The Bill's Hamburgers Experience in Van Nuys, California

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Editor's Note: Please welcome the newest member to the AHT family, Damon Gambuto! He'll report with a Los Angeles-area review every Wednesday. Learn more about him in his Grilled interview or read on for his first review.

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Bill's Hamburgers

14742 Oxnard Street, Van Nuys CA 91411 (b/n Kester Ave and Cedros Ave; map); 818-785-4086
The Short Order: Two 2.7-ounce griddled patties stacked for maximum enjoyment
Want Fries with That? They don't serve fries
Price: double cheeseburger $4.45
Notes: Mon. - Fri., 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

When pondering which Los Angeles burger destination I would make the subject of this, my inaugural post, I took a moment to contemplate the vastness of the landscape of my adopted home.

The borders of this metropolis stretch to almost five hundred square miles. It is the only city in the U.S. that is bisected by a mountain range. There are over two hundred languages spoken here. Neighborhood hopping can feel like a transnational adventure. The car culture and traffic further fragment the population. If cities make you think of tall buildings, imagine being in one in which you can drive for miles and not see a structure over four stories tall. And drive we do.

Millions of us making our way past one another with nary a turn signal to acknowledge our shared space. It often feels like a bunch of small cities got together and decided to marry for the money. If we don't keep our eyes trained on the road ahead, we'll find that the life(style) we agreed to is a city that traffics in decisions that turn into accidents.

A City United by Hamburgers

Perhaps you've figured out what I am driving at. What unites this city full of people in cars? It's where we stop, park, and eat. Together. We get out of our cars to do what humans have always done, usually together: eat. Eating here in Los Angeles is often all that gets us out of our cars and next to our neighbors. Privately owned restaurants are our public spaces. It's how we get to know our city's other residents. For this reason, eating is always more than an exercise in existing; it lurches into the existential. It's a food experience.

And the focus of that experience, what we eat in Los Angeles—more than most anywhere else—is hamburgers. I know you all have places in your hometowns or hearts that deal in what you think is the best in class. But don't kid yourself about where and how that all-American sandwich came of age: Southern California burger culture spawned the carhop and burger chain restaurant, set and match. Do we have the best? How about we go with 'some of the best'? Do we have a lot? Like you read about.

When I first arrived nothing struck me more about the landscape than the sheer number of burger spots. I made my very first call home from the patio of the All American Burger on Sunset. When I headed inside for lunch, I could hardly believe it was Los Angeles. Where were all the sprout sandwiches and plastic surgery patients? Everyone eating lunch with me worked for a living and looked...well, a lot like the people in New York City that I grew up around. Multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and in multitudes. I had driven three thousand miles across country and I was home. Of course, Los Angeles is rife with people and places that are as clichéd as they are waxed and perpetually on the wane, but that is just one part of the city. I'm sure I'll write about burgers in environs lousy with those sorts, but today I wanted to pick a burger that is one of those Los Angeles food experiences that keeps me coming back rather than running for (my apartment in) the hills.

Okay, I'll get to burger now, as it is the meat that matters. Yesterday, I headed to Bill's Hamburgers for lunch. For the first time I brought a pen and a digital camera. Here's how it all—most importantly the burger—went down.

Out of the Industrial Ashes Rises a Burger Shack

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The scene driving down Oxnard Street in the San Fernando Valley (or simply "The Valley") is about as nondescript and depressing as a functioning industrial strip gets. Most of the buildings are vast, single story structures that are filled with humanity that you'll never see. A person walking along the sidewalk looks to be breaking a city ordinance.

Set in this landscape, a small burger shack called Bill's Hamburgers is easy to miss. Although the only sign visible has "Bill" in the company name, it turns out to be neighboring business coincidence.

I head to one of just a few round stools at the outdoor counter and order the double cheese with everything. That is, two patties, two slices of cheese with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions (grilled for me), and mayo. No fries to be had. The burger comes wrapped in paper (standard issue in Los Angeles) and is served with Ruffles potato chips in a red plastic basket. I watched my burger hit the griddle and catch up on the history of the place.

