Saturday, August 28, 2010

Interview with Peter Selesnick of Venice Audio

I just finished an interview with Peter Selesnick of Venice Audio for an upcoming installment of the Vinyl Anachronist column, which will appear in the next issue of Perfect Sound Forever. Peter is by trade a British director of photography (DP, as they say in the film industry), and he decided to start Venice Audio in his spare time. As you can see from the photos above, Venice Audio offers a very beautiful way to audition and buy some of the best equipment in the world such as Naim, Harbeth, Leben, Well Tempered and much, much more.

I talked with Peter about what it takes to open up a high-end store in the 21st century, when most electronic purchases are done on the Internet by people who are searching for the lowest price and not the best advice. He offered some excellent insights into how he chooses product lines, how he auditions equipment and how he hopes to capture the attention of younger generations and turn them onto the joys of listening to two-channel analog-based audio systems!

He also talks about some of my favorite components such as the Harbeth 40.1 loudspeakers (my favorite speakers in the world), the Well Tempered Amadeus turntable (which uses a golf ball damped in silicon fluid in its tonearm assembly) and the entire line of Naim electronics (my favorite audio brand in the world).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Power of the Vinyl Anachronist!

I just heard from Phil via Brian of you read my blog entry below and made a stop at Phil's on a road trip between Albany and Cincinnati. You bought $60 worth of vinyl including some Julie London! (Julie is experiencing a heck of a resurgence right now because her old 50s stuff is recorded extremely well.)

Phil thanks you, Brian thanks you and I thank you! Keep reading!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Phils Music and Memories

I was recently contacted by my friend Brian Weaver about Phils Music and Memories, a good old-fashioned record store in Cold Springs, Kentucky. Phil is just getting started on this venture and has a TON of great LPs (both new and used), and now he's trying to figure out how to drive foot traffic to his store at 3800 Alexandria Pike. The Vinyl Anachronist to the rescue!

We need to frequent the brick-and-mortar record stores because they are becoming too few and far between. Seriously...would you rather point and click on some website, or would you rather pick up those LPs and touch, smell and taste them? Yeah, me too. So if you're anywhere near Cold Springs, Kentucky, make it a point to visit Phil.

Just to whet your appetite, I'm including several pics from the store to show you what you're missing!

 Phil's phone number is 859-441-2514.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I just re-read my burger reviews and noticed that there were quite a few commas. Superfluous commas. Commas that didn't belong.

Maybe it's because I wrote most of those articles about five years ago and I hadn't quite adapted to the world of professional writing. Of editors. Of snipping out everything that isn't important to the content of the article.

So I snipped. And snipped. I removed close to one hundred commas. So if you're anal about grammar, you can now go back and re-read the articles without wincing about 100 times. I fixed it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mmmm...Five Guys!

What better way to celebrate my posting of the Top Ten Burgers than with one of the best burgers in the world!

Friday, August 13, 2010

#10 Burger -- Alamo Springs Cafe

I'm going to throw Texas a bone right now by putting the burger at the Alamo Springs Cafe as my #10 all time burger. I'm making it a provisional rating because one of my rules for rating burgers is that I have to visit twice before ranking the burger. But I believe this is the best burger I've had in Texas, beating out such mainstays as the Counter Cafe, The Cove, Parkside, Phil's Icehouse, Hut's, Mighty Fine, La Tuna Grill, Chris Madrid's and a few others.

Margaret did remind me of another great thing about the Alamo Springs Cafe: no other burger I can think of comes at the end of a more beautiful drive. As you head south from Fredricksburg on Old Antonio Road, you're treated to 12 miles of some of the most gorgeous scenery in Texas Hill Country. Perhaps that made the burger seem even more delicious, but so what.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

#9 Burger -- Five Guys Burgers

(pic courtesy of the Plate of the Day Food Blog)

(I wrote this back in 2004 or 2005, and it refers mainly to the first handful of stores Five Guys had in the metro DC area. Since then, Five Guys have opened close to 500 stores across the country. While I lived in the Pacific Northwest from 2007 to 2009, two Five Guys opened in the Portland area. Even though it had been a few years since I had tasted one, they were as good--if not better--than I remembered. Now I'm in Texas, and there are two in the Austin area and one in San Antonio. They continue to be one of my favorite burgers. Since Five Guys is a "carpetbagger" --a company based outside of Texas--they don't get the same amount of respect as Texas burger places such as The Grape, The Alamo Springs Cafe, The Counter Cafe and The Cove. But I think Five Guys may be the best burger I've eaten in Texas so far.)

