Last week I reported on the venerable Apple Pan restaurant and its justifiably hyped burger offerings. An equally compelling burger—albeit with far less star power (you probably won't see Jack Nicholson or any other celebrity dining here)&madsh;can be found in Pasadena at the decades-old Pie 'N Burger. I have to thank George Motz for featuring Pie 'N Burger in his book Hamburger America. I would have definitely made it to the Apple Pan irrespective of his book, as it is world famous, but a hidden gem like Pie 'N Burger would have likely slipped under the radar, overshadowed by L.A.'s more celebrated burger joints but for Motz's coverage. And what a shame that would have been, for Pie 'N Burger provided me with one of the seminal burger experiences of my life.
While the Apple Pan benefited from its proximity to the Hollywood movie studios and has served everyone from Clark Gable to Barbara Streisand, Pie 'N Burger has thrived on the back of a different constituency: local college students from USC and Caltech, as well as legions of those salt of the earth-type working people that you only hear about during primary elections.
Dating back to 1963, Pie 'N Burger appears to have changed little in the ensuing years. An old mechanical cash register is still in use and while it can accept your money it cannot factor in sales tax—waitresses must consult the matrix of a chart posted on the wall to determine the tax before giving you your check. The register is not the only anachronism: the worn Formica counter top, the fading brown plaid wall paper, the staff themselves—many of whom have been here for decades—and even the menu items all hearken back to the optimistic zeitgeist of Southern California in the early 1960s.
The burger here is pure California: a quarter-pound of fresh beef, griddle-cooked and served on a toasted white squishy bun with American cheese, lettuce, onion, pickles and Thousand Island dressing. The dressing is made in-house using a recipe that was provided by the Kraft company back in the 1960s and still uses Kraft mayonnaise. According to Hamburger America, Pie 'N Burger goes through over a hundred pounds of the dressing a week. That is an awful lot of burgers, even if each one gets a generous smear of the tangy sauce.
Biting into the burger is a wondrous experience. Perfectly balanced textures come from the soft compliance of the bun, the snap and crunch from the pickles and the generous helping of lettuce, and the beef exhibiting both crunch from the charred exterior and ethereally buttery tenderness from the inner flesh. The flavor profiles are equally captivating—the perfectly balanced sweetness and tang of the dressing, the savory cheese, and the hearty flavor of the fresh ground chuck all synthesize to produce a burger that is harmonious in every regard.
To add further harmony to the proceedings be sure to order the fries as they are golden, crispy and delicious. I also recommend the shakes, which are served in a classic fashion in the metal cups that are used to mix them. After two burgers, fries, and a shake, I unfortunately had no room left for the fabled pies, but by all accounts they are also fabulous.
While I loved the Apple Pan and their unique recipes, there is something more universal about Pie 'N Burger, whose sandwich is constructed in a manner that is replicated tens of thousands of times across the Southern California landscape. The burger is, after all, essentially what you will get at In-N-Out burger and at countless other spots. But to me, Pie 'N Burger is the most exulted example of the breed: in my experience it achieves an unmatched level of harmony and balance. I have had some great burgers in LA—the aforementioned Apple Pan, In-N-Out Burger, Fred 62, as well as a few others that I will report on next week—but if I had to choose just one it would be the burger at Pie 'N Burger. It may not be the best burger in California, but it is certainly my favorite.
Pie 'N Burger
913 East California Boulevard, Pasadena CA 91106 (b/n South Lake Ave and South Mentor Ave.