January 16th, 2012
03:45 PM ET
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Pasadena, California: birthplace of two iconic figures in food history - Julia Child and the cheeseburger. While various towns lay claim to to the latter, local legend has it that the cheeseburger was invented in the 1920s at the Rite Spot Cafe by 16 year old Lionel Sternberger.

As the story goes, the teenager was working at his Dad’s restaurant when he "accidentally burned a hamburger," says Paul Little, head of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce.

“Rather than throw it in the trash, he flipped it over, put a piece of cheese on it to hide his mistake and served it to a customer who was delighted to have it," Little claims.

The senior Sternberger put the new “cheese hamburger” on their menu, calling it the "Aristocratic Hamburger." It sold for 15 cents.

Almost 90 years later, the classic sandwich is still thriving. This week, the city of Pasadena is celebrating its culinary accomplishment by taking a whole week to pay homage to their hamburger heritage, and over twenty restaurants are participating in the Cheeseburger Challenge.

Here are a few of the highlights of our tasting tour.

Kings Row Gastropub
Chef Rob Rice of Kings Row Gastropub prefers 28 day dry aged ground rib eye for his burger. He adds onions that have been carmelized in duck fat and uses two kinds of cheese: a little French double cream blue cheese in addition to an extra sharp white cheddar. He throws it in the oven for a bit to help melt the cheese and puts his masterpiece atop a homemade foccacia bun topped with butter, garlic and parsley.

His big reward comes when he sees patrons doing the “burger nod” - when somebody tastes the burger and then gives a nod to their dining partner as if to say, “Ohhhh yeahhhh!”

El Portal
Armando Ramirez, the chef and co-owner of El Portal Restaurant in Pasadena says he wanted to offer up something a little different to compete with the other “great burgers” that are out there. The Mexican restaurant is offering a pulled pork Yucatan Burger officially named the "Cochnita Pibil Burger."

The pork is marinated in spices, garlic and sour orange and baked in a banana leaf for tenderness. It’s then placed on a traditional Mexican roll called a talera, along with black bean puree, shredded lettuce, tomato, pickled red onions and queso fresco.

Noir Food and Wine
Chef Claud Beltran who co-owns Noir Food and Wine calls his burger the "Farwell Burger" (named after one of the restaurant partners) and pairs it with a nice glass of Malbec. Beltran says the key is to start with good beef; he infuses his prime chuck with tarragon and green onions, adds Emmental cheese and carmelized onions, all on a fresh ciabatta bun slathered with a remoulade.

If it sounds like a bit of excess, Chef Beltran says don’t worry, “You drink enough red wine, and I think you’ll be fine with calories.”

Pie ‘n Burger
Michael Osborn owns Pie ‘n Burger which has been serving classic, old school cheeseburgers since 1963, to the tune of about 250 a day. It's said that the secret is in their sauce, a homemade Thousand Island dressing.

The restaurant hasn’t changed that much over the years, but they do offer turkey burgers and vegetarian burgers along with the classic cheeseburger.

POP Champagne & Dessert Bar
Chef Ray Vasquez is offering perhaps the most extravagant cheese burger. He starts with six ounces of Kobe beef seasoned with roasted garlic and herbs. He then adds Port Salut cheese, bacon and seared foie gras, frisee, garlic aioli and a port wine reduction sauce

The competitive Chef Vasquez came up with the creation just for the Cheeseburger week contest; there is no question he wants POP to win.

They're also offering an alternative to their rich bacon and foie gras burger - a trio of sliders on their homemade brioche bun. One has chorizo, provolone and guacamole. Another has bacon, gorgonzola mayo and a port reduction. And the last is a “Cubano” with Black Forest ham, cheddar cheese, "atomic" pickles and mustard.

The Counter
The Counter’s co-owner Jason Doherty says the allure of their burgers is that they are “custom built.” You can choose from over a dozen cheeses, as well as lots of other toppings. Their signature burgers include the Counter Burger which starts on a plain brioche bun, with chopped romaine, tomato, provolone cheese, sautéed mushrooms and a stack of fried onions.

