It’s pretty hard to break too much new ground in describing the often-praised burgers at this roadside throwback so I won’t even try. I’ll just let the picture speak for itself and direct you to some great reviews elsewhere (NYT – Hamburger Heaven), including the listing that originally piqued my interest over at Roadfood.com.
What I can add is this – I have never had a fast food-style cheeseburger with as much flavor as this one. It seems incongruous because there doesn’t appear to be much to this equation. Just a 1/4 lb(ish) hand-formed beef patty cooked up fresh right before your eyes then crowned with perfectly melted yellow American cheese and a cadre of exceedingly fresh toppings all wrapped up in a squishy white bun. Nope, no magic there, but somewhere along the way this burger picks up a depth of flavor that blew me away. In an era of ever-increasingly complex burgers, it takes a basic set-up like Red Rooster’s to remind me what it is I truly enjoy about burgers – the powerful taste of simple, fresh ingredients. No secret sauce, no proprietary blends, no artisan baked rolls, no celebrity chef, no trendy decor…nada. Just pure happiness on a paper plate.
If you are heading upstate out of New York City (perhaps on your way to Joe Beez in Kingston) look for this candy-striped A-framed hut, it is truly a worthwhile stop. Grab one of their stellar milkshakes and if you have time, fit in a game of mini-golf and then rue the fact that when your parents were kids places like the Red Rooster were a dime a dozen.Click here for an additional picture
Red Rooster Drive-In 1566 Route 22 Brewster, NY (845) 279-8046
Cast in the eerie shadows of the twin towers of the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant lies the Philadelphia Premium Outlet Mall, a mecca for consumers that in just a few days will cast its siren song southward to lure Black Friday shoppers and welcome their efforts to spur the economy through ritualistic spending at Nike, Adidas, Jockey, Le Creuset and the thankfully curable Perfumania (not to mention food offerings such as the painfully punny Chinese stand called Asian Chao).
What was even just a few months ago a barren field now teems with activity, forever in the present with today’s hottest fashions and modern trends. At the exit ramp off of Route 422 drivers are offered barely the chance to turn away from the mall, almost by centripetal force their cars are willed to turn left and ease into the acres of available free parking. But for those who can fight the potent inertia of drastically reduced prices on factory seconds and previous year’s stock (or perhaps more realistically forestall their entry into the maelstrom for a few moments) there is a reward for steering your car to the right at the end of the ramp – The Hilltop Drive-In.
In stark contrast to the not so accurately named outlet mall (anyone from these parts will know they are nowhere near Philadelphia, Google Maps pegs it at just over 29 miles from City Hall to the Wilson’s Leather Outlet), the Hilltop sits as a pink-hued reminder of a bygone era and the simple pleasures of a pre-fast food chain dominated burger landscape.
Make no mistake, this is not the best burger you will ever eat, but the overall experience makes it well worth the effort and miles. Add equal parts classic architecture, hand-spun milkshakes and malts, black and white photographs and retro signage and you’ve got yourself the ideal destination for a lazy Sunday drive to the far reaches of the suburban Philly telephone area code.
On this my second trip to the joint I ordered the California Cheeseburger, so-named for the appearance of (gasp!) vegetables which, at a time in our country, must have been viewed as exotic and otherworldly, just like the Golden State. Two perfectly acceptable fast food size and style beef patties were joined on the white, squishy burger bun by a piece of American cheese, sliced raw onions, tomato, shredded lettuce and mayo. (I substituted the kaiser roll which this sandwich is usually served on for a regular burger bun due to my long held belief that a kaiser roll has no business being near a burger.)
I had forgotten the pure pleasure of eating a burger with heaps of mayo on it. Despite the results of A Hamburger Today’s “Favorite Condiment” poll back in August, far too few of the burgers we eat have mayonnaise on them. Why not? Adding more fat to a burger seems like a no-brainer, and at the Hilltop, which uses some brand that bridges the chasm between Hellman’s egginess and the sweetness of its arch enemy Miracle Whip, the gooey-ness continuum that is created with the inevitable mingling of the white American cheese and mayo is pure perfection. That moment of self-questioning “was that the cheese or the mayo?” works well in the burger as grease delivery vehicle equation.
