Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wisconsin Burger Research

After Thanksgiving in Chicago I made a trip up to Wisconsin to research burger joints for the revised edition of my book. That's right, I'm already working on an edition that, if the publisher accepts the project, will include an additional 50 burger spots across America.

While doing PR for the book back in May, I ended up on talk radio in Wisconsin. The DJ surprised me with a segment of her show dedicated to call-ins. "Go ahead, give us a call and tell George what he left out of the book!" Fortunately, Wisconsinites are very friendly as a whole so it wasn't really a roast. Instead, I was left with an enormous list of must-try burger joints from every corner of the state.

The plan was to hit 3 suggestions from that show on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I knew one was closed but I wanted to roll by and check it out anyway. The other 2 were Kewpee in Racine and Zwieg's in Watertown. I'll save the details for the book but give some broad strokes on the burgers here.

The Kewpee in downtown Racine was once part of a chain of midwest burger joints not unlike White Castle, White Tower, and its many impersonators of the 1930s (Kewpee of Lima, OH, one of the only remaining outposts, is in my book). I was glad to see fresh ground beef next to the griddle and even happier to see the griddle filled with burgers at 10am. Kewpee employs my favorite method for cooking burgers - the scoop-and-smash method. Ask for cheese and a slice is tossed directly onto the griddle for a few seconds before being transferred to a waiting burger. Genius. 

A burger with everything comes with raw chopped onion, sliced pickle, ketchup, and just a little bit of mustard. When I asked owner and grillman Rick why the ketchup outweighed the mustard, he explained, "I've been adjusting the amount of condiments for years and lately it seems people want less mustard," and he shrugged. I think I know why - this thin-patty burger, with its toasted squishy bun, pickle, onion, and a large dollop of ketchup tasted exactly like a McDonald's cheeseburger, except of course, one made of fresh ingredients. It was quite tasty and I had another.

On the way out of Racine I spotted a bakery pushing the local favorite, the Kringle, a large, fresh baked danish. Naturally, I had to stop for one.

At Zwieg's (pronounced 'Zwigs') I met up with local expert burger taster Todd McIlwee. He arrived a few moments before me and secured, smartly, a spot at the counter directly in front of the griddle. Mary and Glenn Zwieg were behind the busy counter turning out burgers (lots to go) for the day-after Thanksgiving crowd. The burgers are cooked on a griddle that was "just replaced" in 1998 (10 years ago). "The old griddle was here for 50 years before that," Mary told me. I didn't really process the info until I spotted a framed news article announcing the big change. 

The thin 3oz patties are best enjoyed in duplicate, served on a white squishy bun with grilled onion. Everyone it seems orders theirs with onions. My tasty double was gone in 30 seconds and my clothes smelled of onions for hours afterward.

Only a few miles away in the town of Lake Mills, WI, was a burger curiosity that I knew was closed but had to see in person. If there were an award for the burger joint open the least amount of hours it might be the American Legion Post 67 Hamburger Stand. This miniscule walk-up burger joint is only open, according to the neighboring diner, on Fridays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I did the math and that amounts to only 14 days a year. I sure hope I hit it right on my return visit next summer.

Wisconsin is a burger-proud state and I always feel welcome there. Who can say no to the endless quantity of cheese, beer, and bratwurst that make the state so appealing? Add burgers to that and I'm already dreaming of my return.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

67 Burger - A Glorious Belly-Bomb

I don't know why, but I keep forgetting how LARGE the burgers are at 67 Burger in Fort Greene. I stopped into the upscale burger joint thinking I'd get away with a burger 'snack' and after ordering realized that the burgers Jeff Maslanka turns out are hefty 8-9 ounce wonders. I added cheese, caramelized onions, and crispy bacon and was rewarded with a burger that almost made me skip dinner that night. What a beauty. And now, glancing at the photo above, I never even saw the garnish on the plate! I was focused on that burger and it was gone in 60 seconds.

Unlike most burger spots that cook on a flame indoors, 67 Burger actually know what they are doing. With the exception of Stand in Manhattan, 67 Burger manages to flame-cook burgers that have no residual 'propane' taste. You really cannot taste the flame, which is a good thing, and the burgers still come out charred on the outside, exploding with juice. The crispy pile of bacon (smartly placed underneath the patty) and the peppery caramelized onions were probably unnecessary but very tasty. The bun seems large at first but something needs to hold this pile of goodness together.

I chatted up chef and part-owner Jeff Maslanka before I ate and he told me that he's planning to open another, simpler burger concept in NYC. That's as far as he was willing to go with the info but when pressed on where his burger joint might open, he told me, "Somewhere in Brooklyn." Oh good, more for me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The New Jersey Triptych

I was looking at some old photos of past burger research and realized that it had been a while since I'd been on my New Jersey Food Triptych. The triptych consists of 2 rippers from Rutt's Hut, 2 doubles at the White Manna, and a chocolate malt from Bischcoff's, all within an hour, all for lunch.

Since this is a burger blog I'll leave out the details of the hot dogs and the milkshake but tell you that the White Manna (which is in my book) is as good as ever. I was joined on the triptych by expert burger taster Kris Brearton and we decided to bring along food blogger I was shocked to learn that he had never been to the famed Manna but glad to see him walk away thoroughly satisfied. It really is one of the most historically significant burger joints in America cranking out the same original, gooey slider for over 70 years. 

