Collage © Sang Yoon; Photo © Antonis Achilleos
Hamburgers, like all the other fine arts, tend to have a historic arc, and we all just assume that they are getting better all the time. And maybe they are; there has surely never been a better time to be a customer with a big appetite, $10 and a good spot in the short line at Smashburger. But you know what? There are some magnificent hamburgers that have been lost to us, consigned to museum dioramas. Are we really that proud of ramen burgers or brioche buns that we have nothing to learn from a century of hamburger cooking? Here are five truly great burgers, now obscure and forgotten, but still waiting in readiness for a revival that must surely come.
1. The Slider
Those little mini burgers you get at Hooters are not sliders: They are mini burgers. They have become wildly popular in the past couple of years, beloved equally by halfhearted dieters and restaurant owners who like to sell four little burgers for twice the price of a single big one. But sliders are thin, and tiny, and soft, and you can truly, as the first great burger chain boasted, “Buy them by the sack.” (And eat them.) Interestingly, the first burger chain to sell them is also one of the last ones: White Castle, the alpha and omega of sliders.
Served at: White Castle; Krystal (a.k.a. “The White Castle of the South”).
2. The Maid-Rite
The Maid-Rite started as a wrong turn in hamburger history, we can all admit that; cooking up a bunch of loose ground meat in pickle juice or whatever, and then spooning it onto a bun, generally does not yield a good hamburger. But back in the ’30s, when decent beef was hard to come by, these weren’t so bad. And a great one, rich and piquant and supremely soft and yielding, is something special—and since it can be served out of a crock pot, 15 times easier and cleaner to make.
Served at: Maid-Rite (70 locations, mostly in Iowa).
3. The Double-Decker
I am guessing that your first instinct will be to say, Are you high? There are a million double-decker hamburgers! The Big Mac is a double-decker hambuger, for the love of god! Well, yes and no. The double-decker was created by Bob’s Big Boy with a layer of bun between the two patties and basically turns a burger into a layer cake. It absorbs the fat from above it and the sauce below it, and is totally wonderful, and almost totally extinct, outside of the country’s thin, loose confederation of Big Boy spin-offs.
Served at: Big Boy International; Frisch’s.
4. The Hamburger
Open up another tab and Google “In-N-Out Burger.” Go ahead. I’ll wait right here. Here’s what you just saw: 10,000 pictures of cheeseburgers. I know that almost all burger chains will sell you a hamburger if you want one, the same way a pizzeria will sell you a pizza without cheese. It’s on the menu. And it’s easy enough to make—just don’t put the cheese on at the end. But nobody wants that, because the cheese is where all the flavor, and the fat, and the overeall sticky lusciousness of the burger resides. Which is exactly why the hamburger needs to come back. Without cheese to cower beneath, the burger would have to be juicy and flavorful and hold its own against all the other condiments. Which, frankly, it is afraid to do right now.
Served at: Everywhere and nowhere.
5. Chopped Steak
Call it chopped steak, or Salisbury steak, or even Hamburg steak, but it’s all the same thing: a hamburger without a bun, served on a plate with gravy. Which brings up an obvious question: What happens if you put that into a sandwich? It need not be a bun; the evolutionary precursor to the burger was this kind of steak, eaten between two slices of bread. (And in fact Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, the oldest continuously operated “hamburger” restaurant in the country, still serves it that way.)
Found at: Louis’ Lunch, New Haven, Connecticut.