Letter From California TM_LC_WCBURG_FI_001

West is Best?

Against the "best burger" listicle. For the West Coast-style burger.

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Every few months, I read a headline like this:

THERE IS A NEW BEST BURGER IN LOS ANGELES BEING MADE BY A CHEF WHO HAS A BURGER COUNTER INSIDE A ROSEMARY BUSH SO THE BURGER IS INFUSED WITH ROSEMARY!!!!! EAT IT NOW!!!!!

We’re all savvy enough to understand that no matter how many “best burger” articles and lists and listicles are released, there is no real “best burger,” right? There is no best burger in America, there is no best burger in California, and there is no best burger in the city I live in, Los Angeles. Articles like this are 50% useful (they do point to tasty burgers), and 50% brain candy, riling up the internet audience to agree, or disagree, or sigh and close that browser tab.

Los Angeles is an interesting city to eat burgers in, though. Despite all the salad-chewing stereotypes of this city, it’s a burger town through and through. There are restaurants serving burgers on almost every block, from little stands to fancy-ish French restaurants like Comme Ca, known for its $18 burger (and some killer cocktails). Cult-favorite chain In-N-Out is headquartered just outside the Los Angeles city limits in Baldwin Park, CA. And LA has seen waves of burger trends, like the gourmet boom started by the Father’s Office burger, topped with arugula and blue cheese (a combination so frequently copied that it seems quaint now).

But while Los Angeles does have its more-than-fair share of gourmet burgers, its heart is with the fast food, “West Coast-style” burger. There are plenty of variations, but some hallmarks you’ll usually see are thin patties, toasted buns, pickles, iceberg lettuce, and sauce — frequently Thousand Island dressing. It’s epitomized by In-N-Out and also served up by long-time area institutions like Pie ‘n Burger, Irv’s Burgers (where your sauces will be mustard and mayo, and you might get an illustration of yourself served up with your sandwich), and The Apple Pan.

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The Hickory Burger at the Apple Pan

The Apple Pan is one that I’ve seen on a lot of “best burger” lists. The pattern goes like this: Some publication (usually not based in Los Angeles) will claim that The Apple Pan has the best burger in LA — nay, in ALL OF AMERICA. Internet commenters will get riled up and complain about The Apple Pan’s burger in the same way middle school girls complain about another girl’s outfit, pointing out every little thing that’s “wrong” (“Ugh, her lettuce is showing!”). Then, people move on to being outraged about some other restaurant, forgetting about The Apple Pan. And…repeat.

But rather than talking about what other people find wrong with The Apple Pan, I want to talk about what’s right — and what, if anything, can really make a burger “the best burger.” Opened in 1947, this old-school lunch-counter joint serves two burgers: The Steakburger, which is a fairly traditional West Coast style burger, and The Hickory Burger, which is my favorite. I love its combination of West Coast burger style — pickles, thin patty, a big chunk of iceberg lettuce — with the barbecuey tang of the hickory sauce. It’s different from the burger you can get at any other fast-serve restaurant here, but without being all fancy and gourmet.

The Hickory Burger might also be what I consider to be the best burger in LA — but it’s not because it’s the most delicious or most inventive. No, it’s because The Apple Pan was one of the first places I visited in LA, long before I actually moved here — and because the Hickory Burger was one of the first burgers I had eaten in years. I was pescatarian at the time (I know, I know), and my burger-loving friend who I had traveled to LA with wanted to go. So I gave in and ordered a Hickory Burger. And that burger was the best burger of my entire life: flavorful, savory, fatty, and complex — and eaten with a good friend. I left with a meat-fueled glow.

That what I think the real best burger in America is — a burger that is delicious, yes, but also a burger that you eat at the right time with the right people. I’m not going to tell you to ignore best burger lists, because they always point you in good directions. But if you want to find out what the real best burger is? That you need to decide for yourself.

Homemade Hickory Burgers for Two

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This isn’t The Apple Pan’s recipe — they don’t share it. Nor is this one of those “I reverse engineered this amazing fast food” recipes. What is it? It’s an easy-to-make, tasty burger that’s quite similar to Apple Pan’s.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons hickory barbecue sauce
1 teaspoon hickory liquid smoke (optional)
½ pound to ⅔ pound ground beef
Slice of cheddar cheese (Tillamook, if you really want to be like Apple Pan)
Iceberg lettuce
Hamburger buns
Pickle slices
Mayonnaise

Instructions

Mix the ketchup and barbecue sauce (I used Sweet Baby Ray’s) in a bowl and set aside. If you want an even more intense hickory flavor, you can add the hickory liquid smoke to the sauce, or directly to the meat.

Form the meat into two patties and place on a medium-high griddle, smashing each patty down with a spatula. Cook 3-4 minutes each side, turning once. Add a slice of cheddar to the top, and cover until it starts to get melty. While this is happening, put the buns on the griddle to toast.

When everything is ready, slather a layer of mayo on the bottom bun, and top with a few pickle slices. Then add the burger, cover it with hickory sauce, and follow with a chunk of iceberg lettuce. Top with the bun, and devour.

Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The Smart Set, McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, The Huffington Post, and The Smew. Her book with photographer Michael Reali, Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom, was released in November 2011 by Quirk Books. She's currently the senior editor at the frugal living and personal finance site Wise Bread, and a regular guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace Money.

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