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A State-By-State Guide to 200 Great Burger Joints
By George Motz
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America’s foremost hamburger expert George Motz has been back on the road to completely update and expand his classic book, spotlighting the nation’s best roadside stands, nostalgic diners, mom-n-pop shops, and college town favorites –capturing their rich histories and one-of-a-kind taste experiences. Whether you’re an armchair traveler, a serious connoisseur, or a curious adventurer, Hamburger America will inspire you to get on the road and get back to food that’s even more American than apple pie.
“A wonderful book. When you travel across the United States, take this guide along with you.” — Martha Stewart
“A fine overview of the best practitioners of the burger sciences.” — Anthony Bourdain
“Just looking at this book makes me hungry, and reading George’s stories will take you on the ultimate American road trip.”– Michael Bloomberg
“George Motz is the Indiana Jones of hamburger archeology.”–David Page, creator of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives
By George Motz
The American burger joint is far more than just a place to eat. It’s a community center, and even the ones that don’t serve alcohol act as a sort of bar without booze. It’s a place for people to catch up and get news whether it’s local or global, and every burger joint has its characters, its regulars, and its lifers. For all of the burger counters, shacks, and dives I’ve fallen in love with over the years, it’s the ones with the deepest souls I find myself returning to for my fix of community. And the best ones out there are those that make me feel like a regular after being a complete stranger but a few minutes earlier. This book is full of such places.
It has been one hell of an 18-year mission rambling through America eating burgers and meeting my true burger heroes. As time goes by I’ve had the good fortune to be able to retrace my steps and check in with old friends at burger joints. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find sons, daughters, nephews, cousins… all jumping in to help and in many cases take over the restaurants in which they’ve grown up. These brave souls are the future of Hamburger America.
When I’m on the road, I always find it amusing when people blurt out “This is your job?! You just drive around eating burgers?” That as we know is only part of the story. I do get to travel for burgers, often, but it’s taxing on the body and mind. Good health is important, and I exercise and eat well when not on the road. You should, too.
Putting things in perspective—when I started compiling information on America’s greatest burger destinations, the Internet was downright ridiculously disorganized, I used paper maps to get around, and Instagram did not exist (how is this possible?). I jumped on the first Garmin GPS system, but traveling with it required a separate case.
Today, my life is much easier. Research is a snap with the amount of information out there and every news source archiving their entire print output. But life is also easier because my name and burger reputation seem to precede me. It’s amazing to walk into a classic burger joint for the first time and be greeted with, “We have your book!”
The part of my job that’s not easy is hearing about a place that has closed, which happens all too often. Between this version and the last, we lost an astonishing 14 classic burger joints. Most closed for financial reasons, a few the victims of highway expansion, development, and one (Cotham’s Mercantile) sadly burned to the ground. Two of them closed as I was buttoning up this revision.
But the new crop is good! I went deep and we discovered classic places open for decades that could easily have been in the first edition of this book. Many of the new discoveries came from a dedicated legion of fans that understand exactly what belongs in Hamburger America. Anyone that takes the time to reach out to me with a hot burger tip is my hero, and I take every piece of information very seriously. It is, understandably, one of the reasons I’ve been able to do what I do.
Get out there and eat burgers that are, according to this book, some of the best in America. But as you enjoy your heavenly handful of greasy goodness, take a moment to ponder the history of the place you are eating in. It’s the reason that burger tastes so damn good. And when you leave, please don’t forget to tell them what a great job they are doing. Your appreciation makes them the historically significant burger destinations that they have become.
