The first meal I ever ate in Long Beach was, I'll admit, not the most glamourous. It happened the day I moved into town, after a long day of schlepping couches and clothes from Orange County in a friend of a friend's rented pickup.
My new helpful neighbors suggested I drag my sweaty self to one of Long Beach's many burger joints and directed me to the nearest such establishment, the corner of 4th Street and Junipero Avenue. Golden Burger, they said, was the jam.
So I did what I was told and ordered the $4.95 bacon-avocado cheeseburger--which comes slathered with cheese and a watery special/thousand island sauce between two soft sesame seed buns--and I ate the whole mess at one of the vintage booths inside, staring out the window at Portfolio Coffeehouse, watching my new city fly by.
It's been years since that first Long Beach dinner nourished a long day's haul and I still return to Golden Burger every so often for a hearty reminder of why working-class food rules supreme here.
Thankfully, the prices haven't changed much in the last decade or so. A corn dog is still the cheapest item on the menu at $2.29 and for only $6.25, you can get a quarter-pound hamburger combo, which comes with fries and a drink. I've also learned the hard way that as cost-efficient as they are (starting at $2.75), the junior burgers should be skipped, unless you like mini meat patties swimming in bread.
But the most surprising thing about Golden Burger (beyond the college-student friendly prices) may be everything it serves besides burgers. Except for the few simple twists on its namesake classic--think: chili burger and double cheeseburger-- the menu of this catch-all American eatery is littered mostly with new school greasy spoon favorites like pastrami burritos, half fried chickens, breaded pork tenderloins and fish and chips.
The Philly cheesesteak might make someone from Steel City cringe, but it's the West Coast thought that counts with green peppers and onion slivers grilled with chopped up steak and a fraction of the appropriate amount of provolone cheese. A pastrami ruben also partially hits the mark with fresh, salty pastrami topped with a little too much canned sauerkraut.
Included in the cost of whatever you order at Golden Burger is the corner's unmatched people watching. Large Hispanic families and hoodrats wearing pajamas all dine alongside fixed gear hipsters and aging local artists in the restaurant's simple interior, which has remained unchanged since the 1960s (or whenever goldenrod and brown were appropriate stained glass colors).
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Children fresh out of nearby Burbank Elementary can often be found shoving quarters into the stacks of toy dispensers then running around the 20-or-so tables with new Hello Kitty erasers and golden handgun necklace charms as out-of-town visitors stroll nearby Retro Row, confused at the aging burger joint cemented at its eastern end.
My first meal in Long Beach was memorable not for Golden Burger's mind-blowing take on an American food staple, but for what it represented. In a city full of dime-a-dozen burger stands, this one was mine--a walking distance haven from overpriced downtown eateries and national fast food chains that continues to serve as a local meeting-and-eating spot for the neighborhood's working-class denizens.
Golden Burger, 2301 E. 4th St., Long Beach, (562) 434-2625