I know where 82 of the best hamburgers in the world are served. I've made a list of them, state by state, in alphabetical order. The list actually belongs to my employer, National Public Radio, but with a middle name like ours, it's only right to share the wealth.
Credit for the idea goes to Noah Adams. He's one of the hosts of NPR's news and feature magazine, "All Things Considered," and one day he decided to consider hamburgers by inviting our listeners to name and defend their all-time favorite. I think he got the idea after reading Calvin Trillin's funny book food, "American Fried," "Where to Eat in America" by William Rice and Burton Wolf because he made a point of telephoning Trillin and Rice to ask them where the best hamburger in the world is. Calvin Trillin says it's at Winstead's in Kansas City:
"I made a firm decision about where the best hamburger in the world was when I was about 14 and I think anybody who changes his mind, on a matter like that, is a deviate, a backslider - a security risk, probably."
Noah Adams: "If I came to New York and asked where's a good place to get a
Calvin Trillin: "I would tell you to fly to Kansas City."
With affection and all due respect for Trillin, Rice replies:
"Having gotten on the airplane and gone to Kansas City, I have to differ with him about Winstead's. Winstead's is all right, but it's not an extraordinary hamburger."
Noah Adams: "If The Post said where you want to get the best hamburger - expense is no object - where would you go?"
Bill Rice: "For the operation, the ritual and dedication attached to it - in a town where plastic food is the norm - I'd go to Cassell's in Los Angeles."
There you have it from a couple of professionals. Here's what letters from enthusiastic amateurs revealed.
Nobody sent us a hamburger - only about 100 wounderful descriptions of hamburgers. I know, I read them all. I am the hamburger editor.
There were hamburger essays, hamburger recipes, a drawing of a hamburger with wings, perhaps to symbolize the great hamburger in the sky, and there was a map pinpointing the best hamburger on the earth. There was a letter from a concerned vegetarian saying, The best hamburger is no hamburger at all." From these letters we not only learned where to find the best hamburgers, but we also discovered a few things about the habits of the great American hamburger eater.
First, most best burgers are found in the Midwest - or perhaps most of NPR's listeners live there. But wherever you live, it's likely your favorite hamburger resides somewhere else. A majority of those responding live separated from their most memorable hamburger and so suffer from what Calvin Trillin calls the fever of hometown-food nostalgia. But is anything really as good as we remember?
The fondness of hamburgers past carries over to the good old collegburger. This hamburger is found in the collegetown taverns on the list. Praise of the burger often goes hand in hand with an appreciation of cold beer.
The roadburger is in a class by itself - it's the one you least expect to be any good and then it turns out to be the best part of a long trip. We hope to narrow the odds with this list.
For the most part, the establishments on this list are saturated in atmosphere. They are usually very small appear to be on their second generation of loyal customers. Their locations are almost always undistinguished, in or near unattractive parking lots, busy intersections or down by the tracks. Their customers argue that no one needs a real plate and cloth napkins. Instead you get the best hamburger in the world prepared before your eyes by some showman of a shortorder cook.
Our letter writers eagerly took up the Winstead's-Cassell's debate. James Mark Palmer of Athens, Ohio, put Winstead's at the top of his list, saying, "The best aspect of the Winstead's burger is that it lacks the greasy or artificial-charcoal taste that permeates so many other restaurant burgers."
Faint praise followed by a backhanded compliment from a listener in New York City: "A hamburger should be small, greasy and buried in fried onions. In a word, Winstead's.
Pass Winsteads by if you like, there is an alternative in Kansas City. "Where to Eat in America" suggests Fred P. Ott's.
You can skip Cassell's too. If you get there after 3 p.m. you may have to. Ruth Kramer Ziony of Los Angeles sets us straight about that: "I agree with Bill Rice, Cassell's Patio is terrific, but L.A. has two other notable places, notable because they don't close at 3 p.m. the way Cassell's has the audacity to do. For those who need a fix at 6 p.m. or midnight, there is Fax Jack's on Ventura and Tommy's, that great L.A. landmark, open 24 hours."
