If you ask any handful of Los Angeles food critics, writers, or bloggers, including native Angelenos who love burgers, where to go for the best hamburger, the one place that will get a unanimous mention is the Apple Pan. The Apple Pan IS the iconic Los Angeles hamburger. And it has legendary sandwiches and pie, too.
To be certain, Los Angeles has some other excellent burgers, many even sublime, and as a general rule they break down into three categories: (1) Slightly elevated “fast food” style burgers (In ‘N Out, Shake Shack, and my other favorite LA burger, Pie & Burger in Pasadena); (2) Pub burgers (Father’s Office is the Granddaddy of this genre in Santa Monica; Plan Check and Umami Burger are more recent riffs on this theme); and (3) Fancy Pants Burgers — fancy either because they are sourced straight from an in-house butcher, or because they may be enhanced with such extravagance as bone marrow, foie gras or bordelaise sauce (Petit Trois in Hollywood, Republique on La Brea, Gjusta in Venice). The Apple Pan burger, while one of a kind, falls into category #1.
There is nothing more I love eating than a burger and I could talk for days about the best way to cook them and the best places to eat them. I have very strong and fixed opinions in this area. The unfortunate tale of the first time my husband in a genuine act of love cooked me a burger, was a day of great distress, as I watched him turn the burger and then smash the burger with a spatula thereby sacrificing that precious grease and juice.
One of my favorite pieces of burger journalism by the current High Priest of food writing (imho) and last year’s James Bear award winner Kenji Lopez Alt is this one that prescribes the precise method and only proper circumstances under which one may SMASH a burger! I’ve probably tried every burger on the Los Angeles foodie radar multiple times, and logged lots of miles doing so. So you can see what you are dealing with here. Now, why does this burger obsessive love the Apple Pan so?
Well, what the Apple Pan has that these other great burger places do not, is: (1) a long history including family ownership; (2) a no-frills, small-town America ambiance; (3) quirky career waiters (some are cantankerous, some have the seriousness of an assassin, and no waiter is younger than 55 years old); and, (4) the perfectly engineered and executed burger construction. The Apple Pan cooks their burgers on a griddle, NOT a grill. Therefore you get juice.
Next, there’s no tomato. Never. Next, and most distinctively, the Apple Pan burger sports a near wedge of crisp and cold iceberg lettuce. As to the carb element, your quarter-pound burger comes on a toasted, squishy bun whose outer circumference is tattooed with a charred ring, providing the perfect textural complexity. Finally, plain mayonnaise. From there, your choices are Steakburger (add sweet relish) or Hickoryburger (add hickory sauce), and you may also add melted Tilamook cheddar or onion, or not. Your Apple Pan Burger will arrive very soon after you order it, and about 5 seconds after it comes off the griddle, wrapped in a little paper cocoon.
For drinks, where else in Los Angeles can you get a glass of buttermilk but at the Apple Pan? You can also have water, coffee, or soft drinks served in a paper cone inserted into a metal cup holder.
Having gone to the Apple Pan for so long, I also know they make unforgettable sandwiches. It’s the ingredients and the architecture, and they’ve nailed both again. Your choices for sandwiches at the Apple Pan are southern ham, tuna salad, egg salad, combo (ham and cheese), and my personal favorite — the cold cheese sandwich. If you’ve never had a cold cheese sandwich made with thickly sliced, very cold swiss cheese, please try it here just once. It really hits the spot with a soda and a couple of bites of your dining companion’s burger and fries.
My parents started taking me to the Apple Pan when I was a wee child and in diapers, nearly half a century ago, therefore I must disclose I have a sentimental attachment to this place. A few of the waiters are like family friends to my parents. The “AP” as we call it, has been around since 1947 and, as is often the case with such enduring institutions, is still owned by the family that started it all, Martha Gamble and Sunny Sherman, the daughter and granddaughter of founds Ellan and Allen Barker.
A few practical matters: the Apple Pan takes only cash, as they only have two very old cash registers, there is absolutely no parking, seating is at a U-shaped counter populated with exactly and only 26 swinging red leather stools that match the red plaid wallpaper, and everybody waits not in line but around the perimeter of the place, behind the stools therefore watching you eat and hoping you will eat fast. My advice: (1) Go at an off-time such as 11 a.m. when they open, or after 10 p.m. and pray to score a parking meter or one of 5 parking spaces in the back lot; (2) go with the throngs of other people at lunchtime or dinnertime and park across the street at the Westside Pavillion and buy something for a few dollars to get your parking validated there.
Let’s not forget that the Apple Pan has outstanding French fries (^^^) which are not too skinny and which you can order well done, and some of the best huckleberry pie with thick cream top I’ve ever eaten in my life. I’m sorry I don’t have a photograph of that but it is quite seasonal and quite fleeting. The Pecan Pie and Apple Pie are consistently delicious as well.
Only this past year and thanks to social media, was I alerted to an “off-menu” item at the Apple Pan — the Patty Melt. I liked it to be sure, but if you’re going to the Apple Pan for the first time, I’d still get the hickory burger with cheese, fries well done, and a slice of apple pie with cheddar cheese. Have someone else in your party order the ham sandwich though, because it’s really great and you should at least try it. It comes with giant black olives.
If I haven’t convinced you by now, let me state again that whether you live near Los Angeles or are a native and have not yet been, or if you are visiting Los Angeles, the one place you must go to eat for a burger and fries, is the beloved Apple Pan. No trip to Los Angeles is complete without visiting the Apple Pan. It is that place that makes you feel like all is right and good with the world again.
The Apple Pan (doesn’t have a website, but you can read about 70 years of Apple Pan on Pico in the LA Times here), 10801 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles // (310) 475-3585