The problem arose as soon as I asked the IHOP server if I could order my burger medium-rare. He shifted in place for a second before telling me that he has repeatedly asked the kitchen to do exactly that and the cooks always reject the request. Then he looked up at the ceiling, as if he couldn’t even meet my eyes as he delivered the bad news.
I sort of assumed the request was beyond the pale. Right there on the laminated Ultimate Steakburgers menu, there’s a disclaimer, informing diners that all burgers are cooked to a “minimum of 158° F.” Some clever menu writer added the phrase “perfectly cooked” to the disclaimer, which is a form of corporate brainwashing. The federal government may think that’s a perfectly cooked burger — actually the feds don’t; they suggest an internal temp of 160° F — but no devoted fan of the steakhouse burger would order the beast a shade past medium-rare.
Perhaps IHOP is just playing fast and loose with the language of its hamburger experiment, just as the chain played with America’s fragile online psyche by teasing us with its plan to change its name to IHOB. Egyptologists have spent less time deciphering hieroglyphs than Americans did trying to unlock the mystery of what the “B” could mean in IHOB. Personally, I thought it might stand for International House of ‘Bait. As in the click variety.
As we all know by now, the “B” was for “burgers,” and the dubious/temporary/nonexistent name change is just a promotion for IHOP’s new line of “steakburgers.” Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear the term “steakburgers,” I automatically think of steakhouse burgers, those fat juicy patties built from premium ground beef and cooked to your choice of temperature.
IHOP even suggests that its burgers have a steakhouse pedigree: The front of the burger menu trumpets the use of “all-natural,” “100% USDA Choice” and “Black Angus Beef” — all of which sound impressive, unless you’re a true connoisseur and know that far better beef is available at real steakhouses.
What arrives at the table is not a steakhouse burger at all but a griddle burger, the same type that you find at Five Guys, Shake Shack and countless other fast-casual burger joints. For the record, griddle burgers aren’t typically cooked to temperature but are instead grilled on a flat-top, which allows the patty to cook in its own rendered fat, resulting in those crusty little brown nubbins that cling to the ground beef.
I love crusty little brown nubbins that cling to ground beef, and my Classic Steakburger ($6.99) — topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onions and “signature IHOP sauce” (of course), all packed between halves of a buttered and toasted brioche bun — sported lots of them. It made for a relatively satisfying burger. I say “relatively” because something was missing that I couldn’t immediately identify. (And it wasn’t ketchup, which you have to request if you want to dip your fries in something other than butter pecan syrup.)
I think the word I’m looking for here is setting. An IHOP is an IHOP is an IHOP, no matter how the chain tries to rebrand itself. As I sit in one of those classic IHOP booths — you know, massive, smooth and sterile — I can’t help but think of, well, pancakes. There is something almost hard-wired in me when I plop myself into such a booth: I want something sweet, sticky and stacked about four layers high.
Somehow, a burger can never taste as sweet in this setting.