The Burger Navel of the Universe

by Zach Mann on January 20, 2013 · 1 comment

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Original Tommy's - Los Angeles, CA
A late drive home in Los Angeles can cause fast food tunnel vision. Every highway exit is known to peckish nocturnals for its proximate combo-meal temptations. Fortunately, for my health, the two most convenient options between the 10 freeway and my place are Jack in the Box and Original Tommy’s. After two years living across the street from one in San Francisco, I still have gastrointestinal nightmares of the former. The latter doesn’t have a drive-thru.

A century ago the promise of Los Angeles as America’s Mediterranean, replete with outdoor cafes and pedestrian parks, seemed a perfect fit for its year-round weather. The ensuing expansion-fueled Autopia has since stripped the cement landscape of nearly all its outdoor food counters not on wheels. In 2013 the words “fast” and “convenient” promise vehicular Angelenos the luxury of not leaving their cars, or even their homes.

An exception is Mexican food. Tacos Delta is still alive and well, slinging birria in Silver Lake. Chabelita stayed open even during the Justice Riots. The line at Tito’s Tacos around lunchtime hasn’t waned. The seafood tostadas of my childhood have so far survived Whole Foods’ moving in next door. And the dying breed of outrageous food-stop signage can depend on King Taco to keep the tradition alive. These taco stands still fit right in with modern day L.A.

Outdoor fast food counters serving dogs and burgers, however, seem to hearken to an earlier era.

Original Tommy's - Santa Monica, CA
In a city where people buy coffee at the Starbucks drive-thru, park-and-dine fast food doesn’t flourish so much as it survives. Parking a car for a burger is more likely to involve white tablecloths, aioli and tomato jam than low cost or convenience. Los Angeles forgets that hamburgers are prole food, abandoning burgers under ten bucks to the drive-thru chains. The Georges and Jims, Classic Grills and Sunny Grills, serving pastrami-burgers and fried zucchini, are becoming historical landmarks. Local car owners might go years without ever stepping inside these businesses, barely buoyed by Metro bus riders, teenagers and senior citizens. They blend drably into the streets and strip malls of Los Angeles like California Quails, the vestigial wings of Los Angeles’ Autopian architecture.

Likewise, the dog-and-burger outdoor food counter is becoming a dinosaur. Sure, Pink’s still fools people into waiting in line, and Der Wienerschnitzel isn’t entirely extinct. L.A. Burger hasn’t closed yet (even if it looks like it has), and Lucky Boy in Pasadena still welcomes you happily to town when the 110 ends. But these are becoming unique establishments. Outdoor aluminum benches and wooden counters under pigeon-nested eaves are an endangered species.

The paragon of this species is Original Tommy’s.

Original Tommy's - Los Angeles, CA
Returning to school has reinvigorated two of my old habits: eating fast food and reading about L.A. culture. Despite the former, I rarely stop at the Santa Monica location of Original Tommy’s, nor the thinly guised Thoma’s a few blocks down. Like the ‘Bertos of San Diego, the Los Angeles chili-burger chain has spawned near infinite wannabes across the southland, with varying degrees of quality – some indoor, some outdoor, but rarely any with a drive-thru. The only reason this car owner ends up eating Tommy’s once or twice a year is an appreciation of local history.

Defining the quintessential L.A. burger is a complicated question in 2013, but it never used to be. Before In-N-Out’s empire and imported (and impostor) Japanese beef, there was Tommy’s on Beverly and Rampart, representing fast food for the southwest United States. The tiny stand-turned-chili-burger-complex, with food counters on each side of the parking lot, is still a popular late-night destination. Like another time-honored Los Angeles restaurant, the original Tommy’s location even boasts additional parking across the street.

The food at Tommy’s is as simple as it is messy. The chili comes on everything ordered unless specified otherwise. The condiment itself isn’t a game changing experience, but when combined with thick-cut cheese and a couple of yellow chiles it stands in the pantheon of fast food. If anything, eating at Tommy’s is a challenge of logistics rather than taste. Burger and hot dog buns alike are no match for the erosive properties of chili cheese.

Hamburger - Original Tommy's - Los Angeles, CA Hamburger - Original Tommy's - Los Angeles, CA
Hot Dog - Original Tommy's - Los Angeles, CA Hot Dog - Original Tommy's - Los Angeles, CA Fries - Original Tommy's - Los Angeles, CA
Most of my reading on Los Angeles history has been through its literature. While literary L.A. is more likely to overlap with food culture at Musso and Frank or Trader Vic’s (R.I.P.), there’s something to be said for the importance of Greek-American diners on the cultural landscape, perhaps most famously when Frank meets Cora and his fate at a Greek diner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Even so, I was surprised to find the Greek-founded Original Tommy’s on the pages of one of America’s post-modern masters: Thomas Pynchon.

You’ll more likely find The Crying of Lot 49 in L.A. literature anthologies, but some of my favorite passages about Los Angeles can be found in his 2009 novel (that hopefully precedes a promising film adaptation).

Pynchon captures Tommy’s gravitas within Los Angeles culture perfectly, from Inherent Vice:

“Agent Borderline closed the folder abruptly and slid it into a pile of others on a credenza, but not before Doc saw a blurred telephoto shot of himself out in a parking lot, probably Tommy’s, sitting on the hood of his car holding a gigantic cheezburger and peering into it quizzically, actually poking through the layers of pickles, oversize tomato slices, lettuce, chili, onions, cheese, and so forth, not to mention the ground-beef part of it which was almost an afterthought – an obvious giveaway to those who knew about Krishna the fry cook’s practice of including somewhere in this, for fifty cents extra, a joint wrapped in waxed paper. Actually, the tradition had begun in Compton years ago and found its way to Tommy’s at least by the summer of ‘68, when Doc, in the famished aftermath of a demonstration against NBC’s plans to cancel Star Trek, had joined a convoy of irate fans in pointed rubber ears and Starfleet uniforms to plunge (it seemed) down Beverly Boulevard into deep L.A., around a dogleg and on into a patch of town tucked in between the Hollywood and Harbor Freeways, which is where he first beheld, at the corner of Beverly and Coronado, the burger navel of the universe.”

Tommy’s Original World Famous Hamburgers
2575 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90057


Cafe Coyote - Mexican Restaurants in Old Town February 11, 2013 at 8:27 am

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