Welcome back to Highly Opinionated, an ongoing series where Eater’s editors delve into one specific, oft-debated food favorite in Los Angeles. Previously, we discussed the city’s best New York-style pizza, Italian deli sandwiches, Korean barbecue, breakfast burritos, beef phở, burritos, and bánh mì đặc biệt. This edition takes a closer look at the unheralded king of LA diner cuisine: the timeless ham steak.
Only highfalutin suckers order the steak and eggs for breakfast. It’s too flashy, too all-consuming, and frankly too expensive to justify as an early-morning meal. No, the real workman’s breakfast, the under-discussed and over-delivering diner item that should be atop everyone’s list of must-haves, is the simple ham steak.
Served thick and warm, salty and just chewy enough, the ham steak outshines its admittedly simple premise to provide perhaps the most value of any staple diner dish. The best ham steaks are nearly an inch thick and served as a whole oval of excitement, overlapping the edges of a sturdy diner plate. Some of them even have little rings of center bone still inside, a stamp of authenticity telling eaters that this slice basically fell directly off the pig and onto the griddle.
Ham steaks don’t wow you with technique or make you perk up an eyebrow with subtle flavor and finesse — they are the jackhammer of the diner industrial complex, unrelenting and powerful. The way people stare as an order makes its way through the dining room, you’d think the server were wearing a hi-vis vest and waving bright-orange batons.
A ham steak allows eaters to work from the edges in, cutting off triangles and squares to swipe through egg yolk or serve atop buttered toast. It’s an ideal vehicle for sugary commodity ketchup and holds both savory breakfast gravy and sweet pancake syrup with equal ease. Some bites are lean, others fattier, but there is no piece of a ham steak — no gristly, unworkable edge like on some diner filets — that is bad.
The only regret a ham steak could give its eater is that there’s simply too much of it to finish in one sitting. Luckily, much like ordering a single side pancake or stack of French toast “for the table,” the ham steak is a dish always worthy of inclusion in a group diner order. And, occasionally, you can even try downing a ham steak all by yourself, because there is nothing you can order that is “too much” at a diner, even when eating solo.
All of which brings us to the fatty question at the center of this debate: Who makes LA’s best ham steak?
The overall favorite: The Griddle Cafe
The only thing small about the Griddle Cafe is its entryway. Positioned mid-block between a giant pharmacy chain and the Directors Guild of America building, one might not know the restaurant was there at all if it wasn’t for the long weekend lines that queue up and down the sidewalk. Inside, the 100-seat restaurant is a cornucopia of regulars, locals, and tourists, both domestic and international. They’ve all come to score some of the Griddle’s giant breakfasts, from pancake stacks to eight-egg omelets. The food is the show at this 20-year-old Sunset Boulevard spot between Hollywood and the true Sunset Strip. Usually, the main attractions are the heaving, heavenly pancake platters, but even hardened Griddle fanatics can’t resist an envious peek when a ham steak hits a nearby table.
At the Griddle, ham comes in a variety of forms, but only one size: gigantic. The best way to enjoy the sturdy slice here is the Poached y Papas Benedict, a truly delightful desecration of the Benedict. Two poached eggs are left to skate in a bath of hollandaise on top of an ice rink-sized slab of seared ham, and instead of a split English muffin the whole thing is set on top of four equal quarters of fried potato skin. Add half an avocado for another $1.95.
Taken together the dish is near-perfect in its diner gluttony. Creamy, salty, and crunchy in all the right spots, it’s a creation that deserves its own shine. Yes, the pancakes at the Griddle are amazing and massive in their own right, but they can skew one-note and are too sugary at times. The Poached y Papas Benedict, on the other hand, always has more of itself to give, especially when doused with a little hot sauce to crackle through all of that richness. Bring a friend or two to share, or settle in at the counter solo for the ham steak ride of a lifetime.
The best for ham steak purity: Nick’s Cafe
It would be impossible to have a discussion about ham steak in Los Angeles without mentioning Nick’s Cafe. The 75-year-old diner on Spring Street in Chinatown has a prominent red-and-white sign out front that simply reads HAM HOUSE. For those that worship at the altar of semisweet, extra-salty griddled ham, this is the house to be at.
There really are no frills at Nick’s, and there is no hollandaise to round out any rough edges. The ham here has to be perfect every day because customers have built that expectation over decades, relying on the restaurant’s brown sugar glaze to give the ham a tasty burnish. The slices, while not as thick as elsewhere, show off the grain and rounded edges of real pork muscle. This is not the shiny, pate-like pressed ham seen in cinder block sizes at a low-grade deli. This is the real stuff, served to real eaters. For ham steak simplicity in its purest form, there really is no better place than Nick’s Cafe, the ageless Chinatown star.