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Pastrami chili cheeseburger
Wonho Frank Lee

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The Fast-Food Diner Is LA’s True Regional Specialty Restaurant, and It’s All Thanks to Pastrami

An ode to the humble spots where everyone in LA actually eats

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Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

Los Angeles is in love with pastrami. It’s also in love with breakfast burritos, carne asada fries, tacos, cheeseburgers, chili, milkshakes, and fried eggs. These are the real foods of close-knit communities from Winnetka to Wilmington, served simply — and daily — to endless thousands of eager eaters ready to dine from first light to last call. And usually, they’re all served under the same single roof at some otherwise nondescript true neighborhood restaurant.

Maybe there’s an old Greek name glowing from the sign out front (Dino’s, say, or Patra’s); maybe there’s a drive-thru (Rick’s in Silver Lake) or a late-night walk-up window (Lucy’s) facing out onto the street. The interior, if there really is one, is almost assuredly filled with battle-scarred Formica tables and worn-out photos tacked to the walls. And there, prominently displayed above the plancha and the lowboy coolers, is the menu. It winds from morning diner staples like hash browns and scrambles to breakfast burritos and on to lunch, where club sandwiches might appear next to burgers and tacos and even gyros, pushing toward late-night Styrofoam containers loaded with hot fries and charred meat. There is almost always pastrami, served with eggs or between bread slices, and on top of burger patties.

Forget Los Angeles’s designation as a turn-of-the-century restaurant boom town. It is the unheralded burger/chili/burrito/pastrami restaurants that have kept this city afloat for generations, and will continue to do so even when all the New Yorkers leave. These unrivaled restaurants are binding to the neighborhoods in which they belong, and come complete with their own immigrant influences and historical relevance. They feel at once rooted back in time, and specific to this moment in Southern California.

Each neighborhood has its own multifaceted all-day restaurant, whether it’s Arry’s in Montebello, Penny’s in Highland Park, or Daglas Drive-In in Winnetka. Pete’s Blue Chip on Colorado Boulevard is in many ways a straight-up diner, doing over-easy eggs and potatoes in the morning before switching to burgers and fries. Tam’s Burgers No. 23 in Compton opens every single day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., acting as a hard-won staple for a community whose food needs have long been overlooked. The fortunes of these singular restaurants have ebbed and flowed with time. Rents increase, fans fall away, communities change. But it’s a safe bet that any eater in Los Angeles can name their neighborhood do-it-all restaurant right off the top of their head, if not more than one.

Places like Everest Charbroiled Burgers in Altadena and Z’s Place in Vernon will never make it onto any hottest restaurant list. Bon Appetit does not care about them. But they, and thousands of other one-off eateries like them, are the backbone of dining in the real Los Angeles. And they are almost completely unique to Southern California.

To get a sense of the ubiquity of these restaurants, one only needs to drive around on surface streets in Los Angeles for a few minutes in any direction to spot a sign advertising pastrami. More than likely, the word will lead to a parking lot and then to a restaurant that is not a Jewish deli, which in most of America is seen as the primary point of sale for all things pastrami. But things are different in Los Angeles.

Here, pastrami is something more. It is a popular debate topic for food historians who argue its true entry point into the United States. It’s a starter for conversations about coastal differences or the best food in town.

Perhaps the most thorough modern internet deep-dive on pastrami’s history comes from a 2016 Serious Eats article that weaves from Eastern Europe to America’s eastern seaboard, meandering through Texas, Santa Fe, and at least one Chicagoland murder. As writer Robert Moss’s research holds, Jewish immigration from areas like Romania, Germany, and Lithuania led to a spike in salted, cured meats across the country, spurred on around the turn of the 20th century by the bustling railroad and endless cattle lots of the Midwest.

The Oinkster
Wonho Frank Lee
Classic fries
Wonho Frank Lee

Los Angeles first began to dance with pastrami a century ago. At that time, Boyle Heights was a Downtown-adjacent cross-cultural landing pad for Japanese immigrants, a large population of post-Civil War emancipated African Americans, and thousands of Westward-racing Jews. The latter arrived in such numbers that they eventually came to make up roughly 40 percent of the neighborhood, earning Boyle Heights a designation as the Lower East Side of the great American West.

