Cassell’s Hamburgers

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Cassell’s may not be completely defunct but its first two outlets certainly are, as are several short-lived “expansion” outlets in the eighties.  Once upon a time, its name was the most often-given answer to the eternal question, “Where do you get the best hamburger in Los Angeles?”

Situated in Koreatown and open only for lunch, Cassell’s was the kind of place you took your friends, promising them something very special in a traditional burger.  A Cassell’s burger was an expertly-cooked piece of prime U.S.D.A. beef served to you on a rather ordinary bun…and then you could dress it yourself.  If you took a bite before condiments, you were impressed with how good the meat itself was.  Some hamburgers are great because of the toppings applied to bland chopped meat.  But the beef Al Cassell chose to use was the best you could use to make a hamburger and his unique slanted grill simultaneously broiled and fried it while the slant allowed excess grease to roll off.  Another secret ingredient was the guy who ran the broiler.  He’d cooked enough of them to know exactly the split-second to remove your burger from the fire.

Al Cassell opened Cassell’s Patio in 1948.  He was said to be obsessive about quality, hollering at his suppliers if they didn’t deliver him the best lemons, the best onions, the best tomatoes.  His homemade lemonade was especially exquisite and he was always tasting it himself and adjusting the sugar content.  He also made his own mayonnaise on the premises…and then there was his potato salad.  As good as Al’s hamburgers were, a lot of people thought the star of his limited menu was his unique potato salad.

Up until the mid-eighties, Cassell’s did not offer french fries.  After you got your burger, you could help yourself to what he called the buffet.  It was more like a topping bar: Ketchup, mustard, onions, his homemade mayo, lettuce, etc.  There was cottage cheese and canned pineapple chunks and sometimes, other kinds of canned fruit.  Mostly, there was this potato salad that looked like cold mashed potatoes.  It was white and full of large chunks of spud, plus there was either a rather potent horseradish or hot mustard.  Regular patrons of Cassell’s would argue over which it was and some would swear to have definitive information, sometimes from Mr. Cassell himself.  This site declines to take sides in this vicious dispute.

The “hotness” in the potato salad, whatever it was, was hit and miss.  You might get a scoop with very little of it.  You might get one that would have you spitting flame.  Most customers loved it but for those that didn’t want to risk the land mines, Mr. Cassell also provided a big basket of the smallest-sized bag of potato chips.  You could grab a few of them and eat chips with your burger.  (The potato chips went away when Cassell’s finally bowed to progress and introduced fries and later, onion rings.  The new side dishes never seemed to sell that well, partly because the potato salad was so wonderful and partly because all you could eat of it was included with your burger, whereas you had to pay extra for fries or rings.)

There were other menu items at Cassell’s but not many.  There was a pretty good ham sandwich, a pretty good egg salad sandwich and an excellent tuna salad sandwich.  The glories of the last two had a lot to do with Mr. Cassell’s mayo.

He originally opened in ’48 at the corner of 6th Street and Berendo.  Food critics discovered the place and it was very common to get there at lunchtime and find a line out the door.  The quaint building had an actual patio and it was not unusual to spot Al out there, busing tables himself so as to seat customers who’d gotten and dressed their burgers and needed a place to sit and eat them.  In the eighties, about the time fries appeared, he moved (grill and all) to a patio-less building a half-block east, still on 6th.  That’s it in the photo above.  Shortly after, a relative of Mr. Cassell’s opened an outlet in the shopping mall at Crescent Heights and Wilshire and did what appeared to be very good business.  Then he handed the operation over to others and went out to open another Cassell’s on Ventura Boulevard in Encino.  That one never caught on and in the meantime, the quality over at Crescent Heights plunged…and before long, both were gone.

In the nineties, Mr. Cassell’s health forced his retirement and he sold his beloved restaurant to a Korean family.  They changed very little, mostly adding things like salmon burgers and chicken breasts, but you could feel the absence of Mr. Cassell.  I found the quality variable.  At its best, it was as good as ever.  At its worst, it was still a better place to have a burger than most, including Hamptons, which I co-owned at the time…but it was no longer the kind of place restaurant critics raved about and the area was changing.  Once upon a time, you couldn’t get in at lunch without a wait.  Now, you could show up at 1:00 and be the only burger-eater in the house.

Mr. Cassell died in June of 2010.  Two years later, his restaurant was closed.  Another set of new owners were refurbishing the historic (built in 1928) Hotel Normandie a few blocks away and they planned to reopen Cassell’s there as part of that building.  At the time, they said Cassell’s would be back in eight months with the old quality and some new menu items, including milk shakes.

As of this writing, it’s been a year and there’s no word of the comeback of Cassell’s.  We hope it’ll be back and that much of Al Cassell’s way of making burgers will be in evidence.  If so, it’ll be a great place…but it probably won’t match the glory days when Al himself was on the premises and you could hear him simultaneously tasting his lemonade and yelling on the phone at a supplier who’d delivered something less than the best lemons.

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19 Responses to Cassell’s Hamburgers

  • Will Hamblet says:

    Started going to Cassell’s in the late sixties when I was a computer programmer at Paramount. Loved the Swiss Cheese Burger with that great home-made mayo & onions…. plus the incredible potato salad which I only found “hit & miss” on a daily basis. NOT on a bite-to-bite basis.

  • Richard Davies says:

    Looking at the new item’s menu I didn’t know the grocer’s apostraphe had found it’s self the west side of the Atlantic.

  • Bruce says:

    I had a memorable lunch at Cassell’s a few years ago, compliments of the proprietor of this site. Great meal, and thanks again!

