George's Burgers Gets A Homegrown Revamp From Guisados Owners
George's Burgers had fallen on hard times. Opened by George Sedaris in 1963 (or maybe 1967, depending on which story you believe), the Boyle Heights burger stand had been losing customers for years -- and understandably so. The menu had ballooned to about 60 items. The burger patties that used to be fresh were now frozen. The Thousand Island dressing that was once housemade came from vats at Smart & Final.
"Once George started stepping away, because he was getting older in health, his employees were running [it]," says Armando de la Torre Sr. "And when you don't have a vested interest, you don't care as much. I would still come for my burger but I'd watch it decline."
His grandfather had started a real estate business next door, on Cesar Chavez near Soto, kitty corner from King Tacos, so de la Torre Sr. grew up eating at George's. It was once located next to Canter's, before the deli shuttered its original Boyle Heights location to concentrate its efforts on its Fairfax restaurant.
Although George's had gone downhill, de la Torre Sr. didn't want the onetime neighborhood favorite to go out of business.
"I didn't want to see it leave the family, because it has some sentimental value to me and I didn't want to see it turned into something that wasn't what it was originally," he says.
His family's real estate firm also owns the land, so they needed a profitable tenant.
He talked to his son, Armando de la Torre Jr., and they weighed the pros and cons of purchasing the business. It had bad Yelp reviews and didn't generate much excitement, but they saw opportunity. Plus, they had a little experience.
In 2010, de la Torre Sr. and a business partner transformed a nearby tamale shop into a taqueria and launched Guisados. Known for its stewed taco fillings and freshly made tortillas, the L.A.-bred chain now has five locations, from Burbank to West Hollywood. De la Torre Jr. helps his father run the business.
Father and son quietly bought George's and brought a friend, Robert McCord, a pastrami maestro, to help them run it. In October, they quietly shut it down for a makeover. They spent four days repainting, spiffing up the beloved yellow and blue sign, moving the pastrami slicer to a spot where customers could see it and revamping the kitchen. The biggest change was the menu.
"These places are all over L.A. and they've always been owned by Greeks and Jews, and they've kind of grown into the culture of L.A., or, at least their immediate community," says de la Torre Jr. "This place, their menu was just growing so large that we wanted to bring it back to what the classical burger stands would carry."
They pruned the offerings down to a dozen or so classic items -- burgers, burritos, a pastrami sandwich, chili cheese dogs, fries, onion rings, shakes. They ditched the frozen food and made sure all the edibles (except the ice cream and fries) were fresh.
Almost everything at George's is now locally sourced. The chili comes from RC Provisions. So does the black pastrami, a style of pastrami with a dark, peppery crust. The bread comes from El Pavo, the bakery next door. The pickle slices on the burgers come from A-1 Pickles, one of L.A.'s oldest kosher pickling companies. They make their own Thousand Island dressing and they buy fruit from local vendors to make seasonal milkshakes (blueberry, currently).
But they still kept the price point low. The most expensive item, the pastrami sandwich, is $8.
George's reopened in mid-October without any fanfare. After a couple weeks of testing and tweaking, they announced themselves in early November. Since then, customers have started trickling back to the Boyle Heights burger stand that may, once again, be as notable for its breakfast burritos and hamburgers as it is for its sign.
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