We received several letters about Tommy's from which we learned that there are other places called Tommy's but the one you want is on Beverly. There, soft drinks are sold on the honor system and at 3 a.m. all-night workers in uniform, the lords and ladies of L.A. in tuxedoes and diamonds and a student or two may be seen waiting in line for "The biggest, messiest, tastiest and cheapest hamburger in the world."
So says Guy Dominguez of Indianapolis. He continues, "It's so big that you need to use both hands. It's so messy that it's hard to keep all that oozing chili, onions, chesse, relish, mustard, lettuce and tomato from ruining your clothes. It's so tasty that whenever you get the urge to eat one, you don't mind that 20 or 30 people are in line. It's so cheap tht only volume can explain the price - about a buck!"
East of the Rockies, hamburgers with lettuce, tomato and what-not are sometimes called California-style. Midwesterners seen to prefer hamburgers with more meat and less goo.
That's what several people said they liked about the Hamburg Inn #1 and #2 in Iowa City, Iowa. John T. Nolan often has a hamburgr at the #2 and says, "Its excellence rises out of the purity of form, uncluttered by mayonnaise, seasame-seeded bun, etc. Its excellent juice remains in the meat, untraumatized by the cretin-like compulsion to mash, crush and squash the Savory Substance to the consistency, flavor and texture of cardboard."
Los Angeles is a big city; Calvin Trillin has been pushing Kansas City food for years; Iowa City is a college town - but what can explain the phenomenon about Lerk's Bar in Afton, (not even on the map) Minn.? We had more letters about Lerks than about any other hamburger hostelry.
Doug Johnson of River Falls, Wis., describes it this way: "Lerk's Bar is a sleazy riverman's bar on the St. Croix River.Other than a sweep and mop, it is in 'original' state. Lerkburgers are fried, not baked, broiled or electrocuted. They arrive on paper plates with onions and potato chips, nothing else."
From there, Charles Zelle of the District picks up the story: "There are no special sauces, piled vegetables to cover the purity of a Lerkburger. It comes only one way - Lerk's, for no one dares alter that particular form of perfection."
We bet there are antlers on Lerk's wall, a jar of sausage pickles on the bar and a Brenda Lee record on the juke.
Turning East, New England boasts two fairly famous hamburger places, so we were not very surprised to get letters about Bartley's Burger Cottage and Louis' Lunch. Bartley's is on Harvard Square and we're told that Bob Dylan and Joan Baez used to hang out there. Maybe they were trying to sample all the dozens of hamburger combinations Bartley's offers. The menu is a trifle extensive.
Louis' Lunch, on the other hand; sells only two kinds of hamburger - with and without cheese. Louis' Lunch is a historical monument in New Haven, Conn. The tiny brick hamburger stand was saved from urban renewal by a devoted community. There is also evidence to suggest that the hamburger was invented at Louis' Lunch. It has been in business long enough - since 1899. The original and very unusual cooker is still in use. Jack Eiferman of West Trenton, N.N., has witnessed the making of many a hamburger at Louis':
"Two (or one, three, four, whatever) balls of meat are pressed, seasoned, imbedded with a thin slice of onion and then placed in a verticle broiler to be cooked on both sides at the same time. Then the burger is placed on freshly toasted Pepperidge Farm white bread (no tasteless muffins with obnoxious sesame seeds.) Finally, if you so desire, a nice tangy chedder cheese spread is available, or some nice fresh tomato. No 'special sauce,' pickle, chips and 0 most important - NO catsup!! This is a hamburger for those that like hamburger, not junk that covers up the flavor of freshly prepared and properly broiled ground beef."
Those sentiments sum up the feelings of just about all our letter writers. Arthur Phaneuf observes. "Those artificial, frozen, square pseudo-burgers with the dark stripes painted on them and the charcoal flavor from a jar are a sacrilege for the true hamburger buff."
Phaneuf eats his hamburgers at the Pleasant Restaurant in Claremont, N.H., which, "hand-forms their burgers in the traditional fashion, and I find that very gratifying."
