Monday, May 21, 2012

On Hamburgers

Hamburgers are perhaps the quintessential American food.  They are a staple of summer barbecues and fast food joints, they have restaurant chains devoted to them, and they can be found at “American” restaurants the world over.  Even high-end restaurants serve them.  Everyone knows what a hamburger is, but there are a million ways to make them, and everyone has their own preferences (the Husband prefers a 70%-30% mixture of ground beef and ground pork).  There's a lot to be said for the lowly hamburger: when made well, they're flavorful and moist (unless you subscribe to the theory that to be properly cooked something must be charred into shoe leather), and can carry a range of toppings and additions to create variety and excitement.  But a good hamburger can also stand on it's own.  I can't say I'm exactly a hamburger connoisseur, but I have had a few in my time.  All are different, but the following places all serve a mean hamburger and good sides.

Dick's is a small chain in Seattle, Washington.  It's been years since I've been to a Dick's, but they're open late (10:30am until 2am), they don't have indoor seating (a few tables in the parking lot; the entire building is the kitchen), and the food is always hot and fresh.  They're quite popular for post-clubbing (my visits) and post-prom/homecoming dances (encountered while there post-clubbing).  Apparently they're also quite popular during the day, when businessmen go there for lunch, at least according to those who frequent Dick's during more traditional hours (i.e. my parents).  The burgers are basic and not very big, and the bags of fries aren't either, but again, it's all hot, fresh, and tasty, and the price sure is right.  The chocolate shakes are also tasty.  Plus, if you're in Seattle for any amount of time, Dick's is one of those famous local places  you should visit.

Drive down the road a bit to Tacoma and you'll encounter Frugals, if you're crazy enough to stop in Parkland/Spanaway for some reason (or if you attend Pacific Lutheran University, which is about 5 minutes away when there's no traffic).  Apparently, Frugals is also a chain, which I just found out (three in Western Washington, one in Montana, and one in Minnesota). Frugals is even smaller than a Dick's, as it's a double drive-thru location.  As such, there's no inside area for customers, but Frugals doesn't even have it's own parking lot, and I believe the lone picnic table is for the employees when they're on break.  Frugals is a small, shiny metal hut with a drive up window on either side, and is located on Pacific Avenue and an entrance/exit ramp for Hwy 512 (convenient for road trips).  The staff is occasionally surly to each other, and the burgers can be plain or come with some nice toppings (swiss and mushroom), but nothing too outrageous.  All tasty, and their shakes are phenomenal.  I'm not sure what's in them or how they're made, but they're wonderful, and the über-sized one is great to keep you from being too bored on that 4 hour drive down to Eugene (it usually lasted to about Vancouver, which means it got me through the most boring bits of the drive, which is everything between Olympia and Vancouver).  Even melted, they're good.  Not too thick, they can be sucked through a straw immediately without too much effort, but they might even improve as they sit for a while.

The hamburger joint that truly inspired this post, however, is a place called Gott's, which has three locations, but I've only been to the one in Napa (the others are in St. Helena and San Francisco).  It's also the place that caused an $80 lunch for four people (worth it).  Napa is expensive, folks.  Located right next to the Oxbow Market, they get a line at lunch time.  It's worth your wait though, and the expense, if not every day.  I think they do basic hamburgers there, but I got suckered into one that had all my favorites on it: the Western Bacon Blue Ring.  Blue cheese, bacon, onion ring (though for me, onion straws will also suit), red onions, pickles, and barbecue sauce.  It was big, and it was hot, and it was tasty (it was also messy, which is what happens when all good and tasty things are crammed into a bun with meat).  They also serve to-die-for onion rings, great fries, and that Napa staple, sweet potato fries.  I say Napa staple because every place was serving them, but sweet potato fries are not a new thing, and not just in Napa.  If you've never had them, they're slightly healthier (just slightly) than regular french fries, and super tasty.  They make a nice change, and in my mind, might possibly be even better than regular fries.  And in a rarity—the Husband does not like ice cream (“it's cold”)—all four of us got milkshakes.  Mom got her vanilla shake, which was nice if bland in my mind (vanilla shakes always are even though I love vanilla), Dad got chocolate which was good, I got a Black and White (chocolate syrup with vanilla ice cream, which is how I make chocolate shakes anyway), and the Husband got an Espresso Bean shake.  Mine was tasty and a nice change from the usual chocolate shake, but the Espresso Bean shake was really well balanced.  Clearly coffee flavoured, but not overpowering, and still creamy and nicely, well, milkshakey.  Expensive, but all-in-all worth a stop.  They also sell fish tacos and breakfast.  And mint chip shakes, which I also wanted, but couldn't justify two milkshakes.