110 East Main St | Paragould, AR 72450 870-239-9956 | Mon–Fri 10 am–8 pm | Sat 10 am–7 pm | Closed Sun
You’ll smell Hamburger Station before you see it. That’s because the unmistakable aroma of onions commingling with beef grease fills this neighborhood just across the tracks from downtown working-class Paragould, Arkansas. “Blue collar are my bread and butter,” the friendly Bert Daggett told me in his tiny, clean, short-order kitchen with two young girls helping out. “But we get all types: from the bottom of the ladder to the top come here.” Just then a large diesel locomotive pulling thirty-plus grain cars slowly lumbered past only a few feet from the burger stand. The entire stand shook, the engineer let out a few blasts of the horn, and Bert said, “We don’t even hear it anymore.”
The burger to get at Hamburger Station is the Hum-Burger, also sometimes called the “Hum.” It starts as a five-ounce patty of fresh ground 73/27 chuck from a local butcher and is cooked on a tiny flattop that has been in operation since opening day. The patty gets a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper after it hits the griddle. “It’s just one of those things,” Bert explained of the single-sided seasoning approach, “some science someone figured out before me. Pepper on the bottom burns and gives it a harsh taste.” A regular cheeseburger comes with mustard, onion, and pickles on a toasted bun, but the Hum adds sweet Texas onions that are thinly sliced and cooked into the patty, much like the style of the Fried Onion Burgers of El Reno, OK (here).
The Hum-Burger is an incredible burger. I’ve only had one to date but its simple perfection knocked me over. The paper wrapping, even for only a few minutes from window to picnic table, warms the finished product perfectly. The pepper is not overwhelming, the dill pickle gives a vinegar bite, and the onions create a deeply satisfying, savory hamburger experience.
Seating is limited to a handful of picnic tables outside (there’s no seating inside). Place your order at the window and wait patiently for heaven to arrive. Everything gets wrapped in paper to go, so you’ll be eating out of a paper bag outside. It’s the way a hamburger stand should be.
Bert is not the sort of person you’d think to find in a place like this. He has three college degrees and had a successful career but when he was in between jobs the opportunity to purchase Hamburger Station came up. The burger stand was owned by two women, Marky Callum and Dottie Bittick, who converted a closed gas station into a burger stand in 1985. The station was already on the National Historic Register, which means the structure can never be torn down. Bert came along in 1998 and found the women, golf buddies of his mother’s, were looking to retire. They were tired of running the business and only wanted to sell it to someone who wouldn’t change a thing. It has been twenty years since he bought Hamburger Station and as he put it, “It must be working!”
He did make one change though in the past twenty years, and it became his one mistake. “I switched from Kraft to Hellmann’s mayonnaise.” He got a call soon after from the ladies at Lucille’s Beauty Salon only a few blocks away. “They let me have it!” Bert remembers, and he switched back to Kraft mayo right away.
It was a life lesson that has helped Bert and his crew crank out consistently great burgers over the past two decades at Hamburger Station. People in the area refer to the Hum-Burger as an “undiscovered gem,” and Bert has customers who travel from as far away as Memphis for his under-the-radar burgers. “When someone tells you ‘that’s the best burger’ it just recharges your batteries.”
Bert is one hard-working guy. The tiny stand is open all winter and, as he explained, “If my girls can’t get to work because of snow, I’ll go pick them up.” Bert himself is at the stand daily and has only taken one break since buying the place. “I was out once for surgery, for a whole week!”
THE APPLE PAN
10801 West Pico Blvd | Los Angeles, CA 90064 | 310-475-3585 Tues–Thurs & Sun 11 am–12 am | Fri & Sat 11 am–1 am | Closed Mon
The Apple Pan serves up one of the best burger experiences in America. The synthesis of flavors and textures in their burgers is second to none, and the presentation is entirely Californian with its waxed paper wrapping. The atmosphere of the place is pure nostalgia, not the kind that is manufactured, but real and enduring. In the twenty years that I have been going there, nothing has changed—the burger I ate in the early ’90s is exactly the same as the one I ate last week.
