In the food of American folklore, the hamburger has gotten short shrift; it's overshadowed by the ever-present hot dog. While the wiener has come to represent our nation as surely as baseball and apple pie, the burger stands for nothing more than greasy spoons. The exclamation "Hot dog!" has positive connotations, but the only time "hamburger" is used in daily speech is when one ruffian wants to pummel another into ground beef, as in "I'll turn you into hamburger meat." And remember the McDonald's Hamburglar? How many of us still subconsciously associate eating fast-food burgers with criminal activity? Nathan's never had to pair a frankfurter with a thief in order to sell more of them.
The hot dog may have retained a more pristine image over the decades, but in today's restaurants the hamburger dominates. You'll find hot dogs at a limited number of eateries, usually at a delicatessen or on a kid's menu. But burgers (it's more fashionable to shorten it) have made it out of the backyard barbecue grill and into the bistros. No longer are they simply an option in Cantonese restaurants for folks who thought Chinese food was too exotic. And though still a staple at drive-thrus and drive-ins, burgers are hardly the property of only American fast-food joints any longer.
Not that they ever should have been. According to local cookbook author Steven Raichlen, who published The Barbecue! Bible, Delmonico's, an upscale steak house, served the first American hamburger in 1834, albeit without a bun, and for what was then considered a terrific expense (a dime). He's vague about when the roll was introduced -- "somewhere along the line" -- but it probably appeared before the burger was popularized by the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, where The New Food Lover's Companion says the burger first appeared.
Nor is the burger strictly an American phenomenon. The hamburger was invented, appropriately enough, in Hamburg, Germany, by way of Russia -- German sailors brought the idea of steak tartare back to their home port and one-upped the Russkies -- who adored the raw, chopped meat -- by cooking it. German immigrants then acquainted North Americans with the hamburger, which was immediately adopted. Now, claims Jeffrey Tennyson, author of Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger, Americans alone account for the consumption of nearly 40 billion burgers a year. Other countries, like Greece, make their own versions of ground meat patties, and Raichlen includes recipes for Bulgarian, Bosnian, and Pakistani "burgers" in his tome.
While availability accounts for some of the hamburger's appeal, ease and convenience seal it. The self-contained burger is a quick, multicourse meal that appears to satisfy many nutritional requirements at once: meat, starch, dairy, and vegetable (a.k.a. lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion). In her book The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser claims we like the burger because both the meat and bun are circular, and "circles are symbols of completeness and self-sufficiency.... [T]he roundness is not only self-sufficient but also old-fashioned, plump, and comforting." She also uses psychobabble symbolism to explain why burgers can jump from fast food to fancy food. Burgers are held in the hand, making them quick to eat and difficult to share, both characteristics of which signal informality. At the same time, the round shape mimics traditional European dining plates, and "the superimposed and separate layers of food... make sophisticated references to parts of the sequential model for a formal meal."
Hmm. Cut through all this gobbledygook and what you have is (a) a discounting of White Castle's square-burger success, and (b) the fact the burger satisfies many different people for a few similar reasons. But collective consciousness isn't what inspired Jimmy Buffett to call a "cheeseburger in paradise... heaven on earth with an onion slice." He's more concerned with how he likes it as opposed to why, and diners agree. In fact most of us disagree when it comes to analyzing what makes a burger good.
For some of us, the quality of the meat is the most important aspect in burger appreciation. But that doesn't necessarily mean the beef should be the most expensive you can buy -- say, lean sirloin. In fact, in Kitchen Science, Howard Hillman notes that ground chuck will shape up best. See, chuck steak has more fat -- and therefore more flavor -- than sirloin; marbling, a kinder term for fat, keeps the meat moist and stops it from shrinking into a doll-size play burger as it cooks. And while sirloin steak is initially more succulent than chuck, grinding renders all steaks equal in the eyes of the grill cook.
However, if you like to fly in the face of convention, indulge your whim at Morton's of Chicago (various locations in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties). The 20-year-old steak house chain presents a USDA prime, 13-ounce ground sirloin burger for $8.95 at lunch only. Almost monstrously plump, the burger ranks among the best I've had, offering a beautifully bright red interior with a firm texture. Keeping in mind that the a la carte double-cut filet mignon is only one ounce heavier but much pricier and that the burger is topped with sauteed mushrooms and accompanied by lyonnaise potatoes, you've got yourself quite a hefty bargain.
Other folks judge burgers by their size. And you can consume a dependable, reasonably priced half-pounder at places like Jack's Old Fashion Hamburger House (4201 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-565-9960, and 591 S. Cypress Rd., Pompano Beach, 954-942-2844) for $3.45 and at Stevie B's Rib Cafe (2725 N. Hiatus Rd., Cooper City, 954-432-3322, and 288 Indian Trace Rd., Weston, 954-349-6636) for $4.49.
