-noun 1. A large hamburger consisting of multiple thick beef patties as well as the addition of highly caloric toppings, including but not limited to: cheese, bacon, pastrami, egg, hot links and chili.
Forget what Jimmy Buffet says, the best cheeseburgers aren’t found in paradise; they’re found on the mean streets. Products of tough neighborhoods where money is often tight but stomachs aren’t, hood burgers are a unique category unto themselves. The current LA burger dichotomy generally falls into two categories: the fast-food style burger with a thin, tightly-packed patty adorned with basic toppings; and the gourmet burger, featuring a larger, loosely ground patty featuring higher quality meat and more upscale ingredients. Somewhere between the two lies the mutant, bastardized world of the hood burger. If classics like Apple Pan and Pie n’ Burger are Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, then perhaps these are more like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire: beefed-up, highly divisive, and of questionable sanity. Hood burgers can be found in many parts of the U.S., but some of the best examples are found here in Los Angeles. After all, they don’t call it Burger Town for nothing. Here are five of the best, sampled over five days.
Day #1: Fred’s Downhome Burgers
Located in Hyde Park — one of Los Angeles’ oldest, and most harried, African-American neighborhoods — Fred’s Downhome Burgers is a simple establishment: a small concrete building surrounded by a parking lot of idling cars waiting for food. No picnic tables or counter space here, only a few pieces of white lawn furniture and large yellow banner that reads “We Take E.B.T.” Orders are given through a small screen window, where inside sounds of KDAY bump over the hiss of sizzling meat and bubbling french fries. Don’t be fooled by the friendly demeanor of the staff, the burgers served here are downright intimidating. Their largest, The Royal Burger, consists of two thick hand-formed patties, crispy bacon, a fried egg, a ladle of chili, as well as the less common addition of thick-cut pastrami slices. The result is hearty burger that despite its overwhelming appearance is surprisingly harmonious. Eating it with your bare hands may be ill-advised, but you’ll probably try it anyways.
Is it the best hood burger? The jury is still out on that one. But messiest? Undoubtedly; as evidenced by the mountainous pile of grease-soaked napkins that you’ll be left with. Protip: order the fries. Fresh, thick, crispy, and heavily seasoned with Lawry’s, these are maddeningly addictive and some of the best you’ll find in the hood. For dessert, step over to the neighboring Mama’s Chicken Market. Rich, homemade banana pudding topped with Nilla wafers and sticky wedges of fresh pecan pie might sell for $2.50, but these desserts are worth their weight in gold.
2524 W Slauson Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90043
Day #2: Fresh & Meaty Burgers
Just a few minutes south of Fred’s in Inglewood is Fresh and Meaty Burgers, which sits on a picturesque hill overlooking Central LA. The day-glo decor here is slightly less spartan that most ‘hood burgers stands, though inside the small lobby a layer of inch thick bullet-proof glass separates you from the cashier; just in case you forgot where you were. Still, in a rare touch of modernity, Fresh and Meaty happens to be the only place on this list that boasts both a drive-thru lane and mobile food truck. Any type of pretense stops there however, as the burgers are dense, meaty and ugly. The largest burger on the menu is the Royal Burger (sensing a pattern?) consisting of two patties, bacon, chili, american cheese and the obligatory fried egg.
At my particular visit, the kitchen had ran out of bacon –unspeakable to some– but gladly added a second fried egg as atonement. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as they eggs here were fried perfectly. The yolk, a buttery, semi-solid glob of rich yellow, was much preferred over the hard-cooked versions that comprise the norm. The cumin-tinged chili drenching the burger was incredibly thick, containing so much beef it might as well been the equivalent of a third patty. Fresh and Meaty cooks their loosely-ground chuck patties very well-done, developing a uneven char that carries the acrid taste of black pepper preferred by some. Lettuce, tomato, onion and a schmear of tangy pickle relish are background players on this goopy, beef-centric burger where buns seem woefully under-equipped. Sure, it may not be pretty, but if you can get past its gnarled looks you’ll find yourself with a decent example of a hood burger, and perhaps a wicked case of heartburn to boot. Skipping the fries here would be a good call; these stodgy, under-cooked wedges may be fresh cut, but aren’t very enjoyable unless drowned in a helping of chili and cheese.
3016 W Florence Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90043
Day #3: Mom’s Burger
Many consider Mom’s Burgers in Compton to be not only the finest hood burger in Los Angeles, but also one of the best burgers period. They might not be far off. Compared to the heft of many other hood burgers, the creations served at Mom’s are noticeably restrained. That’s not to say the burgers are petite, but they certainly are less likely to induce labored breathing and heavy belt loosening. Take for the example, the popular “Chronic Cheese Burger”, a solitary patty topped with creamy yellow cheese, a hard-cooked fried egg and several curly tendrils of crispy bacon. The burger patties, slightly thinner than the hood standard, are seasoned with a nice balance of salt and pepper and cooked just well enough to preserve a tender, not too juicy, interior. When bacon, egg and cheese are added, along with the requisite roughage, the final product nails the ideal burger proportions.