The Hilltop’s roots reach back to the 1950′s when it was a Carvel outpost and the shakes and malts served today are legit. I had a chocolate malt on my first trip and it was perfect, deeply chocolaty with flecks of slightly bitter malt powder. Soft-serve cones and sundaes are available as well and I can imagine in the summer time they do a fare bit of business cooling off the locals with these treats.
One of the great surprises of The Hilltop is that they serve Good’s Potato Chips from nearby Adamstown, PA. An old-school producer of no-frills, fried in lard chips, Good’s have become a strictly rationed treat in our house (Philly area folks can get them closer to home at The Head Nut in Ardmore) and as served here are the perfect accompaniment to your burger. They also offer pretty good french fries, McDonald’s style thin cuts fried up crisp and tasty, but when presented with the chip option they slip into second place.
Special mention must be given of their crab bisque soup. With our proximity to Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay, decent crab doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to come across, but it certainly wasn’t expected in this kind of setting and truly stole the show on our first visit.
Huge thanks to ModBetty of Retro Roadmap for bringing The Hilltop to my attention via her great post and pictures (special notice should be given of the early ’50′s black and white image she shares of the Hilltop as a Carvel -complete with a rogues gallery of patrons straight out of central casting). Her site is packed with other great info and she is the rare Keystone state resident with actual duckpin bowling experience.
500 Thurston Ave Ithaca, NY 14850-2434 (607) 257-4649
You’d probably be excused for confusing Louie’s Lunch with Louis’ Lunch, the venerable Connecticut restaurant which claims to be the birthplace of the hamburger. Both have Ivy League links (Louis’ Lunch is in New Haven, home of Yale, while Louie’s Lunch sits on the north campus of Cornell in Ithaca, NY), both are mobile (Louis’s moved four times before settling into its current location and Louie’s has four wheels and thus can move at any moment – though there are a bunch of wires to unhook from the light pole and something that looks curiously like coax cable) and oh yeah, both serve darn nice, lo-fi burgers.
With lineage dating back to 1918, the current Louie’s Lunch truck sets up shop seven days a week to satiate the late night cravings of our country’s future doctors, lawyers, jock-rockers (Huey Lewis) and surgeon generals (oh yeah I’m talking about you C. Everett Koop). Until 3 am (except Sunday nights when they retire at the modest hour of midnight) students in various states of stress and/or inebriation can hit up this mobile c-store for cold drinks, hot coffee, energy shots, candy bars and of course – burgers.
Back in college at the much less educationally challenging (though no less hilly) Mansfield University, I discovered the Bo Burger, a griddled hamburger topped with cheese and a fried egg. To this day, no single dish has screamed “college” to me as much as this combination which I used to enjoy at the local truck stop affectionately known as Greasy Eddie’s, and so when I saw the Bo Burger listing on the starboard side menu of the truck I jumped at the chance to reminisce about my own college years.
Louie’s version featured about 1/4 lb of griddled beef, resting on some white American cheese and topped with a nicely cooked egg. Health departments be damned for their insistence that eggs cannot be runny, but kudos to the flat-top chef who brought this oeuf in just on the cooked through side, avoiding that rubbery, overcooked state. The Bo Burgers of my youth were served on squishy white buns, but this being Ithaca (home of Moosewood and macrobiotic jerky) my Bo was served on a whole grain bun flecked with oats…a bit odd, but good; almost allowing me to dream for a second that this burger was kissed by Mother Earth herself and thus filled with only healthful vitamins and minerals (reality check – it is in actuality a glorious greasebomb of a burger!).
