If you’re having a particularly bad day, you can do far worse than to go to Irv’s Burgers in West Hollywood. There you’ll meet Sonia Hong, possibly the most cheerful person you’ll ever encounter outside of Disneyland. A petite woman who can be found most days wearing an apron and a colorful head scarf, she’ll greet you heartily as you mull the idea of adding cheese to your burger. You’ll decide to go for it. “Good choice!” she’ll beam. You’ll beam.
Your burger will arrive, as all orders arrive here, on a paper plate Hong decorated with a little illustration. A happy face, maybe. Your face, probably. Next to it, “Just for you!” will be neatly printed, the caption for an especially well-constructed burger made with a seasoned handmade patty, smashed to a perfect thickness, topped with a thick slice of melting cheese (good choice!), lettuce, tomatoes, pickles. It was made just for you, and it’s pretty damn good. See? You can’t leave here unhappy.
Hong runs Irv’s with her mother and brother, and together the three have been grilling some of the best burgers in town for 14 years. It was Hong’s mother who got the family into the burger business: After the family immigrated here from South Korea, Mama Hong spent a decade working at a burger shack in downtown Los Angeles.
In 2000, the family pooled their savings and bought Irv’s Burgers, which was then a roadside stand with a small patio at Santa Monica Boulevard and Sweetzer Avenue. The stand opened in 1950 and is instantly recognizable to anyone whose vinyl collection includes a lot of rock & roll: A photograph of the stand shows up on Linda Ronstadt’s Living in the U.S.A. album.
Since the Hongs took over Irv’s, they’ve earned quite a loyal following, in part because of those terrific all-American burgers, in part because of Hong’s infectious personality. And then there are her illustrations.
Hong’s first doodle came at the request of a customer, who asked if she could do something special for a friend’s birthday. One sketch led to another; soon enough, no order is complete without one. If you talk to any of Irv’s regulars – of which there are many – you’ll no doubt discover several folks who have held on to at least one Hong original.
A few months ago, Hong moved Irv’s, doodles and all, a few blocks down the street, into a former cafe. The move came after their landlord sharply increased the rent on the land on which their stand sat; that was not, as Hong recounts with some exasperation, the first time that a landlord tried to evict the family so their valuable real estate could be turned over to developers. It was simply the last time.
Supported by customers and an Indiegogo campaign, the family was able to keep their business and move into a new home. Sure, it no longer embodies the romance of the roadside burger shack, but customers don’t seem to mind. Neither does Hong.
“I don’t have to worry about rainy days,”she says, happily. As always. — tien nguyen
first published in LA Weekly, 2014