I caught a few minutes of Slap Shot on TV the other day including the scene where the Chiefs goalie Denis Lemiuex explains what it is like for a hockey player to spend time in the penalty box (video). His closing words “…and you feel shame” seem applicable to so many things we do in life, including eating burgers. If you’ve spent any time in fast food joints (and I’m guessing if you found your way to this blog you have) you’ve probably ended up in a second or third tier place looking to scratch that burger itch. Depending how far down the chain you have allowed yourself to go, I’m guessing you will at some point end up doing the walk of shame out to your car, or back to the office or worse to your spouse or friends having to explain just how far you’ve fallen.
The chart above is my attempt to plot out my fast food burger experiences. There are places where I have gone, found the food to be amazing and then felt the urge to stand on the mountaintop and proclaim to the world that my taste buds have been sated and my soul has been strengthened by the manna from the g-ds. And then there have been places where I have almost instantly been filled with regret, embarrassed to mention how low I have dipped and yes – felt shame. I am taking a wild guess here by saying that I bet you have had those moments, too. For every story about hitting In-N-Out within 15 minutes of the plane landing in Las Vegas there is a tale that will never be told about a shameful trip to West Philly for a Baconzilla at Checkers.
I am hoping you will join the conversation by leaving a comment. I apologize that the “Leave a comment” button is a bit hard to find in this theme. Take a look on the top left of the text section below the picture and photo info. You’ll find the link there. Chime in. (Update: click here to leave a comment if it is easier)
A few parting thoughts…
I know that Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. are the same company but I really think they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Now it could be the setting (my Carl’s Jr. experiences have obviously been on the West Coast, in California, Utah and Nevada – world’s apart from the Hardees in Harrisburg, PA that I walked out of last week) because the marketing shtick and food are pretty much identical. They really do seem to present the two brands much differently and I wish that wasn’t the case, because those of us on the east coast are getting the short end of the stick on this one.
Check out Hawk Krall’s recent trip to Krystal (here). For those who are quick to dismiss them as a southern knock-off of White Castle remember that WC was born in the midwest, not Gotham City. My earliest Krystal memories are from my time living in Mississippi, taking bonding drives with my dad in our convertible. One of the best lessons he ever taught me was about letting things out of your control slide off your back as we watched a sudden thunderstorm dump gallons of water on our car while the roof was open. He just sat their casually eating his burgers waiting for the storm to quickly pass. Like a scene out of a movie I remember opening the car doors and watching tons of water flow out. We both hopped in, the car started up and off we went. This being Mississippi the car was dried out after a few minutes of driving and he carried on with no sense of panic or concern. It was after all just a car. If something had gone wrong we would have dealt with it, but part of me thinks the time we were spending together inside eating and talking about baseball was more valuable than whatever else could have occurred (plus the electrical system probably would have been completely shorted in the first few minutes, but allow me to wax nostalgic won’t you?).
I placed McDonald’s just above and to the positive side of the middle on this chart because to me they are the control group. Their burger is the taste that I still compare everything to (thanks to Ray Kroc’s model of consistency breeds familiarity breeds happiness/brand loyalty).
Flushing, NY 11354-5429
The three sweetest words in the English language may just be “Free Bacon Upgrade” and that is exactly what I encountered at Joe’s BestBurger in bustling Flushing (Queens), NY last week. Until the end of April (hurry!) they are offering free bacon with your double cheeseburger combo and the perfectly cooked pork planks gild the lily on what has to be one of the best fast-food style burgers you can grab on the East Coast.
I am going to consciously try to avoid the name of the West Coast place that has the same “keep it simple” style and coy “secret” menu because I think at the end of the day it is a frustrating and fruitless comparison. Let’s face it, as much as those of us on the right side of the continent can opine about…oh heck, I’ll just use their initials…INO, we just can’t get it. Every so often some of us can hop on planes and head westward to get our fix, but the majority of the time we have to search out reasonable facsimiles and Joe’s completely nails it for me.