The Apple Pan looks completely out of place on Pico Boulevard in the neighborhood of West Los Angeles. The small white-shingled burger cottage is directly across the street from the towering behemoth Westside Pavilion Mall. All of Westside has built up around the tiny burger spot but the Apple Pan remains. Where the four-story mall stands was once a pony ride field. If you look directly at the Apple Pan and block out all of the surrounding urban chaos, you will be transported to a burger shack on a quiet country road somewhere in rural America.
Clark Gable used to visit regularly when he was working down the street at Paramount. Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand are regulars, as are many other Hollywood stars looking for a late-night burger fix.
The interior looks the same as it did on opening day in 1947 with its scotch plaid wallpaper and now worn terrazzo floor. A horseshoe counter with twenty-six red leather stools and two clunky old mechanical cash registers surround an efficient short-order kitchen. The counter and grillmen all wear crisp white shirts and paper hats and take your order the minute your pants hit the stool. If you ask for fries, out comes a paper plate and the thwock-thwock of a counterman pouring ketchup for you. Ask for milk and you’ll receive a metal cup holder with a paper insert. It’s almost as if someone forgot to tell them the ’50s were over. I hope no one does.
The burger menu consists of only two choices—the “Steakburger” and the “Hickoryburger.” Both start as fresh ground beef that is formed into quarter-pound patties in the restaurant daily. “We’ll patty up to a thousand a day,” Sunny Sherman, the owner and granddaughter of the man who started the restaurant told me. The most popular burger at the Apple Pan is the Hickoryburger. What separates this burger from most is a proprietary, tangy hickory sauce that goes on the burger along with pickles, mayo, and a sizable wedge of crisp iceberg lettuce (no tomato). All of this (and a slice of Tillamook cheddar if desired) is placed on a toasted white squishy bun and served the way most burgers are in Southern California—wrapped in waxed paper, no plate. The Steakburger replaces the hickory sauce with a sweet relish.
Iceberg lettuce on a burger is an LA tradition, but no burger I’ve met takes this condiment so seriously. “We only use the middle layers of the head, not the core or outside,” grillman Lupe told me. “Just the crisp part.” A prep chef slices perfect chunks of the crisp lettuce—one head of iceberg can yield only seven to eight chunks. That’s a lot of heads of lettuce when you are cranking out up to a thousand burgers a day.
The result of biting into this pile of textures and flavors is pure bliss. The softness of the bun, the tang of the sauce, the warmth of the griddled beef, and the snap of the lettuce and pickle synthesize in that first bite like no other. It’s nearly a perfect burger experience.
Walking into the Apple Pan at peak times can be daunting. There’s no real order to who sits where. The trick is to position yourself behind someone who looks like they are finishing (look for half-eaten pie). If you are alone, the wait is minimal. For groups of ten—forget it.
Ellen and Allan Baker opened the Apple Pan in 1947. Allan had succeeded with another venture across town called King’s Kitchen. From King’s he brought the Steakburger. With the Apple Pan he introduced the Hickoryburger.
Allan built the Apple Pan as a business to retire on and had not planned to work there but did anyway. He hired Joe Kelly, his caddy from his golf days in Chicago, to be the general manager. In 1973, when Joe fell ill, Charles Collins took his job. Charles celebrated his fiftieth year of employment at the Apple Pan in 2007 (and retired after fifty-two years in 2009), but he is not alone. Many of the countermen have been donning paper caps and serving up burgers and pie for decades. Today, the Bakers’ daughter and granddaughter, Martha Gamble and Sunny Sherman, own the Apple Pan. They are committed to keeping the Los Angeles landmark as vibrant as it has been for seventy years.
The timeless quality of old Los Angeles is a draw that is hard to ignore. The Apple Pan does its part to remind us of what can endure in this town of disposable careers and an ever-changing cityscape. There’s no need to rush down to the Apple Pan. It’ll be there forever.
