UPDATE 8/5/2013: Welcome Air Talk With Larry Mantle listeners! I (Ben) had a blast appearing on the show and talking to both Larrys Mantle and Olmsted. And the callers were great! A few things about this list…
- It’s old. This was originally published on 3/16/2010. To put the time in perspective, Umami burger had only one location, the now-closed one on La Brea.
- Revisions: Tommy’s shouldn’t be there. They were on their game once upon a time but not anymore. Everything else on the top 10 list stands. From the “Honorable Mention” section, I would remove BBQ King — I don’t know what the hell that was ever doing there. Umami Burger has a ton of locations now, but I still wouldn’t give them a spot in my top 10 list. Honorable Mention maaaaaybe.
- You ask, “Why are all of my favorite burgers missing?” Probably because they didn’t exist when this top 10 list was written (in 2010). But guess what? L.A. Foodie is in the process RIGHT NOW of creating a new “best burgers in L.A.” list! We’ll release it soon. Until then, keep your pants on.
L.A.’s Top 10 Burgers
There are plenty of “top ten LA burgers” lists, but most of them get it wrong. It’s mostly about the burger, but it’s not all about the burger. The place itself has a lot to do with a great burger meal. All reviews on Los Angeles Foodie have an entire section devoted to “The Place,” so it should be clear by now that I take the restaurant, shack, counter, or whatever you want to call the burger joint’s building to be an important part of the meal. Also important is the service. I want the person who takes my order, the person who cooks it, and the person who serves me the burger to all care whether or not I’m going to enjoy my meal.
As far as I’m concerned, hamburgers should be cheap and fast. Therefore any place that requires a reservation or has valet parking is out of the running. I’m quite aware that Wagyu beef can be amazing, but we’re talking about burgers here, not fine dining. I’m not, on the other hand, discriminating against any single preparation. Generally, I prefer a thinnish patty that has been seared on a cast iron or stainless flat top served with all the trimmings. But you’ll find variations on this theme in the following list.
(10) The Shack (2518 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 310-449-1171)
This surf-themed bar in Santa Monica is all about the locals, and you’ll get extra points if you’re an Eagles fan. The back deck is a great place to enjoy your burger and a beer. This burger barely made the list because I have a prejudice against adding other meats and still calling it a burger, and the “Shack Burger” is topped with a butterflied Louisiana hot link. But it’s good enough to break the top 10, and it’s a great place to enjoy a great burger. Get plenty of napkins because this beast is messy.
(9) Marty’s Hamburger Stand (10558 W Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 310-836-6944)
This is one of the last, remaining, authentic Southern California burger stands that were ubiquitous through the 60s. Marty’s appears in George Motz’s Hamburger America book, which is how I found out about it. It’s actually in my neighborhood, but I had never noticed it before. And what a shame that I let years pass without knowing about this gem. People will tell you that the burger/hot dog combo is the thing to get (even the sign says “home of the combo”), and you should definitely try it once. But the burger that made this list is the plain old cheeseburger. It’s a thin burger with a great exterior crust cooked to perfection on a flat top.
(8) Tommy’s (2575 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 213-389-9060)
If you have never been to the ramshackle little walk-up shed that is the original Tommy’s location, you are missing out. Nearly 65 years ago, Tommy Koulax opened this little burger shack, and it’s still going strong. There are now Tommy’s locations all over Los Angeles, and you can get it any time, so it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is a really good burger. Occasionally, when a certain food stops being a special trip, it stops being special altogether. So take a trip to the original location downtown and remind yourself that Tommy’s is a true Los Angeles original. This medium-thick patty is served with a thick slice of tomato (a lot of people I know discard it before eating but not me) and a gloppy dollop of Tommy’s chili. This stuff is totally unique, and I’m pretty sure the city of Los Angeles repairs potholes with it. A friend of mine refers to the chili leftover in the burger wrapper as “the resigoo.” A Tommy’s burger is a stomach bomb for sure, especially with extra peppers on the side, but it’s totally worth it.
(7) Hinano (15 Washington Blvd., Venice, CA 310-822-3902)
I have been told by a handful of people that the lunch burger is better than the dinner burger, but I don’t believe it. A burger at this beach-side dive bar is tasty any time of the day. Hinano is just steps off the Venice pier where Washington Blvd. dead ends into the Atlantic (haha, oops) Pacific Ocean. For such a touristy spot, the beer is cheap, and the food is good (and cheap), so the bar is full of locals at all times. Perhaps tourists don’t like the sawdust on the floor, but I do. I recommend a single burger with cheddar - the double is too much. This is a big hamburger.
(6) In-N-Out Burger (13850 Francisquito Ave., Baldwin Park, CA 800-786-1000)
Harry and Esther Snyder opened this now-commonplace Los Angeles landmark back in 1948. They lay claim to the invention of the fast food drive through concept, but that’s not what makes it interesting. The remarkable part is over the past 60 years, the restaurant has never compromised on its promise of the freshest ingredients and the best possible food. And In-N-Out isn’t just good for a chain. It’s straight-up good. Like Tommy’s, sometimes it’s easy to forget that something that you see every day is special, but it really is. I know that In-N-Out is on practically every top 10 LA hamburgers list, but it deserves to be. Plus, it’s a Southern California original, and it’s not a franchise. Extra points for high-quality consistency.