The Old School burger is their classic burger served on a brioche bun, with chopped romaine, tomato, pickles, Bermuda red onion, and Tillamook cheddar cheese, served alongside some homemade red relish sauce.

And we had to include one treat for our CNN photographer Gregg Canes, a vegetarian who has been such a good sport shooting a story about cheeseburgers.

The Counter makes their veggie burger with twelve different ingredients including brown rice, mushrooms, black beans, and corn, bound together with panko bread crumbs. The patty sits atop a honey wheat bun, with mixed baby greens, herbed goat cheese spread, red onion, sprouts and roasted red peppers. It’s served alongside a Dijon balsamic vinaigrette.

More Burger Mania

As American as apple pie – the origins of picnic favorites
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Best. Burgers. EVER.
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All burger stories

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Filed under: 100 Places to Eat • Burgers • Sandwiches

soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. fupwia

    Lenny's in Glendale AZ is another.........

    January 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  2. fupwia

    just found Rocket Burgers in Phoenix...........one of the best in this area.........

    January 18, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  3. Bill

    Last time I checked, a cheeseburger had 3 ingredients......a bun, a burger, and cheese! If you want to add toppings, you can add lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, your choice of condiments (ketchup, mustard, mayo, etc), and MAYBE mushrooms.

    Anything else makes it a fancy-pants wanna-be burger. And if it's made solely of veggies, it's NOT a burger!

    January 18, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Hamburglar

      Hip hip horay!

      January 18, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Tom

      Nice reverse snobbery.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  4. Doctor of Journalism

    You Californians make me laugh! Wait, Southern Californians. By the love of all that is righteous, why would you want to make a fruity ‘chorizo’ burger with no cheese and call it a cheeseburger?

    January 18, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  5. steve

    this stuff looks like crap!!! what ever happened to a plain old cheeseburger? Guess it must be the idiots in Ca. that are the cause of the problem, you can probly charge them a sh** ton of money for a burger w/ whatever added to it. Mind you i don't like the soy-burgers you get from most fast food places like Mickey D's, probly would say 5-Guy's is about the only place these days for a good burger, outside of making 1 at home.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:06 am |
  6. bob

    kobe beef HAMBURGER? ha! what a rip! the WHOLE point with kobe beef is the fat marbled in the beef. if you are just going to put meat in the grinder to make hamburger, if you want more fat, add more fat. the whole notion of kobe beef hamburger is to apease people who want to eat/serve a name, and dont give a hoot about what food they consume.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:38 am |
  7. pghdude

    I'm a forever fan of Five Guys. Also in Olean NY is the Tastee Freeze's Barn Burner which is really good!!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  8. jdoe

    Aren't all cheeseburgers killer cheeseburgers?

    January 17, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  9. KanneM

    ' ... I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french fried potatoes, big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer.
    Well good god almighty which way do I steer... '

    January 17, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  10. ferrara

    Inside-out burgers are best: put some sharp cheddar, onions, hard-boiled eggs between two burgers, pinch edges together, wrap in aluminum foil, drop in campfire. When done, put inside bun. And everything tastes better with salsa!

    January 17, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  11. move1

    if you want a nice fat juciy delicious burger, come to the south..we own up to our heart attacks

    January 17, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Lenny

      its a piece of meat with some bread and ssame seeds on the top. No need to go to the south to eat something which takes 2 minutes to make in your backyard.

      January 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  12. oldemidfielder

    #2 sounds like #2. Bacon and Foie Gras on a real burger. Why wouldn't you eat lard and bacon at a fast food joint? What's a goose got to do with a burger? Welcome to California.

    January 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  13. none of your business

    Yuck. The picture is wholly unappealing as the bun looks greasy! Give me a burger that when I bite into it...I get a well proportioned taste of burger, lettuce, onion, pickle. Too much burger takes away from the accoutrements...so why bother?

