Ah, the hamburger, or burger as denizens of West Los Angeles commonly call it. A simple food, the choice of day laborers and others on the go, it has infinite variations but a few standards must be met to be a true hamburger: a “patty”, which is a fun way of saying ground meat formed into a puck-like shape, and a bun. That’s it! Americans have, over the last century or so, devised thousands of ingenious variations on the burger including some that the less adventurous might find a bit… wild.
That’s where Big Tomy’s comes in. Situated on a busy intersection in West Los Angeles, it would be easy to pass by this small shack under a giant strip club billboard, and dismiss it as just another West L.A. joint with greasy food surrounded by angry drivers in luxury cars. But Tomy’s is where you can see local families rub elbows with what I assume were businessmen, and construction workers standing around doing normal things like talking and eating. I’m not from West L.A. but everyone welcomed me, or at least didn’t make me feel uncomfortable; no one actually welcomed me per se.
The restaurant plays all kind of music on their tinny stereo speakers, from heavy metal, which is an aggressive form of Rock ‘n Roll, to pop music, to local AM radio news depending on the time of day.
But back to the food! One of the more interesting items on the menu is a burger topped with the house-made pastrami, which is beef that has been brined, flavored with various herbs and spices, and then smoked and steamed. I’ve been told it’s a common option in many Jewish delis, but I’d never had it on a burger until my last trip to Big Tomy’s. The combination of flavors was invigorating, with each bite creating an explosive amount of flavor inside my mouth. The outside of my mouth was pretty explosive too, this meal required a shitload of napkins! I asked the chef to liven things up with lettuce, tomato, pickled cucumbers, and onion, a veritable salad of fresh vegetables which complimented the dual meat action nicely. The onion is not finely chopped and there is no cilantro, it’s just a couple big slices of onion but it works. The monster of a hamburger was both comforting, and exciting, and a challenge that I welcomed.
Big Tomy’s doesn’t have a salsa bar, but there are a wide variety of condiments on display, including salt, pepper, yellow mustard, and ketchup. All are free, so stock up if you need some at home, I didn’t feel like there was a strictly observed limit. I’ve been told by locals that “Heinz” is the brand of choice for most when it comes to ketchup, but unfortunately Big Tomy’s uses something called “Fancy Ketchup” which I assume is supposed to make it sound more extravagant. They even have Tapatio! You may need it– the food is full of flavor, but none of the burgers I tried were very spicy.
Another exotic burger option you can get at Big Tomy’s that I had never tried before was the chiliburger. Apparently the origins of this dish trace back to Texas, but repeated questions to my chef yielded no more than a few nods and grunts. In any case, a chiliburger is a regular burger that is covered with a meat sauce. The sauce adds a real punch of meat overload, and is less tangy and smokey than the pastrami, but is arguably the more satisfying meal. Especially if you were as drunk as I was the last time I hit up Big Tomy’s.
If you really want to “ride the bus to flavor town”, which is the catchphrase of superstar TV personality Guy Fieri (who I kept imagining would bust out of one of Big Tomy’s walls to congratulate me to trekking to West LA and experiencing this delightful hole in the wall), go for the Chili Cheese Burger, which is everything in a chiliburgerbut with tons of gooey, melted American cheese in-between the patty and chili. If you’re a burger n00b you might try one of the other choices until you build up to this more advanced and exotic example of the form.
I’m a big fan of carne asada fries, and one thing a spot like Big Tomy’s seems to have picked up from taquerias and loncheras is that they put pastrami and chili and chili cheese on french fries. In the picture you’ll see it hasn’t melted yet, but it does melt after a few minutes, don’t worry. I’ve been told that if you ask nicely, they’ll put all three one your fries for you. Yeah, this place is legit. It’s open 24 hours, so stop in any time for a true Westside burger experience with the local flora and fauna.
11289 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064.
Tip: order both a chili cheese burger and chili cheese pastrami fries for the full experience. Free fancy ketchup.