Served with a smile by an actual Cornell student, I give this burger high marks for both quality and history. For years I have been fascinated by the idea of making decent burgers in a food truck and as mentioned on this site before, my own bucket list includes opening a mobile burger shop called “Burgatory” (ideally parked on City Ave in Philadelphia half-way between the Catholic Seminary and the Hebrew Yeshiva). Louie’s provides further proof that good burgers can come from just about anywhere and thousands of Cornell grads no doubt have fond memories of placing their own late-night orders at Louie’s window.
The Louie’s folks have done a great job of cataloging their own history on their web site. For more details on the various iterations of the lunch truck and pictures of through the years, click here.
This is the first of a four part series ingeniously titled “Burgers I Ate While In The Finger Lakes Region A Few Weeks Ago.” Future installments will include entries from a winery, a creamery and the epicenter of the gourmet vegetarian movement. Stay tuned.
Coney Island Lunch
I am thoroughly convinced that places like Coney Island Lunch exist in every town, except the ones I have lived in. It is some sort of bizarre Murphy’s Law hybrid that (mercifully) keeps me from eating like this every day of my life (which would no doubt be shortened by easier access to food like this). Stereotypically retro, with bustling counter service, a handful of booths, limited menu options and friendly staff, luncheonettes like Coney were a dime a dozen just a few decades ago but are sadly a dying breed in the continued “chaining” of our country.
One of my favorite artists and food bloggers, Hawk Krall, just posted a story about another Coney Island in PA, and a quick Google search reveals a “Coney Island Lunch” spot in just about every nook and cranny of the Keystone State, including the bustling hubs of Erie, Shamokin and Johnstown (where I have personally enjoyed their legendary “Sundowner” – a cheeseburger with chopped onions, “Coney Island” chili sauce, mustard and a fried egg). The Scranton version has been around since 1923 when Steve Karampalis, newly arrived from Greece, started serving hot dogs and burgers to the factory workers and railroad men in this bustling industrial hub.
Truth be told (and man it seems to get murky), this Coney Island Lunch isn’t the same one that Scrantonites would have visited back in the 20′s. The joint we popped into on a recent sunny Sunday opened in 1988. This location, across from the “Mall At Steamtown,” claims direct lineage to the original owner (their grandfather was Steve Karampalis) and the original location a few blocks away – where, coincidentally, you will find a similar restaurant named Coney Island Texas Lunch, which recently reopened after a devastating fire (arson suspected). There seems to be a bit of a turf war in the Electric City over the true “original” and at the risk of adding fuel to that fire, I’m gonna have to side with the folks at the new location (Lackawana Ave) as I’d consider the direct family link the lynchpin in making a decision on who can rightfully claim to be the original.
The first thing that arrived at our table was this heaping serving of gravy fries. They could not have been cooked any better, perfectly crisp on the outside and airy inside, these slightly smaller than steak-fry sized spuds were made all the more incredible by the addition of brown (beef) gravy. Toss on some cheese curds and we’d have poutine, but this is Scranton so none of that French stuff here. To me, gravy fries are the classic diner food staple. I can remember many a post little league game meal with my dad at the now dismantled Vale-Rio Diner in Phoenixville, PA where ordering a bowl of gravy fries was de riguer (there’s that French stuff again, note to self: limit the amount of Fancy Nancy books I read to our 3 year old daughter). Back to the program, the gravy fries were a great start and were quickly joined at the table by the above pictured Texas hot dog and Texas hamburger (left to right in your picture, though you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference before biting in).