This is my favorite burger outside of Southern California, bar none. Its discovery signaled an exciting time in my life, when I no longer had to spend hours pining away for a Tommyburger or thinking of the utter magnificence of the Sunset Grill or The Apple Pan. At last I could have a burger on the East Coast that was at least the equal of the burgers I’d grown up with in Los Angeles.

I discovered Five Guys Burgers, strangely enough, on my way to Johnny Rockets in Pentagon City, Virginia. My wife at the time pointed out the banner across the storefront which proclaimed that Five Guys had the best burgers in the Washington DC Metro area. At first I balked, because patting your own back is usually a bad sign in the world of burger joints. The Apple Pan doesn’t have a big sign across its window. Neither does Cassell’s. In fact, a few places here do claim to have the best burgers in LA, and every single one of them is, in my opinion, a disappointment. So I reluctantly drove into the Bailey’s Crossroads location of Five Guys, walked in, and was instantly knocked off my feet.

First of all, no-frills is the operative word of Five Guys. In the first few locations, there’s no place to eat. It seems kind of weird to have a burger place offer take-out only, because burgers are meant to be eaten fresh off the grill, within minutes. But I started noticing little details that charmed me. The first thing is the big brown grocery sack filled with roasted peanuts sitting in the waiting area. They encourage you to throw the shells on the ground, and by the end of the day it’s hard to walk around. I think it’s a nice touch because Five Guys is always busy, and you will have to wait a bit for your burger, and you have to sit there and smell them cooking, and you’ll go a little nuts after a while. So here, have a peanut.

The second charming thing you’ll notice is the small blackboard near the entrance which informs where today’s potatoes came from. Usually they’re from Maryland, but I’ve seen Maine, Delaware and yes, even Idaho represented. I know I’ve said that the potato isn’t ultimately that important in the making of a great fry, but I like this little touch. It’s fun. And Five Guys does have excellent boardwalk-style fries, halfway in between shoestring and square cuts, made fresh like In-N-Out’s only better. And the Cajun style fries with the seasoning out of the big plastic jug are really, really good.

Another interesting thing you’ll notice is that when you walk in, you’ll be instantly asked by one of the cooks how many burgers you’ll be ordering. Unlike In-N-Out, they want to get started as soon as possible so that by the time you reach the front of the long, long line, there might be a chance that it’ll be ready for you. And if it isn’t, have another peanut.

At Five Guys they offer two burgers, a “small” and a regular. The small is a single patty, the regular is a double. That might throw you off, but it isn’t that big of a deal because the patties at Five Guys aren’t that huge. They’re not undersized like Tommy’s or In-N-Out, but you won’t bust a gut eating one of their regular burgers. The fascinating thing about Five Guys burgers, for me anyway, is the fact that they’re kitchen-sink burgers and I really don’t mind. Sure, I still ask them to hold the tomato, but everything else stays, mostly because Five Guys puts a little of everything on the burger, but not too much, because the burger stays in perfect balance. Marinated mushrooms, relish, lettuce, onions, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, A-1 steak sauce, bacon, cheese, even the optional hot peppers, hot sauce and bell peppers all co-exist peacefully with one another because they’re used sparingly. This burger is nowhere near as big as it sounds. The size is just about perfect.

When I left the East Coast in 1998, there were four locations, all in Northern Virginia. The last time I checked, there are 130 locations from Florida to Connecticut. If anything, this is the East Coast version of In-N-Out, a burger chain that is succeeding wildly due to an outstanding product and very high standards. Five Guys was, incidentally, started by a couple with their five sons who were all fresh out of college and eager to start their business. I can still remember seeing the sons in their stores, all sporting crew cuts, running very tight ships. I can only hope that things are still the same since I haven’t been there in a while. In other words, I hope they haven’t pulled a Wendy’s.

(They haven't!)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

#8 Burger -- Pie 'N Burger

(pic courtesy of LA Foodie Blog)

Almost by definition, all of the great burgers I’m talking about should be beyond approach, just about perfect. If I’m leveling criticisms in their direction, maybe they should be relegated to the merely “good” section.

