Aug 11 2008

There’s a Place for Comfort Food

Published by at 10:30 am under Los Angeles,Reviews

The original Original Tommy's
The original Original Tommy’s

Sometimes the best foods are the best just because you grew up with them.  They may not be gourmet delights, they might not impress the people who bestow Michelin stars.  That doesn’t mean anything.  They’re important because they satisfy the soul as much as the stomach, and God bless them for it.

I got a chance to eat in that category this week, and I’m a happier human being for the experience.  I grew up in and around Los Angeles and there are tons of restaurants that have been around for a lot longer than I have.  I have very happy memories associated with many of them.  The restaurants of old and new China town, Paul’s Kitchen in the garment district for chashu and won ton soup, holes in the wall in Little Tokyo, Thai in east Hollywood, deli in west Los Angeles.  Mexican food in East Los Angeles – standing after Sunday mass in block-long lines at Manuel’s El Tepeyac over by Evergreen Cemetery off what was Brooklyn Avenue, and is now Cesar Chavez Boulevard.  I’ll tackle that one another day.  I still remember holding my breath as we drove by the cemetery when I was a kid.  I don’t remember any of my wishes coming true, but I still do it.

For now I’m addressing another of these monuments to gluttony and comfort.  Tommy’s, known nowadays as Original Tommy’s.  It’s Original Tommy’s because a whole generation of imposters have sprung up, from Tammy’s to Tommi’s to Tom’s to anything else that someone thinks will confuse you into eating their food.  Original Tommy’s is still owned by the family of founder Tommy Koulax.  What started in 1946 as a downtown Los Angeles burger stand has expanded to include 30+ locations stretching across southern California to Las Vegas.  The company continues under private ownership, refusing to sacrifice quality for franchise fees.

I was ecstatic when they started expanding in the 1970s, knowing I didn’t have to head for the seedy side of downtown Los Angeles for my Tommy’s fix.  That said, I have to admit that the first is still the best, and that’s the one I’m writing about here.  The original location, described accurately by the company as a “ramshackle little stand” on the corner of Beverly and Rampart Boulevards, is the only place to get the complete Original Tommy’s experience.  It has expanded to include two different corners of the intersection, but that’s the only change that progress has forced upon the scene.

You stand in what seems like an endless line with what seems like everyone else who is awake in Los Angeles.  You’re outside, no matter what the weather or time of day.  Yes, they are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  While the line can seem endless, the average service time is 15 seconds during rush hours.  You move fast.  Meanwhile, you get to look around at the other customers; I mean after all, they’re a big part of the show.  Friday nights at 2am shows a confab of limos carrying prom going teenagers in their formal attire, semis and truck drivers, bar patrons looking for a sobering meal, office and factory workers looking for dinner after their swing shift, bums and homeless people looking for handouts, even tourists looking for a genuine Los Angeles tradition.  Most of the tourists come during the day, many by bus, but the smart tourist knows that the true Tommy’s experience comes between midnight and 5am.  At least it does for me.

Original Tommy's on a Friday night
Original Tommy’s on a Friday night

The menu is limited.  Hamburgers, hot dogs, tamales and fries.  And, of course, what everyone comes for, Tommy’s chili, which tops everything.  A normal Tommy burger is a hamburger topped with chili, a slice of American cheese, onions, and some sliced dill pickles.  The all beef hot dog is the same except that it’s a hot dog.  Ditto for the tamale.  You can get the fries plain, but you can also get chili fries with the same toppings.  It’s as simple as that.  You can omit anything you don’t want, but that’s the extent of the variations.  Oh, you CAN get a side of pickled jalapeños.

Chili Burger, trimmings on the side
Chili Burger, trimmings on the side

Sodas are canned and you grab them from a cooler along the line and pay for them on the honor system.  No Coke, only Pepsi.  You make your way through the line, get your food, then walk to the counters surrounding the parking lot.  Tables?  We don’t need no stinking tables!  Everyone stands at the shelves all around the parking lot, sharing the paper towels that are kept well supplied in the holders every ten feet or so.  Napkins are for wimps.  Besides, by the time you’re done, you’re going to need paper towels to clean the mess off your face and hands.

Chili Dog with trimmings
Chili Dog with trimmings

Actually, standing is an advantage.  It makes it easier to avoid dripping down your shirt, and it makes it possible to keep looking around to see who’s arriving.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to Tommy’s on a Friday night that I didn’t run into someone I know, sometimes from years past.  Everyone comes back to Tommy’s eventually.  Tommy’s is called the “word-of-mouth burger.”  That’s how they’ve managed to serve more than fifty million southern Californians in the past 62 years, without any advertising.  The Beverly and Rampart location alone serves 15,000 people a week.

Oh yeah, the food.  Yes, it’s a limited menu.  Yes, you have to be a carnivore.  They carefully protect their chili recipe, but I’ve watched closely enough to know that much of the taste comes from regular scraping of the grill.  Everything that gets scraped off that flat top, from meat to grease, goes into the chili pot.  You say blecchh!?  Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

I started with the burgers, but my favorite for the last 20 years has been the tamales and the chili fries.  I usually eat the fries there and take the tamales home for breakfast.  Other people are devoted to their hot dogs or hamburgers.  It doesn’t matter, everything pretty much tastes the same once it’s drenched in Tommy’s chili.  I don’t know why they settled on American cheese, but it’s part of the whole gestalt and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  The onions are hot, the pickles sour.  It’s the only place I’ve ever eaten pickles on a tamale, but again, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  The pickles are the appetizer, everything else is dessert.

In this case, we had just been to the opera, a mile or so away.  I saw other people in line that I had just seen at their formal best for Verdi, but everyone was in the Tommy’s let your hair down mode, some in evening wear and bare feet.  We all ate like the pigs we were, lip smacking and paper towel wiping as we went.  Finally, a friendly wave to the crowd and back in the car for the 90-minute trip home.  Belching all the way, of course, but that’s another part of the experience.

Sigh.  I can hardly wait to go back to the opera.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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