the burger: double cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and mayonnaise
the bucks: $6.30
the coordinates: Los Angeles, CA
Recently a friend told me that if you do one thing for six years, you will become an expert at doing that thing. Bill Elwell has been making burgers for 50 years. That would make him an expert at cooking burgers eight times over. Do enough digging on the internet about Bill’s Hamburgers and you will find that the legend of his burgers are in fact superseded by the legend of the man himself. His salty demeanor, his five marriages, really his age alone allows the Bill’s Hamburgers experience to live up to the hype before you even take your first bite. Oh, and wait you will for that first bite. And we, the loyalists and devotees to Bill’s Hamburgers, are happy to do so. We gladly wait for one of seven stools to open up so we can wait some more to catch the attention of the person taking orders, so we can really settle in and wait and wait, till Bill Elwell makes us a perfect burger. The burgers are always perfect because of that wait. It’s a pace that has been 50 years in the making and it is exactly what makes Bill’s Hamburgers a temple for Bang for your Burger Buck.
The menu at Bill’s has modest prices that at first glance, reflect modest burger options. A double cheeseburger will run $5.30, including tax, but don’t be surprised to see a customer calmly order a second after casually finishing the first. Speaking of firsts, my inaugural visit was met with a crew of scraggly bearded teens, most likely from nearby Grant high school, getting downright gluttonous with pastrami and bacon add ons. And add on to the price it does, every additional meat accoutrement adds a buck to the bill. When you walk away from a triple cheese with pastrami and chili, you also just parted ways with $7.30. The crazy thing is that the add ons are actually worth it. I can vouch for the bacon I ordered on the double cheese above, as it was cooked crisp, delivered the flavor good bacon should and furthered the overall gooey goodness that is a vintage burger stand experience. It’s what throws everything I know about Bang for your Burger Buck aside. I mean, good burgers don’t need bacon right? Or cheese for that matter. And to prove that point, a second visit had me take the double burger out for a test drive. At $5 even, I sank my teeth into two patties, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and mayonnaise. While this burger showed off just how perfectly cooked a cooked through hamburger patty can get and how magnificent Bill’s seasoning is, I can honestly tell you that if you want Bang for your Burger Buck at Bill’s – keep the meter running. Get the bacon, get an extra patty, pretend you are half way through Senior Year at Grant High school and get a triple pastrami bacon cheeseburger – go for it, because it’s all good.
Store bought bun and preformed patties are pretty much the name of the game when you are talking about $5 and under burger stands. With the exception of Yucca’s in Los Feliz, I can think of no other stand in Los Angeles that delivers a burger this delicious from such humble ingredients. On my first visit, I clocked the preformed patties being slapped onto that absolutely gorgeous vintage flat top grill and estimated an overall beef satisfaction level of a 5 out of 10. It came as no surprise to me that the beef patties started off the size of crepes on the griddle and shrunk 30 percent to the size of silver dollar pancakes. What I didn’t see coming how damn good and juicy the medium well patty would actually be. And then there is the bun. As I watched a store bought bun get pulled out of a bag, I again harbored modest expectations. But look, I mean just look at that bun glistening up there. No trick photography here friends, that perfectly toasted bun which sizes up to the patty seamlessly, literally shines because of the skills at the grill. The success of this legendary 50 year burger eatery can be explained in one single word: technique.
But there is more to burgers than just meat and bun, well at least in this case. Bill knows how to layer a sandwich. I had read that he showers disdain upon whose who get complicated with their burger ordering, so I settled on the house works: lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and mayonnaise. Truth be told, I can’t remember a damn thing about any of these ingredients individually, save for that fact that all together, they melded into a unison of burger harmony. I debated options in my mind like cheese, grilled onions(popular with many a regular) and pickle to evoke a “McDonald’s happy meal burger effect” but I, like many who visit Bill’s, have a tough time restraining myself. To the well trained eye who can spot patties that weigh in cooked at around an ounce and a half, these burgers are not massive so adding the full topping suite at Bill’s shows off more than the skills in the kitchen, but also ensures a satisfying meal, or course, depending how hungry you might be feeling that day.
And my last surprise at Bill’s hit me long after I left that industrial swath of the San Fernando Valley. It would be when I returned home, to look at the pictures I took of the hamburger cut in half. Cross sections of modestly priced burgers don’t often showcase what an $8 burger, cooked medium rare can, but Bill’s stumps my assumptions again. It doesn’t hurt his case that Bill gets the cheese perfectly melted and it doesn’t surprise me that he has used the same source for his beef for the last 50 years. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, wait till you split the son of a bitch in half and take a pic or two. With so many of my initial instinctual guesses woefully off the mark, there was one about the Bill’s Hamburgers experience I was dead on about, that amazing vintage cook top:
The only thing at Bill’s Hamburgers clocking more history than Bill himself, is that cooktop and a cash register. The latter doesn’t get used much anymore, but the former, well the former is a big reason why you are here. I would wager half, perhaps more than half of the truly great vintage burger operations that still draw the big crowds, have one of these babies pumping away. The phrase “they don’t build them like they used to” has never been more appropriate. And I guess that goes for the guy manning that ship for the last half a century. Lately I feel like I want to keep comparing burger places like Bill’s to Sukiyabashi Jiro, in part because they serve a small amount of people, the food is meant to eaten immediately after being served, and your experience takes place in front of the person who has prepared it. You have watched him make your food as he has watched you since you entered his restaurant. It’s an intimate feeling, you are both connected to each other from beginning till end. While I have not yet dined at Sukiyabashi Jiro, I have dined at a legendary small seat restaurant ran by another salty chef by the name of Kazunori Nozawa. Like Bill Elwell, Chef Nozawa did not care to hear much from his customers by way of modifications or requests. You came to his place, you ate his food his way. The sentiment is echoed famously inside Bill’s in the form of a sign saying “this is not Burger King, you do not get it your way”. When I would walk into Sushi Nozawa and sit down, I was ever cautious, walking on eggshells but at the same time glad to do so. I always tried to show reverence by way of waiting patiently, ordering promptly when asked and saving any idle chat for the very end, which was tied into a thank you and goodbye. It’s been three years since Nozawa closed his doors on Ventura Blvd, but the experience, that thrill of eating in front of a master in such small confines, returned to me again, this time in an even deeper part of the Valley. Truth be told the ingredients at Bill’s Hamburgers are at best, good for the price point. But it is the technique that ranks them amongst the top two best cheap burgers in Los Angeles. Like the antique copper shakers filled with what I am sure is commercial grade salt and pepper, that sit just left of that vintage flat top grill, it’s the hands working the shakers that makes the burger, and your burger experience, just about perfect.
14742 Oxnard Blvd
Van Nuys, CA 91411