Le Tub Saloon: We Demystify the Urban Legends
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.
The result is a char-grilled patty sandwiched inside a soft poppy-seed bun, delivered fresh from Cusano's Bakery in Pembroke Park. The burger I ate was topped with gooey, creamy American cheese that melted onto the meat, acting like a bun adhesive. The bun-to-patty ratio is a little off — eaters almost get lockjaw opening wide enough to fit a bite of the monster patty into their mouths, and because it's so thick, mine came out a little rarer than expected. But this beast of beef is fresh and not a product of a night spent at room temperature.
Rumor No. 3: The staff is rude... on purpose.
Word on the street is that staff members yearn for simpler, quieter days, so they act surly to deter business. Tales abound of a bearded cook ripping off his apron and yelling out the kitchen service window or waiters cursing at paying customers. I've eaten here for years and have had my share of annoying service hiccups. On a recent visit, for instance, I asked for a seafood option but was told they didn't have it. I asked for another, and ditto. I went through four choices before I finally asked, "Do you have any seafood at all tonight?" My waitress yelled across the dining room to the grill area, then turned back to the table and responded "We have clams" without an apology or a smile.
I enjoyed the sweet little-neck steamers and dunked them into clarified butter, but I'd been in the mood for some of Le Tub's other great items (which are often overshadowed by that burger): crab legs, the fresh catch sandwich, the beer-battered shrimp smothered with Old Bay seasoning or the seafood salad with shrimp, crab, and salmon in a dill vinaigrette. (Gumbo and chili are also big hits; I have fond memories of sitting by the iron fireplace on a chilly winter night consuming spoonfuls of meaty sirloin chili, which warmed me better than a triple-fat-goose jacket.)
If servers are purposely rude, why are regulars so tolerant? Quinn says, "Don't get us wrong — we like the business. But some people just don't get it." Regulars, he says, don't mind fetching their own water from an old sports cooler, and they accept the long wait for food because they understand that only 28 burgers fit on the small grill at once and that it takes at least 20 minutes for each one to cook. "I'm not going to bullshit you; when I say it will take an hour and half, it's going to take an hour and a half," Quinn says. According to him, servers aren't rude, just straight-shooting.
Rumor No. 4: Tell the waiter to "fuck off" and pay only $2 for your burger.
In keeping with rumored bad service, one urban legend dares customers to insult a waiter for the promise of an extremely discounted burger.
This was actually the first myth I had attempted to demystify. When I first walked in and met my valuable resource, Quinn, he had been busy making a drink order for one of the servers. After he finished, he turned to me and sternly said, "You have to order a drink to sit here." I was intimidated and decided to not push my luck by telling him to fuck off. But after I had earned Quinn's respect with a few minutes of friendly banter, I asked him about the rumor. Quinn had a good laugh and said that receiving a $2 burger in exchange for insult is about as likely as getting a date by pulling a girl's hair.
If you don't get the $2 burger, at least you no longer need to worry about carrying around cash. Beginning January of this year, Le Tub nixed its cash-only policy and began accepting credit cards for bills over $25.
Rumor No. 5: Management removed the burger from the menu for two years.
I heard this from a journalist who believed it with devout conviction. Supposedly, the owners were so angered by the attention brought by GQ that they removed the prized burger from the menu.
Quinn was so surprised by this fabrication that he pulled aside Sidle and shared it with him incredulously. There was just one menu item that suffered because of the influx of business, Quinn says. It was so busy, "we couldn't make gumbo for four months; it was crazy," says Quinn.
When you visit Le Tub, bring some patience, relax, and order a beer and an appetizer. It may take awhile, but rest assured — there's no white-out on the Xeroxed paper menu. The prized burger remains.
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