The biggest takeaway you get from talking to chef Christian Page (formerly of Short Order) about Cassell’s Hamburgers, his new restaurant at Koreatown’s Hotel Normandie, is that he’s really trying hard to do right by Al Cassell, the institution’s original owner. The first spot opened down the street in 1948, and in order to keep the experience as authentic as possible in the new space, Page is working with the original Hobart meat grinder, patty press, and cross-fire broiler–the latter of which Cassell famously designed to fry his burgers from the bottom while broiling them from the top. To drive home what he refers to as a “’50s diner vibe,” he’s even imported signs and menus from the old location to use as decor.
But, as with any attempt to revive something beloved from the past, there’s been grumbling from some who frequented the old Cassell’s and often cite higher price points (a basic, 1/3-pound burger is $10.99, while a 2/3-pound is $15.99) and Page’s decision to serve chips instead of french fries in their Yelp reviews/tirades. To be fair, Al Cassell also eschewed fries for chips, and those who remember eating fries at the previous location were probably customers of Cassell’s second iteration, owned and run by a Korean family for eight years before closing its doors in 2012.
“All of the old-timers who come in, who went the original Cassell’s, they love it because they think that what we’re doing with the meat–the quality and the way we’re grinding it and cooking it to temperature–is what Al Cassell used to do,” Page contends. “We knew we’d get some push-back, but we just wanted to keep it like the original.”
Paying homage to Al Cassell’s legendary perfectionism, Page brings in natural, hormone-free meat from producers Aspen Ridge in Colorado, and grinds it twice daily in-house (interestingly, as writer Elina Shatkin pointed out in a 2011 article, Cassell also had his USDA-select beef flown in from Colorado daily, long before such efforts were chic). To create his tuna melt, the chef is using wild-caught albacore loins, which he slow-poaches in pickle juice and mixes with house-made mayo. Those controversial chips are also made on-site along with pretty much everything else, from sauces to sarsaparilla.
The original Cassell’s condiment bar, which gave customers the freedom to dress their own burgers, has been notably missed by even those who like Page’s changes. To those people, the chef offers a compromise, which the restaurant is calling “American banchan.” Similar to the Korean barbecue standard it refers to, every table gets a bunch of little dishes, like horseradish (or is it dry mustard? Page won’t tell) potato salad made using Cassell’s original recipe, pickles, chips, and coleslaw.
“We were trying to figure out how to emulate the salad bar at the original Cassell’s, and I also started to think about how we’re part of Koreatown,” Page says. “One of the great things that I’ve always liked about Korean barbecue is when they give you the banchan, so you get try a selection of different little items, and if you want more of any of the things, you can get more. We decided to do the same thing, keeping in spirit of the neighborhood and the original concept of Cassell’s.”
Other new iterations include a coffee bar and pies–word is that the lemon cream cheese topped with chocolate shavings is the one to get–made by Page’s wife and fellow chef Elia Aboumrad (Gorge, and of course, season two of Top Chef). Amazingly, Aboumrad had the vintage dessert case that showcases her treats packed away in storage, and it complements the new digs perfectly.
Cassell’s Hamburgers, 3600 W. Sixth St., 213-387-5502