It's that handmade quality that most of our contributors say is so good about their favorities. Nobody had much of anything favorable to say about the large chains, but some smaller franchises were deemed acceptable. Made-Rite spotted in Missouri, Iowa and Ohio sounds the most interesting.
Made-Rite claims to be the world's crumbliest hamburger and is described as being loose ground beef, slightly spicy and steamed with chopped onion. Other okay chains are Kew Pee's in Michigan and Blake's Lotaburger in New Mexico.About the latter, Richard Cain, who doesn't have a telephone and who thinks good hamburgers should be eaten and not heard anyway, wrote this verse:
Lotaburger's the best
And that ain't baloney
Regardless of what folks tell you
On the telephoney. 82 Great Hamburgers
ALABAMA: Birmingham: The Dairy Snack, Milo's
ARIZONA: Tucson: The Chuckwagon
ARKANSAS: Pine Bluff: John Noah's
CALIFORNIA: Chico: The Godfather; Los Angeles: Cassel's, Tommy's, Hampton's Kitchen; East L.A.: Chronis Hamburger Stand; North East L.A.: Pete's Blue City: West L.A.: The Apple Pan; Studio City: Fat Jack's; National City (south of San Diego): Jimmy's Family Restaurant;
CONNECTICUT: New Haven: Louis' Lunch
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Gallagher's Pub
FLORIDA: Fort Lauderdale: Jack's Hamburger House; Palm Beach: Hamburger Heaven
ILLINOIS: Elgin: Prince Castle
INDIANA: Bloomington: Hinkle's; French Lick: The Tilley-Burger; Marengo: Marengo Tavern; Valparaiso: The Olde Style
IOWA: Iowa City: Hamburger Inn #1 and #2
KANSAS: Kansas City: Winstead's
KENTUCKY: Ashland: The Bluegrass
LOUISIANA: New Orleans: Camilla Grill
MASSACHUSETTS: Cambridge: Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage.
MICHIGAN: Ann Arbor: Fleetwood Dinner, Del-Rio Bar, Beaver Island: Circle M Supper Club; Dearborn: Miller's Bar, Detroit: Checker Bar; Flint: Halloburger, Lansing: Kew Pee's
MINNESOTA: Afton: Lerk's Bar, Coatest House of Coates; Mankato: Hill top Tavern; Minneapolis: Waldo's; St. Paul: Haberdashery, The Frontier, Gus's Diner
MISSOURI: Columbia: Ernie's Chopped Cow; Rolla: Bill Smith's Maid-Rite
NEBRASKA: Belleview: Stella's
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Claremont: Pleasant Restaurant; Hanover: Hop kins Center Snack Bar
NEW JERSEY: Point Pleasant: Skokos Drive-In; Union: Red Top
NEW MEXICO: Albuquerque: Blake's Lotaburger; Farmington: George and John's; San Antonio: The Owl Cafe
NEW YORK: Ithaca: Unmuzzled Ox; N.Y.C: The Cedar Tavern, Julius, P.J. Clark's, Jackson's Hole
NORTH CAROLINA: Pantego: Mrs. Lee's, Plymouth: Elvah's Diner
OHIO: Cincinnati: Meihlenburgs; Glendale: Century Inn; Greenville: Maid-Rite; Rocky River: Herb's Tavern
OKLAHOMA: Oklahoma City: Split-T
OREGON: Albany: East End Cafe; Portland: Yaw's; Rice Hill: D&B
PENNSYLVANIA: Selinsgrove: Biff Burger, Springfield: Charlies; Tunkhannock: Shadow Brook Dairy Bar
SOUTH DAKOTA: Brookings: Nick's
TEXAS: Austin: Grove Drug; Waco: The Health Camp
WISCONSIN: Ashland: Cathy's Bar; Cedar Grove: DeSchmid's; Green Bay: Kroll's; Madison: Bob and Gene's, Plaza Tavern; Sturgeon Bay: Babe And Ray's; Waupaca: Simpson's Restaurant; West Sweden: West Sweden Bar