Unlike the others in the category, I do have two very specific criticisms about the burger at Pie ‘N’ Burger. I think it costs too much. And, I think it’s too small.

So why do I place it firmly within the ranks of the true greats? Because once I bite into it, I could care less. It’s just flat-out delicious. And that’s why it belongs in the same class as The Apple Pan or Cassell’s.

Pie ‘N’ Burger is located near the corner of California and Lake in Pasadena, and for years I considered this intersection to be the center of the burger universe. There were no less than three burger joints within throwing distance from each other, with two of those places, PNB and Paris’s Grandburger, offering truly great burgers, and the third, Burger Continental, offering a solid, if not quite equal alternative. Wolfe Burger, another strong burger joint, was just a few more blocks up Lake Street. After Paris’s disappeared quietly into that good night, Pie ‘N’ Burger emerged as the lone burger champion, in my opinion, of Pasadena, even if the locals mysteriously seemed to prefer the local In-N-Out.

The restaurant itself is the epitome of coziness, with warm dark wood touches everywhere. It’s a place your grandmother would like--if she was a total burger junkie. Then again, there are a bunch of little old ladies from Pasadena inside, but most of them are eating pie. And the waitresses are definitely of the old school variety, middle-aged women with their hair tied up in buns, calling you ‘hon” and “sweetie.”

Speaking of In-N-Out, the burger at PNB does bring up the subject of burger twins, that for every great burger there’s another burger out there at some other place that seems similar, whether it’s inspired by someone else or a flat-out copy. The #12 Burger at Johnny Rocket’s for instance, is very similar to the Hickory Burger at The Apple Pan. I can almost see the guy who started Johnny Rocket’s sitting by himself in The Pan and saying to himself, “If only I could make a burger this good, but in a place that’s really, really fun!” Well, the cheeseburger at PNB definitely tastes a lot like the cheeseburger at In-N-Out.

There are differences, though. Most noticeable is the fact that the single cheeseburger at PNB costs roughly twice as much as the Double-Double at In-N-Out. (To be fair, the PNB patty is larger, so the total weight of the meat in each burger is probably about the same.) And I do believe that the patty at PNB tastes better, which again is the function of patty thickness. But aside from that, the burgers are constructed similarly and are dressed up with practically the same condiments.

So why not just go to In-N-Out and save a few bucks? Again, it’s the taste. I’m sure that I could go to In-N-Out and satisfy whatever burger craving I had at the moment. But from an absolute standpoint, the PNB burger is clearly superior, and it’s all in the patty. At In-N-Out, the patties are perfectly molded, which brings up the question of over-handling. At PNB, the patty is sloppily constructed and falls apart on you, which indicates the freshest, most unfettered beef possible. In fact, the burgers at PNB may be the overall sloppiest ever, bordering on downright annoying. By the time you get to the last two bites, it probably won’t even resemble a hamburger anymore.

And you’ll love it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

#7 Burger --The Hungry Cat

(pic courtesy of The Thirsty Pig blog)

$114. I went over the bill just to make sure, and indeed the total came out to $114. All I wanted was to try the Pug Burger at The Hungry Cat, and by the end of the night I had paid the second highest tab I’d ever had for two people for dinner. I was stunned.

To be fair, we had a few drinks. And the Pug Burger itself was only $14, which is significantly less than some of the Kobe steak burgers I’ve tried over the last couple of years. And the Pug Burger was a huge, unwieldy, extremely messy affair that I couldn’t even finish because it was so big. So it’s not like the burger is a poor value. But just be prepared for the fact that The Hungry Cat is not a burger shack, it is a fine restaurant, and you will pay for the privilege of dining there.

The restaurant doesn’t even focus on burgers. It’s more of a seafood fusion restaurant, with such featured dishes as pan-roasted skate wing and clams in a tomato-chorizo broth. And its bar is one of the hipper places to hang out in Hollywood. It’s the Pug Burger, which can be found way down at the bottom of the menu, that is slowly gaining a reputation as one of the greatest burgers ever created. And now I’ve had two of them, and I’d have to concur.

