Food & Wine

$10.95 on the Richter Scale

Pie 'N Burger holds firm to the classic

by ADAM BRAY-ALI, Contributing Writer
Published: Friday, January 17, 2014 | 12:15 AM

Ever since young Lionel Sternberger “accidentally” created the cheeseburger at The Rite Spot in 1924, earnest, erstwhile chefs and newcomers to the Pasadena community have brought bacon infusions, sliders on Portuguese bread, chili, kale, brussel sprouts and anything else that might elevate the cheeseburger equation.  Sometimes it feels like an earthquake has hit your table when the latest 6-inch tall gutbomb arrives.  And yet, the classic at Pie ‘N Burger survives and thrives.

The classic Pie 'N Burger cheeseburger.

As my son and I drove to Pie’N Burger this evening to try their $10.95 Cheeseburger Week combination, seismologist Lucy Jones and host Warren Olney on KCRW were discussing how she woke up early on January17, 20 years ago, to the rumbling of the Northridge blind thrust fault and counted the seconds of the shaking.  Using rules of thumb she calculated the magnitude with the good old fashioned Richter Scale and thought it was strong but not overwhelming.  I imagine her, after that early morning shake, stopping  at the Pie’N Burger on her way to work for a quick bite and cup of coffee from the Bunn coffee machines.

Located a few short blocks from Cal Tech’s verdant campus and the famous Seismo Lab, Pie’N Burger continues their masterful version of the cheeseburger with a skill and style that the new school purveyors of hamburgers can only view as the San Andreas of all burger stands.   Outsized in influence, obvious to all but laying dormant as the surrounding plates merge and pop with magnitude 3 shakes.

Framed reviews by everyone from the New York Times to Pasadena Now to our Pulitzer Prize winning local, Jonathan Gold dot the walls.  All heap praise on the cheeseburger put on the counter by longtime owner Michael Osborn and his crew of fry cooks, pastry chefs, waitresses and busboys.

My son Kyle and I both ordered the $10.95 special, including a cheeseburger, side dish (he chose fries, I selected a salad) and fountain drink.

A few short minutes later our waitress delivered our meal on oval diner plates with a smile and an offer of Heinz ketchup and mustard bottles.  Not certain if my 9 year old knew the old ‘butter knife in the bottle trick’ we discussed relative viscosity of ketchup and how to control the flow of America’s favorite condiment to the plate.

A Pie’N Burger cheeseburger is an exercise in controlled excess.  Wrapped in a folded white wax paper, it arrives hot from the grill with spare condiments including lettuce, a mayonnaise/ketchup relish, and pickles.  Tomatoes are not standard and taking the advice of others, I chose to have grilled onions on mine.   With a softly textured but well-toasted bun, the sandwich is a solid two-hander.   The substantial, but not overwhelming, burger patty was cooked medium and slightly charred on the outside with a soft, meaty flavor inside.   Cheese was the classic American cheddar slowly melting on top of the patty and retaining a glossy film of moisture.  Crisp lettuce and butter pickles rounded out a flavor profile instantly recognizable to any burger aficionado.

Most of the patrons this weekday evening were enjoying a similar meal.  Cheeseburger, side of fries, coca-cola in glass cups with finely ground ice globes that melt quickly and have a satisfying crunch when chewed.  Service was brisk and efficient but caring enough to offer a taste of the chocolate meringue pie and boysenberry pie for comparison.  There was a small line of people waiting for seats most of the evening.  We selected the boysenberry pie, two forks please, and talked about how Cal Tech students installed a Pasadena sign in the foothills this month that changed to read CAL TECH in orange letters at halftime.

For Cheeseburger week 2014, Pie’N Burger is offering a meal that includes their famous cheeseburger, the side of your choice and fountain drink of your choice for $10.95. A savings from the normal price of $12.20, this may not be enough to shake you loose from your chair but follow the advice of Dr. Richter and come down South Lake to California, swivel into a stool at the counter and let a classic cheeseburger take you back 20 years and reminisce about the tectonic changes to our city since the Northridge temblor of January 1994.

After your meal, walk a few blocks to the East and wave hi to Lucy Jones at the Seismo Lab.

Pie’N Burger is located at 913 E. California Avenue, Pasadena CA 91106.  Open from 6AM-10PM M-F, 7AM-10PM Sat, 7AM-9PM Sun.   Catering and a mobile food truck are available for private events.  More details at their website: http://pienburger.com/

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