I have a satellite office just a few yards from Joe’s (just passed the guy selling lamb on a stick for $1 – well worth it, too – ask for it spicy) and I always make it a point to drop in for a burger when I am in town. Freshness is a mantra at Joe’s which is initially confounding because the place looks like a cookie cutter fast food joint. Our subsconcious has been trained to expect our meals in 30 seconds flat, piping hot from below pink-ish hued heat lamps, when we encounter this much formica and a battalion of uniformed cashiers and cooks. What Joe’s does is take the best parts from the fast food concept (uniform product, consistent branding and competitive pricing to name a few) and then delivers a hell of a product.
Burgers go on the griddle after you order them and baskets of fresh cut fries wait to dip in the bubbling oil pools until you’ve made up your mind between them and the equally worthy onion rings. The made-to-order cooking means it takes about 3-5 minutes to get your food, but that is time well spent loading up on frothy chocolate soda from one of two soda dispensers (a name brand cola dispenser and another one offering a variety of Joe’s own branded soda).
Burger construction isn’t an afterthought at Joe’s. For my bacon double cheeseburger, the cook prepared the cold bottom bun with a thousand-island style burger sauce, then rests a bright red tomato on top which is then flanked with a piece of lettuce. Each wide and thin (1/4 lb-ish patty) is topped with yellow cheese and a slice of bacon, then one is stacked on the other and carefully balanced with the top bun. The gooey meat stack is then lifted off the griddle with a nice supply of glistening grease still hanging on for the trip to meet its cold cousins before being wrapped up in wax paper and placed on the tray. With the aforementioned fries this is a burger worth driving a couple hundred miles for.
I know what you’re saying, “If this place is so good, why aren’t people raving about it 24/7?” I think this place is under-hyped because quite frankly there are thousands of better things to eat in Flushing. No knock on Joe’s, it is top-notch, but the variety of authentic and exotic Asian food available in a relatively small footprint is mind boggling. Choosing to eat a burger, even for a burger lover like me, means wasting a limited opportunity to eat something else amazing. That said, I encourage you to try Joe’s (or at least engage in some major league gluttony to take in a few of the other offerings in the neighborhood – both above ground and below ground) if only because they aren’t opening an In-N-Out on the east coast anytime soon.
Hungry for more? Read A Hamburger Today’s take on Joe’s from 2005.
Phillies fans take note, Joe’s is maybe a mile away from Citi Field, home of the Mets. Two Sunday day games are scheduled for later in the season (8/15 and 9/12), both 1:10 starts, which means it is perfectly reasonable to sneak up for the day to catch a game and some burgers.
Can you feel it? The epicenter of the burger world seems to be shifting lately. NY and LA, the old guard as it were, are making way for the new – as in New Mexico. Late last year, the New Mexico Board of Tourism launched an interactive map to help visitors find the finest purveyors of the state’s indigenous Green Chile Cheeseburger; and the reigning intercontinental heavyweight champs of the burger blog world, A Hamburger Today, recently launched a series featuring burgers from The Land of Enchantment.
Ever since George Motz introduced the world to The Bobcat Bite in Hamburger America (youtube video) I’ve been craving an authentic Green Chile Cheeseburger. Sure, I’ve tried canned chiles to create my own at-home version, but something is missing. Unfortunately, several factors are working against me as family/job responsibilities coupled with the fact that I live in Philadelphia make a quick visit to New Mexico an impossibility. I needed to get closer to the burger so I figured I’d go the vicarious route and talk to a native.
New Mexico’s most famous living resident might very well be Marc Maron (I’m just going to assume we’ve all forgotten about Bill Richardson, right?). Host of one of the most popular podcast’s in the Apple iTunes Store, WTF, Maron seemed like the perfect guy to ask what makes a Green Chile Cheeseburger so special. A few days ago we finally connected and talked about burgers and being a foodie, and along the way he was kind enough to recommend a few of his favorite burger joints.
Burgatory: So what can you tell me about green chiles?
Maron: Green chiles, well that is what New Mexico is known for. You can get it in a can, Ortega’s or whatever, but it’s not the same as fresh roasted, Northern New Mexico green chile…at chile time…you can get it along side the road, they harvest it then roll it around in these giant roasters so the peels fall off then bag it. My stepmom Rosie, she’ll freeze a ton of it…it’s a very specific flavor and it really only happens there. It’s pretty great…
Burgatory: Are they spicy?
Maron: It can go any way…you can get it really spicy or you can get mild but there’s still that underlying flavor that is pretty unique.
