Pancaked, Burgered and Shanghaied in California

by James Boo on January 19, 2010 · 8 comments

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Can you name this dining counter?

The Apple Pan - West Los Angeles, CA
If so, you’ve had the privilege of tasting one of America’s finest burgers. If not, you’ll get your answer below the fold.

This is the last of the point-and-eat posts from my holiday in California. I’ve saved what are probably my three favorite meals of the two weeks I spent on the west coast for the end of this series, and – to no one’s surprise, I hope – the ranking of all three has as much to do with people, place and memory as with the food I ate.

Mitsuru Cafe – Little Tokyo, Downtown L.A.

Making Imagawayaki - Mitsuru Cafe - Little Tokyo, Los Angeles
While I was in the boundaries of Los Angeles, I was recruited to review downtown LA’s Nickel Diner for a magazine pitch. While that meal was mostly boring, it did give Boykji and me a chance to stroll through the downtown area on a sunny day. We walked through the neon sign wonderland known as Grand Central Market, peeked inside the Blade Runner set known as the Bradbury Building, and navigated our way through the plazas of Little Tokyo, where we stumbled a cross a long line of eaters awaiting their chance to enter a small Japanese cafe.

Mitsuru, as it turns out, is known for its imagawayaki, a kind of red bean hotcake that customers can watch the pastry chef make as they queue up for a turn at the counter. Agreeing that the mention of red bean is reason enough to form up single file, we fell in and fixed our eyes on the windowpane. Working with the deliberation of a grand jury, the unadorned chef filled a hot casting griddle with batter, spooned homemade red bean filling over the cakes as they rose, then, using his fingers as a barometer, flipped one half atop the other to form a seal as the baking process completed.

Imagawayaki - Mitsuru Cafe - Little Tokyo, Los Angeles Imagawayaki - Mitsuru Cafe - Little Tokyo, Los Angeles
One long line and $1.25 per piece later, we were handed our imagawayaki in thin paper bags. While these pastries don’t reach the textural highs of the glutinous, black sesame-dotted yakimochi at Cafe Zaiya in New York, they’re still well worth the wait. The crust of each cake, hot and steaming off the griddle, was nicely crisped, while the insides were fluffy. The homemade filling was thankfully not too sweet, and nothing about the pastry tasted artificial or augmented in the slightest. We sat down on a nearby bench and ate with our hands, breaking simple sweet bread amongst our fellow Angelenos.

The Apple Pan – West L.A.
Later that day, we returned to Boykji’s hometown of west Los Angeles, where mother Boyk took us out for dinner at The Apple Pan. I may have eaten at In-N-Out four times during the two weeks I spent in California, but none of those burgers beat out what I still think is the best burger in Los Angeles and possibly my favorite burger in the country.

The Apple Pan - West Los Angeles, CA
Part of The Apple Pan’s unique quality (which, as emblazoned on the neon sign posted outside its unassuming building, will last forever) is its presence. Whenever I gripe about diners not really being diners and joints not really being joints, the first image to back up my curmudgeonly mind is the counter at The Apple Pan. There is no form of restaurant seating more elegant: When you walk through the double doors of this institution of eating, you must decide whether to step to the left or to the right. Once you’ve chosen your side of the room, you wait for an open spot at the counter. You receive no ticket and you wait for no waiters; just mind your manners and you’ll get a chance to sit down.

Once you’ve taken your seat – slightly uncomfortable since 1947 – a stately, white-haired buck, clad in white and crowned with folded paper, asks for your order. He’s flanked by years of brick, wood and stainless steel. Line cooks bustle about behind him, freshly grilled patties shifting between their hands and mile-high stacks of iceberg lettuce and pre-sliced cheese towering on one side of the assembly table. He’s one of the friendliest guys you’ll ever meet, but if you try to order before your lady, he will, without hesitation, put you in your place.

