Wednesday, July 05, 2006

In Search of a Great Cheeseburger

Back when I was in graduate school, I had a friend who seemed to say about virtually every restaurant in town, "Oh, yeah, that place . . . they make a damn good burger." At the time, it irritated me to no end. Of course they make a damn good burger, I always wanted to say but never did. How hard is it to make a good cheeseburger?

Over the years I have changed my outlook. I now believe that it is difficult to make a good cheeseburger. And, it is particularly difficult to find restaurants that make good cheeseburgers. I've eaten a lot of cheeseburgers over the past five years, and in that time I've found only a handful of places abouw which I can say with confidence "they make a damn good burger."

In many ways, what makes a great burger is counterintuitive. Take Sesame, for example, a new restaurant here in Charleston--North Charleston, if you want to be specific. You would think Sesame would be an ideal candidate for cheeseburger greatness. It opened a few months ago in the Park Circle neighborhood--an up and coming but not yet trendy location-- and it's clear that the owners are dedicated to making top-quality, fresh food from scratch. The sweet pickles are homemade. The sweet-potato fries are handcut. The ketchup (yes, the ketchup!) is homemade. They make their own hotdogs! And, most importantly, the beef is ground fresh on the premises.

Since 1994, due to regulations passed in response to a deadly E. coli outbreak at West Coast Jack-in-the-Box restaurants, it has been illegal in South Carolina for a restaurant to serve burgers cooked any less than medium well. A bill has now been introduced to change that, but for now there seems to be one loophole to this law: if you grind the meat in-house you can serve it at whatever temperature your customers request. At present, only a couple of Charleston restaurants fit this bill, including Rue de Jean (downtown) and Poe's (on Sullivan's Island). And, now, Sesame has joined the ranks.

So, it was with great delight that I ordered a medium-rare Carolina burger, which came topped with pimento cheese (homemade, of course). The burger was thick and, because it hadn't been charred to a crisp, very juicy and tender.

But, ultimately, there was something wrong. It was the same reaction I've had in the past to supposedly "gourmet" cheeseburgers. My brain knew this was supposed to be a really great burger, but my palate wasn't buying it.

This isn't a knock on Sesame: it is a great restaurant. I loved the atmosphere. I loved the "blue corn" appetizer (ears of corn soaked in milk, roasted, and topped with grated cheese), which alone are worth going there for. I'm heading back to Sesame for lunch as soon as I can to try one of the homemade hotdogs. But, as much as I admire Sesame's dedication in grinding their own beef and making ketchup from scratch, I just can't put it high in my pantheon of great burgers.

"Gourmet" cheeseburgers tend to be too thick. And, they always seem to come atop a fat, thick bun. And, they have large, thick slices of good cheese on top--or, in the case of the Carolina burger at Sesame, a big pile of pimento cheese made from fresh-grated cheddar and parmesan. Individually, each of these ingredients are excellent. Put together, they don't quite come off.

Maybe it's because you have to work too hard to get it into your mouth, squeezing the bun and stretching your jaws as wide as possible. The cheese never seems to be melted quite all the way through, and toppings are always falling off onto your plate. And, even with the moistness of medium-rare ground beef, such burgers always seem to be too dry--perhaps due to the excessive amount of bun.

In my book, the best cheeseburgers are not the towering concoctions that appear on menus alongside dry-aged steaks and upscale risottos. And, no, they are not ones that seek to amuse or shock by topping a burger with novel ingredients like avocado slices or fried green tomatoes. The best cheeseburger is not about piling together the best ingredients nor the most exotic ingredients: let's face it, we're talking about cheeseburgers here. Instead, it's all about taking rather mundance foods and putting them together in the proper balance.

You need enough of a patty to taste meaty, but not one that's so thick that you have to work to chew it. And the bun should be fairly thin, too, so that you don't have to gnaw through three inches of bread to get to substance. The cheese needs to be melted--very melted--so that it almost fuses with the bun and the patty into a single consistent whole.

