Bun & Grind

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Bun & Grind

Northwest cuisine shmuisine in Seattle, it's the burger that really gets us hot

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    I can get as excited about sushi, pho, and goat-cheese burritos as the next person. I regularly try new restaurants, am an avid dim summer, and have been known to grunt with pleasure when confronted with heaping piles of barbecue. Seattle is host to a promising and ever-growing landscape of new culinary possibilities, yet I often find myself—as I did a few weeks ago—standing in line at Dick's in the driving rain, at night, shivering in anticipation of a Special, fries, and two tubs of tartar sauce. This could have been an unusually dreary winter scene had the 20 or so of us in line not been basking in the fluorescence as we nudged closer to the window. Rain-spattered, windblown, and hungry, we forged an unspoken camaraderie in our mutual willingness to risk an upper respiratory infection for the sake of a hamburger. Seattle's, and for that matter the country's, longstanding affair with the burger is due in large part to the inching forward of civilization from its most primitive state. In essence, writes Jeffery Tennyson, author of Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger, Homo erectus was the first to sharpen stones and shred his meat into digestible portions. The Tartars advanced the cause of tenderized (and rare) flesh, storing the spoils of the hunt beneath their saddles as they rode and plundered through much of what is now Russia and Eastern Europe. Hamburg, Germany, emerged as a center for trade in the 18th century, and Hamburgian adventurers spent time traveling the Baltic Sea, where the raw, chopped steak of the Tartars prevailed. Upon their return, Hamburgers shared the dish with their fellow citizens and added their own variations: eggs, onions, and—thank goodness—a bit of cooking. In the early 19th century, Hamburg was the most popular point of departure for German emigrants, who introduced the recipe for Hamburg Style Steak to the US. A meat patty chopped and then cooked, the stylized steak grew in popularity, particularly as the industrial age of the late 1800s kept workers from returning home for their midday meal. Short-order cooking and lunch counters cropped up, and eventually someone somewhere got the brilliant idea (the identity of the actual person, Tennyson admits, is debatable) of making the meat portable by putting it between two pieces of bread. From there the lunch cart, the drive-in, and the Happy Meal entered our national consciousness. Seattleites are fiercely loyal to their favorite burgers, which is not surprising given the prevalence and success of such established local chains as Dick's, Red Robin, Red Mill, Kidd Valley, and Burgermaster, and a whole range of restaurants, taverns, and joints all over town that serve signature patties. One person I know eschews the chains for the almighty Blues Burger with pepper bacon at Larry's Greenfront in Pioneer Square, while another won't set hand to bun unless he's eating a Red Robin Banzai Burger with teriyaki sauce and a slice of pineapple. Our pan-Asian fare makes national headlines, but what we have quietly kept to ourselves is the fact that we've patronized these burger places in astounding numbers, and anointed them with our own brand of Seattle kitsch. And kitsch, if you don't already know, is bestowed only when the place in question begins to represent more than simple satiation of the appetite. JIM SPADY, SON of Richard "Dick" Spady, and vice president/CFO of Dick's Drive-Ins, told me recently that "there's so much more to burgers than just the food. It's all the memories that you bring back from your teens or your college years. Some of the highlights of people's lives have happened while people were eating a burger." In honor of its 40th anniversary, Dick's recently published 40 Years of Memories, a collection of testimonials, romances, pranks, and—my favorite—photos of loyal customers wearing orange Dick's T-shirts and burger-eating grins, and standing on the Great Wall of China or with tribespeople in the Serengeti. It's enough to make you wonder just what's in that yellow stuff that passes for tartar sauce—which I, for one, consider the closest thing to ambrosia. Almost anyone can track his or her life development in what I call Hamburger Time—that is, minor (and sometimes major) milestones marked during the many trips to the fast-food window. In Seattle, these memories are unavoidable. McDonald's, site of my third-grade birthday party and multiple soccer-team victory celebrations, still brings back that surge of pride I experienced after finally being able to polish off a Big Mac. Burgermaster was our first early-childhood burger hangout, though my brother and I didn't have to get out of the car. We'd suck down pineapple shakes and soggy, foil-wrapped burgers that would arrive on a tray at my mom's car window. Dick's came in phases: weekend matinees with my mother, when we'd sneak our white bags into movie theaters; seventh-grade sleep-overs at the house of a friend who lived a block away from the Wallingford Dick's; that first ride home with a guy in high school who took me to the Dick's on Broadway and made me drink a mint-chip-root-beer float while listening to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." . . . In the past two weeks, I have consumed more than 15 hamburgers from 15 different places (see heart-clogging chart, p. 58-59). The chance to sample our city's spectrum of patties and buns so tantalized my inner carnivore that I indefinitely postponed my plan to give up red meat. This irresistible urge, according to local burgermeister and Red Mill co-owner (with his sister Babe) John Shepherd, is the hardest one on earth for customers to escape—no matter what their eating habits. "People aren't eating as many hamburgers [these days]," he said recently. "We have people come in who've been out of town for three months, in Alaska or somewhere, and they've been dying for a burger. I am a burger freak, but I'm around them all day so I don't crave them." Shepherd also cites the growing number of patrons who request veggie or chicken burgers. Even so, he admits, "We even cook rare burgers—and we love those people. We also have a few people in their eighties who come in here and get their double bacon." Spady, whose family chain of five burger oases exemplifies this city's appreciation for burgers done fast, in the spirit of the good old days, and cheaply, articulates his lifelong passion. "Why do I like burgers? That's tough. That's like asking why the sunset is beautiful or why the stars are pretty at night. Most people were raised on burgers. It's a comfort food, the 'old reliable.' . . . The food landscape in Seattle is beautiful, and there's lots of wonderful food to eat, but people take time out of their busy schedules to eat a burger." Shepherd is quick to echo that statement, saying that "everybody!" likes burgers, but he misses some great local burger joints that closed since he opened his doors on Phinney Ridge in 1994. "If you really want a burger in Seattle, you've really got to look," he said. "About four of the old Seattle hamburger places, where people knew you could get a kick-ass hamburger any way you liked it, closed: 318 Saloon, Greenwood Burger Co., Green Lake Jake's . . ." Before he could ponder this too long or too sorrowfully, however, Shepherd's voice resumed its energy: "Speak of the devil—here comes about 20 million pounds of meat through my back door!"

     
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