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Flipping over redheads and cheeseburgers

With a yearning for both, he found paradise at the Old Farmers Market, where Charlie Sue crafts one of the best cheeseburgers in Los Angeles.

April 27, 2013|Chris Erskine
  • Charlie Sue Gilbert, owner of Charlie's Coffee Shop at the original Farmers Market in Los Angeles, with her daughter Katie Milroy.
Charlie Sue Gilbert, owner of Charlie's Coffee Shop at the original… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Used to watch that terrific show "Twin Peaks," and I remember the Kyle MacLachlan character saying we should all treat ourselves to a little something — or someone — every day.

In his case, it was a nice piece of pie.

In my case, it's a cheeseburger, though I try to restrict myself to maybe one a week, for my doctor noted recently that instead of blood, I now have window putty running through my veins and maybe I should ease off a little on the whipped cream, which I smear on everything, even my magazines.

Like it's not enough, I told the doc, that I work out daily, get plenty of fresh air, devote my life to fulfilling the needs and dreams of others. I have the metabolism of a hummingbird and the appetite of a bee. Some days, all I eat is plankton.

So when I have a cheeseburger, which I rarely do, I want to make sure it's a juicy prize. I also want to make sure it's the size of a Lincoln Navigator.

We've known each other a long time, but I don't know that I've ever confessed my attraction to redheads, so severe that I once had a crush on Bozo the Clown. And when I spy one of those hipster girls, her hair dyed the color of ketchup, I'm over the moon in a balloon.

Where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns ...

This attraction, almost a fetish, almost a mental illness, has predetermined my life. Once the Bozo thing ran its course, I married a redhead, a glorious woman everyone said looked like the actress Victoria Principal, particularly in the gauzy light of happy hour. Four children later, I still don't know her birth date, or how she takes her coffee. We're taking things slowly, which is as fast as love should ever go.

You'd think marriage might've cured it, but I still love the gingers. Found one working the grill over at the original Farmers Market the other day. Charlie Sue is her name. She's 79, and though I usually prefer women a little older than that, I was immediately smitten, for Charlie Sue cooks a sensational double-cheeseburger, and her waffles might be even better. One couple I ran into, Bev and Norm Breest, came all the way from Phoenix just for Charlie Sue's waffles.

Me, I drove an hour in stop-and-go traffic — or, in L.A.'s case, stop-and-stop traffic — to get to the Farmers Market, my favorite morning hangout, assuming I'm up in time, which I'm usually not. I lead a noirish life now, in the shadows, in the cloak of early evening. Know what I really like? A rainy day, here in a land so rotted by the sun.

The market at 3rd and Fairfax has always had a noirish feel to it too, existing in some sort of protective trench coat, spared from the city's default hatred of anything a little worn and charming.

Note that nothing young is ever charming. The young can be cute, winsome, dewy-eyed, adorable, but they are never charming.

Charming requires a certain resilience, a lightness of being, a twinkle over past misdeeds. That's what Charlie Sue has. For almost 40 years, she's run this little coffee hutch in the market, across from the Gumbo Pot, where she serves up a burger in a whole-wheat bun that's soft as your best pajamas, on ground beef she buys at the esteemed Huntington Meats on the other side of the market.

Talk about over the moon in a balloon. The Travel Channel just proclaimed this one of the best burgers in the city, and I was skeptical, because I'd never heard of Charlie's Coffee Shop, though, as I said, I really like the market, its cave-like shadows, its special perfumes.

So I put on my zoot suit and scooted over to the market, stop-and-going through heavy traffic, as I said, my right calf plumping like a bratwurst as I pound-Pound-POUND the brake.

Notice how all my similes are food similes (and most of my metaphors involve booze).

Look, I knew Charlie Sue was a story the moment I saw her, with that Lucille Ball hair, manhandling the grill. Didn't even know at that point she was the owner.

How many L.A. restaurants are pure investments, where you never meet the manager, let alone the owner?

Turns out Charlie Sue bought the little stand in 1976, after becoming bored as a housewife. Says she can't think of retirement, that this is more a hobby than a job. Makes a repeat customer with every meal she personally prepares.

Her secret? A motherly attention to freshness and detail (all fixings are purchased right there at the market).

So, guess it's no wonder I fell so hard for Charlie Sue Gilbert, the sassy 79-year-old by way of Texas, by way of Hollywood High, still appearing daily behind one of the city's best grills.

One of these days I've got to give up redheads — my doctor insists. Then I'll give up air.

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