My favorite burgers are the 1960s drive-in-style ones. These are usually 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound of meat--half a pound being too thick--and are wide and flat. In almost every case, the places that make my kind of burgers use a sandwich press or a griddle to toast the buns after the burger has been assembled, which guarantees a flat, hot burger with a slightly-toasty top and bottom and tender melted cheese inside.

Maybe this is a matter of upbringing. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, which is home to some of the best classic cheeseburger joints in America, all of which for some reason seem to be named Pete's--including Pete's Original on Pendleton Street, Como's Pete's on Augusta Road, Pete's Number 7 on Wade Hampton Boulevard, and Pete's on Poinsette, which is about a mile from my old college apartment and kept me alive for several years of undergraduate study. They all serve great cheeseburgers--and onion rings and milkshakes, too. And the burgers are all wide, flat, and toasted on a press.

Other South Carolina favorites include the Rush's chain in the Columbia area, and the now-departed Shealy's Sandwich Shop, which was a Columbia institution until it closed sometime back around 2000. And Rosewood Dairy Bar and Zesto.

Charleston doesn't seem to have too many places like these. Bessinger's on Highway 17 is perhaps the closest to the ideal. It's a restaurant that features barbecue now, but it was originally a drive-in back in the Golden Age of the Cheeseburger--the 1950s and 1960s--and, at the time, featured its burgers most prominently and barbecue sandwiches as a secondary item. And even though they don't grind their own meat, and the cheese on the top is highly-pasturized yellow American, and the buns are probably from Sunbeam or Merita or some other industrial bakery, their cheeseburgers are hands-down the best in town.

So, if you're going into the restaurant business and are thinking about trying to put out a damn good burger of your own, don't try to simulate "gourmet" qualities by using softball-like beef patties or massive whole grain buns or slices of eggplant on top of the meat.

Keep 'em flat. Keep 'em toasted. And keep 'em coming.


Margaret said...

Hello from Savannah! I'd have to say by far, Fuddruckers on Hilton Head has my numero uno for a good restaurant burger.

Have yet to find the perfect burger here in Savannah. Take care.


Pradnya said...

If you ever find yourself in Manhattan, try Island Burgers & Shakes on 9th Avenue (Hell's Kitchen). The burgers are heavenly, not to mention the very thick, stick to your straw chocolate milkshakes.

Daniel said...

Best in my experience? The Blake's Lottaburger chain of burger stands out in New Mexico (literally, you stand -- no chairs). These things are all over the place, and you can take your classic 1960s-style cheesburger with a distinct local twist: green chiles. This being New Mexico, it's not an affected gourmet gesture. New Mexicans put chiles on everything.

Joan said...

I've been to Sesame quite a few times and haven't had a burger yet. I loooove the corn and the bruschetta. Mmmmm. I've been grazing on the appetizers.

Paul said...

The best cheeseburger I ever ate was at a dive-cafe in Rome,Georgia in the late 1960s when I was in college there. It was a rough place, but the burger made the danger element go away. :)

Paul said...

Oops the place was called the Bumblebee

west_rhino said...

Sorry to say that Liberty Cafe closed last year, else I'd recommend their bacon cheese burger with havarti. The old Tomato Shed at the Stono Market on Main Road (Johns Island) migth do well for a pimento burger, though that seems a subspecialty as a cheeseburger with a fine dose of homeade pimento cheese. The Dairy Bar and Rockaways in Columbia both have offered that delight from thier menu. Though I've never sampled it "Your Place" formerely on the Market and now somewhere in Mt Pleasant was voted best in Charleston for a few years running.

Chip said...

I personally like the burgers at Ye Olde Fashioned on 17 in West Ashley. In the upstate, though, the best burger by far is at Sonny's in Central.

Fast food, best burger, hands down, it a Monster Burger from Hardee's-- meat, cheese, and mayo on a bun. It's somehow perfect to me.

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