I did discover that by showing up at the White Manna 11:30am on a Monday you have the place to yourself. Of course by the time we finished off our doubles with onions and cheese the place was wall-to-wall dudes. 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hamburger Holiday Gift Ideas - Part One

The economy sucks. You'll still need gifts for the holidays so I've compiled a list of my favorite inexpensive burger gifts for the burger lovers on your list. Of course the best deal going is my book, but here are a few other ideas:

That's right, free. I still haven't figured out why (promotional I presume?), but The American Angus Association gives away this 24x36 poster detailing the cuts that come off a cow (shipping is free too in the US!). It's a beauty. I have mine in the kitchen.

There are MANY things to buy in the In-N-Out company store (like their cookie jar or burger sticky note pad) but this authentic apron is one of my favorites. Double the authenticity and buy the oversized safety pin you see all the employees wearing behind the counter.

This chunk of burger bling will make them stare and your love of burgers will be obvious. I own one and it's a great addition to my wardrobe. Get the belt for you new buckle here.

I'm not kidding, it's my favorite coffee mug. It was given to me as a gift by the owner (he literally dumped out my cold coffee and handed it to me).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Burger Photography as Art, at the Beard House

Save the date, February 3rd, 2009, for the 'Beard Burger Bash' where Josh 'Mister Cutlets' Ozersky and myself are hosting a tasting and talk on the State of the American Hamburger. The bash coincides with a gallery show at the James Beard House of 14 large prints from my book. Harry Hawk will of course be in attendance as burger chef of the evening turning out regional burger concoctions. A green chile cheeseburger will be on the menu and other ideas are still being tossed around. Stay tuned for the menu...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Wimpy Makes A Burger

Chicago friend and burger fanatic Jay sent me this clip from a Popeye episode. In the clip we get to see J. Wellington Wimpy sing his ode to the burger as he grinds and cooks one for himself. Notice how even in cartoons back then they got it right and scooped the beef, not hand pattied it. I like the way he brushes the burger with mustard on the griddle, but unfortunately it looks like he goes overboard with the spices (chopped onion, salt, and pepper). Also, he sings about how he likes it 'rare' and barely keeps it on the flattop for 20 seconds.  Now that's rare!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Texas Burger Guy, Found!

I've found the missing Texas Burger Guy through that wacky website Facebook. So far, this is the second burger mystery solved by the online ex-girlfriend-finder network (the missing Chris Russell resurfaced a few months ago). Here's what Texas Burger Guy (aka Noel Kersh) had to say: 

I've been on a bit of a hiatus from TGB. Lots of things going on career-wise and family-wise that have kept me out of the burger joints. I anticipate a return to it though...stay posted.

I'm looking forward to more deep-Texas burger discoveries. The burger above, shot by TBG on one of his trips to West Texas, is from Arnold Burger in Amarillo, TX, home of the Texas-shaped burger.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Irving Mill Now Has Ryan Skeen and a Burger

Damn that Ed Levine and Bruni for beating me to it, but I too found the new burger at Irving Mill pretty darned juicy and worth the trip. Ryan Skeen brought his burger know-how over to his new post at Irving Mill from Resto but altered the recipe to suit his changing ideas on burger construction. The new burger is made from aged Niman Ranch flap steak, beef cheek, and pork fatback. 70% of the mixture is 50/50 flap and cheek with 30% fatback rounding out the blend. Cheek I'm familiar with, fatback too, but flap? "It's the boneless portion of the short rib," Skeen told me after I had inhaled my burger. I was not alone in my confusion - very few I asked could tell me and my trusty Angus Beef Chart had no mention of the said steak.

The burger was explosively juicy, generously salted (or was that the fatback?), and served on a squishy bun. Skeen has honored simplicity and built a basic burger with complex ingredients. The result is truly satisfying. When I asked part owner Mario, "Grill or griddle," he told me neither. Get this - each burger is cooked in a cast iron skillet. "We offered to get him what ever he wanted [to cook the burgers] but he only requested cast iron skillets!" Mario explained.

Then Skeen told me something both Levine and Bruni missed. The new chef plans to include a little-known regional burger on the menu soon - The Goetta Burger. Skeen, who hails from Ohio, wants to create a burger that has a slice of the tasty ground-meats-and-oats Cincinnati sausage on top. He told me, "It's sort of like Haggis, but better." Sounds good to me.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

LaCense Beef - Mail Order Grass-Fed

Going to your local butcher for steaks and ground beef is always best, but eating a good mail order steak from the likes of Omaha Steaks once in a while is OK. Recently however I was tipped off to a mail order grass-fed beef supplier from Montana, LaCense Beef. Their website has a great Grass-Fed 101 section for those that need convincing. I entered their 'write your own slogan' contest last spring and have been receiving promotional mail ever since. The last flyer I got from them pushed their new 'tasting pack' of frozen sirloin steaks (not on their order page) for a pretty decent price. I've never been a huge fan of grass-fed beef but it was worth a shot. Part of the promotion included 2 pounds of ground beef for free.

Naturally, the first thing I did when I received my cooler with dry ice (great presentation by the way, wrapped in a ribbon with a personal note) was to defrost the ground beef and make burgers (pictured above with griddled onions). My past experience with grass-fed is that it tends to be dry, lean, and hard to cook. To ensure moist patties, I dipped my spatula into that morning's bacon grease and gave the burgers a little smear. Totally unnecessary. Within the next minute the burgers started to create their own copious amount of grease. This was some fatty grass-fed and the burgers were phenomenal.

Though I'm not big on frozen beef at all, I give LaCense credit for creating some of the tastiest grass-fed beef I've had so far. Let's hope the sirloin steaks can match up.