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The appeal of the all-American hamburger knows no boundaries

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In a country so turned against itself that the phrase “civil war” has moved out of sub-Reddits and into mainstream conversations, I take strange comfort in the hamburger. I’m not talking about the usual comfort, as in the greasy relief that a half-pound of ground beef can offer during times of stress, but the comfort that comes when I see how easily the all-American hamburger assumes multicultural identities, and how quickly we embrace them.

When Prince Matey, chef and owner of Appioo African Bar and Grill (1924 Ninth St. NW; 202-588-7366; appiooafricanbargrill.com), moved to the United States in 2000, the first burger he tried came from McDonald’s, a brand name practically synonymous with America across the globe. He laughed at the memory.

“I liked it, but I started thinking about goat,” Matey tells me one Sunday evening, when he’s working solo at Appioo. “Why don’t they use goat? Why can’t I get a goat burger, because basically I don’t like beef.”

For years, Matey has been hankering to create his own goat burger, and the pandemic finally gave him the time to develop it. He spent a couple of weeks tinkering with the spices — all imported from his native Ghana — until he devised a blend that would simultaneously taste of home and downplay the gameyness of goat. One of his primary goals? “You wouldn’t know it’s goat,” Matey says.

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Unlike many chefs who carefully calibrate their ground-beef blends, looking for the perfect balance of fat to flavor, Matey relies on a single cut: lean leg meat, no more than 5 to 10 percent fat. He grinds the meat in his subterranean kitchen and mixes it with, among other spices, nkitinkiti (anise seeds), dadoa amba (cloves) and grains of Selim (somewhat similar to black pepper), all of which have properties unique to their African origins, Matey says.

The goat burger tastes like nothing else on a bun: Smothered with softened onions and surprisingly juicy, the patty takes you to more interesting places than your standard griddled hamburger. Places where the air is musky, sweet and smoky, where the heat is present but not oppressive.

Ethiopians have a well-documented affection for beef, though they tend to prefer it raw or simply sauteed with vegetables, explains Elias Taddesse, chef and owner of Mélange (449 K St. NW; 202-289-5471; melangedc.com). Ethiopia doesn’t have a tradition of grilled steaks or hamburgers. But Taddesse is a man shaped by several cultures: Born in Addis Ababa, he spent his formative years in Minneapolis before relocating to France for formal culinary training and to start working at Michelin-starred restaurants, including the legendary La Maison Troisgros in Roanne, whose patriarch, Pierre Troisgros, recently died at age 92.

Taddesse, in other words, is no stranger to the hamburger. The double decker on his menu — a two-fisted, arm-drip burger with twin patties and a “special sauce” — is Taddesse’s attempt to build his own Big Mac, “to capture that flavor that kind of struck me as a young kid,” says the chef, who earned his own Michelin star at Caviar Russe in New York. I’d suggest grabbing extra napkins for this immersion in joy and sloppiness.

But my favorite burger at Mélange goes by the name of the Classic. It’s something of an homage to Taddesse’s professional journey. It starts with a patty formed from three cuts of dry-aged beef: brisket, short rib and shank (though he sometimes substitutes chuck for shank), all from Roseda Farm in Maryland. The key, Taddesse says, is that he doesn’t rely on brisket fat, which renders out too quickly. He prefers fat from the short rib, which Taddesse says has more flavor and melts nice and slow, making for a smashburger that doesn’t shrink like a T-shirt in the wash.

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Two of the toppings are ideas borrowed from places where Taddesse previously cooked. His brown butter aioli is a modification of a binder/filling he learned to make during an internship at a hotel restaurant in Cannes: an emulsification of brown butter, soft-poached eggs and a little water. Taddesse’s version combines Duke’s mayonnaise and brown butter. The chef’s pickled red onions are a trick that he nicked from the Adour, the Alain Ducasse restaurant inside the St. Regis in New York, where the kitchen used to pickle pearl onions for a lamb dish.

The rest of the Classic relies on standard burger toppings — iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, American cheese — although the result is anything but standard. The dry-aged beef concentrates the flavors without tipping over into blue-cheese territory, while the toppings and bun provide all these delightful contrasts: sweet and acidic, soft and crusty, warm and cool. It reminds you how good a burger can be.

The pandemic and the birth of his daughter rearranged Robert Aikens’ priorities. Earlier this year, the chef left Veronika inside the Fotografiska museum in New York, where he was already getting recognized for his sumptuous Eastern European fare, and returned to the family fold at Espita Mezcaleria (1250 Ninth St. NW, 202-621-9695; espitadc.com) in Shaw. By August, Aikens was putting together a hamburger-heavy menu for Ghostburger, the pop-up kitchen at Espita, which might sound like a demotion if you subscribe to the theory that a chef’s value can be measured only in stars from the New York Times.

I don’t. I understand the craft behind Aikens’s seemingly simple burgers. I also understand his commitment to them, first witnessed at the Dandelion in Philadelphia — a Stephen Starr restaurant just like Veronika — where he created a patty topped with applewood-smoked bacon and Vermont cheddar. It landed on a best burger list or two in Philly.

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Like the custom blend he developed at Dandelion, Aikens incorporates hanger steak into his burgers at Espita. It’s an uncommon cut for a blend, one that adds a sweet mineral tang to every burger, even to the Mexican-influenced La Hamburguesa, whose patty is basically buried under an avalanche of toppings, including smoked tomatillo relish, salsa macha, Oaxacan cheese and cilantro. Aikens’ creation pulls off the improbable: a hamburger with a distinct Mexican personality that never lets the toppings overwhelm the good ground beef at the heart of the sandwich.

As I talk burgers with Josh Phillips, the owner of Espita and brother-in-law to Aikens, he provides the most cogent — and precise — breakdown on why we will always love these handheld beauties.

“The burger, it’s perfect,” he says. “It’s fatty. It’s tangy. It’s rich. It’s salty. It’s got that nice bread thing to it. It’s got a good chew. If you do it right, there’s a texture element. It just hits all those things, and it’s inexpensive and easy and accessible. And it doesn’t ask too much of the diner.”

It doesn’t ask too much, except that we accept that the hamburger no longer belongs just to America. It belongs to the world, which sees the burger, like the United States itself, as one great opportunity.

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