Today one can still feel the Jewish presence in Boyle Heights, both in the architecture of the neighborhood, where the Star of David marks old buildings, and in its cuisine. Pastrami remains a ubiquitous ingredient found on countless restaurant menus across Southern California, but it’s been reinterpreted entirely here in Los Angeles as a thinly shaved commodity available as topping for burgers and fries, or to be stuffed inside tortillas.

The city has made pastrami its own, distinct from the thick stuff on double-baked rye bread served at aging delis. And to follow the origins of pastrami in Los Angeles is to see just how the city’s neighborhoods have come to rely on those diner-esque restaurants that offer three meals a day, with more than a little something for everyone.

Hands hold old photographs of family in front of a restaurant.
Former workers from Dino’s
Wonho Frank Lee

Prior to World War II, Jewish and Japanese restaurants thrived in Boyle Heights. The first location of Canter’s Deli was on Cesar Chavez Boulevard, known until the mid-1990s as Brooklyn Avenue. But with the war came internment, a dark time when most Japanese business owners lost everything they had. Tens of thousands of Jews who had emigrated to Los Angeles in the preceding decades were sent overseas to fight, returning home after years away to also find that the neighborhood had continued to exist without them. Ongoing redlining meant that even those who wanted to stay would be hard-pressed to secure bank loans allowing them to purchase homes. As a result, thousands of Boyle Heights Jews decided to try their luck out in the greater San Fernando Valley, or to the west near Fairfax.

Many Greeks and Jews continued to own and operate their restaurants in both new communities and on LA’s sprawling Eastside, converting their menus slowly over the years to stay popular with the local crowds. Some added tacos and burritos, most discarded their big-plate dinner items, and a few stuck to their roots, continuing to serve coffee out of blue and white paper cups and making gyros for those who still asked. The now-shuttered location of Dino’s on Olympic Boulevard clung for years to its roast chicken and gyros, while the affiliated Dino’s on Pico Boulevard at the edge of Pico-Union and Koreatown changed with the times, eventually adding its famous spicy grilled chicken and fries combo, which was a hit with the locals.

On came more tacos and burritos as Boyle Heights and other communities continued to grow their sizable Mexican populations. That newly thinned-out style of pastrami became suitable for Philippe’s-sized sandwiches or — in one unattributed bit of kitchen genius — pastrami burritos.

Around the same time, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, commodity beef and the emergence of Southern California’s famous highway system drew diners to faster service via drive-thrus and walk-up takeaway windows. The first Tommy’s, opened in 1946 by the son of Greek immigrants, helped solidify chili as a staple food and a condiment in Los Angeles, expanding menus to include a chili-over-stuff section that ran from fries and hot dogs to more prevalent Southern California staples like tamales and fast-food burgers.

Many of these types of restaurants still offer chili dogs, a holdover from when restaurants like Cupid’s or Art’s Famous Chili Dogs (circa 1939) thrived. Keen operators leaned on the success of their newly expanded menus, growing like the Hat to locations up and down the county as fans continued to pour in, always finding something to enjoy.

Chili cheese fries

Many of these restaurants even still carry Greek names like Athenian Grill, while others riff on popular names already found in the genre. The Tommy’s burger universe is now clustered with unaffiliated offshoots named Tom’s, Tomy’s, and Tam’s — to say nothing of the even more derivative Tam’s Jr. Burger No. 2, one of a slew of Tam’s restaurants that populate the Southland. Before Instagram and its worldwide food-porn knock-off culture, there were enterprising Angelenos eager to make a buck with a similar name and overlapping menu.

And it worked. Most people today don’t even bother to suss out the family ties or regional nuances that might hide behind a name; they’re just in line to eat, either inside or in the drive-thru lane. If food is the love language of Los Angeles, these burger-burrito-pastrami restaurants became (and still are) the city’s beating heart.