But be forewarned: Burger places sometimes judge you. For example, at Cheeburger Cheeburger (11531 SW 88th St., Kendall, 305-596-1211, and 708 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-524-8824), if you can't finish the enormous 20-ounce burger for $9.95, you don't get your name and picture thumbtacked to the wall of gluttons. Smaller appetites -- and those not seeking 15 seconds of fame -- can choose from four other burgers, which range from five-and-a-half to fourteen ounces, cost between $3.95 and $7.95, and have appellations like "The Delirious" and "The Semi-Serious." I find Cheeburger Cheeburger both consistently good and ultracasual, with burgers served solo with salad garnishes and a choice of cheese, including provolone or jalapeno, in baskets. (Sides of fresh-cut French fries and hand-dipped onion rings cost extra.)
I'm personally interested in how a burger is cooked. It simply must be charbroiled or grilled, not fried or, God forbid, microwaved. (I'm therefore more partial to Burger King than McDonald's or White Castle, if truth be told.) I also like it, well, bloody. I know, I know, E. coli and all that. But in my opinion, you might as well play hockey with a well-done hamburger. I particularly dislike an overly charred flavor.
Holleman's, a low-key steak house near the Miami International Airport (1 Curtiss Pkwy., Miami Springs, 305-888-8097), does a terrific job of charbroiling a burger for $4.95, and for an extra buck tops them with rich, homemade chili. Like at Morton's, the hamburger is only on the lunch menu, but the cooks are glad to make it for dinner if you request it. I also find that Max's Beach Place (17 S. Atlantic Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-5022) makes a mean char-grilled burger at any time of the day for $8.95 and melts Vermont white cheddar over it for an extra dollar.
When it comes to burgers, many restaurants stick to the standard sesame-seed bun. Others, like O'Casey's (11415 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest, 305-256-2667), an upscale Irish pub, improve upon it. The bun on the $5.95, half-pound O'Casey burger is homemade, fluffy but firm, encasing the meat and challenging the mouth -- with more success than a dentist -- to open wide. At Bistro Zenith (3011 Yamato Rd., Boca Raton, 561-997-2570), a toasted focaccia roll improves the $9, ten-ounce bistro burger, which was overcooked the night I tried it.
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Some people never notice the bun and care less about the burger itself than about the stuff that comes on it. The cheeseburger, obviously, is an everlastingly popular item. James Beard even dignified his burgers with blue cheese, which may be why so many updated diners and bistros have followed this custom. The pungency of crumbled blue cheese does complement rather than overwhelm the meat at Himmarshee Bar & Grille (210 SW Second St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-524-1818), which stuffs a grilled sirloin burger with basil and crowns it with creamy Gorgonzola for $7.50. The sides of zucchini pickle and warm potato salad are nice gourmet touches as well. For $8.95 Big City Tavern (5250 Town Center Cir., Boca Raton, 561-361-4551, and 224 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, 561-659-1853) also offers a grilled and seasoned ten-ounce sirloin burger, served open-faced on toasted country bread and sealed with broiled Gorgonzola.
Visser writes in The Rituals of Dinner that the burger is "unmistakably a child of the modern imagination." Big Pink (157 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-532-4700, and 300 SW First Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-463-7465) takes the blue ribbon for the kind of creativity she means. The verde burger is doused with a delicious spinach-and-cheese dip for $8.50. Talk about your multicourse meal -- this is appetizer and entree in one. Big Pink also gets kudos for noticing that not everyone eats beef and for offering substitutes: a juicy turkey burger for $9.25, a veggie burger (comprising brown rice, lentils, and tofu) for $8.55, and a salmon burger (ground salmon mixed with basil) for $9.55.
One of the best "substitute" burgers I sampled was at the brand-new restaurant It's New York (1850 SE 17th Street Cswy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-463-7878), which grills a savory half-pound ground chicken burger with cheddar cheese and sun-dried tomato mayonnaise for $8.50. As far as vegetarian burgers go, they've become more and more common lately, but the only place you can get one topped with vegetarian bacon and soy cheese is Sara's (3944 46th Ave., Hollywood, 954-986-1770). At this kosher dairy restaurant-franchise (the original is in North Miami), the $4.95 veggie burger is slid between a "chalee" (or challah) roll of chewy, braided egg bread. If you'd rather forgo the faux pig strips, check out the $3.95 falafel (ground chickpea) burger at Burgerito instead. But forget about washing it down with a beer -- unlike all the other eateries I've mentioned, this restaurant doesn't have a liquor license.
Of course all this talk about hamburgers has naturally made me hungry -- for hot dogs. The frankfurter is as capable of innovation and variation as the hamburger. Surely it, too, can cross international borders and jump class barriers. In fact I'm particularly intrigued by Steven Raichlen's description of "samba dogs," a Brazilian recipe that tops wieners with a relish comprising corn, tomatoes, peas, olives, and hard-boiled eggs, and by the Home on the Range Buffalo Company, which makes hot dogs out of -- you guessed it -- buffalo meat. But first we'll have to rename the hot dog. Because according to the anonymous author of the Illustrated Manners Book, "you will do well not to be talking of dogs when people are eating sausages.