LA may be land of healthy living, but ironically, it also has its healthy competition of burger joints. And sadly, one of my favorite burger joints is closing down. It’s just a little outdoor shack on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, with maybe five plastic tables and chairs, but what makes this place so special is Sonya, the middle aged Korean woman who ran the it with her husband and her mother.
When I first moved to LA, I lived in an old, unrenovated apartment in West Hollywood, full of some other lady’s stuff. It remains my favorite apartment to date. I lived there with two people who are still good friends today, Tom and Olivia. We sublet from a lady named Christine, who lived in New York, but sometimes came to LA and helped herself to the couch and kitchen.
Should we protest, she would point out that the lease we signed was only to rent the rooms, and that she still had full access to the kitchen and living room. That didn’t sit well with us, and we fought back the best way we knew how. Bad energy. She seemed to be immune to it though, and came and went as she pleased. Her visits were infrequent enough, and most of the time we were left on our own to enjoy the apartment with a balcony overlooking a private pool.
Tom, Olivia, and I got along perfectly, none of the typical roommate drama you might get when three random people find each other on Craigslist. We would always throw dinner parties bringing all of our circle of friends together. It was the best of times, and in the mornings, the worst of times. That’s when we’d crawl to Irv’s Burgers, and Sonya would serve us the greasiest, cheesiest hamburgers with a special message written on a paper plate, for each of us. “Just for you…” and she’d draw a stick figure of us, mine with curly hair.
She’d always ask me if I had a boyfriend. And I would say “No, Sonya, no boyfriend.” and she would look at me a little disappointed, like I would never give her grandkids. My own mother gave me less guilt about my dating life.
After a couple of years, I moved to Hollywood, and didn’t see her for almost three years. Then I moved back to West Hollywood. I had a friend in town named George, and he was looking for a good hamburger. “I know just the place!” It’d been three years since I’d last seen Sonya, and I wondered if she would remember me. We walked up to the shack. George took one look, and was a little incredulous. “This is the best burger joint in LA?” “You’ll see.”
Sonya was still there, still charming people in line with her conversation and personalized paper plates. We stepped up to order, and her eyes widened. “Maria!” She did remember me! “Who is this? Is this your boyfriend?” She asked referring to George. He wasn’t, but what the hell. “Yep, Sonya this is George!”
“George!” She welcomed him with open arms into the family. She took our orders, and asked if I wanted a lemonade. I did always order a lemonade. I never drink lemonades otherwise, but they go so well with the burgers.
“Oh I’m so happy! You have a boyfriend! George you have to stay with her forever! You’re her man now!” Alright, take it easy. “Please sit, Maria and her new prince!” and she gestured to the patio of plastic tables and chairs. We sat, and awaited these burgers, that I was starting to pay a heavier price for. She brings them over, and sure enough, true to Sonya, she’d personalized our plates.
George’s read: “Just for Maria’s new and handsome honey” with a little picture drawn of his head. Ok cute enough. She sets my burger in front of me, happily says “Enjoy!” And runs away. To my horror, mine read: "Just for Maria, who’s no longer lonely.” And to really drill it home she drew a sad face captioned “Before,” and a happy face captioned “Now.”
George looked at me, and I shrugged. “Haha? Jokes on her – you’re not actually my boyfriend…” We sat in silence for a second. I took a sip of lemonade that tasted a little more sour.
I feel like George learned something about me that wasn’t exactly true. The plate had inaccurately reflected myself back to me, like a fun house mirror. It’s not like I’d been bumbling crying into my lemonades all those years ago. She was the one always asking about my love life.
Still, I’ll miss Irv's. I can’t tell her on a paper plate how much I’ll miss her, but I do have this article that I wrote, Just for Sonya…
Pictured: Irv's Burgers, the paper plates, Maria Shehata