This definitely invokes the old Sunset Grill Rule. That rule used to state that if the greatest burger ever made in the history of the universe, which was the double chili-cheeseburger at the original Sunset Grill, cost only $2.65, then you’d better have a really good reason for charging ten bucks for yours. The Sunset Grill Rule became obsolete eventually, especially when it closed down for remodeling (and an ownership change) and reopened with the same burger costing almost four bucks. But the same basic concept is still alive. The original Sunset Grill double chili-cheeseburger was so cheap because the Sunset Grill itself was a run-down shack with little overhead. So it’s okay to charge significantly more for a burger, but you’d better have a good reason, like the ambience is really nice, or the waitresses are really cute, or the food is really, really good.

And like I said, the Pug Burger is worth fourteen bucks. It’s at least as tasty as the Kobe steak burger at the Burger Bar, which is close to twenty bucks. It’s a monstrous burger, almost vertical in stature than horizontal, and it is definitely difficult to eat with two hands. Basically, it’s a bacon and avocado burger smothered in bleu cheese, on a very tasty homemade bun that’s reminiscent of the old-fashioned buns at Hamburger Henry’s. Mixed baby greens, ubiquitous among the gourmet burgers, are of course included. And while I cannot tell you what exactly is so special about the beef, I will say that it is seasoned with the finesse you would expect at a fine restaurant. The flavors are complex and interesting.

And as far as The Sunset Grill Rule is concerned, The Hungry Cat definitely passes. I figured out that without the alcohol, the bill would have been closer to sixty dollars, which is more than reasonable for a dining experience this pleasant. The service was attentive and personal, and the restaurant itself, which is streamlined in a post-modernist way, is still a comfortable place, tucked into a quiet little corner in a shopping center right on Sunset and Vine.

It’s still weird, however, to make the transition from The Hungry Cat to somewhere like Sirloin Burger, which is located in a ratty old building in a god-awful part of North Hollywood. Both serve interesting burgers. One is much more expensive than the other. Both are worth it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

#6 Burger -- Original Tommy's

(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.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

#5 Burger -- Father's Office

(photo courtesy of

My two sons have tried almost every great burger I have, from Burgers ‘N’ Beer in El Centro to Five Guys in Alexandria, Virginia to Baby’s in State College, Pennsylvania. It will be the years 2015 and 2016, respectively, before they can try the burger at Father’s Office, in Santa Monica, and they’re pissed. I keep telling them how wonderful it is, from the caramelized onions to the Gruyere and Maytag bleu cheeses to the applewood bacon compote to the arugula to the giant oblong roll to the fantastic sweet potato fries that come in a tiny little shopping cart. And they can’t least until they're 21.

Father’s Office, if you haven’t guessed, is a bar, one that’s been a popular hangout for Santa Monica locals for years. Just recently, however, they started serving food after Sang Yoon, the former chef at Chinois at Main and Michael’s, got involved. Talk about a gourmet pedigree! I think Father’s Office surpasses the Pug Burger at The Hungry Cat as the most strikingly original gourmet burger in Los Angeles.

Unlike The Counter, there is one burger at FO, and there are no substitutions. What if you don’t like arugula? Tough. Carmelized onions? Deal with it. I have to admit that this is probably the one gourmet burger that is perfect as is…it doesn’t even have tomatoes or pickles for me to pick off. And, for me, this is where the concept of “gourmet” burgers makes sense, as opposed to The Counter, because this burger is a complete statement from a master chef. It has left no room for error or miscue.

Of course the downside to having an extraordinary burger in a rather small yet exceedingly popular night spot in a city known for being overcrowded…well, I don’t think I have to explain any further. Suffice it to say that I’m a bit claustrophobic, and I almost gave up on getting the burger the first time I went in. In fact, I had to wait outside for a little while for the crowd to thin out a bit. I just couldn’t stand being in there. After a while I finally made it to the bar, miraculously found an empty seat, and stared at the hundred or so microbrew taps in front of me. The bartender was a nice enough guy and made a couple of excellent recommendations, most notably an unusually creamy, smooth brew known as Old Speckled Hen. When I told him I was there for the burger, however, he immediately perked up and took instant care of me. All in all it was much better experience than I had anticipated when I first walked in.

