Original Tommy’s

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A couple of weeks ago, I saw Blue Streak was on television. I was twelve when that movie came out, and I loved that shit. I saw it in the theater twice. I bought it on DVD and watched it until I could talk along with every scene. I remember how hard I laughed when Martin Lawrence got really sassy with FBI agents, how hilariously awkward Luke Wilson is, how cramp-inducingly funny it was when Dave Chapelle showed a bunch of drug dealers how he “pulled somebody’s guts out through their ass, and their eyes fell out.” So came on, I was thrilled. Here was a movie that I loved when I was a kid. I figured it had held up as well as all the other movies I loved around that time: Tommy Boy, Happy Gilmore, and Billy Madison, just to name a few.

But it hasn’t. At all. It really is a hopelessly unfunny movie. It’s dated. It’s trite. It’s badly written. It’s disgracefully acted. The plot is an absolute throwaway. And while I’m not prepared to completely freak out about it, the lesson is clear: Sometimes, the things you love just don’t hold up.

Yesterday, Shanil and I went to Tommy’s for lunch. This was a place I always loved as a kid. I think you can kind of see where I’m going with this.

The Place
Original Tommy’s
2575 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90057

The Order: Double cheeseburger (no tomato), fries, large Coke

The Price: $7.95

The Burger
In 1946, Tommy Koufax opened up this shack at the corner of Beverly and Rampart. It didn’t (and doesn’t) look like much, but it’s since grown into a little Los Angeles empire. It’s older than In-N-Out, and more exclusively a Los Angeles institution. More than 50 million people have enjoyed Tommy’s signature chili-drenched burgers in the seven decades since Tommy’s first opened its doors.

I remember, as a kid, piling into the car with my brothers and parents and driving out to Tommy’s. We’d return home with a big box full of cheeseburgers, chili-cheese fries, icy sodas, and sweet-hot yellow peppers (when they didn’t forget to give them to us, which they usually did). Looking back, it was one of my favorite family traditions (besides Disneyland, which is my runaway favorite). I don’t remember much from those drives, but I never will forget the excitement, the eager and expectant relish with which I unwrapped those burgers. Tommy’s was among my favorite youthful indulgences.

Admittedly, I haven’t been to this place in quite some time. My brothers and I grew up (you’ll notice I did not say we “matured”). They have lives and families of their own now. They’re making new traditions, which is super cool. But as I pulled into the drive-thru at Tommy’s yesterday, I couldn’t help flashing back to those days, and I got absolutely demolished by a wave of sentimentality. When I unwrapped my burger, I was suffused with those old, familiar childlike expectations, back before I was the cynical, narcissistic malcontent with a shitty personality and a cloudy disposition.

Then I unwrapped it. And I was like, “Wait, I used to look forward to this?”

It’s really not appetizing to look at. The burger itself is two waifish, overcooked patties blanketed in cheddar, which is itself slathered with a pasty, semi-solid block of chili that’s really more the consistency of refried beans. It’s rounded out by ebullient diced raw white onions, snappy pickles, and some good old-fashioned yellow mustard. All of this is wedged between buns as limp and lifeless as an unusually lazy sloth. Who is asleep. And drunk.

Let’s talk about that chili first. It’s not how I remember. You’re not talking about chili that’s going to drip everywhere, spilling off the burger in that tantalizing way that it does when the sexy ladies on the Carl’s Jr. commercials take their seductively greedy bites. No, this is something closer to a brick of chili. It looks solid, and has the consistency of a paste. It tastes convincing (and good) enough, but there’s an unreality about it – a kind of textural creepiness – that’s a little off-putting. If I want astronaut food, I’ll ask my friend Courtney to get me some of that freeze-dried ice cream shit (explanation: Courtney works for NASA; though in all honesty, she’d probably tell me to stop talking crazy and get some real food, albeit preferably without the side of catastrophically annoying Asian kids).

But anyway.