    January 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  14. Carn E. Vore

    How is #3 a burger? If we can call a pulled pork sandwich a burger, then we can also call a PB&J or a baloney and cheese sandwich a burger.

    January 17, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  15. Good grief!!

    Why do people insist on gussying up a tradition to the point that it's unrecognizable? Give me a good hometown greasy-spoon burger any (but not every) day. End of problem.

    January 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  16. BooBoo

    Fast Food (hamburgers etc) is generally not the best for your healthy anyway. Resist to stop at McD/BK etc at all cost. MSG, salt, saturated fat etc... yeah, killers. Just make hamburgers at home. You're in charge of what goes into your hamburgers. The key is: Moderation.

    January 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  17. cleat

    my favs:
    Matts or 5-8 club Minneapolis (Juicy Lucys)
    The Nook- St paul
    Kings- Miesville, mn small hick town, fantastic burgers.

    all of these joints are REASONABLY priced too...($5) can imagine some of the above are pushing 20 bucks...

    January 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  18. Don

    What? No Wolfe Burger? How can one have a cheeseburger contest in Pasadena without Wolfeburger?

    January 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  19. Patrick

    I don't eat dog food.... a sure way to obesity like 30% of the population....!!!

    January 17, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  20. Stephany

    Those are definitely KILLER cheeseburgers, but not maybe in the way the article meant. I'm guessing 1500 calories per, minimum. That's almost A WHOLE DAY OF FOOD in 1 burger.

    January 17, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  21. TwM

    PieNBurger worst hamburgers ever... McDonalds has more taste than their concoctions.

    January 17, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  22. Cheese

    I've had 2/3 of the burgers on the list, King's Row wins it hands down. Best burger in LA if you ask me. Doesn't even need toppings, the beef blend is so good.

    January 17, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  23. notsopc

    Your son eats them together with his fingers? Not so sure that's a recommendation.

    January 17, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  24. KarenP

    I don't understand where some of these places get off calling these things cheeseburgers. Some of these things don't even resemble that namesake. Let's extract ourselves from our own rear ends and get real.

    January 17, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • TwM

      Agreed a veggie burger does not deserve any recognition with the real thing nor does the pork Burgers.

      January 17, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  25. Dawn

    #2 looks soooo delicious. That's my kind of cheese burger!

    January 17, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  26. Soulerman

    California posers can't decide which burger is more hip and fancier! They failed to mention that variety of burger fillings is limited only by chef's imagination! When I cook burgers, my 20y.o son eats them together with his fingers and asks when I am going to open my joint. It will never happen as home made burger is so much better because I know my family preferences and throw something excuisite extra. Burp on all those "burger" restaurants.

    January 17, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Ally

      "son eats them together with his fingers"

      I've been trying to figure out what you mean by this for several minutes.

      January 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  27. hahahafunnyguy

    odd. thought i had seen on Food Network and History Channel that the Cheesburger was first created in a little shop in Connecticut, not Cali. I could be off on the local, but it was in the NE. These articles suck.

    January 17, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • ThatGuy

      You do realize there's a difference between a hamburger and a cheeseburger, right?

      January 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
      • urlame

        the difference is your chez on your lover's ham. nananana

        January 18, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  28. Scott Wallace

    1/2 pound burger with mushrooms, swiss, sauteed bell peppers and bacon with lettuce and tomato. No condiments needed.

    January 17, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  29. Tony Baloney

    I like mine best with cheese, mustard, onion, and pickle only.

    January 17, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Pauline Provolone

      No kisses for you!

      January 17, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  30. brian


    January 17, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  31. Maria

    Wow, if The Counter wins then this contest will have zero credibility with me. Having gone there not only does the promising menu deceive, the actual food disappoints. Burger and chili fries were lukewarm with mediocre flavor. They also felt reheated, which alone for any burger/fries lover is criminal. I would have been happier and richer had I gone to In & Out. Won't be making that mistake again.

    January 16, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
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