All week long Pasadena has been celebrating its role as the supposed birthplace of the cheeseburger. You can find restaurants slinging everything from frozen patties with processed American to fresh Kobe beef burgers covered in Roquefort.
Vegans, vegetarians and the lactose intolerant, please remain calm: this is not that late '70s “Saturday Night Live” skit where the only thing on Pasadena restaurant menus are, “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger! No fries, only chips and Pepsi!”
The state of California’s travel and tourism website is promoting “California Restaurant Month” and they asked Pasadena to get involved. So, the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce decided to celebrate — no, not that the city is home to “The French Chef” Julia Child — but that it’s the birthplace of the cheeseburger.
Legend has it that in 1924 a guy named Lionel Sternberger burned a hamburger patty and slapped some cheese on it to hide his mistake. That supposedly happened right here in Pasadena at a sandwich shop called the Rite Spot.
Andrew F. Smith, junk food historian and author of, “Hamburger: a Global History,” says he intentionally avoided who invented the cheeseburger in his book because he couldn’t find a source he trusted.
Smith says there are a couple of places around the country that claim the cheeseburger. One is a Denver drive-in that claims it has a patent, but Smith could never find it.
Anyway, he doesn’t outright deny that the cheeseburger was invented in Pasadena. He wants to believe it — his mom’s from Pasadena — but, he said, “during the 1920s everybody was trying to distinguish their hamburger. I mean, you had literally thousands of vendors and drive-ins and shops that had hamburgers and they were adding all kinds of things to them.”
And cheese, well, it just stuck. So, we don’t have a primary source that says Pasadena’s the definitive birthplace of the cheeseburger. But we do have Pasadena Cheeseburger Week, where more than a dozen restaurants have grilled up their charbroiled creations for your consuming pleasure.
Rob Rice, the chef at Kings Row Gastro Pub, said its cheeseburger does gangbuster business, with or without a special week.
But he’s happy to take part and promote his “21-day, dry-aged rib-eye burger, with two cheeses — a Saint Agur (double cream blue), and we top that with a Tillamook (white cheddar), and then we take onions and caramelize them in duck fat and a little bit of our homemade mayo. We make our own bun (a focaccia bun) and there you go — it’s pretty simple.”
If simple means complicated, then yes, that cheeseburger is as simple as they come.
You can find the true definition of simple at Pie n’ Burger. The old school burger joint has been in Pasadena since 1963 and the cheeseburger is its claim to fame.
But manager Norma Kinley, who’s been working there for 38 years, says Cheeseburger Week has been busier than usual.
“We’re all tired this week!" laughed Kinley. "I’m ready to get some more people in here to help us. It’s been great!”
Pasadena’s Cheeseburger Week ends today, but the cheeseburger is one of the rare things that will live forever. Well, maybe, medium rare.