While the chili is the centerpiece of the burger, it’s the other toppings that really surprise, and end up making a stronger statement to this burger’s credit. The onions are as sharp and sweet as a honey-dipped knife. The pickles are firm and sour, with that satisfying snap. These toppings provide good textural and flavor contrast. And frankly, it’s nice to see someone outside of a baseball stadium still has love for yellow mustard. I like yellow mustard, dammit. In this age of favoring gruyere over cheddar, of making complex and fancy-ass umami alloys of different types of beef, of conflating “classic” and “boring,” I find this steadfast adherence to tradition (which almost certainly is the product of laziness and a lack of creativity rather than any kind of worthy sentiment) refreshing. And it’s good, in an unabashedly sophomoric kind of way.

So here’s the point: young Pra’s unbridled love for Tommy’s was not justified. Old Pra is sager in this regard (though admittedly, Old Pra misdirects his affection in other ways – see, e.g., my latest ex-girlfriend…*shiver*). Old Pra recognizes that the chili isn’t very good. The beef is not good. This burger just isn’t as good as I remember it being. I started wondering, “Shit, was I as wrong about Tommy’s as I was about Blue Streak?” My happy childhood memories were threatening to crumble around me.

But then I got my shit together and thought about it a little more. Unlike Blue Streak, I wasn’t totally wrong about Tommy’s. This burger doesn’t suck. The garnishes add charm and surprising complexity. The chili isn’t earth-shattering, but then again, a) it’s still chili, and b) it’s a little unrealistic to expect Mike Stevens-level shit on a burger that costs eight bucks (with fries and a drink). The beef isn’t good either, but there’s enough going on to obfuscate that fact and make the overall experience pretty damn worthwhile – the whole exceeds the sum of the parts, and all that. So I guess this burger actually is less like Blue Streak and more like Disneyland. Sure, it’s less majestic and awe-inspiring than it was when I was a kid, but that’s not going to stop me from going. Because it’s still pretty damn good.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 7.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 8.80 / 10.00

Total: 82.60 / 100.00

The L.A. Weekly Burger Battles

I owe Shannon for the tip on this one. She managed to reach me through the thick, noxious, mind-altering fog of bar exam preparation (which is also what I’m offering by way of an excuse for the lack of reviews lately), and apprise me of something of which I was shamefully unaware.

So apparently, LA Weekly is running a burger bracket. They’ve put sixteen burgers in Los Angeles into categories (“divisions”), and they’re putting them up in a head-to-head, winner-advances tournament. It’s not clear how they chose these sixteen burgers. There were some on the list that really didn’t belong, and others that were undoubtedly snubbed. The first round is over, and here are a few quick thoughts heading into Round Two (the “elite eight”):

  • Ledlow beating out Belcampo Meat Co. is the most ridiculous miscarriage of justice since, well, this. Or this. Or this. Or this. God, that last one really hurt.
  • Actually, the whole “Fancy” bracket kind of sucks. Not only were both matchups incorrectly decided, those burgers decidedly, well, just aren’t that fancy. Though I suppose fancy is relative.
  • It’s not clear what the “New School” Bracket actually is, considering some of those places have been around longer than, say, Ledlow, and are decidedly classic burgers (I’m thinking the Oinkster).
  • I don’t know how these sixteen burgers got their feet in the door. This is arbitrary as shit.
  • If the final is anything besides In-N-Out v. Plan Check, this bracket is a crime on par with…well, this. Which isn’t to say that Plan Check should even be in the final, because…ugh, where do I even start?

Now, your humble correspondent was snubbed for an invitation to judge the competition. I’m as perplexed as you are. However, I’ve decided to do the next best thing and offer you my suggested votes for the next round. Do with this information what you will.

Fancy Division: Pick Petit Trois (because you can’t pick Belcampo (because Gillian Ferguson’s tastebuds apparently are less functional than the cuff buttons on an rented tuxedo)).

New School Division: Go with Plan Check. Neither of these places really represent the best of what I think of as “New School” burgers in Los Angeles, but it’s the better of the two.

L.A. Originals Division: Close, but it’s got to be Father’s Office. But the even closer call would be “Which of these places offers a more unpleasant dining experience?” That’s a genuine toss-up.

Fast Food Division: If you have to ask, we’re obviously not in one another’s lives. It’s In-N-Out. By a marathon of country miles, it’s In-N-Out.

This is one to watch closely. In the meantime, you definitely should go do your civic duty.