As a real estate worker in Los Angeles, Al Cassell always felt a good lunch was so hard to find. In a city littered with places to eat, finding a reliable lunch option that featured quality ingredients at reasonable prices for the everyday worker was surprisingly difficult. In 1948, Al took matters into his own hands and opened Cassell’s Patio on Wilshire Blvd in Koreatown. His restaurant featured lunchtime items he loved, like cured hams, house-made tuna salad, and broiled burgers.
Al was a stickler for fresh ingredients. He had his USDA-select beef flown in from Colorado, before a time when fresh meat delivery was hip. His tuna salad was crafted from slow-poached, wild-caught albacore loins in pickle juice that he mixed with his famous house-made mayo. Eventually moving to 6th
Street, the innocent little burger shack with a salad bar blossomed into an LA classic, drawing lines that ate up an entire lunch break. Al Cassell had found his purpose in life serving people and for decades to come would deliver a product that lived up to the high standards to which he held himself.
Like Al, the restaurant began to show signs of attrition in the 1990s. Well into his 80s, Al decided to finally hang up his apron after over 40 years of public service. Eventually, he sold the name of the restaurant and the equipment. After decades of success, generations of customers, and thousands of hours working that griddle, Alvin Cassell died in 2010, at the remarkable age of 98. In 2012, the restaurant closed once and for all.
Enter Jingbo Lou, a Pasadena-based architect, who has preserved a multitude of LA establishments such as Wilshire’s Morgan Adams Building and Whittier College’s Guillford Hall. In Cassell’s, Lou found a perfect compliment to his latest project, the Hotel Normandie. At the base of the hotel, on the corner of 6th and Normandie, Lou planned to revitalize the legendary burger chain on the very street where it found so much success.
The next logical step was to find someone willing to uphold the tradition of quality Al Cassell strived to maintain in the kitchen. Lou found just that in Chef Christian Page, who rose to culinary fame running the kitchen at Short Order in the Original Fairfax Farmers Market. Like Lou, Page wanted the style of Al Cassell’s restaurant to remain the forefront of its revitalized successor. Although the new space feels hip, modern, and bright upon entering, it manages to infuse modern architectural design while upholding the essence of a traditional 1950s diner, accommodating the likes of all generations. The large glass windows invite customers to take a seat at the classic barstool-counter set up, surrounded by vintage signage and decals from the original joint. The open floor plan gives everyone the chance to watch the cooks craft the delicious burgers on Al Cassell’s famous original crossfire broiler, ground with the original grinder, and pattied with the original press.
Now… I have never written a love letter. I’ve composed a nice text—a thoughtful tweet maybe. People don’t sincerely dissect things they enjoy anymore, only things they hate (See: anything anyone has ever posted on Facebook).
Today is different. Today I am in love. And love makes you do crazy things like take up ballroom dancing, watch Grey’s Anatomy, or write a letter explaining why you feel the way you do about a restaurant.
I am in love with Cassell’s Hamburgers.
Let me just say, Cassell’s is not a Michelin star restaurant, it wasn’t on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, and Guy Fieri has not slobbered all over it on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives YET. It’s a burger/pie joint in Koreatown with 4 out of 5 stars on Yelp. Although renowned chef David Chang DOES say their patty melts “are the fucking best.” Just sayin’.
It’s so satisfying to say you have a favorite restaurant. Sure, it sounds a little pretentious to claim something is your favorite but it doesn’t matter because you now own that restaurant. Now, if a friend ever asks where they should grab a bite you have complete permission to blurt out, “We could go to Cassell’s, it has the BEST burgers, it’s my favorite restaurant.” People love that. It’s also a law in Los Angeles to have a favorite restaurant (can’t be a chain), and you should be able to list at least three to five of your favorite farm-to-table organic eateries to avoid being viewed as a culture-less troglodyte.
Cassell’s checks every box I yearn for in an enjoyable dining experience. Its menu offers many options, but not too many, as Al Cassell once said “the more things you do, the less chance there is at reaching perfection.” They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner (although most items on the menu live in the burger/sandwich/side realm), as well as alcohol and pies. The location is hiding in plain sight in an unassuming part of Koreatown. Grabbing a table never demands a 20-minute wait, yet the place is never empty. But most importantly, the food is fantastic. My personal favorite order is a patty melt on rye bread with Swiss cheese (which is melted in a way only Jesus and Christian Page know), with a side of sweet potato waffle fries (the onion rings come in a close 2nd), and a slice of dulce de leche banana cream pie to top it off.
Sometimes, it’s the subtleties that push a meal from good to great to extraordinary. Cassell’s utilizes the subtleties in meals that most restaurants overlook and morphs them into a key player of the dish. Whether it is the multitude of house-made sauces that complement the sandwiches and sides, the grilled cheese chip that accompanies each patty melt or the perfectly crumbly graham cracker crust that lines the trays of the delicious custard pies. I cannot stress how consistent this meal is across the board. And I know what you’re thinking, “Cool, you’ve had the same thing four times.” Wrong! I have tried the tuna salad, the classic cheeseburger, the fried chicken sandwich, the potato salad, beer battered onion rings, the classic kennebec fries, as well as the blackberry vanilla, classic apple, and lemon meringue pies. They all pass with flying colors. My next target is their breakfast which by the looks of it captures the essence of a traditional New York diner. However, much like the decor and architecture of Cassell’s, the menu applies a few modern twists to a conventional breakfast category–a burger with hash browns instead of buns being one. Overall, the biggest surprise of the experience after my visit was the pies. I am admittedly an outspoken pie evangelist and will preach its rightful seat atop the throne of dessert until I die. AND DAMN THESE PIES ARE THE HOLY LORD’S BLESSING.
The pies are homemade by Page’s wife, chef Elia Aboumrad (you may know her from season two of Top Chef). Also, the charmingly retro rotating pie case that catches your eye as you walk by was found in a storage container by none other than Aboumrad herself.
To this day, Cassell’s is alive and well, resting below Hotel Normandie, coaxing passerby’s to drop in for a juicy broiled burger, fries, and a beer for just $15 (between 4-7pm)! The burgers are still ground daily using chuck and brisket from Colorado farms; potato salad is still a natural side for every burger; and Page himself is still whipping up batches of mayonnaise in the back, along with house-made soda, chips, and of course, those pies.
There’s something in the air at Cassell’s Hamburgers.