(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.