When the place is called Coney Island Lunch you can expect an emphasis on “Coney Island Chili,” a traditional no-bean chili (not spicy hot either) made with ground beef, onions, tomato paste and the most popular items from your spice rack. A cauldron endlessly simmers in the storefront kitchen waiting to be heaped on top of a hot dog (Berks brand beef dogs sliced in half if you are keeping score at home) or burger (pretty good beefy patty, though to be honest it really is just a delivery vehicle for the toppings) along with a mound of diced onions and a slathering of Dusseldorf mustard (applied almost artistically, paint brush style during the lightning fast construction phase). Both dogs and burgers are served on the same fresh, pillowy rolls, made by Scranton’s own National Bakery. Slightly hard on the outside, these buns are sturdy enough to help avoid a complete toppings blowout disaster and ensure that you get every bite of the delicious chili. Read the rest of this entry »
A strange confluence of events this evening as I was getting ready to do some maintenance on the blog. I took a look down at the website hit counter and noticed that it had crossed the 9,000 mark en route to 10,000 (and maybe more). I had kind of told myself that when we hit 10,000 I’d feel this experiment was a success. It got me thinking about how this blog started and then a ping came from the mail program and my Google Alerts set for “burgers” showed a story (1,2) about Beef Burger in Greensboro, NC…which in actuality is how this whole blog started.
While late night websurfing a few years ago I came across a website dedicated to a burger chain called “Biff Burger.” This site stunned me in its simplicity and the depth of information it held on this burger chain from the history books and started me thinking how many other stories were out there. Fast forward a bit and sites like A Hamburger Today and the site/book Hamburger America pretty much fill the niche for this type of info, but I thought there were probably a few stories that could be told and so I set up shop @ burgatory.com to tell them, toss out recipes, report burger news and generally learn how blogging works from the back-end.
Each summer we load up the family truckster and hit the open road searching for hole-in-the-wall burger joints and salt-air beaten clam shacks. Last summer we pointed the car towards Greensboro, NC to visit “Beef Burger,” one of two remaining locations of the original “Biff Burger” chain. I’ve been sitting on this post for ages due to lack of inspiration, but the fact that the pictured burger can be yours today and tomorrow for a mere $0.59 is reason to pull it out of the draft folder and send it live to offer my opinion.
1040 W Lee St
Greensboro, NC 27403
A while back I stumbled upon a website dedicated to a burger chain called “Biff Burger.” After years of driving past one of the last outposts of this chain on the way to college I searched for info in hopes of planning a trip and sadly found out that the restaurant had by then closed. And, with its closure, the Biff Burger chain was down to only two locations (one in St. Petersburg, FL still using the Biff Burger moniker and one in Greensboro, NC now called “Beef Burger.”) Having blown the opportunity to enjoy a burger at a location within reasonable driving distance from home I vowed to get to one of the two remaining restaurants when the opportunity presented itself…and thus the itinerary for this year’s burger vacation was set…we’d make our way to North Carolina.
Located in an industrial section of town, across the railroad tracks from UNC-Greensboro’s campus (and home of the ridiculously great hot dog and ice cream joint Yum Yum), Beef Burger still draws in the crowds. Polite and orderly, folks line up inside the tiny lobby which no doubt was outdoors at some point (and thus much less claustrophobic) and feast on traditional American roadfood fare.
I ordered the SuperBurger combo with a Cheerwine (yet another reason why the South rocks -from a culinary standpoint) and settled into a formica booth to enjoy the fruits of the laborious drive (Philly to NC via Pittsburgh/West Virginia). By sheer will alone that burger had to taste good, and it did.
As C. Catherman notes on his tribute site, Beef (ne Biff) Burger’s signature feature, the Roto-Broiler:
…was an ingenious specially designed broiler which gave Biff-Burger the leading edge over many other Drive-Ins during the day in which fast-food hamburgers were common. But the burgers at Biff-Burgers weren’t just your “ordinary” hamburger. The burgers at Biffs had a unique char-broiled taste which were unlike any other. Every original Biff-Burger sign, regardless of design used, indicated “Roto Broiled”. The “roto-broiled” process was indeed Biff-Burgers signature to fame and the reason why so many people enjoyed their burgers!
