The hamburger is the T-shirt and jeans of meals. It fits everybody, it's unisex, it works for all seasons, no matter what the weather. It's eternally cool, and despite its German origins (i.e. Hamburg, where legend has it a chef got hold of and grilled up the raw shredded beef brought back by sailors who had traded for it in the Baltics), unquestionably all-American. You can dress it up, or you can dress it down.
On the coasts, when they dress it up, they mess it up. Los Angeles celebs ordering In-and-Out Burgers at the drive-through window request that their meat and gooey fillings be sandwiched together by Atkins-approved lettuce leaves. In New York, meanwhile, the race for the city's most expensive burger has been going on for about five years. First there was Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro burger, which clocked in at $29 and mixed into its patties ground sirloin, minced braised short ribs and foie gras. Then this year steakhouse throwback The Old Homestead, located in the meat-packing district, pointed to its imported Kobe beef -- that's Japanese cattle raised on beer -- as reason for the début of a $41 burger. Boulud quickly struck back, adding shaved black truffles to his meat and ratcheting up his burger's tab to a cool fifty bucks.
But all this hubristic one-upmanship ain't how things are done in the Midwest, thank goodness. And even better, we've got history to back up our less-is-more hamburger attitude. St. Louis is the American birthplace of the burger, according to many food histories. It was at the 1904 World's Fair, natch, where Texan Fletcher Davis and Ohioan Frank Menches both pitched tents at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and laid claim to being America's official hamburger ambassador.
And so it came to pass that I recently decided to name myself unofficial hamburger tour guide of St. Louis. I realized from the get-go that this was a daunting mission for two very critical reasons. One, there are, literally, as many opinions on where to find the best hamburger in town as there are residents of St. Louis County. I was given the names of more restaurants, fast-food joints, bars and greasy spoons than I could schedule in a month: Carl's Drive-In, Riddle's in the Loop, Hammerstone's in Soulard, Clayton's Café Manhattan, Dooley's downtown, the Tucker's steakhouses, some yuppie sports bar in west county where, the one time I'd been there, I actually overheard two middle-aged women having a conversation about tennis elbow. And two, there are very few ways to describe a hamburger. How many synonyms do you know for the word "juicy"? And how do you illustrate the taste of a burger? Personally, the adjectives "meaty" and "beefy" have always sounded a little strange, icky even -- though not as unappealing as how my vegan friend Paul describes the creation: "Cattle, in easy-to-swallow format."
But I do love hamburgers, and what I think makes a great one is when it becomes all-consuming: its mess of flavors and textures jump-starting your hedonistic carnivore instincts, its size and thickness, though near impossible to manage with but two hands and a pair of lips, dictating that you give it every ounce of your attention. All upper-body movement becomes geared toward keeping this thing, this beast with two buns, under your control, though that's ultimately an impossible endeavor; by the end you're going to need extra napkins.
There are lots of places around town where you'll need extra napkins. One of the most surprising is the Missouri Bar & Grill (701 North Tucker Boulevard; 314-231-2234) -- surprising not just because you'd never imagine that this hole-in-the-wall serves food, but also because its burger, though merely mortal-sized, still proves mouthwatering. About the same size as a Quarter Pounder but with a much better meat-to-bread ratio (the weak link in all fast-food burgers, except those new Hardee's Thickburgers, which, I have to say, are great), it's simple but quite tasty. It also costs less than three bucks (take that, Daniel Boulud!) and is brought to your table by the pleasant lady bartender before you finish your first beer.
The hamburger at O'Connell's Pub (4652 Shaw; 314-773-6600) I would describe as the Maxim magazine of St. Louis burgers. When I was canvassing friends for recommendations, all the O'Connell's suggestions were issued by my big, tall, slightly jocky guy friends, all of whom own Billy Madison on VHS and none of whom have long-term girlfriends. They would say it like this: "Dude, O'Connell's is it. Who the fuck told you to go to Riddle's? O'Connell's burgers are like, Grrrrr!" Of course they were right; O'Connell's burgers are the most masculine of the bunch. I can't, for example, use the word "patty" in describing their beef content, which rivals the dimensions and density of an almanac; by far, this was the tallest hunk of ground beef I encountered. And it's saying a lot that people will go there just to have one of those burgers, especially given that the bar's stranded off Interstate 44 in the middle of an industrial wasteland. In keeping with its macho image, this burger does not come with lettuce or tomato -- just a formidable slice of onion, itself as thick as a regular hamburger patty. Regardless of how cooked you order it, the exterior is charred to a forceful, dark-brown crust. Grrrr, truly.
Ever since I started writing restaurant reviews here, folks have been egging me to pen a scathing criticism of Blueberry Hill (6504 Delmar Boulevard; 314-727-0880), just for the thrill of seeing Goliath fall. I can't and I won't. (Unless we're talking specifically about the Wash. U. undergrads who swarm in on Thursday nights and take over the place like a roving pack of retards. Then I will.) Blueberry Hill runs a great kitchen, especially given the volume of food it turns out, and there's not a bad thing you can say about the burgers. I love that they come in five-ounce and seven-ounce servings, and while I don't fully buy that the meat in the hickory burgers is "hickory-seasoned" as the menu attests, the accompanying hickory sauce gives a unique, smoky kick to the sandwich.
And then there is Seamus McDaniel's (1208 Tamm; 314-645-6337). I would ask why more people don't rave about this place, but maybe I'm just hanging out with the wrong people, because when I went there for lunch, every table inside and out was taken, and the list for seating was about five parties deep. What a burger they've got: ten (ten!) ounces of happiness, served the way I think all burgers should be -- with all vegetable and condiment options available without having to ask, including a paper cup of mayonnaise on the side. The ground beef, soft and sweet, mustn't taste much different from those gloriously crude hamburger prototypes cooked up with that Baltic tartare. Seamus McDaniel's burger defines the impasse where mere words can no longer translate what makes a burger so...so good.
With such a sandwich quartet leading the way, St. Louis is representing well as the hamburger's stateside home base. Proust can have his madeleines. I'd rather rhapsodize about something a bit meatier.