LA’s Apple Pan vs. Pie ‘N Burger: Who Rules the City of Angels? « blogging for burgers

LA’s Apple Pan vs. Pie ‘N Burger: Who Rules the City of Angels?


Let me start off this post by re-iterating the fact that I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles.  I will not bother saying which one, because 99.9% of the country has not heard of the town and confuse it with a neighbor to the north (the oft-mistaken-for city is San Bernardino– special prize to anyone who can figure out my actual hometown).  But that is neither here nor there.

I wanted merely to set the stage for what has become a battle royale in the LA-area for lunchtime burger domination: Pie ‘n burger vs. The Apple Pan.

Both serve burgers and other sandwiches at a counter.  Both are lunch hot-spots.  Both have pie.  Both are old (for California, anyway).

And I had not been to either of them, despite the location of my upbringing.  In fact, I grew up less than 5 minutes away from P ‘n B.  I took French classes three times a week at the Berlitz school across the street for nine months and not once did I venture through the gates to beefy bliss.  Tragic, I know.  However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for me, caused by my own childhood ignorance.  I do not have any bias when it comes to my critiques, and, ultimately, my selection as the lunch counter victor.

The Apple Pan

The Apple Pan is an old school LA type of place, if the phrase “old school” can legitimately be applied to anything in LA.  It’s the type of place that Los Angelinos love to get off on because of the fact that most of LA is overdeveloped and sloppy, but this place is rock-solid and virtually unchanged since its inception.  Of course, it is on the West Side, and with that comes a certain set of sensibilities.  Some call it charm, some call it unabashed phoniness.  As an combination insider/outsider, I place the truth somewhere in between.

The counter-style service is definitely a throwback to the working man’s lunch: burger, fries, coffee, maybe a slice of pie.  Quick in, quick out.  The fast pace still holds on.  It’s one of those places where you try to order in a few words as possible.  “Hickory, medium-rare, cheese, steakburger, no onion, fries to share.”  You want to reduce the number of follow-up questions to none.

And if you get a follow-up question, you sure as hell be able to understand it an answer it quickly.  There’s no time for amateurs.

As soon as you order, you get your drinks and your fries right away.  The drinks come in a metal holder with paper cups inside.  This might be cool looking but I actually get the sensation of nails on a chalkboard when I drink out of those cups (but that’s just me).

The fries are your run of the mill diner fries.  I typically don’t really like this type of fries, but the Apple Pan does do them right.  They are crunchy on the outside and pillowy on the inside.  Served piping hot and salty, they do a great job at whetting the appetite.

Within a couple of minutes (remember, quick in, quick out), your burger will be presented to you, wrapped neatly in California-style wax paper.  They come pre-dressed, all you have to do is go to town.

The burgers themselves are griddle cooked, so they have the typical charring you’d expect from the flattop.  In the pic above, you can really see on the steakburger how it got a great layer of caramelization.  The hickory burger (on left) has a great smokey flavor that really permeates the meat.  I’ve gotta say, the quality of the meat at the Apple Pan is on point (“quality forever” is their slogan, so that makes sense) and the seasoning is good.  The burgers weren’t as juicy as I had hoped, but the relish and ketchup helped in that department.

If you’re a fat kid like me, you go straight for pie à la mode afterwards and don’t even wait to start eating before taking a picture.

For the burger, the Apple Pan was good.  Just good, not exceptional or mind-shattering.  In my humble opinion, it’s the type of place that people love to wax poetic about in LA just so that they can wax poetic about something in LA (“it has, like, a counter… there aren’t even servers”, “it’s like, really old”, “parking is such a nightmare, can you imagine when people had to walk there?”).  I think it’s a little less impressive if you live in an urban city where this culture remains, and I don’t think it compares to a PJ Clarke’s or JG Melon.  It is worth a visit for the experience, but I’d like it at that.

Pie ‘N Burger

On the other side of town in Pasadena lies the Pie ‘N Burger.  It’s the same general idea as the Apple Pan, but is a bit more spacious, most likely a result of its being a bit newer (I think it was founded in the ’60s) and its location in the San Gabriel Valley (“everything’s bigger on the east side… or something”).  The atmosphere is much different.  Slower.  A bit more pleasant.  I think part of it has to do with the waitresses working the counter vs grumpy men.  The chairs are normal height, which is more conducive to a leisurely lunch time burger.

The menu is also slightly broader than the Apple Pan, giving the place more of a coffee shop feel than a true lunch counter.  I’m not sure how many strip steaks are being ordered, but if that is going to tickle your fancy, they will make it for you.  The menu actually reminds me a bit of JG Melon, with turkey burgers and chicken sandwiches and all that jazz, but I didn’t see any of those coming out off of the grilltop while I was there.

Similar to The Apple Pan, expediency is key, so the sides typically arrive before the burgers do.  We ordered a side of potato salad, so that came first.  The potato salad was creamy and rich, served atop some iceberg lettuce and a few sliced pickles.  My mom said, “this potato salad could be from New York.”  That’s a compliment.  And she doesn’t just mean New York, she mean’s Artie’s Delicatessen on the UWS.

A few minutes later, the burgers arrived.  At first blush, they were similar to the Apple Pan– wrapped in wax paper, busting with spread and ketchup, served on a squishy bun.  However, upon taking my first bite, I decided in an instant that this was a far superior product.  The meat was juicier, the rhythm of the sandwich came together more cohesively, and the overall flavors just did it for me.  To be honest, I couldn’t tell you what the differences were, I just thought it was a better burger.  And to think, I spent ten years of my life within a stone’s throw from this place and I had never made it past the front door.  The picture below doesn’t really do it justice since you can’t see the color of the meat, but it was there and it was delicious.

Having pigged out on some pie the day prior, I decided to forgo the baked goods in spite of the myriad choices (and even resisting after the waitress said we were “making good progress” and looked like we needed some pie).  To satisfy my inner fatty, I went for a chocolate malt instead.  I may not have saved myself any calories or fat, but I had a cool refreshment in my belly before heading out into the valley’s oppressive heat.

The Bottom Line: Pie ‘N Burger Wins!

Overall, I found the Pie ‘N Burger to be a most excellent experience.  I will definitely add this to my LA “must list” when coming back home, along with In ‘n Out.

Maybe I should make it a rule to only eat at establishments that have an abbreviated “and” in them, who knows.  Now to head over to INO…

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