Thursday, October 18, 2007

While I Get The Attraction -- Cassell's Burgers

Cassell's Hamburgers
(or, if you read the small sign in the window, "Hambugers")
3266 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 480-8668
Google Maps, Reviews, Info

In case you haven't been paying attention, Cassell's Burgers has consistently rated among the best burger joints in Los Angeles for many, many years; right up there with Apple Pan, Tommy's, the recently departed Mo' Bettah Meaty Meat Burger, and everybody's favorite In 'N' Out. L.A. Food Crazy loves him a good burger, yet I'd never made the pilgrimage to Cassell's, until yesterday.

I have probably made more hamburgers in my life than anyone you know. Not only did I work at Carl's Jr. as a teenager, but I still cook a couple hundred a year, most of them in one day -- I insist on personally grilling the burgers at our annual summer party. So I have opinions about 'em. And my opinions and prejudices very much color my take on Cassell's.

Cassell's has been making burgers since the thirties, and the room, tucked inconspicuously on an entirely nondescript corner in the Koreatown stretch of the Wilshire corridor, has a cool wartime vibe. The burgers are slung cafeteria-style. You grab a tray and order your burger, 1/3 or 2/3 pound, cheese or no. Your burger is cooked to order and the bun toasted in a single proprietary double broiler-device while you stand and read the articles on the wall extolling the virtues of the burger to come.

One lengthy L.A. Times feature posits three varieties of burger-stand burgers: "primo patties," which use high quality beef and usually fried and served with a plain bun to highlight the quality of the patty; mid-level "char-burgers," which are more likely to use flame grilled patties and sesame seed buns; and "grease bombs," where condiments are dominant, the patty merely a protein layer to act as a platter for the other ingredients. Who knew?

Once your burger is plated and delivered, you sidle down the condiment bar. This a truly impressive smorgasbord of burger bits: homemade mayonnaise, ketchupy relish, another spicier relish, hand-leafed lettuce, and most delightfully, beefsteak tomatoes and slices of onion that are uniformly huge and ,in fact, sized exactly to cover the entire beef patty. The resulting burger is an aesthetic delight, a stack that rivals the Capitol Records buildiing for rounded symmetry.

Then why did I find the Cassell's burger, while good, not great?

Part of it is personal taste. Cassell's claims to be a "primo patty" joint. You can even buy their grade A patties by the dozen to take home and cook yourself. But personally I prefer the flavor of a burger with grill marks and a hint of charcoaly char, and a sesame seed bun. And I frankly didn't find Cassell's patty to be that interesting... to my palate, ground beef patties rarely are.

That said, if you believe that a good burger is essentially about the condiments -- a greasebomb fan -- this is the place, because the condiments and your ability to adjust their quantities to taste is fantastic.

Oh, and those fries are terrific!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

New York Pizza Round Two -- Village Pizzeria, Tomato Pie, Little Toni's

Village Pizzeria
131 N Larchmont Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(323) 465-5566
Google Maps, Reviews, Info

Tomato Pie
7751 1/2 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 653-9993
Google Maps, Reviews, Info

Little Toni's
4745 Lankershim Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 91602
(818) 763-0131
Google Maps, Reviews, Info

As I expected, my last post about New York style pizza in Los Angeles generated a mini-firestorm. Not so many comments here, but a record number of daily hits on the site, a nice link from la.eater, and recommendations from half a dozen friends about their favorite NY style pie in town. Your dedicated Food Crazy is nothing if diligent in following up recommendations, particularly if by doing my culinary duty I can escape my low-carb diet for a day or two. So here are the latest entries, and the current standings.