With the exception of some uneven heavy pockets of mustard and mayo the Chronic Burger made for a superb balance of flavor and texture. The most telling sign was that upon finishing I immediately considered ordering a second, partly due to my gluttonous appetite accustomed to more monstrous burgers, but mostly because Mom’s knows (after 33 years of practice) how to assemble an excellent burger. The skinny fries here are standard: frozen, well salted and alternately crispy and soggy. It’s worth noting that despite its location within the notorious Compton neighborhood, Mom’s is probably the least threatening burger joint on the list, occupying a pale blue shack nestled in the quaint sprawl of the South Bay. Regulars here elbow up to the outdoor counter encircling the kitchen and savor their burgers slowly; Mom recommends you do the same.
336 W Alondra Blvd
Compton, CA 90220
Day #4: B&R’s Old Fashion Burgers
In a city filled with strip mall gems, it seems odd that B&R is the only place on this list actually located in a strip mall. It also is one the few places to feature something resembling a dining area: a collection of mismatched chairs and tables that serves more as a waiting room for take-out than as a place to eat. B&R’s main claim to fame is its Monster Royal Burger, a creation of two patties, cheese, egg and a choice of bacon or pastrami. Truth be told, it’s not that much different from what is seen at most other hood stands, though they do dedicate an annual eating contest to the burger, which itself should raise an eyebrow. When the Monster Royal comes out the kitchen it is much more diminutive than the unnatural-looking obelisk that is plastered on posters across the room. This surprisingly squat yet wide burger would almost be able to fit inside an over-stretched jaw. But due to the addition of a thin, watery chili sauce the buns soon soften and disengage from the patty, leaving one to resort to the plastic knife and fork stowed inside the grease-splotched paper bag. Choosing bacon over pastrami is recommended, as the crunchy texture of bacon, even if it is overcooked, is still preferable to the rubbery slices of pastrami that get lost in the mess.
The saving grace is the meat. While not the most potently seasoned, it tastes fresh, moist and oddly light for such a heavy slab of cow. The fries here, fresh cut with skin-on, arrive looking a bit wilted from their douse in oil, but are cooked perfectly enough to develop a creamy, starchy interior. The ‘homemade’ lemonade, which seems to be hood burger staple, is tart, tangy and superior to most I’ve slurped. Though if you actually believe it’s homemade, then I’ve got a Nigerian prince who might be interested in you. The Monster Royal may not exactly be worthy of it’s own festival, but it’s a dependable additional to any hood burger repertoire. As it sat finish the last bites of my burger at one of the linoleum tables, a man leaned over and asked if I thought I would be able to finish the whole Monster Royal. Please, I thought, I’ve eaten bigger.
3512 W Rosecrans Ave
Hawthorne, CA 90250
Day #5: Hawkin’s House of Burgers
As much an icon as the nearby Watts Towers, Hawkins House of Burgers is credited with being the originator, perfecter and paterfamilias of the hood burger subculture. Situated across the street from Watts’ oldest and largest housing project, Hawkin’s began as a small grocery store selling amenities and serving food to tenants. Burger demand quickly outpaced all others, leading to an expanded kitchen and menu. Groceries are still available in the back however, just in case you want a bottle of malt liquor or roll of toilet paper along with your burger and fries. Though some die-hards (who prefer size over taste) order the $16 Hawkins Special: a three-patty, egg, pastrami, bacon, sausage and chili topped monstrosity that measures at least a foot tall, most opt for the staff favorite Whipper Burger. The Whipper is construction of double-stacked beef patties melted together with american cheese and topped off shaved pastrami and a butterflied hot link. Sure, it may not have all of the cholesterol-laden amenities of larger Hawkins Special, but what it does include is delicious.
The pastrami is peppery and tender, while the sausage link snaps and bursts with spicy juice, making for excellent companions to an already superb burger. Topped with mustard, onions, dill pickle chips, and sweet relish the Whipper tastes like the hulking love child of all things greasy spoon. The steak fries aren’t bad either. Of course, being the most famous hood burger comes with a price. The small kitchen often becomes strained under the combined traffic of locals and those making a further pilgrimage. Luckily an old pac-man arcade game and a few bootleg DVD salesman help the time pass quickly. The prize that waits when your number is called is still one of the best hood burgers available, even 50 years and many competitors later.
11603 Slater St
Los Angeles, CA 90059
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