Since then, the service has been a bit more inconsistent. I went once for my birthday, and when the doorman checked my ID (by the way, I can’t think of another burger joint that even has a doorman), he noticed the date. “Maybe you’ll actually get served food,” he replied, and I wasn’t sure if this was a comment on the snobbery of the place, and that I didn’t quite fit into the young, hip demographic there, or if it was just a comment on how busy Father’s Office can be and that it’s sometimes tough to even get an order in. I must admit, however, that I’ve always succeeded in getting my burger. As good as it is, I surely wouldn’t give up that easily.

You’d expect a burger of this caliber to be quite expensive, but I find that $10.75 is more than reasonable for what you get, especially considering Yang Soon’s reputation in LA. Every time I’ve gone to Father’s Office I’ve spent forty bucks or less, and that’s usually food for two plus a couple of the microbrews. The burger is truly huge, and you can make a case for getting just one and sharing it, which is convenient, because it arrives already sliced in half. But as large of an undertaking as it is, I usually finish it. It’s that delicious.

It is a bit daunting, however, to make Father’s Office a regular habit, unless of course you are one of the regulars (and FO seems to be populated with mostly regulars). If you don’t mind eating while squeezed in between two perfect strangers, then it might just be the greatest burger you’ve ever had.

Friday, August 6, 2010

#4 Burger -- Tyler's

(picture courtesy of the HamBlogger)

Before I even talk about Tyler’s, I guess I must present a decent argument as to whether or not Palm Springs can be considered part of LA, and whether or not I should be including Tyler’s in this section, as opposed to the section about the Out-of-Towners. But Tyler’s makes such an incredible burger that I’d be more than willing to sign any petition that annexes P.S. into the Los Angeles city limits.

Is Tyler’s really that good? Well, it is the burger that made me realize that the Kobe steak burgers were not automatically head-and-shoulders above the rest of the burger crowd. And the last time I bit into one, I had an almost orgasmic reaction right in front of my kids. I can’t remember that last time I reacted so strongly to a burger.

So is Tyler’s the absolute best? That’s tougher to answer. The last time I went to Tyler’s was only a week or two after tasting my first Kobe steak burger at the Burger Bar in Las Vegas. Like I’ve said, I honestly thought that all the rules about burgers would change after that. Tyler’s brought me back to earth, reminding me that there was more to making a great burger than simply massaging a cow and feeding it edamame. But something tells me that a visit to The Apple Pan or Cassell’s would have brought me to the same conclusion.

There is one problem with Tyler’s, however…it’s in Palm Springs. It’s not that I don’t like Palm Springs, because I do. Well, I do from October to April, anyway. Outside of that, I’m really not in love with eating a burger, any burger, on an outside patio when it is one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade, especially when that particular eatery is known for its long waits. And that’s the other problem with Tyler’s, that it’s very popular and very tiny. And sometimes the service reflects that. You’d think you were trying to get into Spago’s, not a burger joint way out in Riverside County.

But if you plan right, you’re in for a real treat. Since the place is only open for a few hours every day, basically just for lunch, it’s wise to get there when they open at eleven. The first time I went there I strolled in about two in the afternoon, and not only did I have to wait for over an hour in the heat, I was told that they had ran out of sliders, so my kids had to split one of their larger burgers. For those of you who don’t know, a slider is a small burger meant to be gulped down in just a bite or two. Think of White Castle. Think of the mini-cheeseburgers at Denny’s. There you go.

The second time I went, I got there right when they opened and was immediately seated. The overall experience was much, much better.

Tyler’s originally based their reputation on their sliders, which are actually much larger than their Midwestern counterparts. They’re also more expensive, more than a couple of bucks apiece. In fact, I think they’re closer to the size of most fast food 99 cent burgers. But they’re a lot better. Just get there early, because like I said, they tend to run out by about two in the afternoon. That’s right, they run out of sliders. I heard that the first time I went, and I thought well…make some more! Chop chop! It doesn’t make much sense to me to be a burger joint and to run out of one type of burger and not another. It was a bit of a turnoff for me, considering it was my first time. The heat that day didn’t help.

Personally, I don’t even get the sliders. I go for their regular burgers, which are half-pounders that are similar in execution to Russell’s, with vivid colors and flavors all resulting from the incredible freshness.