Fries Well Done - The Apple Pan - West Los Angeles, CA
A pile of fries, well done if you ask, show up first. Wedged into cardboard, they’re stark, simple and absolutely perfect. As you take your first crunchy bite, the man throws down a cardboard plate, flips over his bottle of Heinz and – in a manner that can only be defined as “not fucking around” – heaps a serving of catsup beside it. He then sets out a wire frame with a tiny, conical paper cup, into which he drops a scoop of ice before handing you a soft drink. The flawless motion of it all makes me wish that Ray Croc had never sucked all the soul out of routine.

Steak Burgers - The Apple Pan - West Los Angeles, CA
Hickory Burger - The Apple Pan - West Los Angeles, CA Steak Burger - The Apple Pan - West Los Angeles, CA
Once you’ve had your chance to munch on a few fries and take a sip of your soda, your choice of two burgers hits the counter. The only difference between them is in condiment – the hickory burger is dressed with a tangy barbecue sauce, while the steak burger is dressed with a sweet, red pickle relish. I prefer the taste and texture of relish on my patty, but both burgers are created equal.

Aside from the distinction of sauce, a hamburger at the Apple Pan is as simple as simple may be: loosely packed ground beef grilled medium well, a sizeable wad of iceberg, pickles and mayo on a deeply browned-edge bun. Beef here knows nothing of the heavily stuffed, thickly crusted, medium rare patties that dominate palates of the future. Instead, they offer an endlessly juicy hamburger experience. I have never had a juicier burger (that’s juicy, not bloody or greasy) than I have at the Apple Pan. It’s the template of taste for all hamburgers in fast food (White Castles exempt from all things definitional, of course), and it still holds the title after over half a century of business.

Making your way through a burger and fries here would be enough to land this place on your list of best burger joints in the world. What cements its spot is the next question asked: “Are you going to have pie tonight?”

Best Banana Cream Pie in America - The Apple Pan - West Los Angeles, CA
The only acceptable answer is yes. The only right answer is banana cream. The Apple Pan’s banana cream pulls rank with Lois’ lemon icebox as the best pie of my lifetime. It’s the kind of pie that shows you things you thought pie could never accomplish. Yes, banana can be refreshing. Yes, pastry crust can stay flaky under multiple layers of banana, pudding and whipped cream. Yes, you will dream for months about your next chance to part with six bucks for a slice of pie – banana pie, of all things. Yes, you can have another slice.

Once you’ve polished off the last bits of whipped cream and crust crumb, you pay your tab and let someone else have his turn at the counter. The moment you step out through those swinging doors, you’re back in the twenty-first century, walking along Pico in the shadow of one of L.A.’s biggest shopping malls. This is the kind of dining experience that makes it extremely easy to see through the plastered-on rustics of pretty much every old-timey-themed restaurant I come across. Just as flash is no substitute for flavor, atmosphere is no substitute for history; the Apple Pan operates on both of these principles with a wink in its eye, not a tongue in its cheek.

Shanghai Restaurant – Chinatown, Downtown Oakland
When Oakland’s Shanghai opened a luxurious second branch in the crotch of student territory in Berkeley, it was doomed to the worst kind of failure: failure by ignorance. The restaurant had one or two years of glory, attracting diners from all around the Bay Area but remaining anathema to the undergraduate body, who would sooner gush over its mediocre-with-brunch neighbor, Cafe Durant, than sit down for a meal of xiaolongbao and sticky rice. Then, it closed up shop, content with the bounds of its original hole in the wall on Webster.

When I returned to Shanghai, it was business as usual – cramped space, dingy walls, ramshackle tables and an attitude ranging somewhere between indifferent and confused. Perfect for my last night in the East Bay.

Xiaolongbao - Shangai Restaurant - Oakland Chinatown, CA
Every meal at Shanghai starts off with xiaolongbao. These soup dumplings are the perfect mirror to the rest of Shanghai’s food – not something I would refer to as “refined” and too thick-skinned for me to stand up and call them the best XLB I’ll ever have, but very tasty all the same.

Another standby, Shanghai’s double fried noodles – chow mein style noodles, half tender, half crispy – rides the crest of comfort food. The meat gravy ladled atop is unobtrusive enough to ward off the aura of junk, and the varied textures of meat, pepper, leek and two kinds of noodles is ceaseless fun.

