Cassell’s is Back – Kinda Sorta

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Last December, a new Cassell’s Hamburgers opened in the Hotel Normandie, joining the Normandie Club and speakeasy Walker Inn. Once declared “the best burger in LA,” Cassell’s was a beloved neighborhood joint that closed down in 2012, but it had hit the skids long before that. Jingbo Lou, an architect dedicated to preservation, thought Cassell’s would be a good cornerstone for his restored and revamped 1928 boutique hotel. The restaurant could “…capture the bygone essence of a neighborhood — without holding back on its updated future,” as reported by Farley Elliott of EaterLA . Lou bought the Cassell’s name, recipes, and equipment in order to resurrect the lost relic.

Alvin “Al” Cassell opened Cassell’s Hamburgers, which was known for a time as Cassell’s Patio, in 1948 across from the Bullocks Wilshire. He soon moved the restaurant east to 6th and Berendo after the landlord raised his rent. Cassell’s interior was spartan, because he felt like he had made a mistake decorating the place on Wilshire only to have to leave it.

Cassell’s hamburgers quickly became popular because Al used Colorado prime chuck that he ground daily, and a special crossfire broiler of his own making. The lemonade was fresh-squeezed and the mayonnaise was made on the premises. Cassell’s was only open from 10am to 3pm, and was run like a cafeteria. You placed your order with the cook by number and slid your tray along to add garnishes and even potato salad, cottage cheese, and canned peach halves to your plate. You had to order by number and the cooks were grumbly old men who yelled at you if you didn’t order fast enough. The menu was limited, and nothing was deep-fried. When asked by Lawrence Dietz of The LA Times why he didn’t serve French fries, Cassell replied, “They’re not in my picture.”

After Lawrence Dietz proclaimed the burgers to be the best in the city, the burger joint had a line around the block. In the 80s, the restaurant moved once again, this time half a block east onto 6th Street. According to Jonathan Gold in Counter Intelligence, “Cassell’s attempted to franchise itself in the mid-’80s, but the spinoff restaurants were far inferior to the original, and most perished quickly and unlamented.”

During the 90s, Al Cassell retired and sold the restaurant to Helen Kim, who immediately started serving fries. In 2000, Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood visited and approved of the operations as run by Kim. I worked directly across the street from Cassell’s from 1995 until 2007. As the years went by, the sign was covered with graffiti and a forlorn banner hung loosely from one end. It was sad to watch this landmark decline. Although my co-workers were hesitant to patronize the run-down restaurant, the owners were friendly, so I often stopped in to pick up a lunch of fresh tuna salad and homemade lemonade. In 2010, the Sterns returned to Cassell’s, and the Roadfood review laments the dry, grey patties of a burger joint well past its glory days. There was no saving the failing business and it finally closed in 2012. Many loyal customers of the “old Cassell’s” mourned its loss, but were bolstered by rumors of its re-opening in the Hotel Normandie.

Along with the curious old-timers and the young locals trying their first Cassell’s burger, we went to check the new place out. The space is large, but the high ceilings and plate glass windows make it feel enormous. Its pristine white walls are adorned with signage from the old Cassell’s. It is clearly an homage to the beloved burger joint. Christian Page, previously of Short Order at the Farmer’s Market, is using the original crossfire broiler designed by Al himself. The broiler cooks the burgers on both sides simultaneously at 500 degrees, giving it its trademark char. The cooktop is slanted to allow the grease to run off into drip pans. The kitchen also uses the original grinder, patty press and recipes. The counter was fashioned from wood taken from the original restaurant, and they even use the original tables and chairs.

Although it is no longer run cafeteria style, food is served on cafeteria trays. Directly on the trays — no plates except for breakfast, and I would imagine for salads. The servers are extremely friendly; two of them actually bumped into each other trying to help me last week. They are knowledgeable about the menu, and if they couldn’t answer a question, they immediately found someone who could.

You still have the option of a 1/3 or 2/3 pound patty. Christian Page puts fresh Colorado chuck and brisket through a coarse grind twice. And yes, it has that longed-for trademark char. The new restaurant features house-made mayonnaise and lemonade just like Al’s. They also mix whole grain mustard and mayo to make a popular condiment. The only thing they don’t make is the ketchup. For your cheeseburger, you still get a choice between Swiss or American. The large sesame seed buns have been replaced by soft but sturdy Parker House buns. The new restaurant makes Al’s popular half-mashed potato salad, which gets its heat from Coleman’s Hot Mustard, not horseradish, as many people think. At first, the restaurant planned to keep French fries off the menu to honor Al Cassell’s memory, but they have caved and now serve fries.