With the gift of hindsight I must honestly admit that the burger was nothing earth shattering. It didn’t rise to the top of my own personal list of best tasting burgers, though the thrill of the chase more than made up for that. The broiler certainly helped provide a unique flavor to the burgers and I can see why Mr. Catherman and hundreds of others are still partial to this cooking method.
The carousel of meat effect was pretty amusing and my daughter and I stared at it for a while before she made her way outside to the coin-op human version on the sidewalk (that is her in the corner of the pic). The lower level of tis ingenious machine toasted the buns and that was a plus, too! Brought together in a styrofoam container with a decent side of fries and the aforementioned sugar-shock inducing soda, this was burger escapism at its best. A real retro experience worth searching out, even hundreds of miles away.
If you want to learn more about Biff Burger/Beef Burger, I implore you to check out C. Catherman’s site. He truly has a love for the history of the chain, a keen eye for detail and a photographic memory about his experiences at the restaurant.
As we get closer to 10,000 hits (I know – not much for a real website, but heck…my mom would be proud if I took the time to explain to her what a blog was) I will dig out and repost some of the old stuff that I am particularly proud of and finally (I hope) finish a story I have been working on for a few months about the greatest hamburger icon of the 20th Century (seriously)! Thanks.
50 Haddon Ave
Just outside the City of Camden, on the fleeting edge of the hip burb of Collingswood sits a weathered diner which for years has intrigued me but where I had never set foot…until today. Roney’s Restaurant is a relic of a bygone era, a former White Tower location with just enough of the original design left to hint at what once was and make you look twice as you speed by. The ancient channel letters beckon you with the word “Hamburgers” on one side and sadly just “Hamburge” on the other and the often less than full parking lot always left me thinking that by passing up the opportunity to stop by again and again I wasn’t really missing much.
The counter at Roney’s was close to filled when I stopped in today on my way back from the shore and I caught mention of the man next to me “just getting off shift” and others talking about manufacturing jobs, while an off-duty waitress sat next to me perusing the want ads in the daily paper. This is Camden County, NJ. Hard working people, living during uneasy times in one of the countries most downtrodden cities. Roney’s is pretty real and to be honest, that is probably one of the reasons I’ve never stopped in before (and maybe others haven’t either). I’ve even pulled into the parking lot before only to head out again. This place just never looked welcoming. In retrospect, not coming in sooner was my loss.
The best way to describe the burger would be to call it a super-sized White Castle (or maybe more appropriately – White Tower) slider. It had the same taste and consistency, thanks to the weathered griddle and the perfectly fried onions which topped the burger along with a swipe of mayo and ketchup. The burger was probably 1/3 lb size and came served on a white, squishy bun (the platter which I had also came with perfectly cooked thin french fries). Two women ran the entire operation, one cook working the small griddle and one waitress handling the entire restaurant. There is an odd walkway in the middle of the restaurant with the “back of house” cooking and prep stations. This zone divides two seating areas, one large area in the front and one smaller area in the back (they even had a patio out back which under better weather conditions would be a great place to eat a burger ordered to-go). I’d assume during busier times two waitresses would be on duty, each handling one side of the joint.
All in all they serve a decent fast food style burger accented with a heaping side of nostalgia. The burger stand I would open (in my dreams) would probably look similar to this place. The creaky bar stools, the closeness of the other patrons eating next to you, the friendly waitstaff, the frantic cook and the delicious smells wafting off the impossibly tiny grille all immediately take you out of your element, dropping you down into the middle of multiple conversations and affording you the opportunity to become part of a loose community for a short while as you devour your burger.
I think we all wish our lives were a bit hipper, but this is pretty much the reality of it all. A forgotten burger stand, on the side of a busy highway, on a dismal gray day – oh yeah, in New Jersey…I see a Kevin Smith movie in this somewhere.
Here is a link to an absolutely stunning pic on Flickr of Roney’s by someone named Harpo42.
Odd, potentially unreliable financial data.
