If you were asked to define your childhood in terms of a hamburger, what would come to mind? Golden flames leaping through a charcoal grill in your backyard? Golden arches and the imperial awning of a drive-thru window? A sheepish mound of ground beef and onions being scraped off of your mother’s frying pan? Or something else altogether- something, perhaps, involving yellow waxed paper and a feeling of solidarity?Being the culinary icon of manifest destiny, the American hamburger has suffered a long history of soul-sucking mechanization. The mystique of the corporate burger, a cradle of grease and starch eagerly awaiting that first sleepy gaze from every one of America’s children, was perfectly engineered to create the impression of comfort. It’s a brilliant achievement, really: when so much nutritional emptiness is a pillar of our civilization, one can’t help but pull into the drive-thru at 2AM and savor the pointedly shiftless taste of unison and sesame seeds.
Yet, when I try to grasp the Platonic form of the burger, even filtered through the youthful embrace of ball pits and promotional tie-ins, I don’t see the domineering face of Ronald McDonald. I see the drab, underdressed counter of Colima Burgers, a greasy spoon in minor not ten minutes from my parents’ house in Diamond Bar, California. I recall the sense of authority I would feel walking into a world where consumption had not been transmogrified into entertainment. Mostly, though, I remember the smell of the most heavenly chili on this side of memory.Having grown up on the outskirts of LA, I’ve had enough condiment chili to know that there’s a surprisingly delicate balance to crafting the embodiment of gluttony. Simply throwing one’s self over the edge of reason isn’t enough. Neither is the self-evident beauty of grease. When being used as a complement to ground beef and beef byproducts, chili should elevate its hosts, not drown them in the next great puddle of American excess.
Take Colima Burgers’ chili dog. A nondescript frank, just butterflied on the grill, is tucked into a bun tasting faintly of butter, wrapped in a blanket of flavor, crowned with melted cheese and onions, and served alongside a plate of fries and horchata for $4.29. The chili itself harbors sensations of spice and heartthrob in a form too soupy for a fork but too adhesive for the absence of fear. The result is an equilibrium of taste and texture that calls into question the very purpose of the condiment: were chili dogs not created by God to make a mess of man?In pre-emptive response, Colima Burgers offers chili on any of its items, including a mountain of chili cheese fries fit for a clown. This dish has been appointed the establishment flagship by two generations of customers, but anyone whose imagination is half as rich as the chili itself can see its logical conclusion: a little something I like to call The Archduke of Monte Cristo.
Herein lies the difference between Colima Burgers and Tommy’s, or as I see it, the difference between wanting to die after a meal and wanting to die happy. Of course, this may all be a comfort of my own impression. I swear by Colima’s daily specials and impeccably crisped fries but leave most of the menu rightfully unexplored.After all, the significance of Colima Burgers is not rooted in culinary superiority. Rather, it lies in the recognition that, tucked into the strip malls of fast food’s sprawling landscape, an honest burger remains forever on the grill, waiting not for a five star rating or the next feature film, but for a modest chance to satisfy the American appetite.
19811 Colima Rd.
Walnut, CA 91789