Burgatory: When you think green chile cheeseburgers, which place comes to mind?
Maron: I grew up eating at the Frontier Restaurant and I go there every time I am back. They make a great green chile stew and they also make a pretty great green chile cheeseburger. It’s not your chichi, two inches thick, Kobe beef ‘bit of business’, it’s a flat patty like you get at a diner, maybe a 1/2 inch thick, all of them are consistent, they’re all made fresh but it’s not a gourmet burger, but they put a wad of green chiles on the top and then they use shredded cheddar cheese. So it definitely has a unique flavor to it, nothing tastes like Frontier. But if you’re going there expecting some sort of rare to medium-rare, drippy, bloody burger so you can be a snob about it, that isn’t going to happen. If you want a dirty, green chile cheeseburger, that’s the place to go.
Burgatory: So is Frontier your favorite burger joint? I know you split your time between the east coast and the west coast…
Maron: Well there are different kinds of burgers…you’ve got your fast food type of burger, or diner type of burger or you’ve got your fancy burger.
I try not to get too involved with it, but I definitely love In-N-Out Burger out here (in California). Again not a great burger in terms of grade of beef or thickness or that kind of stuff, but for a dirty fast food burger – the best.
Burgatory: Do you consider yourself a “foodie”?
Maron: I like to cook and generally I’m not out there pushing the envelope with cooking, I just have a knack for it and I’d rather cook than eat out. I find cooking very meditative and it captures my focus and I do it to step down all of my anxieties. We have very little control over most things in life but if you get going with cooking at least you have control for a half-hour. I come from an eating disorder laden family and I think it’s my way of acting out against my chronically skinny mother.
Burgatory: I know you’re a fan of the Food Network and you even did your own web series “The Angry Chef,” (youtube video: Jonny Cakes – NSFW) was that your idea of what a Food Network show starring Marc Maron would look like?
Maron: Yeah, I would have liked to have done it there. I didn’t really pursue it much because I’m not much of a cook and they kind of take themselves pretty seriously over there…
Maron: Yeah, the lit cigar thing would probably bother them and maybe some of the language would bother them…I think the angle of the Angry Chef (youtube video: Minestrone – NSFW) was to cook your hostility and anger out of you…that while you are cooking you talk about what’s bothering you and get it out during the cooking. You can get pretty aggressive during cooking, which they sometimes do on the shows but they don’t really take a therapeutic angle, they take a cooking angle.
Burgatory: And there’s not a lot of talk about ex-wives?
Maron: Well I am sure that there are plenty of those guys that have plenty of that to talk about, but they don’t have the guts to be honest, all they can do is honestly cook and I even question that sometimes…you don’t ever see those guys prepping food, do you? No. Do they ever throw a bone or a thank you to the 6 or 7 culinary students that want to be chefs in the back diligently cutting Emeril’s onions? No.
Burgatory: Are there any parallels between cooking and comedy?
Maron: I used to talk about how I missed being a grill cook back in college because there is a sense of reward that is fairly quick with some cooking. When you flip an egg successfully, you know you did it, so there can be a relatively immediate gratification element that I think it shares with comedy if you are doing it right.
I can’t thank Marc enough for taking the time to talk. A lot of the conversation we had isn’t represented above and at some point I will probably put up the entire raw audio, but it is a tough listen because of the quality of the sound via Google Voice. Marc tours the country often and he has a slick website with all sorts of worthwhile info and merch. His coolest relationship might very well be with justcoffee.coop, a Madison, WI based coffee roaster that offers a WTF Blend coffee which is ridiculously good.
In this 32-page easy reader, Papa Bear and Brother Bear head off for fast food burgers at a restaurant curiously named “In And Out.” Since the 1960′s, over 200 Berenstein titles have been published so it was inevitable that one would prominently feature burgers.
Interestingly, an AP obituary of Stan Berenstain included the passage
… the Berenstain Bears, written and illustrated by Stan and Jan Berenstain, helped children for 40 years cope with trips to the dentist, babysitters, eating junk food and cleaning their messy rooms.
so this title is either a rare moral slip up on the part of the authors or further proof that the hamburger has transcended junk food status and shifted into the “food of the Gods” category.
