns 45 today. The Johnson brothers, who work part time as Elvis impersonators, wore specially made capes Monday bearing the words "Tommy's World Famous."

When they weren't eating, the sideburned duo entertained the hundreds of people waiting in line.

For Belmont High graduate Mark Samaniego, 46, the choice is almost instinctive, after years of eating at the outdoor diner.

"I only could eat a few times a month greasy burgers like this," said Samaniego, a manager at a healthcare company, as he filled a box with 30 cheeseburgers for his office. "It might as well be at Tommy's."

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