The History of Bill's Burgers

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Bill's Hamburgers is an original. Of course, in Los Angeles that means it's not the original, but rather the one that's pretty old and is referred to that way. (Bill bought the stand in 1965 from a woman named Millie.) In a city built on simulation, forty plus years of burgers from the same griddle more than qualifies as the authentic.

The owner, Bill Elwell, is eighty-two years-old, five times a husband, and as salty as his burgers. He wields the spatula with a natural ease that can be misread as boredom. I watched him flip a slice of American cheese onto a patty from five feet away and not crack a smile. Natural ease, it seems, doesn't come easy. Bill has never missed work because of sickness. He's peppered a few vacations in here and there, but for the better part of almost forty-four years he's been serving breakfast and lunch from this shack in Van Nuys.

Behind the Meat

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The meat on Bill's burgers comes in preformed patties that are as thin as half a deck of cards and weigh in at a little over two ounces. They are an 80/20 ratio and are always fresh. Bill gets his meat from a place called Ideal Meat & Provisions out of Northridge, California. Bill has a simple formula: "F--k L.A. meat. You can't trust it."

Well, Northridge is technically in Los Angeles—this is like a restaurant in Queens eschewing meat from a Manhattan supplier in favor of a guy in the Bronx. But I get where he's coming from. He trusts Ideal—so I do too.

Once the meat hits the griddle it get a healthy dose of salt and pepper delivered from a single canister. Steam rises off the griddle where patties, onions and buns share time. Cheese is added and then—when ready—Bill slides them off the griddle to the prep line where longtime employee, Hiroko, dresses the burger and wraps it. Then it's all mine.

Just Add Ketchup

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The first bite is full of complementary flavors. The salty meat, sweetness of the onion, and the oily mayo come together just as I'd hoped. The plain white buns hold their structure against the greasy middle long enough to let the fat hit my tongue on the second or third chew. Surprisingly, the thin patty isn't leathery at all. I even spotted a hint of pink in mine, though it would be overstating things to compare it to a thicker medium rare burger. Normally I'd have thrown some ketchup on my burger, but I was going after it as Bill had instructed.

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"Ketchup doesn't belong on a burger," Bill told me. I don't know that I agree. Wait, I should rephrase that. I know that I don't agree. I like ketchup on burgers, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy Bill's definitive take on a proper burger. Especially because Bill let's you have it your way despite what the sign on his cash register says.

The ketchup free version was tasty, but when I went in for round two I added a healthy amount of ketchup and my mouth was rewarded for the effort. The tang of the ketchup added a layer of taste (dare I say, complexity) to the whole that made it... um, better. It became a truly delicious burger.

In Defense of Ketchup

Okay, time for a little aside about ketchup. For some reason you will run into all manner of detraction when it comes to this tireless tomato condiment. It might be simply that I grew up enjoying ketchup on burgers and fries (even fish sticks), but I can't help but think that a lot of the antipathy against said sauce is simply backlash. I'm not entirely clear on why ketchup evokes such strong negative feelings. I suspect it has something to do with people feeling as though they don't deserve happiness, but who can say. I'll take ketchup on mine, thank you.

Eat it ASAP

Aside over, back to the burger. It is in the endgame that Bill's burger struggles a bit. As you get about halfway through the burger (or in my case, halfway through your second—mind you, I eat way too fast), the ingredients start to congeal in a way that isn't entirely unpleasant, but is certainly less satisfying. Bill serves you the burger directly off the griddle; do him the service of having at it straight away. You'll thank me (unnecessary) and you'll thank him (appropriate).

As my meal wound down I listened to the other customers. Most of them Bill knows by name. A few are grown men whose fathers brought them to Bill's as little boys. Now they bring their children. Mostly they talk to Bill, Sharon (ex-wife #4 and order-taker), or whomever they came with, but every now and then they chat with each other. The conversations tend to focus on how long they've been coming to this little hamburger shack. Some of them remember when the boulevard was all dirt. Some of them remember when Bill still opened on Saturdays. They eat, share a little space, and talk about the experience of coming to Bill's. Then they head back to their cars and drive.