(5) Father’s Office (3229 Helms Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 310-736-2224)
Yes. That’s the Culver City location, not the original Santa Monica spot. It’s bigger, the space is more interesting, there are more menu items, and the burgers taste exactly the same if not better. The burger purists at Father’s Office have gained quite a reputation for unwaveringly insisting that their hamburgers be served a specific way. There are no custom orders, and if you try to put ketchup on one, an employee will tackle you from out of nowhere. Each burger is served on a soft baguette with a crispy exterior and topped with a special, secret recipe of caramelized onions, a blue cheese mixture, and fresh spinach. If you order one well-done, prepare to be scowled at. The burger doesn’t seem that big at first, but it’s hefty. In my opinion, one is plenty for sharing with another person. Grab a cold glass of Racer 5 IPA and settle in for a treat.
(4) Orchards Fresh Foods (16426 Whittier Boulevard, Whittier, CA 562-902-1825)
This is a secret, so don’t tell anybody. Orchards’ grill is only open limited hours, so call beforehand to make sure that the burgers will be available when you show up. They hand-grind a special blend because, after all, Orchards is also a butcher shop. It’s the simplest hamburger on this entire list. It’s so simple, in fact, that its simple appearance obscures the intense flavor that is waiting for you. This is a thick hamburger, hand-patted and grilled over hot charcoal and served on a fresh, supermarket bun. If you elect for a cheeseburger, a simple, thin slice of American is melted on top. That’s it. It will be served with other toppings, but take them off and eat it plain. Trust me. It is a sublime, powerfully meaty flavor.
(3) Irv’s Burgers (8289 Santa Monica Blvd West Hollywood, CA (323) 650-2456)
Like Marty’s, Irv’s is a carryover from decades ago when hamburger stands dotted the Southern California landscape. Thank the West Hollywood community for saving Irv’s from the wrecking ball. Thank them by eating at Irv’s and keeping this great local landmark in business. This place is as much about the experience as it is about the hamburger, which is truly amazing. Owner Sonia Hong doodles a sketch - usually what you are wearing - on each plate that identifies to whom the order belongs. But Sonia’s friendliness and artwork isn’t the only reason to visit. The burger is outstanding. The double cheeseburger is the perfect balance of meat and toppings.
(2) Pie ‘N Burger (913 East California Blvd., Pasadena, CA (626) 795-1123)
I simply cannot understand why Pie ‘N Burger polarizes burger aficionados like it does. To me it is a clear-cut example of a great hamburger. But spend five minutes poking around online, and you’ll see throngs of people loudly decrying the restaurant’s credentials. Pie ‘N Burger is another oldie but goodie with a heritage that dates back to 1965. Some of the wait staff have been with the restaurant since it opened, and your soda is still mixed by hand. I have never not been in the mood for Pie ‘N Burger. This place gets extremely busy during lunch time and on weekends, so show up early or on a weekday. If you need to kill some time, take a tour of the nearby Gamble House and pretend that you are Doc Brown.
(1) The Apple Pan (10801 W Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064 310-475-3585)
For years, The Apple Pan has served me the best hamburgers that I have ever tasted. The #1 rating is not limited to Los Angeles. I have proclaimed many times that The Apple Pan serves the best hamburger in America. To be fair, I haven’t tried every burger in America, so I am more than happy to be disproved. But I have eaten a lot of hamburgers across this great nation of ours, and I have yet to find a better one. Oddly, it is The Apple Pan’s Hickoryburger that receives all of the praise, and while I understand the appeal of the sweet, smokey barbecue sauce, the Steakburger is the clear winner for me. I could go on at length about how great this converted little house is with its flower garden and unspoken seating arrangements, but you can read the full review for all of that. If you have any doubt about how passionate The Apple Pan’s supporters are, the restaurant doesn’t have a website, so a fan made them one. Another great story is told by filmmaker Todd Field in George Motz’s Hamburger America. Field was saddened by the fact that the paper cone cup holders seemed to have slowly disappeared. Rather than live with the tragic reality that The Apple Pan could no longer serve buttermilk in a paper cone, Field found more on eBay and single-handedly replenished their supply.
Bob’s Big Boy: Perhaps Bob’s deserves to make the top 10, but I just don’t think it is great enough overtake any existing spot on the list. It’s definitely a Southern California original, and I especially love visiting the new Bob’s Big Boy Broiler in Downey. Very cool.
Umami Burger: The truffle burger is great, but truffles are cheating, and I dislike the space.
BBQ King: The hamburger is gigantic, and it is cooked in a waterfall of meat drippings from other smoking meats.
J N J Burger & Bar-B-Q: The burger is good but not great. The real reason to go here is the Louisiana barbecue.
Fatburger: The burgers can be very good, but it’s a chain. It’s not unique to Southern California, and the quality is inconsistent.
Outlaws: This Playa Del Rey joint is a classic dive. Their two-pound “Desperado Gang” burger serves four people.