Freestanding fast-food restaurants have long been a part of Los Angeles’s culinary fabric. In every corner of the city — from the Original Tommy’s at the intersection of Beverly and Rampart to Mom’s Burgers in Compton and Cielito Lindo on historic Olvera Street — eating under the shade of a paint-chipped overhang has been an Angeleno tradition ever since automobiles and roadways gave rise to LA’s impressive sprawl.
As the pandemic rages on, a new generation of food stands have debuted in the Southland. While these newcomers have refurbished aging buildings and modernized menus, they continue to operate using the same fast-food sensibilities as their predecessors — offering satisfying meals without full service or a dining room. Business is taking off at a trio of new standalone restaurants that are making a big impact with a smaller and less fussy footprint that seems tailored for pandemic dining.
Blazin’ Burgers ’N Fried Chicken, Burbank
For the past six years, Marilyn Karmazyn has been steadily laying the foundation for Blazin’ Burgers ’N Fried Chicken while working as an Uber driver. First came her vision, a vegan menu that reflected her diet and family’s values. Then came the location, a former burger shack lying fallow on Victory Boulevard in Burbank. Now, Karmazyn, along with her daughters, Kathryn and Kristyn, are transforming the 800-square-foot building into a community hub for plant-based fast-food fare.
“I came across this property online and something just struck me about it,” says Kathryn Karmazyn. “I felt like it was such a cute location and that it really embodied the aesthetic and feel that we wanted. It was definitely the location that was meant for us.”
On the menu there are fast-food classics like milkshakes, french fries, and cheeseburgers made without meat and dairy products. Burbank locals and residents from surrounding cities like North Hollywood and Studio City have been frequenting the stand since it opened just a month ago for Impossible Burgers topped with queso and breakfast sandwiches made on locally sourced vegan croissants. The chicken sandwiches, hulking beasts on brioche stuffed with battered and fried proteins by Atlas Monroe, always seem to go fast.
“Kathryn or I run around for at least three hours a day, going all over the place to get food because we sell out and can’t get our distributors to get food to us quick enough,” says Marilyn. “Being that we’re new, we did not expect to be as busy as we are. We have our hands really full right now just with pick-up.”
In recent weeks, the Karmazyns introduced a weekends-only carhop service, a quaint throwback that’s fitting of the location and resonating with the community. “It’s very old school,” says Kathryn. “We have a couple staff members stand in our parking lot, take people’s orders, and bring their food out. They can dine in their car so that they feel safe, but they can also have a good date or whatever the occasion.” To keep up further with demand, the Karmazyns will be activating the location’s existing drive-thru in the near future and tapping into third-party delivery services.
Blazin’ Burgers ’N Fried Chicken. 2320 West Victory Blvd., Burbank, CA 91506.
A&J Seafood Shack, Long Beach
On the corner of Anaheim and Obispo, on the edge of Long Beach’s Cambodia Town, Vannak Tan is wokking up spectacular Cambodian-inflected dishes. The 280-square-foot stall most recently hawked hot dogs and french fries, and prior to that, it sold tortas to go. Now, the sea-kissed breezes surrounding A&J Seafood Shack are laced with the scent of garlic. Loads of it.
“I’ve worked under my father at his successful restaurant since 1989 while attending junior high, high school, and until I graduated from business school,” shares Tan in his Kiva profile. The global nonprofit provided Tan a $4,500 crowdsourced loan to cover some of the restaurant’s start-up costs. “As first-generation immigrants and the first-born son, it was my duty when [my father] passed away in 2017 [to take] over and manage the family business until my younger siblings [could] manage for themselves.”
After passing the reins of Phnom Penh Noodle Shack in Long Beach and RiceString Noodle Shack in Cerritos to his siblings last year, Tan ventured out on his own to open A&J Seafood Shack this past April with his wife, Manika. The restaurant is named after the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, Anissa, and 5-year-old son, Jetra, who they hope will inherit the business one day.
Drawing on family recipes and street food traditions spanning from Phnom Penh to Oahu’s North Shore, the diverse menu transports diners to far-flung destinations with its pitch-perfect flavors. The house-special lobster, wok-tossed with aromatics, is hacked into manageable bits for easier eating. The Hawaiian garlic shrimp channels the food trucks dotting Oahu’s coastline. It’s served with fresh pineapple slices and is one of the shack’s best-sellers.
The turf side of the menu features grilled beef baguette sandwiches, deeply redolent of lemongrass, along with sour and smoky Khmer sausages served over steamed white rice. “My uncle Vannak wanted to push the scope and serve our city something a little different than the typical noodle [and] rice dishes,” writes Tan’s niece Yossaphinie Seng in a direct message. Seng can often be found working at the shack along with her mother, Tan’s sister-in-law, taking orders and handing off food to customers.
While Tan hopes to eventually grow A&J Seafood Shack into a statewide chain, for now, this ambitious food stand is providing the kind of soul-satisfying cooking that Angelenos are craving through the pandemic. Just ask the crowds snaking around the building and phoning in takeout orders every day for lunch and dinner.
A&J Seafood Shack. 3201 E Anaheim St, Long Beach, CA 90804.
Nic’s Burgers and Bowls and Dipped Cones, Chatsworth
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Walter Lee has fond memories of dining at Dandy’s Fast Food — a hot dog and hamburger stand that dutifully fed the community for 30 years with “a meal in a bun.” Late last year, Walter and his wife, Julia, jumped at the opportunity to purchase the 750-square-foot space and convert it into Nic’s Burgers and Bowls and Dipped Cones. The Lees, who also own and operate Fab’s Hot Dogs in Reseda, named the place after their 8-year-old son.
Nic, who dreamed up the menu with a few refinements from his parents, insisted on serving his favorite foods at his namesake restaurant — soft serve ice cream, rice bowls, hamburgers, corn dogs, and his mom’s beloved cookies. “He always liked putting toppings on a corn dog, so here you can have a loaded hot dog and a loaded corn dog and it comes in a box,” says Lee. “You can literally go at it with a fork.”
Opening during a pandemic isn’t ideal, but business has been solid from the start. Devotees of Fab’s Hot Dogs have contributed to Nic’s early success, along with locals understanding the need to support mom-and-pop restaurants during this tumultuous time. “We thought we would be struggling, but the community really came out,” says Lee. “We’ve been labeled the COVID-proof restaurant of Chatsworth.” Most notably, the Lees have outgrown the shop’s original soft serve machine, and a larger capacity replacement will be installed shortly.
Lee, who has been in and around the hospitality industry his whole life, knows a thing or two about the rhythms of restaurant diners. “I figured Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were going to be the heaviest days. I was almost right,” he says. “Thursday and Friday, yes, but also Monday and Tuesday. And in the past 20 years, Monday and Tuesday are usually the slowest. I think COVID changed people’s habits. And the people working from home still have to eat.”
While the Lees didn’t initially plan on replicating their concept, an enthusiastic customer recently persuaded them to franchise. Four additional locations are slated near the border of Los Angeles and Ventura counties in the future.
Nic’s Burgers and Bowls and Dipped Cones. 9846 Mason Ave., Chatsworth, CA 91311.
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