Let us turn now to what has been my favorite food ever since I was old enough to pronounce the word “hangbooger” to every adult’s delight. Yes, I have never forsaken that childhood treat: a ground-beef patty on a bun, slathered with good stuff, and mom, keep away the bad stuff. In the ensuing years, I’ve come to prefer bad stuff like lettuce and onions, and have done a complete about-face on raw tomato. Now I not only welcome but even require it – amazing how your tastes change – but I never allow “ketchup” on either my burger or my fries (sorry, John Kerry!). Mustard if you please, mayo if you must, but keep that sugary red stuff offa my plate unless you’re dumping a shitload of horseradish into it for an improv shrimp cocktail sauce. I trust we’ve now left this “catsup” issue behind. (Sorry, Ms. Heinz Kerry!*)
Burgers are a bitch to make at home if you don’t have a grill outside so you can charc em just right. (I can pan-fry em fairly well, even today, but I have to sit there and watch; one mistake and the kitchen turns into Wuthering Heights.) I can’t remember whether we had an outdoor grill back in Norfolk, Virginia in the late Fifties – we’re talkin middle class, but our fireplace burned coal, children, and there was still a milkman – but I do remember cultural jubilation among mothers who could suddenly drive their sweet little angels to joints where a thin patty on a clean warm bun could be acquired for 10, maybe 15 cents. Not just McDonalds, also Carrolls (“FLAME-BROILED!”). I got to ride in a bread truck a la MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE with a delivery person who stocked not only grocery stores with bread loaves, but also several burgerslingers, including Carroll’s, with fresh buns. The trip backstage was as revelatory to me as your trip into the Copa was in GOODFELLAS. The delivery guy was my dad. Long story. Don’t think I’ll tell it to you right now. Just note I was real happy to be there with him and leave it there.
Shortly after primitive fast-food burgers emerged in Norfolk – changing everything; it was the pizza of the late Fifties, trust me – money started sniffing around and decided, Jaysus, let’s krush Kroc in his krib! So Shoneys (“Bob’s” to many, including the AUSTIN POWERS producers) hyper-promoted their “Big Boy,” a double-decker samwidge! The local schnook who hosted the afternoon cartoon show, “Poopdeck Pappy” (see, he was a friend of Popeye’s), demonstrated by tryin to get his mouth around a Big Boy Sandwich. Couldn’t quite do it. (A later thought: arthritis?) We saw it, grokked it, thought about it for a moment, and then SCREAMED TO OUR PARENTS: proffer one of them there Big Boys forthwith!!! Shoney’s (Yankees, just think “Bob’s,” just as we have to think “Krystal” whenever you say “White Castle”) has survived, but it’s devolved into something like Denny’s: good enough for TIN CUP, but no longer famous for a transformative burger. Man, can we please get back to a real, genuine burger? My mouth’s frickin waterin.
There are three, and only three, regional superburgers. I am about to present them to you. There are tons of fantastic mom-&-pops, but that’s not what I’m talkin about. And forget fast food. Want a Big Mac? You’re probably ten minutes away, so to hell with ya, get in yer car right now, and good frickin riddance.
No, the three lovelies I’m about to cite all demand that you wait for them, so they don’t spit out at you right away. If you want to grab & gulp immediamente, then drive-thru, my brutha. I’m talking about delicious, not-so-fast, multi-store megaburgers. There are only three in our whole nation: (SPOILER ALERT: VEGANS CLICK AWAY RIGHT NOW!!!)
East: Shake Shack.
This is the creation of uberchef Danny Meyer, who probably thought he was just goofing. But his original Shack, a hot-dog-esque cart in Madison Square Park (pssst: the dogs are fantastic too!), became so popular that he installed a webcam to let you know in your office upstairs when the lines were finally winding down. Now he’s codified it, paid some attention to the prep, and every Shake Shack offers freshly-cooked sandwiches with brand-new everything. Meyer called the zeitgeist just right, and now there are a precious few Shake Shacks elsewhere, including in Citi Field, home of my beloved New York Mets.
Midwest: Steak ‘n’ Shake.
My brother Rick, who knows my burgeration, pulled into the “drive-thru” one day and said, “We’re gonna just wait.” Thus did I behold my first delicious steakburger. I know that’s what you call it b/c the waitress on my next visit recoiled when I ordered a “hamburger.” “Sir,” she exclaimed, as sternly as any nun ever has, “we do not serve ‘hamburgers’. What you might want instead is a ‘STEAKBURGER’.” They are indeed sublime. Again, it’s the cut of meat. Midwesterners know what I’m talkin about: Roger Ebert used to lean over to David Letterman during the commercial breaks and whisper the Steak ‘n’ Shake slogan.
I’m an In-N-Out Scientologist, or whatever it takes. Sit down and shut up. They’ll make your burger in their own good time — after they cut the potato up for your fries — you want fresh, they got fresh, homies! I beg people to take me there whenever I go out West. They look at me like I’m crazy: these places are on the freeway! But listen: that’s the best burger (mom-&-pops not included) west of the Rockies.
OK, now it’s your turn. Burg me back.
*A week or so after I wrote this, Teresa Heinz Kerry was hospitalized, but by 7/9/13, she appeared to be turning the corner. Nothing personal meant, ma’am — it’s the ketchup and the ketchup only — and I join the Secretary and the rest of your family in wishing you a speedy and full recovery.
7/6/13: In the just-dropped August issue (the cover story is no less than “Vegetables Now!”), Food & Wine readers vote their top 5 chains thusly: Five Guys, Shake Shack, In-N-Out, Umami Burger, and Bobby’s Burger Palace. Here are some more mouth-watering reader picks.
8/14/13: Shake Shack just anted up and said, from now on, we’re cutting our fries in front of your eyes. Frozen no more.