4301 West Pico Blvd | Los Angeles, CA 90019 323-936-0366 | Mon–Sun 7 am–7 pm
John Stamouvlasis is one of the greatest characters in this book. He is hardboiled and gruff with a striking, deadpan sense of humor and piercing green eyes. He’s also extraordinarily passionate about simple cooking and food. It may be the perfect combination for a burger joint operator.
“My dad used to say, ‘Don’t let anyone take advantage of you.’” When I asked John a question about the history of Capitol Burgers that he couldn’t answer, he would respond with a straight face, “Ask my dad.” His father, who built the stand in 1965, has been dead for some time. The humor was not lost on me.
John’s dad, George, arrived in America from Greece in the late 1950s by way of Mobile, Alabama. By 1961 he ventured out to Los Angeles looking for work. His first move was to visit a Greek church and ask where other Greeks were. A Greek bus driver gave him a lead on a Greek burger joint called Jim’s Burgers. He worked there for three years, saved his money, and hand-built the stand that is still with us over fifty years later on West Pico.
Show up hungry because the double cheeseburger at Capitol is no joke. Fresh, thin, pre-formed patties are cooked quickly on the flattop and married to a heap of waiting fresh veggies on a big toasted bun. A burger with everything comes with chopped onion, crisp iceberg lettuce, a few slices of tomato, pickles, and mustard, held together by the classic SoCal waxed paper wrap. Lean on the counter near the order window and take in the vibe of urban South Central LA.
John started working for his dad in 1972 when he was eight and takes the business of burgers very seriously. “If you don’t put your heart and soul into it,” he imparted, “you’re not going to make it.” His day starts as most others are ending—at midnight. That’s when John heads to the produce market to buy veggies for the day. He does all the prep himself, opens by 7 a.m., and sometimes has the help of a few nephews to run the place. They offer relief, but John pointed out, “There’s more to the business than opening and closing.” I asked John when he sleeps, and he simply shook his head.
The quiet, urban neighborhood went into decline during the 1970s and ’80s, but came around after the Rodney King riots of 1992 (the epicenter of the violence was only a few blocks away). “Now there’s traffic,” John pointed out, almost in disbelief. And through it all, the burgers have never changed.
3600 West 6th St | Los Angeles, CA 90020 | 213-387-5502 Sun–Thurs 7 am–11 pm | Fri & Sat 7 am–2 am | www.cassellshamburgers.com
Sometimes when a good burger joint fails or begins to slip into obscurity, I feel helpless but know that its demise was predestined and possibly necessary. In the case of Cassell’s Hamburgers, by the time Al Cassell sold his award-winning burger joint, things in the neighborhood had transformed dramatically.
In 1948, Cassell opened a burger spot across from the Bullock’s Department store on Wilshire Boulevard in what is now part of Los Angeles’s Koreatown. He successfully ran the restaurant until 1984 when he sold the business to Hakbae Kim. Mr. Kim, as he was affectionately known, was smart enough not to change anything, but in 1986 he moved the restaurant just a few blocks from its original location and out of the slipstream of Wilshire Boulevard. Mr. Kim’s son, Jon Kim, became the next owner and while he tried to stay true to Cassell’s vision, the writing was on the wall. Although the burgers were fantastic every time I visited the Koreatown burger outpost, I was always in the place alone; never another customer in sight. The joint was out of place in a rapidly changing neighborhood and Cassell’s felt like a burger museum that was only open for me. The end was imminent.
Cassell’s closed, but then something extraordinary happened—it came back to life. Many great burger legends have faded into history and I’ve unfortunately witnessed too many of them. Very rarely does an icon become not only resurrected but handled with respect to its former life.
“I’m not really a foodie guy,” new owner, Jingbo Lou, told me recently sitting at the bar at the new Cassell’s. Jingbo, a Korean American architect, purchased the dilapidated Hotel Normandie and turned it into an amazing boutique hotel. The ground-floor space with huge windows overlooking Normandie Avenue and 6th Street was screaming for a restaurant and Jingbo told me, “I was looking for a classic American place to come to this corner.” He had heard from a preservationist friend that Cassell’s was for sale and he jumped at the opportunity. In December 2014, it became a reality. Everything from the original Cassell’s was moved to the new location six blocks away, including the grilling apparatus that made the burger famous.