I am glad I decided to go back. Since that rather annoying first visit, I’ve grown to love the burgers at Tyler’s, and I place them right up there with The Apple Pan and Cassell’s and the other stalwarts. I don’t even mind driving the hundred miles of so from the San Fernando Valley. I make a pilgrimage there every October when I make my annual trip to the nearby apple orchards in Oak Glen with my kids. It’s worth the trip.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

#3 Burger -- Russell's

(photo courtesy of LA Time Machine)
Every time I go to Russell’s, in Pasadena, I look down at my half-eaten burger and I say to myself that maybe this is the best burger in the world. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful. As I’ve mentioned before, Russell’s is an extraordinarily colorful burger inside, with its purple tomato, deep green lettuce (indicating that’s it’s not even iceberg lettuce, a rarity) and bright orange cheddar cheese. Of course, none of this would mean a thing if the taste didn’t measure up. Obviously it does.

For years, Russell’s, like The Apple Pan, floated around in the number two or number three position on my Top Ten List. Every once in a while, usually immediately after visiting there, I flirt with the idea of making it number one. That’s how close it is between the top burgers, and how uniformly special they all are.

But Russell’s even has something going for it that the others such as The Apple Pan and Cassell’s don’t. It’s a really nice restaurant. In fact, when you enter Russell’s you immediately think that this meal is going to cost a bit more than you think. The fact that the prices are pretty much the same as the others definitely elevates this burger into the stratosphere.

This seems to be a recent development in Russell’s. The first time I tried Russell’s, it was their Belmont Shores location. The place was homey and comfortable, not too different from Pie ‘N’ Burger. For years, nearby Hamburger Henry’s was my burger joint of choice, and many people asked if I’d been to Russell’s. It took me a long time to finally find it, but when I did, I was hooked, and in many ways it instantly surpassed Henry’s as my burger of choice in the Long Beach area.

At one point there were several Russell’s around, although I’ve only tried the Belmont Shore location and ultimately the Old Town Pasadena location, which turned out to be the original location, dating back to 1930. That makes Russell’s the second oldest surviving burger joint, I believe, next to The Apple Pan. I’ve heard a few different versions of how the chain expanded and contracted, most of it centering on an Asian family who purchased them all and sold them off, one by one, until only the Pasadena location remained. I think that’s sad in a way, especially considering that Russell’s offers some of the finest food around in addition to their burgers, and in a perfect world they’d be putting one on every corner instead of closing them down. But I don’t know the whole story, so maybe I’m off base here.

Anyways, by the time the chain more or less disappeared, I had already settled into going to the Pasadena location, mostly because Pasadena had become a veritable hamburger haven for me with all of the great burgers. Just a few years ago I noticed that the restaurant had been redecorated, and that it closely resembles a very nice restaurant inside. Not quite L’Orangerie, but much nicer than say, Marie Callender’s. They even started playing classical music on the sound system there.

What does this all do for the burger? Well, nothing, I suppose. But I think it’s nice that Russell’s did all this without jacking up the prices like they do at some of the trendier gourmet burger places. The Russell’s burger, after all, is still a purist burger, although beautifully rendered with the freshest and finest of ingredients.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

#2 Burger --Cassell's

(photo courtesy of LAFoodCrazy Blog)

Have you ever watched a great film that you didn’t realize was great until after it was over? You know what I’m talking about, the kind of film that doesn’t beat you over the head with its greatness, its ambition, the scope and breadth of its epic vision, the kind of film that slowly and quietly reveals its identity as a true masterpiece by being pure and simple and honest. I’m talking To Kill A Mockingbird here. I’m talking Fargo. I’m talking Sideways.

Well, Cassell’s is the Fargo of hamburger joints. It’s the ultimate purists’ burger, one that takes a keen and patient set of taste buds to appreciate and ultimately place in the upper echelon of great hamburgers. A lot of people don’t quite get a simple burger like the one at Cassell’s, especially when the trend in Los Angeles is to go gourmet and make the burger as unique and as exotic as possible. But a lot of people do get Cassell’s and have considered it one of the truly great Los Angeles institutions for over fifty years.

Cassell’s is a no-frills, cafeteria-style burger joint where you have to push your big plastic tray along the metal ledge to get what you want. I won’t reiterate what everyone else has said about the rather bland ambience, because I really don’t care. They put their money where it’s important, into the production of the burger, although I still do balk at paying more than ten bucks for a burger, fries and a drink. Then again, The Apple Pan, Russell’s and most of the other burgers in this league are about the same price, so I don’t really want to single out Cassell’s.