The Patty Melt is served on a thicker rye bread than Al used to use, but it is possibly the best Patty Melt in town. The crispy, buttery toast allows the flavor of the quality beef to be more pronounced than when it is encased in a big, fluffy bun and drowned in toppings. The 500 degree heat of the broiler makes the Swiss cheese inside the sandwich melt like lava, while edges are converted into sheets of crispy cheese that beg to be picked off.

I approached the tuna poached in pickle brine with some trepidation. Yes, it was picklish, but not in an off-putting way. The only thing I have been disappointed with is the egg salad, which is runny, unwieldy and bland. It is also a strangely bright shade of yellow. The grilled ham and cheese sandwich looked inviting, as did the salads. But who’s fooling who? We are never going to walk into this place an order a salad.

Unlike the original, this diner-style Cassell’s serves breakfast. The flapjacks are surprisingly light and delicate considering they are not very thick. Vanilla butter slides melting down the sides of the hot pancakes. I did, however, notice as I enjoyed my breakfast that I was the only one there not eating a breakfast burrito.

The luscious-looking pies rotating in the pie case do not disappoint. Dessert is definitely one area where this place beats out the original. Elia Aboumrad, who we fell in love with when she shaved her head on season two of Top Chef, is not only Christian Page’s wife, but she is also the pie wizard. The banana cream pie with dulce de leche will blow your mind. A nearby diner remarked, “That is exactly what banana cream pies have been missing all this time.” The lemon cheesecake with chocolate shavings is not too puckery, and the filling is smooth and light without being weighed down by an excess of cream cheese. The crusts are a little thicker than normal, but we don’t really care when the pie is this good. The mixed berry pie was tart, as most fruit pies are, and was perfectly balanced when a la mode.

There are also shakes and malts made with McConnell’s ice cream, house-made sodas, and exotic iced teas. There is even a coffee bar in the corner churning out espresso. The new Cassell’s boasts a full bar, a cocktail menu, a wine list and a tempting array of craft beers.

Besides complaints about the loss of the condiment bar (which is apparently illegal now), there has been some grumbling about the prices. The plain 1/3 pound burger is $8.99 and the 2/3 pound cheeseburger is $14.99. A lunch that once cost $10 in the old location now hovers around $20. I think if the memory of Al’s little burger joint didn’t intrude, no one would bat an eye at these prices considering the high quality of the food. Especially in K-Town, which has become super hip since Al hung up his apron. You can get valet parking for only $3, which is a blessing and a bargain in this neighborhood, although some might consider it pretentious.

So no, it’s not “The Return of Cassell’s.” I wouldn’t even call it “Son of Cassell’s.” It’s more like “Hip Young Nephew of Cassell’s.”

Additional references:

Curbed

LA Times Daily Dish Dec 2014

LA Times 2010

Old Restaurants

Trippy Food

According to DavidSL in a Chowhound thread Sep 23, 2004 04:21 “My mom dug up the recipe and thus the revision below:” Originally printed in the LA Times 1974 [The LA Beat has been unable to find this recipe in the LA Times’ recipe search or archives].

Cassell’s Potato Salad

4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup mayo
1 tbsp sugar
1 1/4 tsp dry mustard
3/4 tsp salt

 

Elise Thompson

About Elise Thompson

Born and raised in the great city of Los Angeles, this food, culture and music-loving punk rock angeleno wants to turn you on to all that is funky, delicious and weird in the city. While Elise holds down the fort, her adventurous alter ego Kiki Maraschino is known to roam the country in search of catfish.
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2 Responses to Cassell’s is Back – Kinda Sorta

  1. Ed Simon Ed Simon says:

    Great article Elise. Brought back a lot of memories of going there in the late 70’s thru middle ’90s.

  2. Pingback: The LA Street Food Fest Returns to the Rose Bowl This Saturday with Fritzi Dogs, Ice Cream and Tequila! | The LA Beat

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