Burger Talk with Andrew Zimmern

Regardless of the point of origin, the hamburger is here to stay.

Photo by Steve Henke

Let’s just cut to the chase. If I didn’t like my Cabrito Butter Burger above all others, I wouldn’t put my name on it . . . and that speaks to our insane relationship in America with the humble hamburger. When I decided to get back into cooking food, instead of just talking about it, the first thing I wanted to cook was a different type of hamburger.

If you believe the polls, the simple griddled “Hamburg steak” has become the king of the archetypal American foods. Food historians believe the classic cheeseburger was birthed in Pasadena, California, in the late 1920s when griddle-minders at The Rite Spot burned a burger and then threw some cheese on the patty in an effort to hide their mistake. Knowing cooks in restaurants, this sounds more than plausible to me.

The hamburger is a cultural constant in America and defines us in many ways. It’s proletariat, it’s a kids meal, it’s high-end luxury food. And while it can be all things to all people, it loses none of its importance to us, a rarity in this world. Did it start with the Mongols’ obsession with chopped raw meat? Did it pass through Hamburg, Germany, to our shores at the World’s Fair? My pal John T. Edge put it best in his book Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story: “The history of proletarian dishes like hamburgers is rarely explained by a linear progression of events,” he writes. Here are the three most agreed upon ways in which the gospel of the burger may have been birthed:

New Haven, Connecticut, burger joint Louis’ Lunch is more than 100 years old. It claims: “One day in the year 1900 a man dashed into a small New Haven luncheonette and asked for a quick meal that he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen, the establishment’s owner, hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread and sent the customer on his way, so the story goes, with America’s first hamburger.”

At age 15, “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen sold meatballs at a summer fair in Seymour, Wisconsin. Having little success, he found some sliced bread and created a smashed meatball sandwich in the year 1885. (Solley’s in Milwaukee invented the Butter Burger, and if it turns out Wisconsin was the birthplace of the burger we should bronze that state tomorrow.)

Charles and Frank Menches were working a fair in 1885 in Hamburg, New York. They operated a sausage stand, ran out of product, and started using ground beef instead. Apparently it took off, and a customer asked Frank what the sandwich was called. He gazed up, saw a sign for the Hamburg fair, and said, “This is the hamburger.” However it came to be, the hamburger is here to stay. Here is my list of the best, both close to home and far away:

  • Au Cheval The best fried-egg burger with duck fat fries. It’s sloppy, beefy, and juicy, with a yeasty sweet bun. Chicago, Ill., 312-929-4580, auchevalchicago.com
  • Victory 44 Superb chuck and brisket are ground on premise, and rendered roasted bacon fat is paddled into the raw ground beef before it’s pattied up and griddled. Mpls., 612-588-2228, victory-44.com
  • J. G. Melon My favorite bar burger, bar none. Order it with cottage fries and spinach salad on the side. New York, N.Y., 212-744-0585
  • Le Tub It’s a dive to be sure, but the grilled sirloin burger has impressive heft and flavor. It is a masterpiece, with a flawless soft sweet bun. Hollywood, Fla., 954-921-9425, theletub.com
  • The Counter I think it has the best flavor and best overall meaty heft of any burger in California, and yes, I know what that means. Santa Monica, Calif., 310-399-8383, thecounterburger.com
  • Minetta Tavern The Black Label Burger is perfect, rich, and fulfilling. Using Pat LaFrieda’s blend, it’s cooked perfectly crusty and juicy rare every time. New York, N.Y., 212-475-3850, minettatavernny.com
  • 112 Eatery A killer, fancy schmancy, pedigreed cheeseburger served on an English muffin, created by James Beard winner Isaac Becker. Mpls., 612-343-7696, 112eatery.com
  • Nick’s Hamburger Shop SDSU students and Brookings faithful have been eating these made-to-order thin patty burgers by the sack-full since the late 1920s. Brookings, S.D., 605-692-4324
  • Hi-Ho South Get straight-up quarter-pound griddled burgers, quarter-inch-thick cut fries, and a superb raspberry milkshake in this delightful little joint off the strip in Fargo. Since 1947.
 Fargo, N.D., 701-280-9505
  • Solly’s Grille This is where the Butter Burger was invented. Don’t skip the banana malt. Milwaukee, Wis., 414-332-8808
  • Holeman & Finch Public House They make a few dozen an evening, all at once at 9 pm and served immediately. It’s worth the hassle in every way. Atlanta, Ga., 404-948-1175, holeman-finch.com
  • Shake Shack The best “fast” burger of all time. Period. Several locations worldwide, shakeshack.com