The (human) Berenstain’s were Philly folks through and through, so it is quite possible that the title is a mere coincidence and actually just a play on the fact that the story literally revolves around a door (note the title is “…Go In And Out” not “…Go To In And Out”). Whatever the back story, the tale worked for our daughter who, when bumbling Papa Bear finally made it inside the restaurant and ordered two delicious looking burgers, uttered “wow, I’d really like one of those burgers.”
You’ve seen books from the Images of America series thousands of times at your local bookstore, airport, historic landmark gift shop, etc. (there are over 5,000 titles in the series already). They are paperback books chock-full of black and white pictures of historic towns, neighborhoods and fraternal organizations. The Burger Chef book is the first one dedicated to a fast food outlet and for sheer historical and pop culture value, the chain is a great choice for this treatment.
First time author Scott R. Sanders uses images he has gathered from Burger Chef co-founder Frank P. Thomas Jr. (who sadly passed on before the book was published*), several collectors and perhaps the largest collection of Burger Chef memorabilia, Schroeder’s Drive-In in Danville, Illinois, to move along the pretty compelling story of the chain. Running almost parallel to McDonalds (in philosophy, McD’s set up shop in the big towns and Burger Chef ruled small town America), the chain was a trailblazer in fast food technology and marketing and at one point laid claim to the title of fastest growing fast food chain in the country (and second-largest chain overall behind McDonalds).
As much as I wanted Stacy Perman’s In-N-Out Burger book from earlier this year to be some sort of cosmic event – offering up the secrets to success and worldwide burger adulation with a side order of history, Sanders builds a story here that I think is much more compelling. In less space and really only with pictures, he illustrates Burger Chef’s impact on the industry and in reshaping small town America (now whether that is a good thing is debatable, but with chains that have disappeared we can cut them some slack). The incredibly personal and candid photos used throughout stamp a real time and place aspect on the story, which ratchets up the nostalgia factor while easing you through the history.
Broken up into 6 sections, the book takes you from the birth of the franchise (like McDonalds, Burger Chef was born out of the technology that was used in the restaurant – in this case the Sani-Shake and Sani-Broiler designed by chain founders under the General Equipment Company flag), through its growth and ultimate demise, with stops along the way to gawk at store merchandising, promotional items and advertisements.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is about an ill-fated side venture from Burger Chef, the Pied Piper mobile food van. As shown below, the entire operation was run out of an early 60′s Volkswagen Van.
One innovation from Burger Chef that did stick was the “Fun Meal” which was introduced in 1973 and served as the template for similar offerings at other chains and continues on today as “Happy Meals” or “Kids Meals.”
I had the chance to speak with Scott about some topics not covered in the book.
The last Burger Chef closed in 1996, is there chain today making burgers similar to BC?
The hamburgers at Carl’s Jr. are flame-broiled and taste the closest to what I used to eat at Burger Chef. Burger King used to taste similar, but the flavor of their hamburgers has changed.
Asked if writing a book about burgers caused him to eat more of them…
I don’t think I ate hamburgers more frequently while writing the book, but I was often reminded of how much I missed eating hamburgers at Burger Chef.
Scott is an elementary school teacher in Alvin, Texas and I asked him how his pupils have reacted to the book…
Actually, I did a presentation about Burger Chef and my book for my school last spring, and the reaction of the students was amazing. They were fascinated by the story of the chain and they all wanted to go out and eat at one of the restaurants.
If you are in Texas, Scott has a few recommendations for burger joints to check out including:Bellaire Broiler Burger 5216 Bellaire Blvd
Bellaire, TX 77401-3902 The Spot 3204 Seawall Blvd
Galveston, TX 77550-7656 Whataburger
I (Scott) generally consider Whataburger to be the best hamburger chain in the area. Mooyah I (Scott) have started eating at a new chain called Mooyah that just opened here. To order, you fill out a card indicating your choice of hamburger and the toppings you would like.
Burger Chef is available at area bookstores, independent retailers, and on-line retailers, or through Arcadia Publishing at (888)-313-2665 or www.arcadiapublishing.com.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book at my request. I receive no compensation for your purchase and I am not related to Scott R. Sanders, but it is good to know there are other folks named Sanders who appreciate a good story and a burger.