How did the drippy, juicy hamburger get to be the signature dish of health-obsessed Los Angeles?

After 32 days in a Serbian prison this spring, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez had two urgent goals upon returning home to Los Angeles. Reuniting with his family and friends was the first. But then, Ramirez said, he'd be mighty ready to hit an In-N-Out Burger.

Most of his fellow Angelenos may never be put to so severe a test, yet they, too, are seriously dedicated to their burgers. This may be surprising in a city not especially noted for its seriousness. Like most places with reputations that precede them, though, Los Angeles has a funny way of playing with your preconceptions.I realized this a few years ago when I lived there for the summer and spent many long afternoons zigzagging up, down and across town. I was disappointed by many landmarks: I couldn't believe that the beat-up pagoda on Hollywood Boulevard was the famous Mann's Chinese Theater. On the other hand, I was delighted to find that other icons--white-blond surfer dudes, palm trees, fake breasts--really did exist, in abundance. If there was one thing I didn't expect at all, however, it was the burger joints that seemed to be on every other corner.

The cliché about Angelenos, of course, is that they are bantamweights who slavishly obey their personal trainers and subsist on macrobiotic eggless omelets, nonfat free-range fusion food or whatever other gossamer-lean cuisine happens to be in vogue. So I was somewhat shocked to discover that they harbored a devotion to ground beef that was almost religious. Once a young actress dug her nails into my arm as she described the sublime pleasures of the double cheeseburger with bacon ("soft, not crisp") from Fat Burger. Another time, a UCLA professor whipped out his wallet to show me a card listing the location of every In-N-Out Burger in town, which was impressive considering that he was, in all other respects, a vegetarian.

A quick search of an on-line directory tells me that there are more than 150 restaurants in the city with names that contain the word burger. The burger, in fact, could be called L.A.'s signature dish. Because this flew in the face of so many of my expectations, I recently returned to Los Angeles to conduct a highly unscientific tour with the hope of gaining some insight into its residents' enduring love for real, old-fashioned, down-home burgers.

I started at Cassell's Hamburger (3266 W. Sixth St.; 213-480-8668), a cafeteria-style restaurant on the fringe of downtown. The first thing that struck me was the unpretentiousness of the whole operation. A friendly chef served me a naked beef patty on a bun, which I was then able to customize with the sweet-and-spicy house relish. Even better than the sandwich itself were the low-key coffee-shop vibe and the hand-lettered sign that promised nothing more and nothing less than USDA beef. At one table, a couple of white-haired left-wingers lingered over coffee, kvetching about politics. The scene reminded me of lunch counters in small towns across America, those intentionally neutral places where you can gaze at the Formica, mull over the day's events and decompress for a few precious minutes. It was easy to see why people who live with the incessant hype of Los Angeles would seek refuge at Cassell's.

My next stop was at one corner of a busy intersection, near hundreds of other busy intersections, south of Beverly Hills. Mo Better Meatty Meat Burgers (5855 W. Pico Blvd.; 323-938-6558), an appealingly simple white structure with sliding windows, looked distinctly out of place, more like a concession stand on a rural two-lane highway than anything you'd find in Los Angeles. Mo Better's burgers were covered with peppery spices, then grilled just long enough to give them that delicious, slightly charred flavor you might hope to achieve at the grill in your own backyard. I was enjoying a Proustian flashback to barbecues of my childhood until someone switched on the TV to a talk show on which a woman was learning that her sister and husband were having an affair.My appetite quickly faded.

As I turned away from the TV, I got a sense that perhaps burger shacks didn't always bring happiness. I was reminded of a friend who told me that he eats burgers once or twice a week, usually on his way home from work late at night, when other places are closed. He said he finds the practice fairly isolating: "I sit in my car by myself, and when I look around the lot it's full of other people eating by themselves." In a city where it's easy to spend two hours alone in a car commuting--each way--it was disturbing to think that people have to take their meals in their cars,too.

