Los Angeles' quiet Chinatown feels like an off-duty movie set. It's clean and spacious, filled with the usual decorative suspects, like paper lanterns and neon signage. In the heart of the neighborhood is Central Plaza, a sleepy square where groups of elderly men post up on benches to smoke cigarettes in the sunshine.
Nunchucks in hand, a sinewy Bruce Lee statue holds a power stance around the corner from Central Plaza's newest addition, Burgerlords, a simple burger walk-up that has been turning heads and drawing crowds since opening a few weeks ago.
And it seems to be resonating with Chinatown locals and the broader LA dining public. When I arrived at Burgerlords to meet with owners (and brothers) Max and Fred Guerrero and Kevin Hockin at 10:30 AM—a half hour before the place opened—a few eager customers were already beginning to congregate. Not bad for a place essentially born out of a catchy name.
Max and Fred were working at their father's restaurant The Oinkster, one of Los Angeles' first gourmet burger spots, when Max, 29, struck gold during a brainstorming session.
"One day, Max came up with this name, Burgerlords, and we didn't know what to do with it," owner Fred, 34, told me. "It was something that we would just joke about."
Fred started up a Tumblr page using Max's catchy name as its title. He filled the page with what he describes as "really dumb" photos and GIFs, occasionally sprinkling in Oinkster content.
"It was burgers all around the world and ridiculous GIFs," Fred said. "Then we started making our own content making GIFs of setting burgers on fire, throwing them against the wall—just silly stuff like that."
Tumblr soon took notice of the page. The company featured Burgerlords in its directory and used it as an advertising case study.
"Because Tumblr helped push it, it has more than 200,000 followers," Fred said. "It's pretty nuts."
After spending a lifetime in restaurants, and nine years at The Oinkster, the brothers left the restaurant industry to take over an art gallery in Highland Park. But the hiatus was brief.
"When we walked away from the restaurant, we told ourselves we would never open a restaurant again. 'We can't do this anymore, it's too stressful,'" Max said. "And then a year and a half later, we were like, 'We need to open a restaurant.'"
When the brothers began entertaining ideas of opening a burger place, Kevin—who was a business-connection-turned-friend of the Guerreros—found himself wide open for such an ambition. Kevin co-founded Boxed Water in 2007, but with the company's huge success, things began to get a little too corporate for his taste.
"I just decided that I was going to resign and work on personal projects," Kevin said. "That was when this all kind of came together. I've always loved food, obviously—like I'm a fat kid who eats out every meal in LA. I've always wanted to do something in food and this seemed like the perfect opportunity."
The three marketing masterminds teamed up and started planning making their burger dreams a reality.
At The Oinkster, the Guerrero brothers saw how labor-intensive it was to put out wild burgers like The MacWhopster (a Big Mac on top and a Whopper on the bottom). For their own concept, they trimmed the fat until they came up with a lean menu of just five burger styles and shoestring Kennebec fries, a total contrast from their epic Tumblr content. What Burgerlords Internet fans might expect is not found IRL.
"People think that it would be this triple-decker patty and this massive thing, but it's this simple, scaled-down, classic burger," Fred said.
The simple, scaled-down, classic burger is a result of working with a consultant on perfecting their recipe, an integral step in the business-building process, considering the Guerrero brothers won't be tasting the custom tri-blend, grass-fed beef patties anytime soon.
"So, here's the thing. Actually, Max and I are vegetarian," Fred said.
Hence the Burgerlords' vegan options, which comprise nearly half the tiny menu. Diners looking for meatless options can go for vegan burgers and cheeseburgers complete with vegan American cheese and vegan thousand island dressing.
"There aren't a lot of people who make [veggie burgers] in house and do it right in LA," Kevin followed. "People are usually just throwing a frozen patty into the fryer or using portobello mushroom. It's a little [bit of an] underwhelming experience, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan.
"To have something that is really soulfully crafted with your hands every morning that is fresh … I eat meat, but I'm like 50/50. I almost prefer [the vegan burger] over meat."
With a menu set, the guys hunted for a space to call their own in Chinatown.
"We knew we wanted to come down here just because of the changes going on and the restaurants coming over here," Fred said. "There's a lot of nostalgia, too. We used to come with our grandparents on Sundays and have dim sum."
They decided on the 235-square-foot space in Central Plaza, basically just a kitchen with a couple walk-up windows and an outdoor patio. Despite a sign that read "Pizza, Fried Chicken, BBQ Ribs, Sandwich, Hamburger, Patio," the place hadn't seen any cooking action in more than a decade when the Burgerlords team first got to it.
"The inside was just filled with jewelry," Fred said. "It had the bones of a restaurant but it hadn't been in use for 15 or 20 years."
During cosmetic renovations of the kitchen, the Burgerlords team hosted a pop-up in September at the Guerreros' gallery, sparking some media attention leading up to their opening in Chinatown. About a month later, the Burgerlords windows were open for business.
"We've only been open two weeks but we've had people that we see four times a week," Max said. "They come like clockwork every day and get the same thing."
After we finished talking, I sat down to try the vegan burger and a classic double cheeseburger. I'd seen both items on the Burgerlords' rapidly growing Instagram account, double-tapping the original American food porn.
IRL, the burgers were just as delicious as they looked online.