While not nearly as varied, Shanghai’s savory rice cakes (I think it’s niangao) – dressed in green, mixed with pork and doused in a similar gravy – also make for a comforting bite. Sauteed green beans are nicely charred.

This fellow was tasty, but I don’t remember anything in particular about him. Strange that I feel somewhat squeamish around cooked embodied shellfish but can’t resist taking close-up photos of a whole fried fish.

Salted pork with bean sheets is one of Shanghai’s hidden aces and definitely the surprise standout of the evening. The pork on this dish is extremely tender, juicy and savory in the simplest sense. The bean sheets in question are actually flat, wide noodles cut from tofu sheets; the imprinted surface and clean, dense texture are really nice upgrades from a comparably shaped egg or rice noodle.

Easily superior to Shanghai’s xialongbao are Shanghai’s shengjianbao, bite-sized buns filled with the same savory pork filling, then browned from beneath and sprinkled with sesame seeds and green onion. No visit to Webster St. is complete without a handful of these.

I could say the same thing about the restaurant’s red bean pancake, a Christmas card-shaped slap to the cheeks of red bean buns all over town. Made with rice flour and fried until it attains the union of chewy, crisp and greasy, this is the perfect end to a meal composed almost entirely of items off the dim sum menu. And while it might have tasted even better on a warm bench in downtown L.A., it wouldn’t have been as satisfying outside the dank confines of Shanghai.

I’ll see you again next year, California!

Mitsuru Cafe
117 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Los Angeles, CA 90012
The Apple Pan
10801 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Shanghai Restaurant
930 Webster St
Oakland, CA 94607
David Farris January 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm

I was actually disappointed by the shengjian bao–there was no soup on the inside! (In fact, after getting excited about having some for the first time since I lived in Shanghai, when there was no soup, I assumed they were something else entirely.) Not bad, but worlds away from the real article. (Though the real article usually results in third degree burns on my face.)

James Boo January 19, 2010 at 2:45 pm

There should be soup on the inside? My world is blown! Or, perhaps I’m just using the wrong terminology entirely in describing the pork buns (If they’re described as shengjianbao on the menu, I would have no way of telling since I only understand the English translations).

Now I’m gonna have to dig around for the real deal to properly calibrate my taste buds. Thanks for pointing that out, David.

Joon S. January 19, 2010 at 9:32 pm

My family has been getting those red bean cakes at Mitsuru for years–ever since I can remember, in fact, when Little Tokyo didn’t have TWO American Apparel stores and when it was in danger of becoming a ghost town. The funny thing is that we never knew what it was called. I suppose we never really cared to look for it, or perhaps we were just too busy delighting in the sticky, warm sweetness of the red bean cakes. Great post!

Humble Reader January 19, 2010 at 9:57 pm

My boyfriend has been telling me how The Apple Pan is one of his favorite places for a burger. I have to admit, I saw the menu online and wasn’t excited because of the cost and limited menu…but damn. I’m def. interested in going now after seeing those pics!!!

James Boo January 19, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Joon – I knew that place had history. Here’s to many more years of imagawayki!

Humble – I used to think $6.50 was pricey, some people would just as soon go to Fatburger, but I really do believe the entire experience (adding to, not pinch hitting for, the quality of the burger) is worth the cost. Don’t forget to have a slice of that pie!

wasabi prime January 20, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Dang, this is like a foodie wonderland! I haven’t had a really good red bean cake in a while; I may have to stop by one of the bakeries the next time I’m in the city. When I lived by more Asian bakeries, I really took it for granted!

JO January 21, 2010 at 1:22 pm

oh god, I’m so hungry. I gotta get out of here

Zach Mann January 25, 2010 at 7:16 pm

I don’t quite share your enthusiasm for Apple Pan’s burgers.

But I do acknowledge the purity of Apple Pan’s simple dedication to Americana.

And I completely subscribe to your appreciation of Apple Pan’s cream pie.

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