Tuesday, August 21, 2007

There's nothing wrong with a burger...or three.

My recent travels have presented me with the opportunity to eat lots of great meals: ris de veau at Bouchon, coq au vin at Bistro Jeanty, steak with Bearnaise sauce as prepared by Nick - and quite a few burgers.

Hamburgers, not cheeseburgers, you understand. Though I've warmed to cheese over the last couple of years (I hated it with a flaming, burning passion from early childhood - odd, given my willingness to eat almost anything else.), I still don't like it on my burgers. So don't even ask.

The burger is perhaps the quintessential American food, something that rang true with me as never before on my trip to Strasbourg last year. Louisa and I met an incredibly charming (I'm swooning at the memory) French man at a bar near the cathedral who had attended UT Austin for university.

By the end of it, he said, people didn't believe him when he told them he was French. He himself only realized how truly Americanized he'd become when he mastered the art of driving while eating a hamburger. And I believe it - I picture him, from time to time, cruising down a two-lane, rural Texas highway, burger in hand, the wind in his hair (because, of course, he's driving a red convertible), and think: "Good lord, how American."

The freedom of the open road epitomized by a hand-held meal. Like Henri*, I associate burgers with driving and travel, and so am not terribly surprised that my first lunches upon arrival in Norwalk, Fresno and Calistoga, respectively, were hamburgers all.

First up, H n' B's Hop in Norwalk, Ohio. I admit, this was my first old-fashioned hamburger hop ever. As Louisa and I pulled up, I looked around for the waitresses in bobby socks and roller skates, but, alas, you now go inside to order off of the hand-written menu.

I went for the hamburger meal (with fries) and a small vanilla shake. After all, I was on vacation, people. Louisa ordered the BBQ beef sandwich and sauerkraut balls, an Ohio specialty of which I'd been ignorant before my visit (look for a separate post on those later). We grabbed a table in the dappled shade of the Hop's wooden canopy and waited patiently for our food and drinks.

They called our names, and we ran up to the counter, salivating. Now, I know it doesn't look like much, but trust me, this burger was awfully good. Straightforward, with robust, beefy flavor, and just the right size. I'm sure I'll get hate mail for this one, but I really don't like a thick hamburger patty - they're hard to eat, messy, and don't leave enough bite clearance for the good stuff, like tomatoes, pickles and onions. The condiments on this were good, but the beef was the standout. Not surprising, given I was in the Midwest, land of excellent beef (though too often also the land of excellent beef overcooked to point where its excellence goes bye-bye).

The shake was thick and delicious, rich and robustly vanilla, and definitely not light on the ice cream. Just the way I like it. Needless to say, I was quite full as we tottered back to the car. Oof.

My next hamburger experience came at a restaurant that is, frankly, the standard by which I judge all other fast food burgers: In n' Out Burger. If you are not yet familiar with In n' Out, you must live east of the Mississippi or somewhere outside of the States. If this is the case, I advise you to buy a plane ticket to parts west as soon as possible - they've got stores all over California, and a couple in Nevada, I think. Go. Go now.

Why are their burgers so good? Well, they're delicious. Oh, ok - so, the meat is never frozen. It's fresh. The veggies? Ditto. Including the potatoes, which are peeled and sliced into tiny little french fries right there in the store. Right there in front of you!

Whenever I visit my mom in Fresno, I make every effort to visit In n' Out for a double meat with fries and a Diet Coke. It just makes me smile. Some people don't like "secret" or "special" sauces - not me. Condiment-loving fiend that I am, I just can't get enough. Onions? Bring it on - I'm not kissing anyone tonight. Pickles? Marry me.

I am, however, undecided in the matter of In n' Out's fries. Yes, they're fresh and taste more like potatoes than any other fast food fry I have ever tasted in my life. But they're a little bit...soggy. Like someone forgot to teach the In n' Out folks the old fry 'em twice trick. But I get them anyway, because I'm a sucker.

Finally, a visit to Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena. I'm sure it's not the case, but I wouldn't be surprised if people trying to get to Taylor's is the reason traffic in St. Helena is so maddening around lunchtime - it's that good, and that popular. Don't be fooled by the picture on the website - it's mobbed around the clock (though I managed to escape the worst of it by going for lunch at 2:00 PM).