Al Cassell made a name for himself by employing a unique method for cooking burgers on equipment that was given to him by his uncle-in-law. The large, high flattop griddle contains two smaller flattops that slide out from underneath. These smaller, sliding flattops are actually the bottom half of a double broiler called a “crossfire.” When the patty is placed on this flattop and slid back in, the burger cooks simultaneously from the top as well as the bottom. I’m guessing that Al’s griddle was designed for speed but he inadvertently created a method for keeping the burger very moist. When a burger is placed in this contraption, it is not touched until it is placed on a bun. No flipping or pressing is necessary. Legend has it that only two of these grills were made and came from San Francisco.
Cassell’s brought in veteran chef Christian Page, who had previously worked with Nancy Silverton to open the newish LA burger spot Short Order. His ideas about preservation were in line with Jingbo’s, right down to grinding the beef daily for the burgers, just like Al had done for decades. “Most importantly, for us, is keeping the soul of the place,” Christian told me. They did, however, add a “vegan” patty to the menu to, as Christian put it, “cover all of the Angelenos.” The burger, thanks to grinding in-house and cooking on the original equipment, tastes pretty much the same.
In the old days, you took your undressed burger to a limited toppings bar. Health codes prevented this in the new space so Christian serves those toppings on the side now. He also worked hard to get the famous horseradish potato salad right and nailed it. “It wasn’t easy!” he told me. “His recipe called for ‘handfuls’ as a measurement, so we tested with different sized hands to get it right.” Now that is dedication to the craft with a deep appreciation for history.
All of the original signage made the trek to Hotel Normandie as did the tables and chairs. It’s not exactly like the original Cassell’s, of course, but if anyone were to revive and gently update a burger joint it would be these guys. And hey, it’s probably the only burger you can get in this book with valet parking!
GEORGE’S BAR & GRILL
68885 Ramon Rd | Cathedral City, CA 92234 | 760-328-9991 Mon–Sat 11 am-3 pm | Closed Sun
You were warned by the sign outside, written as clear as day, for all to see: “World Famous Burgers and Insults.” This is no joke. You have been warned.
Obviously, I would never send you into a dangerous place or a joint that serves bad burgers. But I have to tell you that this is one of those places where if you are even the slightest bit of an asshole you are NOT getting a burger. Period. True story: A good friend of mine went in, made a wisecrack about ketchup, and was shown the door. All that travel for nothing.
That said, assuming you are having a great day and are playing by the very simple rules at George’s you will be rewarded with a burger that I dream about constantly. Even the man behind all of those insults can become a friend if you see things his way, in his bar.
That man is Ed Marinko, second-generation owner of this desert watering hole surrounded by strip malls near Palm Springs, California. Ed is tough, grouchy, and sparsely covered in simple dark blue tattoos. He also sports a thick white beard giving him the look of Santa’s badass younger brother. Ed is married to his craft, and anyone who knows anything about burgers knows that this man is a burger savant.
Here’s how it works at George’s: Ed is ever-present, at the griddle or prep station behind the bar. He will make small talk and say hello to just about everyone that walks into the dark bar out of the blazing desert sun. He’s actually a really nice guy, that is, until you cross him. He has a rule about ketchup on burgers—it’s a big no-no. However, he does provide ketchup for his fries. If he catches you putting ketchup on your burger, you’ll be dining on the hood of your car. But there are other ways to get into trouble with Ed. Being too drunk makes him angry. Dumping your bowl of chili on your burger is indefensible. Even general narcissism will set him off. I once heard a woman that he knew say, “Aren’t you going to wish me a happy birthday??” Ed’s loud response, “My birthday doesn’t mean anything to me, yours means less.” Under the old TV, mounted high in the corner of the bar, is a plaque that reads, “SCREW THE CUSTOMERS.” Just be happy you followed my advice and are eating a burger.
