Restaurant Reviews

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.