Bonding over Paper Towels
But just when I was wondering if burger joints were actually nothing more than human refueling stations, strategically scattered over a vast and alienating network of streets, I inadvertently happened upon a flashing hot-pink neon arrow pointing down at a humble red-roofed kiosk. It was the flagship Tommy's (2575 W. Beverly Blvd.; 213-389-9060), one of the city's most beloved mini-chains. The sight of the place in the soft orange light of sunset sent my burger jones rushing back in full force. A crush of hungry customers watched, rapt and ready, as a crew of superspeedy red-capped cooks moved the burgers off the grill and onto a row of buns (one-two-three-four-five-six-seven), then doused them with chili and onions. The serendipity of finding Tommy's definitely enhanced my enjoyment of this wonderful, drippy burger (don't skip the cascabel peppers), but the experience was particularly pleasant because it gave me the chance to hop out of my car for a few minutes and rub shoulders with other human beings. When a young girl and I reached for a paper towel dispenser at the same time (Tommy's doesn't mess around with napkins), we looked at each other and laughed. We both had chili smeared across our cheeks. It may not have been the basis for a long-term friendship, but it put an end to my melancholic reflections on burgers and loneliness.

Clearly, the optimal moment for burgering is when raw hunger strikes from out of nowhere and a restaurant magically appears at the next intersection. But in the interest of thoroughness, I made special trips to two places that are as legendary for their ambience as they are for their food.

"Good Enough!"
At the high end was the Musso & Frank Grill (6667 Hollywood Blvd.; 323-467-7788), which has been the dark, wood-paneled hangout of Hollywood power brokers for 80 years. Although Musso & Frank is by no means a burger joint, it is famous for its ground beef sandwich. I had no complaints about this Cadillac of burgers, an exceptionally lean and tasty patty of chopped prime steak that lived up to its $12.25 sticker price. But I had even more fun racking my brain for the name of the director in the corner booth.

At the other end of the spectrum was Jay's Jayburgers (4481 Santa Monica Blvd.; 323-666-5204), a tiny cabana where I had a great chili burger. By another stroke of serendipity, I got to talk to Jay himself, an elderly gent in a yellow cardigan and golf cap. Jay told me that he once worked at Tommy's but quit way back in 1955 because his boss didn't want to hear his ideas about improving the food. (Like the movie industry, L.A.'s burger business has its own long-standing rivalries.) "Tommy would always say, 'The burgers are good enough,'" Jay said, gripping the sides of his head in a pantomime of agony. "'Good enough! Good enough!' Sometimes I still wake up hearing Tommy in my nightmares."

If I had to pick my own favorite burger spot, though, it would easily be The Apple Pan (10801 W. Pico Blvd.; 310-475-3585), a place that many L.A. burger lovers agree is a cut above the rest. Located across the street from an indefensibly large postmodern mall near Westwood, The Apple Pan still occupies the original clapboard building it did when it was founded in 1947. With its swivel seats hugging a U-shaped counter, The Apple Pan is a true time warp. As for its famous hickory-smoked burger--with hickory sauce, onions, pickles, lettuce and mayo--it is to my mind everything a burger should be. A scientist might be able to tell me what biochemical reaction makes human beings flip for burgers like these, but I prefer just to know in my bones that when they're done this well, they are simply sublime.

That afternoon, my last in town, The Apple Pan was packed. I sat between two middle-aged men; one had been a regular for 39 years, the other for 42. The latter told me that only two things had changed at the restaurant since he was a boy. The pitchers of cream used to be made of glass, not plastic, and the waiters, in the midst of serving, wiping down and setting up, would magically extend lighters for patrons' cigarettes.

Sitting there at the counter, I found it easy to imagine the not-so-distant days of the postwar boom when people were so busy building Los Angeles that they needed to segue immediately into the postmeal smoke. Arguably, the emergence of The Apple Pan and the other burger shacks that sprang up when dirt roads were still common in the city marked the birth of L.A.'s first distinctive cuisine: solid, hearty, all-American food that could be eaten on the fly by folks who'd come to town to make their dreams come true. In a place that produces so many ephemeral things--churning out movies that come and go in a week and starlets who rise and fall in the time it takes to turn the page of a magazine--there is something profoundly comforting about the endurance of burger joints. They are consistently fast, nourishing and satisfying in a town that doesn't offer many other guarantees.

Louisa Kamps, a writer who lives in New York City, has been laying off burgers since completing this assignment.