Cassell's has been serving USDA Prime burgers cooked with their unique double broiler system since 1948. The beef is ground fresh daily in a Hobart grinder that sits proudly in the front of the store, gleaming in the Southern California sunshine. It is just about the only thing that gleams within the weathered and worn confines of the nondescript single-story edifice tucked away on 6th Street in Korea Town. The daylight that floods in through Cassell's windows provides a stark contrast to the dull, spartan decor that doesn't look like it has changed much—save perhaps a layer or two of paint—since the 1940s. The yellowed walls, tarnished stainless steel, and tired signs are evocative of a school cafeteria. There is nothing romantic or charming about the room, unlike, for example, the Apple Pan and its impossibly idealistic preservation of its agrarian roots. Cassell's represents a grittier, urban, almost dystopian continuation of tradition.
One can't help feeling that Cassell's best days are behind it. Certainly the establishment's namesake, Mr. C, is long gone. While the system he set in motion—including the use of a unique double broiler—continues to trudge along, one wonders if it hasn't lost some of its purposefulness.
The double broiler should perhaps be more accurately described as a griddle-broiler, as one side of the patty has direct contact with the cooking surface at all times, while simultaneously being broiled from above. Irrespective of the nomenclature the contraption works as advertised, combining the virtues of both broiling and griddle cooking and allowing the cheese to become molten. The buns receive a light toasting above the double broiler on yet another griddle while the burgers sizzle below. Come to think of it, maybe it should actually be called a double griddle broiler, but I digress.
There are two burger sizes available, I recommend the 1/3-pound over the 2/3-pound patty. They are the same height but the larger one obviously has a greater surface area, making it too big for the bun—it looks like the floppy brim of a hat when the bun is placed on top, spilling out and obscuring the lower half of the bread.
Despite the claim on the menu that the burgers are invariably cooked through, the cook was more than willing to prepare mine medium rare. The result was a succulent patty brimming with juiciness and possessing a wonderfully charred exterior. It is presented open-faced on a plate, the craggy, irregularly shaped patty dripping with juice and grease, leaving small pools on the plate below. There is a Zen-like beauty to the burger in this form, a minimalist reduction to the essence of the sandwich itself. Of course, you can get all Jackson Pollock on your burger as you collect it and file to the left of the double broiler section to the condiment bar—it is stocked with reams of lettuce, beefsteak tomatoes, large discs of onion, a pool of Thousand Island dressing, homemade mayonnaise, and the ubiquitous yellow mustard and ketchup.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic I have to state that the bun is as close to perfection as any that I have had. Paradoxically, the perfect example of the the generic white squishy bun is anything but generic. Light, spongy with a smooth golden crust and a lightly toasted interior, it perfectly encapsulates the patty, holding it snugly in a loving embrace. Throw on condiments and toppings and it will handle them with aplomb, at least within reason. You don't want to crowd this burger as the beef is quite svelte—moderation will pay synergistic dividends.
Biting into the burger elicited a pleasing textural contrast between the softness of the bun and the tender, loosely packed beef with its crunchy exterior and moist inner flesh. The patty certainly has a fresh, clean flavor, as one would expect that from beef that is ground on the day it is cooked, but it was under-seasoned. In fact, I wonder if it was seasoned at all. Despite the omission, the beef has a succulence that provides a full bodied mouth-feel. While it could have used an additional slice of cheese, I found Cassell's burger to be a very pleasing diversion.
A remarkable bun, beef that—but for the lack of seasoning—fulfills all the ideals of freshness and preparation, and a myriad of topping options make the Cassell's burger a compelling proposition. The unglamorous, even mildly depressing surroundings and limited opening hours might dissuade one from venturing to Cassell's, but a visit will reward one with a unique and pleasing hamburger experience. It is most assuredly not, as the sagging banner hanging on the buildings exterior claims, the "world's greatest hamburger," but it might have been at one time, many years ago.
Original location closed.