I got a taste of nostalgia when I was in Los Angeles last week: I went to Tommy's for a chili burger. Mmm mmm good.
When I was in college, we’d go to Tommy's at 3 a.m. after a long night of studying or partying or football or any of those other things that not-quite-adults do to excess.
Two things are special about Tommy's. One is the burger itself, topped with a thick tomato slice and lots of dill pickles and chili. No beans, no big pieces of meat but a sauce that is more like a condiment laid on thick. It's not spicy-hot but is laced with cumin and adds plenty of flavor. There's no point in going to Tommy's if you're not going to have the chili, which is also served on Tommy's hot dogs, enchiladas, breakfast burrito and of course the chili cheese fries.
The second is the ambiance of the original Tommy's, which opened in a shack in 1946 in a not-great neighborhood near downtown and is open 24/7. There is no seating, just a couple counters where people eat standing up.
After college, I used to make the trek to Tommy's every time I visited L.A. But as my friends and family spread further into the suburbs, Tommy's became more and more out of the way. All of a sudden, 15 years had gone by since I'd last been to Tommy's.
A few months ago, my dad, who now lives 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles, mentioned that he'd had a burger from the Tommy's near his house. What? When did this happen? There's a Tommy's in San Bernardino County? In fact, I learned, Tommy's now has 33 locations in Southern California and in and around Las Vegas.
Going to a new Tommy's felt a little like sacrilege. It was in a shiny new place with a drive-through — no old shack, no outdoor counters, no long line snaking around the kitchen, with people watching burgers being assembled to order. But the burger was as good as it ever was, the sweetness of the tomato, the tang of the pickles, the mellowing influence of the cheese, and the chili blessing it all.