I ordered a hamburger, fries, and (gasp!) a Diet Coke, then grabbed a seat at one of the picnic tables to wait for my name (Megan B.) to be called by the cute boy manning the microphone. The total (around $10) was the highest by far of my three hamburger outings, not surprising given the locale (Napa Valley) and the clientele (those who prefer their down-home food come with upscale trappings, including gourmet pickles and bottles of wine).

Let me start with the fries - Taylor's fries were, hands-down, the winners in their category (for this go-round, at least). Crisp, perfectly salted, and piping hot, they tasted of potato and of summer, and tasted great dipped in mayonnaise (my ultimate test, as ketchup is awfully acidic and can mask weak potato flavor).

Finally, the hamburger. This was a hamburger worthy of its price tag. The Taylor's sauce is mustardy where In n' Out's is ketchupy, and the deeper flavor goes well with the as-close-to-cucumber-as-you-can-be-and-still-be-a-pickle new pickles (my favorites). The toppings were around the burger - the lettuce and tomato below, pickles above, and I enjoyed this pre-packaging of the tasty meat. Not quite as purely beefy as H n' B's, it was still well-seasoned and tasty. Plus, they asked me how I wanted it cooked - and managed medium-rare, even with a satisfactorily thin patty. A feat few can manage, friends.

*Not his real name, but we never asked what it was, and it seemed to suit him best.


Sienka said...

Queenie, I'm curious... have you ever tried a place called Fatburger?

I personally prefer it over In-n-Out, but I'm wondering what you think.

Meg Blocker said...

Sienka - I've never been, but I see there's one in Jersey City. I foresee a ZipCar excursion across the Hudson...

Federation President Barry Fife said...

Have you ever noticed a difference in ketchup in other countries? I thought ketchup was just...ketchup, but here in New Zealand it's sweet and full of cloves. Disgusting. And they don't call it ketchup, they call it tomato sauce (pronounced tomatto sauce). You can imagine my dismay the first time I made spaghetti sauce and didn't know until it was too late that I was basing my sauce around sweet clove-ridden ketchup. It's like having a different formula for Coke. Anyway, my point is to say that I think the condiments (maybe even the notion of condiments) are also inherently American.

Finally, I do hope that you realize the irony in renting a car to go from Manhattan to Jersey City for a hamburger.

Meg Blocker said...

Well, I'd probably stop at Ikea while I'm there...

I don't know about condiments being inherently American. After all, look at how often mayonnaise is used in classic French cooking, as a side sauce to so many things. Or fish sauce, particularly in Vietnamese cooking, where they doctor it up and dip everything into it (and not just at Americanized restaurants).

Though I do agree that ketchup is pretty American - it's not the same anywhere else. Every culture has its condiment of note, and ketchup probably is ours.

Sienka said...

She'd be making the trip as research, for the benefit of the people out there who make a serious study of her blog! :)

I'm truly interested in what Meg's opinion of Fatburger would be, as I feel so many of her assessments have been spot on. I want a professional opinion, if you will... plus, I want to know if I'm the only person in the country who prefers Fatburger to In-n-Out.

Federation President Barry Fife said...

Okay. Your point about condiments is certainly well-taken. I suppose I meant more the behavior of customizing your order (with condiments in the case of a burger being the vehicle for customization). I suppose in the example of a hamburger, the history of hamburgers in the states lends itself to "building your own" but it's true elsewhere too. I used to work with someone who would order a cobb salad without the bacon and blue cheese and with the avocado on the side.

Whereas outside of America--at least in my travels so far--there is very much a social stigma attached to making this customization.

That being said, there is a growing trend among restaurants in New York to claim "no substitutions" on their menus.

Meg Blocker said...

Mmmm, the substitution/customization point is one I agree with - Americans are definitely more accustomed to creating their own menu when eating out. It drives me nuts.

I'm a big fan of the no substitutions movement. My own personal favorite is the "not vegetarian; don't ask" message on the Momofuku Ssam Bar menu. In reality, it's more polite, something like "We do not serve vegetarian options."

Fatburger is definitely on the agenda - no Zipcars available this weekend, but perhaps the following...

Louisa Edwards said...

Chiming in to support the fat patty hate.

Also, you bad girl, I clicked on the Henri link all excited, thinking you'd taken a picture of His Handsomeness that I'd forgotten about and somehow never seen! But no. *pouts*

And, ok, I don't think I'm au courant enough on current condiment issues to participate in the rest of this discussion.

Meg Blocker said...

The only image I have of Henri resides in my mind...and heart. Sigh.

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