George Marinko was a middleweight boxer in Pennsylvania before moving to the California desert to open a bar in 1969. His impressive collection of vintage baseball bats is still on the wall behind the bar, in the care of George’s son, Ed, who became the owner of the place over two decades ago.
Plain and simple, the burger at George’s is one where you will begin to make plans for a return visit while still holding an unfinished burger in your hands. Unquestionably, get the double cheeseburger. Ed uses fresh ground, fatty chuck and makes four-ounce patties by hand every morning. He cooks the patties slowly on a very seasoned griddle, sprinkles them with a secret seasoned salt, then transfers the patties to buns that have been set up with condiments, by Ed, while the burgers are cooking. When you finally get your cheeseburger, with shredded lettuce, fresh tomato, and slice of raw onion, wrapped in waxed paper, you’ll understand from the perfect construction just what Ed was doing back there.
Every burger that leaves the tiny, efficient bar kitchen is made by Ed from beginning to end, from open to close. Ed takes his time, too, because he has a pace that seems to work (and that’s that). I’ve waited as little as twenty minutes and up to one hour and forty-five minutes on busy days.
The crowd is a funny mix of old-timers in pastel polo shirts (it’s the Land of the Retiree) and tattooed bikers in leather and do-rags, and they seem to mix well.
George’s is closed in the summer because it’s just too damn hot in the Coachella Valley. (It can reach 115 degrees in August, yuck.) So Ed and Linda hit the road for Hawaii every year.
933 Main St | St Helena, CA 94574 | 707-963-3486 | Open Daily 10 am–9 pm (Winter) 10 am–10 pm (Summer) | (Six Other Locations) | www.gotts.com
The drive to Gott’s takes you right through the heart of the Napa Valley. You’ll pass rows and rows of vineyards and welcoming wineries with products to sample. Take a deep breath and smell the dense, pungent odor of freshly pressed grapes. It seems like the last place you’d find a good hamburger joint. That is, of course, until you pull into Gott’s Roadside.
Gott’s is in the center of it all. Most of the patrons of this updated classic ’40s burger drive-in seem to be the buttoned-down wine-tasting types, but the stand does get its fair share of working-class locals as well. A bit of an anomaly in this part of the Napa Valley, Gott’s has endured the influx of luxury hotels, inns, and spas as well as a number of high-end restaurants.
"A wonderful book. When you travel across the United States, take this guide along with you."
- "Hamburger America is George Motz at his best. It's not a surprise that a new edition is mandatory reading for fans of the book and for a new generation of burger mavens who are new to the compendium. Where it all intersects is at the corner of Brilliant Boulevard and America's Favorite Food Street. The hamburger is America, and Motz is its most passionate and authoritative voice."—Andrew Zimmern, Host of Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods and The Zimmern List
- "A fine overview of the best practitioners of the burger sciences."—Anthony Bourdain
- "Hamburger America" should be a staple in anyone's travel bag."—Bobby Flay
- "Just looking at this book makes me hungry, and reading George's stories will take you on the ultimate American road trip."—Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor, New York City
- "For me this is not just a book, it is more of a bible that I will use as my travel guide for many years to come, on my journeys around the globe in search for the best burgers on the planet. Thank you, George, for keeping these important cult-classic burger joints in the limelight-it's a true culture!"—Richard Bergfors, aka "Burgerspotting" and CEO of Scandinavia's Max Premium Burgers
- "George Motz is the Indiana Jones of hamburger archeology."—David Page, creator of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives
- "As a French Chef who took an unexpected approach to the American burger, I'm glad that George has put together this fantastic guide to 100 of the classics."—Daniel Boulud
- On Sale
- May 29, 2018
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Running Press