Basically, there are two burgers here, the one-third pound and the two-thirds pound patty. Personally, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to eat a burger that’s more than half a pound. It’s just too much. I do admit, however, that the one-third pound patty in the smaller burger is somewhat dwarfed by the enormous white bun and gets me thinking about Greek burgers. All of those doubts vanish after the first bite. Besides, at Cassell’s they basically just hand you the meat and the bun (and cheese), and the rest is up to you. You can really load up at the condiments bar, which is excellent, including their famous homemade mayonnaise. And their potato salad is exquisite, with an obvious touch of horseradish.

With Cassell’s, it’s all about the beef, even more so than any other burger joint I know. They even sell the uncooked ground beef patties in case you want to try to make your own Cassell’s burger at home. (Fuddrucker’s does, too, but I suspect that this is mostly for show, and that Cassell’s is ultimately more successful at this.) There’s a lot of attention paid to the meat here, which is USDA choice steak ground fresh every morning. Cassell’s is also proud of their cooking method, which consists of a unique double-broiler system that cooks both sides of the patty at the same time.

I know I’ve already mentioned the steak fries, and that they may be the best I’ve ever eaten. The last time I went, though, they substituted square-cut fries, and at first I was a little disappointed. Then I tried them, and they were outstanding, perhaps equaling the square cuts at The Apple Pan. All this confirms what I said about the cooking of the fry mattering more than the fry itself. The cooks at Cassell’s definitely know what they’re doing.

Of course I keep hearing about the good old days, before the ownership change, and how the burgers were much better before the Koreans bought the place (Cassell’s is on the edge of Koreatown). In fact, the current location isn’t even the original location; it moved up a block or two over the years. But this type of thinking drives me crazy because I think when Helen Kim bought the place from Mr. Cassell, she knew what she had on her hands, and she was smart enough not tarnish the reputation of a legend. Plus, could these burgers really have been any better than they are right now? If they were, well…wow. I wish I’d been around back in the day.

I think I may prefer The Apple Pan slightly, but with the purist burgers, it’s not that simple. It’s like the same song being played by different, but equally talented performers. It’s all a matter of preference, and there aren’t really any absolutes. When I think about getting a truly great burger, I don’t automatically think about which one is the best, I think of which one I haven’t been to in the longest amount of time. The Apple Pan, Russell’s, Tyler’s and Cassell’s get worked into a sort of rotation. So while Cassell’s doesn’t quite have my vote for the greatest burger in Los Angeles, it’s so close that I don’t know if it even matters anymore.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

#1 Burger...The Apple Pan

(photo courtesy of the Beef Aficionado Blog)

The Apple Pan gets my vote as The Best Hamburger in the Known Universe almost by default. For years they were my second favorite burger, living in the shadows of places like the original Sunset Grill and Don’s Place. But over the years the Number Ones have come and gone, and one day I found myself at The Apple Pan, eating one of their relatively modest, yet extraordinarily delicious burgers, and I realized that there were no longer any burgers that could best this one.

The Apple Pan is Los Angeles’ oldest surviving burger joint, dating back to 1927. The menu itself hasn’t changed since 1947, and the date still appears at the top. To talk about The Pan is to talk about the very history of the hamburger in LA. A lot of people argue about the origins of the hamburger, whether it was invented in Hamburg, Germany, or by the Earl of Sandwich, or by that place in Connecticut that still grills the meat with the same weird toaster contraption they’ve been using for a hundred years. But few argue that the hamburger first became big in Los Angeles, its popularity growing in tandem with the burgeoning film industry. And The Apple Pan was part of it all, close to the studios, serving quick lunches so that everyone could get back to the set as soon as possible.

If you could describe the dining experience at The Pan in one word, it would be terse. In fact, I’ve seen that word used at least a couple of other times when people have discussed The Pan. It’s not that anyone is rude or abusive, it’s just that the place is always crowded, and there are only so many seats at the horseshoe-shaped counter, and there will always be someone waiting behind you, wishing you would hurry up. In fact, eating at The Apple Pan is much easier if you’re by yourself. It’s real pain trying to get more than two or three seats together at the counter, and there are no tables. Just people leaning against the walls along the windows, waiting, tapping their feet, hoping you won’t go ahead and order the pie for dessert.

