I tried, and failed, to make a Jucy Lucy at home today. For the experiment I had accumulated the essentials: the patty press, the yellow American cheese, and 85/15 chuck fresh from the butcher. I once again have great respect for those brave griddlepersons at places like the 5-8 Club and Matt's Bar in Minneapolis, MN, who in a day can crank out hundreds of perfect, cheese stuffed, beauties. The Jucy Lucy is a food phenomenon that is virtually unknown and unavailable outside of the Twin Cities. Two thin patties of fresh beef are pinched together with a folded slice of American cheese tucked inside. As the burger cooks, the cheese melts resulting in the ultimate food-science project. Bite into your Jucy Lucy too soon and pay the price - hot, molten cheese will squirt in every direction and scald your face, lap, and mouth. In my attempt at home the first pass was working until I bit into my burger. Despite the tiny trickle of cheese oozing out there was no molten cheese core and the center was still cold and unmelted. Lesson learned: the griddle was too hot. I needed to erase the standard cooking method of 'hot pan-sear-medium rare' and cook the second attempt much slower and lower. Round 2 ended up a total failure when the burger burst and sent most of the yellow cheese into the pan. I continued to cook and accidentally overcooked the burger. Without the cheese inside most of the moisture had dissipated. Leave it to the brave experts and get your Jucy Lucys at Matt's, 5-8, or just about any other reputable burger counter in Minneapolis.
I stopped into one of my favorite NYC burger counters today, brgr on 7th Ave across from F.I.T.. I've known for some time now that Chris Russell, the brains behind this high-quality burger spot, is gone. "He was fired," a girl at the register told me flippantly. When I asked her where he went her response was, "I don't know, but if you find him, tell him we miss him." I don't really care about the details of his departure or the corporate suits that tossed him out. I am curious however about his next move because you know he's dreaming up something good. His attention to detail at brgr was incredible - from the Ronnybrook Farms milk for the shakes to the fresh (never frozen) naturally raised beef patties from Montana cattle. It would be a waste if he did nothing. Cross your fingers and hope for another burger venture.
I did some research and discovered the meaning behind In-N-Out's use of semi-hidden bible passages on their packaging (see previous post). Turns out that when Rich Snyder, the son of the company's founder, became president he made the decision to put the references on the cups and burger wrappers. Snyder, a devout christian who was responsible for In-N-Out's amazing expansion in the late 1980s, died in a plane crash in 1994. The company decided that the biblical references would remain as a sort of memorial to the late president. I'd still like to find out why Snyder put them there in the first place.
On my 24hr blast thru LA yesterday I had just enough time to visit ONE burger spot and I chose an old favorite Irv's Burgers in West Hollywood. I had in my possession a printed proof of my new book and my goal was to put it in front of the busy Sonia Hong. When she saw her picture in the book she let out a scream and put her face in her hands. I think she was excited. My cheeseburger with mustard and pickles was delivered on the customary paper plate adorned with one of Sonia's quick sketches. With so much going on inside the tiny, chaotic burger stand, it's amazing that she can take the time to leave a personalized message for each customer (I got a 'Ho Ho Ho' for upcoming x-mas). As a bonus yesterday, just before my burger arrived Sonia introduced me to an older woman with a walker who had just finished her burger. "This is Molly Zucker!" Sonia explained that she ran the stand from 1958-1973, lives around the corner, and still visits regularly. I thanked her for her contribution to American food culture and she nodded, smiled, and wheeled off slowly down Santa Monica.
