The great American burger. It’s ubiquitous, yet personal. Los Angeles is overloaded with them at the moment, yet each one commands its own presence, be it in front of a car wash, out of a small walk-up window, or alongside a highway. At Yellow Paper Burger, the new backyard underground pop-up in Monterey Park, that’s the mood: Blend in, but do it different.
“We took elements of a lot of burgers we love in LA, and tried to figure out how to do it ourselves,” says Colin Fahrner, who runs Yellow Paper Burger out of the house he shares with partner Katie Reid Burnett. The creation is indeed particular — specifically as an antidote to the heavily-smashed burger scene running through the city right now — but it’s also born out of wanting to connect with friends, family, and other out-of-work restaurant employees, and to the comfort flavors of LA’s most familiar restaurants.
Fahrner and Burnett are both restaurant and bar vets from way back, with Fahrner most recently working at Tony’s Saloon in the Arts District and Burnett, a baker, heavily involved with the opening at Tartine at the Row development. She now works at busy Eastside spot Belle’s Bagels, and makes hand pies and other goodies for Yellow Paper — in addition to plating, running orders, handling merch sales, and everything else that’s required in today’s jumbled underground food ecosystem. Fahrner flips the burgers and keeps Yellow Paper steering in the right direction.
“It’s exciting and daunting at the same time,” says Fahrner, who has been without traditional employment since July. “This is the only thing right now.”
The story is, again, a common one: Another restaurant employee, striking out via Instagram just to make a living during a global pandemic. But just because it’s been previously seen, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be personal. Fahrner says that, at least early on, most of his customers were friends and family members or local bar contacts, people who have each undoubtedly been affected by the pandemic and economic uncertainty, but who still come together to support one of their own. Fahrner sells to his neighbors too, literally handing burgers over the fence.
“It’s such weird times, but it still feels like we’re a part of this community,” says Fahrner. He and Burnett haven’t been venturing out much, particularly with COVID-19 cases again on the rise, and with the future of LA’s bar scene gloomy at best, he’s not sure when regular employment will come again. Connecting with friends in the industry facing the same foggy, endless days has given the two some sanity, “even if we’re just messaging each other on Instagram,” he says. “We’re still out there, it just looks and feels a lot different.”
Yellow Paper’s actual burger is its own kind of Groundhog Day. The name implies the simplicity of the endless paper-wrapped Southern California-style burgers that can be found at fast-food diners all over town, from Jim’s to Tam’s to Lucky Boy. The technique steals something from the modern trend, with a hearty smash of the fresh beef patty — though not one so powerful, the only result is wall-to-wall sear with no depth. And the ‘shrettuce’, that thin-shaved iceberg lettuce atop, is as much a staple of home burgers and hard shell taco nights as it is any restaurant scene. And then there are the chopped chiles, a nod to In-N-Out’s not-so-secret menu add-on.
“We’ve never really focused on the smash burger in our branding,” Fahrner says of his burger, which benefits from a high-heat griddle without becoming only crispy, super-thin meat lace. “That’s not really what it is. It’s almost a classic Southern California burger, like Yuca’s or In-N-Out, the stuff we grew up with, but done our way. We just thought, how can we make this a burger that we’d really like?”
More and more, newcomers are discovering that they like the burger, too. Fahrner says that the ring of regulars has expanded from the bar and friends scene to people who may only know him for Yellow Paper, served via timed pick-up windows out of a back alley in Monterey Park. Drive by on any given pop-up day and find them all, distanced out in the alley or on neighboring streets, one or two people at a time, digging into a clamshell takeout container and pulling up a burger. There’s still community here, people coming together over something they share, even if it’s six feet apart. Wave a hand, show a smile, take another bite.
“I don’t think this all would have happened otherwise,” says Fahrner of the growing Instagram food scene and his own place in it. “These amazing cooks and chefs from some of the best restaurants in the city are out of work, and so they’re just going to make food they know and love. They might not have had an opportunity to do that if all this hadn’t happened.” Longtime restaurant friends still make up a big portion of his ongoing sales, and Yellow Paper has committed to turning some of those dollars back out into the community via charities like No Us Without You.
The next Yellow Paper Burger pop-up is Sunday, November 15 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in Monterey Park, with plans to begin moving to a weekly schedule in the near future. Preorders can be made online via Instagram, with the address given upon payment.