Thursday, December 1, 2011
The Nearly-Impossible Dream: a Thick, Juicy Hamburger
By ROGER M. GRACE
Is there anywhere—other than the Pacific Dining Car—where it’s possible to obtain a thick, juicy hamburger, cooked medium rare?
To begin with, most eateries won’t even offer a medium-rare burger. That harks to the 1993 deaths of four children, as well as illness of others, traced to E. coli poisoning from contaminated meat served at Jack-in-the-Box stands. The message that was widely perceived was that the deaths would not have happened if the meat had been cooked longer—ergo, to be safe, hamburgers have to heated just short of being burned. The focus ought to been on the root fact that the meat was contaminated.
The solution is proper handling and refrigeration, not overcooking. Lightly cooked hamburgers are, of course, perfectly safe to eat if the meat is pure…as is steak tartare if the beef has been appropriately stored and is freshly ground.
(If you want to make steak tartare yourself, the best source I know of for beef shorn of fat and ground multiple times is Garo’s Basturma on Allen Avenue in Pasadena.)
During the period shortly after the “undercooked” patty scare, I ordered a hamburger at the Smoke House at Barham and Lakeside in Burbank. I asked for it “medium rare.”
The waiter responded:
I thought he misheard me.
“No, medium rare,” I replied.
The waiter’s explanation was that by law, a hamburger could not be cooked other than “medium well” or “well done.”
And what law dictated that?
“It’s a federal, state and city law,” he advised, with self-assurance.
(By the way, my cousin Wally Noss has alerted me that the quality of the food there has recently plummeted. “I remember the somewhat surly service, the ridiculous soggy salad swimming in dressing on warm wilted lettuce, and the steak the size of a plum and overcooked barely to be cut with a steak knife,” he complains. If you choose not to heed Wally’s warning and go there, be sure to be seated in the section waited on by the delightful Judy Dennis, who’s worked there 50 years.)
Recently, my wife and I tried to order medium-rare hamburgers at Twohey’s at Huntington and Atlantic in the San Gabriel Valley. We were advised that for such an order to be accepted, we would need clearance from the manager.
The manager was summoned and came to our table. Glory be! We passed whatever test had to be met; the manager bestowed upon us special dispensation to be served medium-rare burgers.
The hamburgers were cooked only slightly past the point of being medium.
And if the manager had not relaxed the rules for us…?
Another impediment to obtaining a thick, juicy hamburger is that nowadays, most dispensers of hamburgers simply heat slender frozen beef patties, then toss the tasteless, miniscule orbs on buns far thicker than the supposed main attractions. It is impossible to render such a slim patty hot without it becoming well done.
That’s not a hamburger as I remember it from my youth, living near Westwood. It’s not what they served at Shipp’s, on Wilshire Boulevard, a hamburger at its grandest. It’s not what was provided at Hamburger Hamlet. And it’s not a hamburger like that cooked at home.
My daughter, Lisa, actually likes the dry meat-wafers that today pose as hamburgers. She’s obviously in the majority. McDonald’s boasts of “billions and billions served.”
Hurray for McDonald’s! It satisfies a need of a multitude of consumers and supplies jobs. What it doesn’t supply is a product even resembling what was served in days gone by when you would bite into a hamburger and juice would gush into your mouth.
Some years back, I was engaged in a conversation with Carl Karcher (since deceased) at a political dinner. It emerged in our chat that I had never been to one of his restaurants. He handed me a free pass for a meal. I later found myself by one of his “Carl’s Jr.” outlets at an underground mall, and used the pass, nestled in my wallet, to procure a chili dog—which was adequate, not outstanding.
More recently, I spent (squandered) $1.45 for a hamburger from a Carl’s Jr. at Third and Broadway, near our office. It was pancake-thin. I’m glad that years before, I used the certificate from Karcher for a chili dog rather than for one of his tasteless damn-burgers.
A further impediment to obtaining a succulent hamburger is that there is, these days, inadequate fat content in patties. You need that for juiciness.
Cholesterol-conscious folk eat burgers comprised of ground turkey or buffalo…meats too lean to be juicy.
Ground beef needs to be about 20-25 per cent fat. To enjoy life, one should eat fatty hamburgers and take Lipitor.
These jottings on hamburgers were triggered by experiences my wife, Jo-Ann, and I had over Thanksgiving week.
Our plane landed late in Portland and, it being after 10 p.m., restaurants were closed. There wasn’t much on the Governor Hotel’s room service menu and I took a chance by ordering a hamburger. Not only was it lukewarm and overcooked, but was gristly. It tasted like the ground meat sold in markets in a long plastic tube. We use that to supplement the dinners of our dogs. What room service brought was a meal fit for a pooch.
The question is not just “Where’s the beef?” but what parts of the cow were put in the grinder.
Leaving Portland (where we were much disappointed by the celebrated Jake’s Famous Crawfish which did not become famous serving the grub we encountered), we went on to Idaho to visit my Aunt Marta.
At the Dockside Restaurant at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, Jo-Ann and I spotted this menu item:
“DOCKSIDE CLASSIC HAMBURGER
“Thick ’n Juicy Certified Angus Beef® patty, charbroiled and served deluxe on a grilled Idaho potato bun. ~ 10.99.”
From the words “classic” and “thick,” we discerned a representation that the vertical measurement of the patty would exceed the norm and that the meat would not be cooked “well-done,” precluding juiciness.
Jo-Ann quizzed the waitress. Would they prepare a hamburger “medium rare”?
“We can even do rare,” the pert brunette responded.
My wife secured a flat-out assurance that the burgers would be lightly cooked.
She ordered a hamburger rare in hopes it would come out medium rare. I was gullible enough to believe what the waitress said and asked for a hamburger medium rare, with grilled onions.
The hamburgers came. They were well done. We sent them back.
The excuse the waitress offered was that it’s hard to get them lightly cooked since they’re so “thin.”
You might recall that on the menu, the patties are described as “thick.”
Two more burgers were prepared, with the cook bringing them to the table, placing one in front of Jo-Ann, proclaiming, gleefully: “One rare, with grilled onions.”
I advised him that the medium-rare one should have the grilled onions. He lifted the plate he had put by Jo-Ann, plunked it in front of me, declaring: “One medium rare, with onions.”
So, were the onions on the rare one or the medium rare one? Neither hamburger was rare, neither was medium rare, so it didn’t matter which of the well-done patties was topped by onions.
The waitress now offered the excuse that the patties were put on the grill frozen. Usually they had been defrosted before cooking, she assured us.
We had something else to eat.
Back in Los Angeles, Jo-Ann and I both craved a thick, juicy hamburger.
We headed off for the Pacific Dining Car and each had a hamburger steak, medium rare. They were done to perfection.
There has to be somewhere else in this county where mouth-watering hamburgers can be obtained—but I don’t know of anywhere.
If you do, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the comments will be appended to the online version of this column.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company