"It's not much but it's ours"

Thursday, July 08, 2010


Another day and another lesson in Los Angeles cheap eats from my good chum, John Haskell. This time it came by way of Cassell’s Hamburgers on the fringes of K-Town.

Al Cassell first opened his eponymous hamburger joint after returning from serving in WWII, some sixty plus years ago. Although it has changed location and ownership in that time, precious little else seems to have changed about a place that is consistently rated in the top ten hamburger places in Los Angeles. Al Cassell died a little over a month ago at the ripe old age of 98 (who says burgers are bad for you?) but he would have been proud of the fact that his gaff is still turning out a very fine hamburger indeed.

Cassell’s works canteen style. You order your burgers, in our case, two 2/3lb slabs of house ground prime beef, which are then cooked to order before being handed to you so you can slide your plate down the line to choose from an impressive selection of condiments. Now, the “Build Your Own” concept of burger service is one of which I am profoundly dubious, remembering Pete’s in London, which allowed idiot consumers to come up with disgusting combinations including, wait for it, anchovy and radish.

However, at Cassell’s, they keep the choices simple. There are pickles, superb house made mayonnaise, slices of fresh as a daisy tomatoes, crisp lettuce, some Russian dressing and their justifiably famous potato salad (to be topped with the aforementioned mayonnaise). John Haskell has been a loyal customer of Cassell’s for nearly forty years, so I followed his lead and worked my way down the line until I had constructed an impressive, if visually rather unappealing, end result. We filled our cups with Diet Coke and took a seat before tucking in.

Does it deserve its place in L.A.’s hamburger pantheon? Well, yes, yes it certainly does, not only for the fact it is the messiest burger I have ever encountered, but also because it is damn tasty. The burger patty is looser than many I have tried, which is primarily down to the fact we asked for ours to be cooked rare and medium rare. However, the beef is patently from a very good source and the toppings are fresh, crisp and delicious. The potato salad was good enough for me to pay a return visit to the line to spoon some more onto my plate and also make sure to add another blob of that excellent mayo.

This time it was John’s turn to dig deep into his pocket and fork over what I imagine what was about $25 for the lot including a few $$ tossed in the tip jar for the friendly staff. We have shared many expensive meals together since I have been fortunate enough to know John and his wife, Liz Haskell, but we both agreed, as we wiped Russian dressing from our chins, that it is places like this that make us really happy.

The worry is, that the dining room was almost empty. We ate lunch early, but there were still only two tables occupied when we left. Apparently, it is a scenario being played out all over the US now as family run diners and restaurants are slowly disappearing before the juggernaut chains and as young folk go in search on new and often wretched takes on American classics (hang your head in shame Umami Burger, hang your head in shame). They are closing, I am told, almost at the rate that pubs are shutting their doors in London. A huge shame, but perhaps, it is just the end of an era. I certainly got that feeling as I left Cassell’s.

Still, for as long as it is around, I suspect Cassell’s Hamburgers will get a lot more of my custom and, I am sure a lot more of John Haskell’s. I also suspect Al Cassell would be happy to know we approved.

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