  • Shannon says:

    Wow…I was telling my husband who is from Colorado about a fabulous burger joint in downtown LA that a beloved relative used to take me to in the 70′s. I couldn’t remember the name. So I searched and found your great post! Bravo! Cassell’s was in its heyday when I used to go there. I remember the lemonade and I remember Al yelling…thanks for the memory!

  • BobbKatt says:

    I was a regular at Cassell’s since August, 1969, and was never disappointed in their burgers or their sides. The horseradish potato salad was their most unique dish, but a 2/3-lb patty cooked-to-order was unbeatable. I drove in from residences in Northridge and Pasadena just for a meal. I hope Tek, the owner, can bring it back.

  • Ferrell Forehand says:

    How sad! I am truly bummed. I live in Germany now but used to go regularly when I worked in Hollywood in the ’70s and 80′s. Such a memorable experience. I looked it up today planning on having lunch there on Friday. The horseradish potato salad (anyone that says “mustard” has never has horseradish) was out of this world. And those huge burgers! What a shame. But I guess nothing stays the same.

  • Dana Gabbard says:

    I first learned about it from the old Paul Wallach Southern California dining guide. Like the Pantry and Taylor’s Steakhouse (two other L.A. institutions, thankfully still active!) this is the sort of place you eat at a few times a year because it is very filling. They even had salad dressing as part of the condiment bar so you could have an impromptu salad grace one side of the large plate that came with the burgers. I found the large sliced tomatoes excellent not only for the burger but also as a side dish garnished with mayo. The last year or so it was open I had a chance to have some lengthy conversations with the Korean owner (heck of a nice guy) on Saturday afternoons when it wasn’t too busy (although even threeish it was not unusual to have a party of folks come in to get burgers before it closed at 4 p.m.) The recession hit them hard. Folks who used to eat there 5 days a week for lunch who worked in nearby office buildings cut back to three. Many who used to get a burger, fries and drink reduced their orders to just the burger. People who used to pay cash now paid with credit cards. So I wasn’t surprised when I heard the news he had sold it to the guy who evidently thinks having it as part of his trendy boutique upgrade of the Hotel Normandie will be selling point. I haven’t seen any signs the new location is even started. Meanwhile the old location is vacant and rather sad looking. BTW, I always would dilute the potato salad with some mayo and pickles from the condiment bar. And one time when I was in the midst of walking to Cassel’s who should I run into exiting but Mr. Evanier and a friend from out of town he was treating! I hope some year I can have that re-occur if/when the new location opens (hopefully with comparable quality).

  • Brian says:

    On October 22, 2013, Eater LA is reporting that Cassell’s will re-open at the Hotel Normandie early-to-mid 2014.

  • Lindy Hardman says:

    In the ’60s, my father worked 2 blocks away and got his morning coffee at Cassell’s every day. He became very close to Al who started calling my father BK (best kind). I worked there during the summer of 1975 – my first job after freshman year in college. I had to show up around 5:30am – the potatoes would be finished being cooked in boiling water and I had to put on garden gloves to skin them. The gloves had so many holes in them that I always burned my hands. I still remember the recipe for the potato salad because I had to make it every morning. To solve the age-old question of what provided the heat, it was Coleman’s Hot Mustard!
    To this day, I have been unable to find a burger as good as Cassell’s!

  • Richard Garcia says:

    Cassell’s will be reopening at the Hotel Normandie located at Normandie Avenue and 6th Street… Hoping for the best…

  • Craig D. Smith says:

    I ran into Mark Evanier at the Cassell’s that used to be on Crescent Heights and Wilshire back in the 80s. With the impulsiveness of youth (late 20s at the time) I invited myself to dine with him and he accepted. Nice conversation though looking back I’m pretty sure Mark would have probably preferred the solitude to work some script assignment out in his mind. About the only thing I can add to the Cassell’s comments that hasn’t been said is that before they offered steak fries there used to be small bags of Lay’s potato chips under the buffet table for munching along with your burger.

  • Phil A. says:

    For Mark Evanier and all Readers,

    I am most interested in learning how the original Cassell’s on 6th street
    served their patrons. Did Al Cassell precede Woody’s Smorgasburger
    with the semi cafeteria model or did he feature waitresses?
    Thank you !
    Phil Ankofski

  • The Management says:

    Cassell’s was cafeteria style, no waitresses.

  • Will Hamblet says:

    And the cooks took your order.

    Lord help you if didn’t know what you wanted when asked. Four seconds of silence & he’d go to the next person in line.

  • Phil A. says:

    For Mark Evanier and all Readers,

    I need help on one more Cassell’s issue.

    In the early years of Cassell’s ( 1948 thru 1960 ) , was the staff made up of all guys or a combo of guys and gals ?
    Thank you !
    Phil

  • Aston Banniser says:

    Loved the Burgers,, certainty the best in LA, and the T-Shirts were great, had one I wore all over Europe..big Burger on it…first of a kind that I know of…caught on..now everyone has them..but not as good..

  • Aston Banniser says:

    I had forgotten how abrupt and rude the order taker could be, but if your Burgers are that good….Love it or Lump it…hehe

  • Lindy Hardman says:

    During the summer I worked there (1975), the order taker was a long-haired (ponytail) guy named Baxter. To get people’s attention, he’d say things like “hey you, with the cigarette hanging out of your mouth,” or “hey you in the leisure suit” or “you, with the ugly tie.” Crazy.

  • KAREN STAHL says:

    Used to go to Cassell’s after shopping at Bullock’s Wilshire (having worked up an appetite to big for the Tea Room) with my best friend, Mary Alice. The Burger filled the plate, it must have been 10″ in diameter. We would cut it in fourths and share. Always delicious!!!

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