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The Burger Lives

And what of the classics?New York's old-school burgers tend to be as brash and burly as the city itself: 18-ounce, nine-story behemoths. "Think you can take me?" they taunt. (L.A.'s, by contrast, are generally slim and user-friendly.) I've never been a fan of the type-A burgers at the celebrated Corner Bistro and Old Town Bar. The patties are simply too big, forfeiting balance. Serious beef is what some people are after, however, and if I'm feeling that way, I head for Peter Luger. This landmark Brooklyn steakhouse serves a splendid burger, at lunch only. It comes with steak fries, a slab of bacon thick as a magazine, and, inexplicably, a saucer of butter. The fries are terrible. But the smoky bacon is fantastic, and the half-pound burger, with only raw onions and marbled cheese, is ridiculously good, its pale-pink, medium-rare interior bursting with juice. This is essentially ground steak on a sesame bun, as rich and beefy as a porterhouse—and the best no-frills burger in town.

LOS ANGELES

Angelenos didn't invent the burger, but they perfected it. The golden ratio of meat-to-bun-to-trimmings-to-sauce is met by even the humblest dives. And maybe the lettuce is always greener on the other side of the country, but L.A. toppings are invariably fresh and ripe.

Burger culture here transcends ethnic lines. Until recently, an ethereal hamburger could be had at a Thai restaurant in Silverlake (Thai-American Express Café closed last year, its burgers passing into legend). And now, a Korean-American chef named Sang Yoon has quietly created Westside's most dazzling hamburger. After heading the kitchen at industry favorite Michael's, Yoon took over Father's Office, a raucous singles bar in Santa Monica, replacing the usual tavern fare with delectable tapas such as jamón serrano and cured white anchovies. The terrific Office Burger blends dry-aged beef with Gruyère and Maytag blue cheese and comes dressed with spicy arugula and a marvelous compote of applewood-smoked bacon and caramelized onions. No substitutions are allowed, and don't ask for ketchup—Yoon has banned it from the premises.

If the love-it-or-leave-it Office Burger is too particular, relief awaits at the Counter, a build-your-own-burger place that opened last December. It's a stylish and inviting space, with walls of muted teal, navy banquettes, and votives in the window. You're issued a clipboard, a pencil, and a lengthy checklist: Choose from any of 9 cheeses, 17 sauces, and 26 toppings. Dried cranberries with ginger-soy glaze, or guacamole with roasted chiles?The daunted can opt for the ready-made Old School, with Tillamook cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and relish-spiked ketchup. It's an exceptional burger, perched on a soft eggy bun painted with butter. And you must have the Counter's fried dill-pickle chips, which put onion rings to shame.

At Tommy's, a 58-year-old shack near downtown L.A., the parking lot is filled with Mexican families in Econoline vans and suit-clad CPA's on lunch breaks. Why?Tommy's famous chiliburger. The pasty, beanless chile has a slow and powerful burn, a perfect complement to the well-done beef, the sulfurous zing of raw onions, tart pickles, and sugar-sweet tomato. And Tommy's crispy fries are marvelous, cooked to a rich golden hue. You'll devour all this at an ancient wooden counter that's carved with graffiti in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Russian.

Jay Coffin worked at Tommy's before opening his own stall in 1956, with the delightful name Jay's Jayburgers. From his perch on Santa Monica and Virgil, Jay has seen Silverlake morph from a scuzzy backwater into one of L.A.'s hippest enclaves. His chiliburger is well-seasoned with cumin and is neither as overloaded nor as moist as Tommy's. The thin patties are a shade gristly and very peppery, the bun dense and spongy. Tommy's has the superior burger, but I know Angelenos who would follow Jay into battle. A city that can claim both is blessed indeed.

And a city that also has the Apple Pan is just unfairly lucky. This beloved diner looks as it did upon opening in 1947—the same tartan wallpaper; the same antique cash register; the same counter of wood-grain Formica. It's the sort of place that still serves buttermilk by the glass. Open the screen door, greet the friendly counterman (silver hair, fifties horn-rims, paper hat), and line up for a stool. The burger is a saucy affair with a limited life span—grip it properly, or its layers will slide apart—but the flavor and texture are heavenly. A robust beef patty is topped with cool mayo, sour pickles, and a thick sheaf of iceberg lettuce, then sluiced with a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce (on the Hickoryburger) or a chile-and-cinnamon concoction (on the Steakburger). Top it with a slice of sharp Tillamook cheddar, and ensure that your napkin holder is full.

In L.A., even the fast-food chains earn top ratings from Zagat. Case in point: the glorious In-N-Out Burger, a family-owned chain with stores across California and the Southwest (but, alas, nowhere else). Every outpost is awash in ketchup reds, mustard yellows, and airbrushed hot-rod paintings. On the kitchen counter you glimpse actual potatoes, waiting to be sliced into fries. What you won't see is a single freezer or microwave. The trick to INO is learning the secret menu, which Californians have hard-wired into their brains. Instead of regular fries they'll ask for crisper "wellies" (the normal fries resemble mushy Durkee's potato sticks). They may take their burger "animal-style" (adding chopped, grilled onions, dill pickles, and a pool of mustard) or even "protein-style" (replacing the fresh-baked bun with a sturdy pocket of iceberg lettuce). Some elusive fifth element comes through in that magical combination of fresh produce, piquant relish, gooey cheese, and peppery beef.

INO's only legitimate rival is Fatburger, another West Coast chain with a commitment to fresh ingredients and a retro vibe. (Does your fast-food stand have a jukebox playing Charlie Parker and the Chi-Lites?) They'll grill or broil your burger "on the char"; "with everything" includes snappy pickles, chopped lettuce, sliced tomato, and grilled onions (hold the cloying relish for a cleaner taste). The one-third-pound patty can be ordered medium-well and will be rendered as such. Cooking and assembly takes a solid 15 minutes; a server will deliver it to your table. And whereas Big Macs and Whoppers have the consistency of angel food cake, biting into a Fatburger feels like eating meat and vegetables. Devotees also love the fries, cooked in canola oil, each the size of a Bic lighter.

And the best part?Fatburger is finally going nationwide, with outlets soon to open in the Midwest, Florida, and—manna from heaven—the New York area. At least that's one less reason for Manhattanites to cross the country.

PETER JON LINDBERG is an editor-at-large for Travel + Leisure.

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