Los Angeles, California
In the never-ending battle for burger supremacy in Los Angeles, heavyweights such as Father’s Office, Umami Burger, Plan Check, and even In-N-Out duke it out over hot grills across the Southland; but if you were to hop in your DeLorean fitted with a flux capacitor and flash back to the 80’s, it wouldn’t be difficult to reach consensus as to who the reigning burgermeister was. Al Cassell opened Cassell’s Patio in 1948 with a simple plan – to serve the best burgers in a no-nonsense, casual environment. There was no gimmicky onion jam, ketchup fruit roll-ups, or half-blend of bacon to draw people into a queue out the door; Al’s patties were freshly-ground USDA prime chuck, lovingly tended to on a special grill. There was nary a French fry to be found – the potato offering was Al’s unique potato salad (which approximated a scoop of cold mashed potatoes). If your craving for crisp and salty potatoes got too great you could fall back on a bag of chips. The original patio was relocated to smaller quarters when the rent became exorbitant; after he sold the business after the turn of the new millennium, the business fell into decline as the quality no longer matched what patrons enjoyed in Cassell’s heyday, shuttering for good in 2012.
Al Cassell died in 2010, leaving the Southland burger landscape in a hipster wasteland, but the owners of the Hotel Normandie had the foresight to scoop up Cassell’s furnishings and mothball them until they could resurrect Cassell’s in a rendition that would make Al proud. Earlier this year, Cassell’s arose from the well-done ashes like a bovine phoenix on the busy corner of 6th Street and Normandie, a few blocks from its former location. If the new Cassell’s looks familiar, it’s most likely due to the original furnishings and signage re-deployed – if it tastes familiar, it’s because the staff did their homework and spared no attention to details in recreating the quality of fare that earned them the moniker of best burger in L.A.. The meat is Aspen Ridge prime chuck, coarsely ground every morning just as Al would have; the burgers are cooked on the same special grill acquired with the rest of Cassell’s equipment.
Not only was the offering of French fries that appeared when the business was sold stricken from the menu, but Al’s signature potato salad has returned, being meticulously crafted using the same recipe. The coleslaw is fresh and light on the mayo, and lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle are presented off to the side along with the customary Thousand Island dressing so that nothing unwanted stands between the flavor of the burger except the golden Portuguese bun and your optional cheese. The burger is cooked to order and lightly seasoned only with a little salt and pepper, the loose patty crumbling in your mouth in a cascade of its own juices – it is nothing short of delicious. Almost everything is made in-house; there’s a counter in the corner where gourmet coffee and baked goods are available, and Cassell’s home brews their own sodas, including a sarsaparilla that tastes old-timey fountain good, and a ginger ale with the tingle of fresh sliced ginger.
Self-proclaimed Chief Burger Flipper Christian Page helms the reanimated Cassell’s and admits that the challenge is going to be the cost of quality; fans of the original Cassell’s have remarked that the current staff has nailed the spirit of the late great Al Cassell, but the choice of 1/3 or 2/3 of a pound burgers are costly to reproduce (they’re about twice what Cassell’s menu offered). While this might be a challenge in regaining the old clientele, it’s still competitive with young upstarts Plan Check or Comme Ça. In a town where elaborate, over-the-top cuisine is de rigueur, it is comforting to see a resurgence in a sense of nostalgia and a new-found appreciation for a timeless classic. The team at the Hotel Normandy has not just restored a Los Angeles favorite, but has vindicated the burgermeister himself – the ghost of Al Cassell must undoubtedly be pleased.
VIDEO: Watch Val enjoy a burger from Cassell’s Hamburgers with Chef Christian Page and share an alligator burger from Exotic Meat Market at Trippy Food on YouTube
NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by Cassell’s and Exotic Meat Market. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by either.