On a swing through the West Coast this week I had to make the obligitory stop at one of my favorite burger chains In-N-Out for a double-double, fries, and a chocolate shake. Always hot, fresh, and tasty, and open late, In-N-Out is a must on even the shortest visit to the the other coast. I have been to over 40 different In-N-Outs over the years and I'm still amazed by the chain's somewhat hidden biblical messages printed on most of the packaging. Flip over a milkshake cup and see, "Proverbs 3:5" (Trust the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding), and on the double-double wrapper, "Nahum 1:7" (The LORD is good...And He knows those who take refuge in Him). Under the soda cup is the often quoted, "John 3:16" (For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son...everlasting life). There may be others but I have not discovered them yet. In-N-Out is probably able to play the God Card because they are a private company. I would imagine if they were a publicly-owned burger chain, Christian messages and greasy nourishment would not be a great match. Regardless, In-N-Out makes a great burger and if it takes a little help from above to create one of the best fast-food products around so be it. It's just kinda odd to see a company overtly selling the ultimate California image (fast cars, hot hamburgers, and endless summers) while silently preaching the word of God. A burger spot deep in corn-country Illinois called the Moonshine Store also makes an amazing burger that has religious overtones. The owner Helen once told me, "I believe the Lord has a hand in this business." Whether it's Jesus, grilled onions, or bacon, whatever makes it taste better is fine with me.
So the day after visiting the closed Motz's Burgers where I stood staring at the sign in disbelief, I decided to call the restaurant just to see how they answered the phone. I was curious about the pronunciation of my family name and wondered if there was some long-lost burger history among distant relatives. A woman answered the phone, "MOTTS, can I help you?" I was crushed. For decades, people have mishandled and mispronounced my last name (the 'o' is long and rhymes with 'GOATS'). When I showed Sue from Brooklyn my last entry, she responded with more history on the place:
"The original name was MOTTS. The new owner took over the place...and changed the name to MOTZ because the original owner wouldn't sell his name."
Mystery solved, no family connection, just an accidental spelling of a semi-famous hamburger expert...
After our visit to Miller's Bar in Dearborn for dinner yesterday, we decided to seek out another burger joint that had been spotted and emailed to me a few months back. Sue from Brooklyn wrote:
"I'm a HUGE burger fan and your last name is the pinnacle of hamburgers in Detroit Michigan....Motz's Hamburgers at Fort and Green...It's a great little white enamel counter joint enjoyed by all the freight haulers and locals of downtown. If you ever get to that neck of the woods you have to check it out."
Needless to say I was curious. We found the tiny burger spot in a desolate industrial neighborhood just off I-75 but it was closed (the grill shuts down at 6pm). It was very bizarre to see my name on a sign (not the most common name) but even weirder next to the word 'Burgers'. I left Detroit without trying the burger, but i'll be back...
A planned trip to Detroit yesterday for work included a stop at Miller's Bar in Dearborn, MI, only minutes from DTW on the way to downtown Motor City. They make one of the best burgers in the Detroit area and are featured in my upcoming book. The place was packed at 6:30pm when we arrived and owner Mark Miller told me it was slow. "There should be a line of people backed up to the kitchen and out the door," he told me. Every table was filled and everyone was eating their burgers off waxed paper. The cheeseburgers were perfect and as juicy and beefy as I had remembered. How this place cranks out over 1000 perfect patties a day is beyond me.
This past Monday I dragged the family to one of my favorite spots in DC, Ben's Chili Bowl, for a chili cheeseburger and a chili half smoke. The burger is great, but the chili amazing. And the half-smoke (regional specialty) with the chili is sublime. The half-smoke is a spicy hot dog with the consistency of a bratwurst. Damn tasty.
Hamburger America began as 54 min. documentary film about 8 hamburger joints in America. Seven years since I took the first bite of my 'research', the film has premiered on the Sundance Channel, PBS, and various film festivals, it has become required viewing at Princeton University, and a book deal was struck. In April 2008 Hamburger America - One Man's Odyssey to Find the Best Burgers in the Nationhits bookstores. The state-by-state guidebook is the ultimate reference for the burger adventurer or the nostalgic preservationist. The book includes 100 of my personal favorites as well as 120 full-color portraits of burgers and their creators. This blog should have been started years ago. Starting today, I will attempt to share my vast burger knowledge with the world...as it happens.