The service is so unbelievably quick, though, even if there is a wait. Once you sit down, you will probably be getting back up in no more than ten minutes. The guys at the counter are definitely on top of things, giving you a menu before you’ve even sat down, giving you your drink before you’ve decided what to order, giving you your fries less than a minute after you’ve asked for them. Then, they’ll pour your drink for you, throw away your used napkins before you’ve set them on the table…anything to hurry you along.

In fact, one of the strange things about The Apple Pan, and my experience with them, is that I’ve been going there about twenty-five years now and the same guy has served me every single time. I know, it’s weird. I used to call this guy The Hardest Working Man in LA because he was a model of efficiency, the greatest waiter in the history of the earth. Sure, he never smiled and barely said a word to you, but he anticipated everything. In the last few years, however, he’s gotten older and greyer and he started wearing glasses, which definitely underlines the passage of time for me. I’ve also noticed that he smiles a little more, and jokes around with the customers. He’s still the best counter guy I’ve ever seen. I don’t feel even a little bit strange when I say that I love this guy, that he has been an important part of my life and yet he probably doesn’t even remember me when I come in.

Enough of that. I haven’t even talked about the burger yet. Like I said, it’s fairly modest in size, and it doesn’t even get served on a plate. It’s just handed to you, wrapped in wax paper, probably just like they did in 1927. There are basically two burgers at The Apple Pan, the Steakburger and the Hickory Burger. The only difference is that the Hickory Burger is slathered with a red sauce that looks more like ketchup than any sort of barbecue sauce. In fact, that’s pretty much what it is, only spicier. It’s a bit off-putting when you first see it, especially if you don’t particularly like ketchup on a burger, like me. That red sauce is oozing all over the place. There’s a lot of it. But man, does it work with the rest of the burger.

The next thing you may notice about the burgers is that The Apple Pan uses neither tomatoes nor onions. I can’t think of another burger joint where there are no tomatoes anywhere in sight. In fact, I’ve heard the waiters joke about this a few times, and they all have developed quick comeback lines when people ask why. “It’s been eighty years since a tomato saw the light of day inside these four walls” was the quip I heard the last time. I’m not sure why there’s an aversion to tomatoes and onions, but I did read something about the original chef feeling that the burger was perfect the way it was, and there was an emphasis on making the burger slightly “sweeter” than other burgers of the time. Onions can make it too hot, and tomatoes are acidic. Anyways, who needs tomatoes when you have red sauce?

The patty used at The Apple Pan, as I’ve already mentioned, made me rethink cooking times and the general importance of whether or not a burger should be medium rare. After biting into a Hickory Burger, there is no pink at the center. Yet the meat is more than juicy. In fact, the patty reminds me of Kobe steak a little, mostly in the way that while it still tastes like beef, it seems like so much more, or it seems just a little bit different than everything else. It’s super beef.

And finally, it’s time to mention those fries. I do think they’re the best I’ve ever tasted. They’re not exotic like Benita’s. They’re just perfect, which means that they’ve been cooked perfectly. They’re crunchy on the outside, potato-y on the inside, and they’re not over-salted like all of the fast food fries.

I’m still waiting for a more ambitious and flamboyant burger to take over the number one spot from The Apple Pan. I’m not holding my breath. There’s something to be said for the old, the original, and the exceedingly simple.

Burgers Burgers Burgers!!!

An interesting thing happened on the way to the Vinyl Anachronist Blog...burgers.

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned the excellent burger at the Alamo Springs Cafe near Fredericksburg, Texas. For those of you who have forgotten about this magnificent burger already, here it is:

Well, that little mention of burgers increased web traffic to this site like no other subject. So I thought...hey, I wrote an entire book once about the great burgers in and around LA, and it never got published because it was too hard to keep updated. Some burger places are opened, some go out of business and some change ownership along with the recipe.

But now I think it's time to start publishing some of those old reviews just for the fun of it! I'm going to start with the burgers that I consider truly great, and then work my way down to the fast food giants. Since I'm in Texas and don't have the resources to take new pictures of all these yummy burgers, I'll have to rely on our old friend Google Images for the pics. And if I happen to use one of YOUR photos without giving you credit, give me a holler and I'll rectify the situation.