(picture courtesy of Niniane's Blog)
Tommy's deserves to be in a class of its own, which makes it difficult to place in the Top Ten.
For years I’ve wondered how to rank Tommy’s against the others. In the beginning I ranked it at the top, along with Hamburger Henry’s. They were opposite sides of the same coin, one place serving elaborate and fairly expensive gourmet burgers, and the other serving a very inexpensive hamburger in a no-frills atmosphere. Both were great. Which one I went to depended mostly upon my mood.
Then, over the years, I started knocking Tommy’s a bit, especially when I started discovering the more ambitious burgers such as The Apple Pan and Cassell’s. I had to get serious and consider the patty as the benchmark of a burger’s success, and for me, the meat at Tommy’s simply wasn’t in the same class. So for a long time, I placed Tommy’s in the Guilty Pleasure category, along with the Ultimate Cheeseburger from Jack-In-The Box. My point was, if I’m going to set the standards of burger excellence, of what a great burger should be, then I can’t include a burger that matches almost none of the criteria I’ve set.
After a while, I discovered how ridiculous I was being. I had to look at the facts. When I lived on the East Coast, I missed Tommy’s more than any other single burger. I actually contacted the Koulax family through the Tommy’s website, asking them if there was a way to FedEx me one of their burgers. I was willing to pay any price just short of what it would cost me to fly out just for the purpose of having one of their burgers. They declined, but told me that the next time I was in town, the first burger would be on them. (I eventually took them up on their offer.)
Each time I moved to the East Coast, Tommy’s was my last meal before getting on the plane. Each time I returned home, either for a visit or for good, Tommy’s was my first meal after getting off the plane. On those occasions, I’d have to eat two of them because I was so hard up for a Tommyburger that I wouldn’t even taste the first one. Yes, that first double cheeseburger, chili and mustard only, only served to kill the symptoms of withdrawals. The second one was the one I tasted, the one I savored.
So I have to consider now if Tommy’s is my favorite burger in the whole world. I’ve definitely eaten more Tommyburgers in my life than any other burger. And I’m truly addicted to them, which may or may not be a function of how good they are. I’m reminded of Mike Myers’ father in So I Married an Axe Murderer, also played by Mike Myers, who railed against Colonel Sanders and KFC by angrily exclaiming that he “puts in an addictive chemical to make you crave it fortnightly!” I can think of no better reason as to why I’m helplessly obsessed with Tommy’s.
More than any other burger, a Tommyburger is a perfect example of burger Gestalt, that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. For years I thought it was the chili that made the burger so special, and most would agree. The problem is, it’s very easy to go overboard with the chili and ruin the whole meal. For instance, I think it would be quite a chore to sit down and eat a bowl of the stuff. Also, I cannot eat a double chili cheeseburger and then top it off with an order of chili cheese fries. I did that once and I was so tired of the chili by the end of the meal that I didn’t go back to Tommy’s for a whole…well, month or two I guess.
On the other hand, I know people who order Tommyburgers and hold the chili. I think that’s insane. If you go to Tommy’s and ask to hold the chili, you should simply go somewhere else. I had a friend who did it, and I always gave him a hard time because a Tommyburger without the chili is a rather ordinary thing, no better than any small fast food burger. “I like it that way,” he replied. “It’s my favorite burger!” And I’d always just stare at him as if he was nuts.
There are people, however, who criticize me as well for ordering my burger without the onions, pickles, and that legendary slice of tomato. Well, it’s easy to explain the pickle and the tomato. The onion, however, is trickier, because I like onions. I just think that the chili on a Tommyburger is so spicy, that adding onions puts the whole burger over the top, and makes it way too hot. Call me a gringo if you will, but I think the Tommyburger, the way I order it, is a perfectly balanced burger, pure in its celebration of that incredible chili. Too many condiments is simply, for me, distracting. Maybe I could eat a bowl of that stuff.
Of course, when you talk about Tommy’s, you have to specify which location you are talking about. For true fans of Tommy’s, only the original location at Beverly and Rampart will do. The thirty or so satellite locations will do in a pinch, but if you aren’t making an occasional pilgrimage to the original red shack, then you simply are kidding yourself by thinking you’re a real Tommy’s fan.
A lot of this attitude comes from the fact that up until a few years ago, there were some real consistency issues from location to location. A quick scan of the discussion forums on the Tommy’s official website reveals that people will come down hard and fast on a particular location if the quality isn’t up to snuff. I can remember steady rashes of complaints in the past for two or three different locations, which resulted in the firing of the managers. I’ve been displeased a few times in the past with particular locations as well. For instance, I get tired of how dirty the eating area is in the Burbank location, and I really wish the Canoga Park location would learn how to cook their fries more thoroughly. But these complaints are the result of a deep and abiding love of Tommy’s, and the wish for everything to be perfect.
Lately, it seems that all of the consistency issues have been worked out. I’ve made it a point to visit every location at some time in my life, from Valencia to Barstow to San Diego. And I have been to the original location quite a few times recently. I no longer feel there’s a huge difference anymore. But there’s still a reason to go to Beverly and Rampart, and that’s the whole vibe, the experience, the love of what Tommy Koulax created. The red shack is there, in all of its glory, even though there is a second counter at the rear of the parking lot to handle the overflow. I’ve never, ever ordered from the second counter. It just wouldn’t be the same.
Another interesting feature of the original location is that up until recently, fries weren’t offered. It was always about a burger, a drink and a bag of chips. I felt that this was perplexing because all of the satellite locations have been serving fries for a long time, and they’re really good square cuts, among the very best. In fact, eating the fries became part of the ritual for me, because instead of ordering chili cheese fries I’d simply dip the fries in the excess chili that fell off my burger. (Trust me, a lot falls off, and it’s simply a crime to waste it.) I can recall a few occasions where I chose not to go to the original location simply because I was in the mood for fries. I know, it’s blasphemy. But I was genuinely happy when they finally started offering them at Beverly and Rampart.
Finally, it’s worthwhile to talk about the company slogan and what it means. “If you don’t see the shack, take it back.” Tommy’s has been the target of so many imitators that it’s almost funny. For years, there was a plethora of places serving chili-cheeseburgers that attempted to capitalize on the Koulax magic, places called Tommi’s and Tomy’s and Tom’s and Tommie’s. I know that the Koulax family spent years in court trying to stop all of them, but I think coming up with the Shack slogan was finally their best weapon. Still, I have people coming up to me all of the time telling me about some new Tommy’s location, and it turns out to be one of the copycats. I feel for the Koulax family, but I know it’s comforting for them to know that no one has ever been able to successfully replicate the Tommy’s experience, much less surpass it.
I could go on and on. I could probably write a book about Tommy’s alone. Maybe I will, one day. I have so many stories, so many adventures. I’ve been going to Tommy’s for 28 years now, and it’s definitely been a big part of my life. So is Tommy’s the best burger in the world? I still think that title goes to some place like The Apple Pan, a place where the patties are bigger and fresher and taste more like beef.
Is Tommy’s my favorite burger? I’d have to answer yes, absolutely.