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Entire foodie messageboards are dedicated to them. Cholesterol meds are developed to counteract them. And if you want to start a fight, ask any South Floridian where to find the best one. I'm talking about juicy, delicious, American burgers.
A host of local burgers stand out from the pack: the multilayered cowboy burger from Charm City Burgers; ground-fresh-daily-from-whole-briskets burgers from Jack's Old Fashion; even the griddle-seared and smashed patty from the Five Guys chain.
And then there's Le Tub. As the menu (drawn by hand in the 1970s and now a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy) explains, original owner Russell T. Kohuth purchased a Sunoco gas station situated on the Intracoastal Waterway in 1974 (property records show it cost $103,000 at the time) and converted it into a restaurant (look past all the foliage and you can see that the original building with garage bays still houses the restaurant). Kohuth added a dock and decorated his little waterside joint with driftwood, toilets, tubs, sinks, and random nautical treasures. Leafy trees hung above the outdoor tables, and palmetto bugs or birds would occasionally stalk the entrées. For years, it remained a quaint and quirky locals' hangout where the ambiance was always relaxed and eccentric — perfect for the Hollyweird crowd.
That all changed in February 2006, when GQ food critic Allan Richman put Le Tub's 13-ounce sirloin burger atop his list of "20 burgers you must eat before you die" (nudging it ahead of the famous Peter Luger Steak House in New York). Suddenly, tourists went bonkers trying to get into the place. Oprah's best friend, Gayle King, kicked the publicity up a notch in 2007, when she tucked Richman's list into her purse and set off on a televised quest to eat through the recommendations. What followed were vehement arguments, a slew of rumors, and a very, very jammed parking lot.
Having heard enough urban legends about the place, I pulled my car into the formerly hard-to-find lot (hidden from the road by a wooden fence), got myself a cup of water from the famously self-serve orange sports cooler, and ordered up a patty, cooked to a pink medium. Bartender John Quinn, who's been pouring drinks here for 25 years, and one of the owners, Steve Sidle, kindly helped me sift through fact and fiction.
Rumor No. 1: No signs labeled the eatery; business was all word of mouth.
Le Tub is hidden from the road by a wooden fence and foliage, and for the past few years, it was marked only by faded, poorly lit wooden signs. But at the beginning, there were no signs at all, the old-school employees say. Eventually, they added jokey signs, such as "No 18 to 22-year-olds" or "no babies allowed," but the city made them take them down.
For many years, Le Tub remained relatively unknown, making it a special neighborhood hangout and escape from tourists. Kohuth, whom Quinn remembers as "a character," often sat at the bar cracking jokes. Unfortunately, he passed away last October at age 75 in his home in Palatka, Florida. In his will, he left Le Tub to five individuals, most of whom had worked in the restaurant over the years.
But now, 35 years after the official opening, the masses certainly have found Le Tub. The property (now valued at just under $1 million) is no longer found solely by word of mouth; a Google search instantly brings 23 million results. By 11:30 a.m., 30 minutes prior to opening, the parking lot is packed. In fact, parking is such a challenge that five years ago, management hired a parking attendant who works for tips. Bright, freshly painted signage was recently added.
Verdict: True (but definitely not anymore)
Rumor No. 2: The cook leaves the burgers at room temperature overnight to "age" the meat.
"You know how they get their burgers to taste so good, right?" a neighbor asked me in a low whisper, as if he were sharing classified information. "They season the meat, cover it, then leave it out at room temperature overnight."
What?! If Le Tub left its meat at room temperature past the USDA two-hour limit, diners would likely get sick (salmonella or E. coli) and the restaurant would be cited by health inspectors. Quinn and Sidle say that's crazy talk.
Yet for all of the frenzy that Richman's GQ article inspired, he didn't even get into much detail about how the burger was made. In fact, he wrote, "I don't understand how this spot came to have the best burger in America, but it does."
Sidle explained that their secret is balancing a small amount of chuck for fatty flavor with quality ground sirloin, combined with simple seasonings. The already-ground sirloin-chuck is delivered each morning, and the burger is made in the same manner it was 35 years ago (except now it's bigger and more expensive — $11.50). The beef is seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, then densely packed into a mammoth, 13-ounce patty with a thick mound in the middle. The patty remains on the char-grill for a minimum of 20 minutes under a cloud of smoke until it's cooked to the requested doneness. Dishes are most often overseen by Mathias — the main man at the grill for the past 25 years.
I visit LeTub once every 4-5 years. That's how long it takes for me to forget how much this place sucks. I second PeterBobber's comment. Leave it to "trendy" South Florida to fall in love with a place like LeTub. Add a velvet rope and people will stand behind it.
Not sure why the other commentators are so down on Le Tub. Yeah, it looks a little grimy. So? I mean, for what percentage of our history have human beings been eating off of sterilized stainless steel, anyway?
Get past the rough'n'rustic aeshetic. Fall in love with the gumbo and fall in crazy-Van-Gogh-esque love with the burger. (Order it rare, or you're missing the point.) I've eaten burgers in eleven states and a dozen countries, and Le Tub's is the best I've found so far -- much, much better than Peter Luger's burgers in Brooklyn, which have a tendency to char unpleasantly. (Brooklyn's best burger is probably at Cafe Ghia. Bacon-fat infused beef on a lightly toasted brioche with a fluffy sundried tomato aioli. Astounding!)
Anyhoo -- good story!
Took my kids there and walked out ..the place was disgusting,dirty and the help looked like they had'nt showered in a month...
This place is a glorified shithole with assholes working there...just goes to show u that idiots that believe what they read in GQ will over pay for dogshit on rye if they are told it tastes great...
I cannot believe that the myth of this place is still perpetuated. The burgers are NOT done to order, you take what they deliver. The place is filthy because you cannot clean a restaurant exposed to the elements. The burgers are good, not the best 20 in the country, let alone South Florida. Most of the staff are rude and untrained in service. That is not quirky, just lousy service. There are so many other good burger joints around, let this place go back to the "characters" and the "locals" and stop giving them undeserved publicity.
Still like hitting this place after diving at John Lloyd. But it is expensive and crowded. Still worth it if you can get in.
Thanks for the heads-up..Have'nt been there in 5 yrs ...I'll pass...hate to eat with all the d-bag tourists...
Awesome story. I can't think of a better way to cover a restaurant that has so much hype and detritus circling it. Go Jamie!