I also can recommend a hamburger place in Leicester, as well (no website that I can find anymore, but the menu is here).  The burgers are nice, and in typical English takeaway style, have interesting flavor combos (look at a British takeaway pizza menu sometime).  They're also far better than the average pub or takeaway burger you'll find in the UK, which usually give me heartburn (takeaway) or are as hard and dry as hockey pucks (pubs, particularly Wetherspoons).  I believe my favorite burger from New Walk was the Chipotle BBQ Smokey, but as it's been years, I'm guessing.

I also feel that I have to include two fairly large fast-food chains in this post.  Neither one is quite as good as any of the above, but both were quite acceptable and deserve mentions.  The first is Sonic, which I've only eaten at once, and that was the day we got married.  Needing food on the drive from SFO to Napa, I tried to stop at an In-n-Out Burger because the Husband wanted to try it.  Without getting into my panicked driving through downtown San Francisco or the fact that EVERY In-n-Out Burger we passed on the highway we saw after the exit for it, we finally found a Sonic in a stripmall parking lot, and it was open until about 10 minutes after we ordered.  The food was hot, seemed to be fresh, even at that time, and pretty tasty.  It wasn't exceptional, but it was certainly better than your average fast-food burger fare.  Plus, I give points to places that still have the old drive-up order stations and people who deliver your food on roller skates.  Major win for that.

The second chain is the aforementioned In-n-Out Burger.  We finally managed that stop last year—just shy of two years from our previous attempt—in San Francisco through creative begging and my parents.  Namely, we flew into SFO late enough that a proper meal wasn't going to happen for us, but, early enough (and on a crappy enough airline) that we needed some food or homicide might happen.  And there are quite a few In-n-Outs scattered throughout the bay area, including close to the airport and our hotel.  Added bonus: there was a game or something in Candlestick, so Dad was avoiding the freeway system to avoid the traffic.  Anyway, we ended up eating those burgers cold, but they still weren't bad.  They were served to us hot, but we then had to drive to the hotel, check the Husband and I into the hotel, and  get into the room with all our crap—and the food—before we could eat, so it was close to 45 minutes before devourage commenced.  The burgers were still pretty good (mine was animal style), though the fries were somewhat lacking for being cold, which wasn't unexpected.  My fries probably suffered less from that, since I got those animal style as well.  The shakes were also good.  I know other people rave about the greatness of In-n-Out, and they certainly were fine, but I think I have more respect for some of their policies than their food.  I'm not into the whole proclaiming the religion thing, but In-n-Out does apparently do at least one very nice thing: if you cannot afford to pay for food but are hungry, they will still feed you.  I don't know the exact terms and conditions of that, but I imagine being drunk and without your wallet doesn't count.  Still, I think it's a very nice policy.

There's a lot to be said for the hamburger.  Made right, it doesn't have to be unhealthy (though it's rarely going to be the healthiest choice around), and there's a nearly infinite number of ways it can be customized to suit the individual.  I wouldn't argue that any of the above are particularly healthy, but they are all tasty, and some have good, sustainable practices in place.

So be creative with your hamburger.  Explore meat ratios and different bun types.  Try new sauces or toppings.  Get a new type of milkshake, or try something like sweet potato fries or zucchini sticks instead of (or alongside) your regular french fries.  But most of all, remember than the hamburger can be more than the sum of it's parts.