Village Pizzeria I've been up and down Larchmont Blvd. dozens of times in the past decade. I get my hair cut there, I go to Le Petit Greek every now and again, and there's some great Italian bistro food. But somehow I'd never noticed Village Pizzeria until my friend Terry (who cites his NY pizza faves as Grimaldi's in Brooklyn and Lombardi's in Manhattan) sent me here. It's very much in the same mode as Lamonica's. The walls are covered with sports memorabilia from New York and (oddly) San Francisco. It took me a while to figure out why photos of Jerry Rice adorn the walls of a Brooklyn pizza parlor: apparently, the first Village Pizzeria outpost opened in SF. It has the feeling of a step-up-and-order-a-slice place, but it isn't. It's table service, and after standing unnoticed at the counter for a bit I was told to take a seat. The slice that arrived is what I, before I began this quest, imagined to be classic New York pizza. Ultra thin, floppy crust. My friend oB told me, if you can't fold it in half lengthwise, it's not New York pizza. Village Pizzeria fits the bill.

My slice featured spicy, ultra thin sliced pepperoni, curled up around the edges like Quisp cereal, and with a little puddle of grease in each one. The mozzarella was unusually tangy. My Coke came in a classic, logoed red plastic cup. Jerry Rice says, "two thumbs up, this is good NY pie, go Niners." Another branch is scheduled to open in December, 2007 on Yucca and Ivar in the heart of Hollywood.

Tomato Pie My friend Tom sent me to his favorite, Tomato Pie on Melrose. Tom extolled the owner's obsessive chemical analysis of Los Angeles vs. NYC tap water in his effort to recreate that elusive dough. Again, this is a fine slice.

The dough thickness is somewhere between Vito's and Village. The sauce is tangy, the slice is foldable; but the vaunted crust, chemically analyzed though it may be, didn't work for me. It was slightly undercooked, and a little chewy for my taste. But I'll go back to give it another try. It's worth the trip if for no other reason than to sit at a sidewalk table and watch the fashion parade that accompanies the end of classes at Fairfax High across the street. I note that a goodly number of students sally forth from their studies and charge immediately into Tomato Pie.

Little Toni's Little Toni's is really in a different category from the other joints here. It's a classic, old school, red naugahyde and red sauce sit down Italian, complete with Shakey's style stained glass in the windows. I worked for three years less than a quarter mile up Lankershim from this spot. How did I not know about it? This is the old school Italian of your dreams, kicking all manner of ass over Miceli's, Antonio's, and the like.

Yes, it's dark. Yes, the bottles of house chianti are cheap and drinkable. Yes, there is as much crust on the waitresses as on the pizza. But the pizza is simply sublime. I was with a group, so we had a big combo of sausage, onion, garlic, mushroom and olive.

Even with all the toppings, the crust managed an almost supernatural combination of crispness and lightness, equally so from the tip of the slice to the outer rim. This would not pass oB's fold-in-half-test; the crust is too firm. But for me, the pizza is greater than the sum of its parts, an eluctable and indivisible whole that includes the comfort of the surroundings, the beverage that washes it down, and the capacity to share it all with friends in a big comfy booth. And Little Toni's delivers, pardon the pun. It's my new favorite VENUE for "NY Style" pie in town.

But my favorite NY style pizza... just the pie itself? It's still Pizza Bella, the odd little booth at the back of Whitley Heights market on Franklin and Highland. I reviewed it here. It's not perfect... it can take 10-15 minutes to get your slice, delivery takes forever, the puchasing process (get tag here, go to front of market to pay, return with receipt) is arcane, and you have to endure the gaze of those Star Wars standees while you wait. But the slice itself is, for me, unbeatable.

The current standings (until I get another must-try recommendation) for best NY-style pizza in Los Angeles:

1. Pizza Bella
2. Little Toni's
3. Vito's
4. Lamonica's
5. Village Pizzeria
6. Tomato Pie

NOTE: I wrote this yesterday to post today. I see in today's obituaries that Sam Martorano, the founder of Casa Bianca in Glendale has passed away. I love Casa Bianca, though I can't see categorizing its unique style as being "New York." But I do plan to go have a pie there, just to pay my respects.