Though at times it seems like New York City is the burger world’s epicenter, living down here in Philadelphia really has its advantages. Along with easy access to top level spots like Good Dog and Charlies Hamburgers, a quick drive in any direction (even north to Gotham) offers up some great burger opportunities. This night a few buddies and I headed 30 minutes south of the border to purchase our holiday stock of wine and beer in the fine state of Delaware and decided to top off the night with a stop at the quintessential burger joint- The Charcoal Pit.
I’ve been going to this place since I was a kid and have tons of fond memories of trips with my dad to grab a burger and a shake. My buddies had never been before but within seconds I think were convinced of its authenticity. Ripped straight from your most idyllic memories of Al’s on the TV show Happy Days, this 1950′s quick service spot features tight booths with individual juke boxes, great roadside architecture and one of the best neon signs around.
As the restaurant name implies the burgers are broiled over charcoal, providing a truly rare treat for the taste buds. What you end up getting is a flavorful burger that due to the high heat is more or less seared on the outside thus ensuring the insides remain juicy (and deliciously greasy). The burger is densely packed and no doubt retains a lot of its original 8 oz. size. The authentic grill marks appear to remind you that yes you have a grill in your backyard which hypothetically should allow you to cook a burger this good…but sadly you won’t be able to match it.
The Charcoal Pit is a mini-chain with four locations. The original North Wilmington location where we went is on the highly trafficked Concord Pike and was pretty close to the town where I went to high school making it a great hang-out spot (if only for the thrill of driving across state lines).
The Charcoal Pit is Delaware’s only entry in George Motz’s book Hamburger America and you’d be hard pressed to name another spot worthy of inclusion. This one epitomizes the term “real-retro,” with a half-century already under its belt and no reason to believe it won’t be around for our grandkids to enjoy. If you find yourself in Philadelphia, it is well worth the short drive to discover what the menu touts as the “…secret that has kept Delawareans craving…for over 50 years.”
Wright’s Dairy Rite Inc
346 Greenville Ave
Staunton, VA 24401
We are just back from this summer’s burger vacation (more BBQ this year than burgers, but I don’t have a BBQ blog…yet!) and one of the highlights for the whole family was Wright’s Dairy-Rite in Staunton, VA. What a treat!
As they proudly claim on the sign out front, this gem has been serving Staunton (and hungry travelers) since 1952 and little has changed since then (and thank G-d for that!).
The signature burger at Wright’s Dairy-Rite is the Superburger:
Staunton’s original since 1952. Two patties of pure ground beef (total quarter pound), real american cheese, shredded lettuce, and our own special sauce. Served on a triple-decker bun.
Jane and Michael Stern point out in their foodie bible Roadfood that the Superburger preceeded the Big Mac by “more than a decade” and the taste today continues to outpace the McDonald’s version. The special sauce isn’t syrupy sweet like its fast-food knock-off and the bun is fresh and delicious. Plus, no pickles!!
Served on wax paper with a side order of onion rings and perfectly complemented by a chocolate malt this burger made me nostalgic for an era I never lived through.
Carhop service is available but we chose to exit the car for a bit (we clicked off 1500 miles in 5 days – cushy seats and a formica table top looked great to us) and we were extra thankful for the great jukebox that kept our daughter entertained (and entertaining nearby diners) for at least 15 minutes. Each booth has a telephone to call in your order which was neat (although a bit awkward when it comes to phone manners – do you say “bye” when you are done ordering?)
Visiting a place like Wright’s will no doubt make walking into any one of those faux-retro joints a tough task. It is so rare to be able to catch a glimpse of that so-called “simpler time” and I know our family is better for it.
Staunton is a beautiful little town, too. Train buffs (and parents of little ones) will want to check out the “Gypsy Express” train located in the Gypsy Hill park. For a buck a person you get a great ride on a cool train that is about as old as Wright’s. Stop by on July 4th or Labor Day and your ride is free (more $$$ to spend on burgers!!).