The inside of a drive thru restaurant complete with old school menu board.
Arry’s Super Burger
Farley Elliott
The drive-thru
Farley Elliott

Today, Los Angeles is focused on the new and the flashy. There are restaurants doing ticketed fine dining behind unmarked walls in Santa Monica food courts (and being considered among the best restaurants in the country as a result), while across town in far Chinatown celebrity chef David Chang has turned a derelict warehouse into one of the country’s best new restaurants. Jessica Largey, one of America’s most acclaimed and awarded young chefs, has her own place in the Arts District that’s backed by big money from the Russo brothers, who direct Marvel movies. But the truth is, these restaurants aren’t the truest representation of LA’s lifeblood.

Take George’s instead. The old burger and pastrami stand on Cesar Chavez Avenue, back in Boyle Heights, where the city’s burger/chili/burrito/pastrami restaurants movement all began. And it’s a gleaming example of a restaurant in a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding neighborhood.

Locals hover in the restaurant’s open dining room, squinting at the newly lit menu before stepping up to the window to make their order. Pastrami, burgers, fries, shakes, and burritos are all still on the menu. But for longtime residents, George’s feels a little different, though the cut-up communal tables and open-sided seating area carry a timeless patina.

“Everybody has one of those places,” says Armando De La Torre Jr., who, along with his father and partner, Rob McCord, has taken over George’s. “And when I think of the history of Boyle Heights, it’s places like this.”

George’s in Boyle Heights
Courtesy George’s

The De La Torre family is also responsible for almost-across-the-street taco stalwart Guisados (now with locations from West Hollywood to Burbank), and have themselves been a part of the Boyle Heights neighborhood for three generations. De La Torre’s grandfather sold real estate in the building next door to George’s for decades.

Now the younger De La Torre is on the scene at George’s, tossing on a name-brand apron while still doling out chili cheese fries from an open-topped cardboard box. Many restaurants like this mirror the multiculturalism of the communities they serve, changing with the times as the neighborhood does.

Here, the prices have crept up a little from the old days, and there’s no more frozen fish fry on the menu, but George’s sports the same retro sign as before. The family felt it was important to keep key hallmarks of the space place.

“I’m not trying to change the world here,” Armando says. “We’re just trying to continue making simple, good, affordable food.”

Lucky Boy
On the griddle
Wonho Frank Lee
Lucky Boy
Young fans
Wonho Frank Lee

Other restaurants have managed to keep their soul while staying in touch with the times. Some, like George’s or the Oinkster in Eagle Rock, have continued to adapt just like their predecessors all those decades ago. Others, like Lucky Boy in Pasadena, trade on nostalgia as a way of connecting diners with the past. Each is still alive and kicking in its own way, and some of these restaurants even manage to bubble up to the citywide consciousness, though most neighborhood pastrami and chili cheese fry joints never will. Many do just fine without the larger attention, but in a city with lots of media attention right now, it’s important to recognize the reality of how people here actually dine — and exactly who is feeding them.

The burger/chili/burrito/pastrami restaurant is everywhere, biting down to hold on to expensive strips of land in Boyle Heights, San Fernando, Inglewood, and in every other corner of greater Los Angeles. In a city so eager to be defined by outside accolades and incoming chefs, let’s not forget them.

After all, for millions of Southern Californians, the most consistent meal in town is not at Simone or Sweetgreen or even Chipotle, it’s at a vaguely named burger, burrito, and pastrami palace with historical ties to Boyle Heights. The menus and the signage may not make as much sense in today’s brand-obsessed dining universe, but for LA locals, these restaurants still matter an awful lot — and that’s not changing any time soon.

Farley Elliott is the senior editor of Eater Los Angeles
Edited by Carolyn Alburger and Matthew Kang
Copy edited by Emma Alpern

Signage for the vintage Lucky Boy restaurant, shown low from a corner.
Out front
Wonho Frank Lee
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