Ask the Critic: Size Matters

The second-greatest cheeseburger in the world: the In-n-Out Double-Double
Conveniently enough, what with yesterday's discussion about the ginormous burgers at Red Robin, I have an email question from James who asks...about the size of burgers. James writes:

What is the best size (weight?) for a good burger? All these restaurants are making giant burgers that you have to eat with a knife and fork and no one seems to be making small burgers anymore. I don't mean sliders, but the old fashioned burgers like you used to get from drive through restaurants and places like Dick's.

Sounds like such a simple question, doesn't it? But as with all such apparently simple things, there are several ways to make it WAY more complicated than it needs to be. And that, dear readers, is something at which I am an expert.

To start, I'm going to make an assumption: that James isn't talking about McDonald's or Burger King cheeseburgers when he mentions "drive through restaurants." What I'm hoping he means is the seriously old-fashioned drive-thru joints--the 1950's-'60's-era burger joints, those that opened (and mostly closed) during the Golden Age of the American burger restaurant.

Burgers were done in two ways in these places: either small-and-fat or large-and-flat. Large-and-flat burgers--the kind that require huge buns and often hang far over the edges, with crispy little charred bits hanging like a halo of meat candy around the finished patty--are rare these days, relegated mostly to burger history save for a few surviving joints which still practice the nearly forgotten art. Small-and-fat, on the other hand, became the model by which almost all of the new-model burger joints (The Clown and The King included) built their empires.

Both styles worked with a patty that weighed in between one-third and one-quarter of a pound, pre-cooked. The difference between them? Surface area and density. Because of it's thinness, the large-and-flat burger was never juicy and always came well-done. The joy in it was the char of the grill or the seat of the flattop caramelizing the beef juices. On the other hand, the small-and-fat burger was thicker, smaller and more densely-packed--nearly a ball of meat. Here, the enjoyment came from the actual flavor of the beef and the juices (read: blood and liquefied fat), and not just the interaction of meat and heat on a hot grill. Flat burger? The toppings really mattered--sauces as lubricants, shredded lettuce, fresh tomatoes, a good bun to hold it all together. Fat burger? All you needed was some cheese and you were good to go, and any old bun would do.

The greatest cheeseburger in the world is a large-and-flat burger, topped with green chiles, done at the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico. Second-best? The In-n-Out Double-Double--one of the progenitors of the small-and-fat form.

Still, this is all a discussion of geometry, really--of the best surface area and thickness for a burger, not the weight (as James asked). Still, it's important, because back before there was any competition among burger entrepreneurs to make the biggest, fattest or heaviest burger out there, fat or flat was the only battle that mattered.

Once that was settled (with small-and-fat winning, hands-down), the real race began. It used to be that the quarter-pound patty was more or less standard among all burger-slingers. The biggest any burger got? Two quarter-pound patties, stacked one atop the other, with a slice of cheese for each of them. Back in the day, this was considered a wild flight of luxury and looked on with serious suspicion by burger Puritans who saw the double-cheese/double-patty configuration as throwing all notions of burger balance completely off-kilter.

Still, once the double-quarter-pound stack was achieved, it was only a matter of time before the third-pound patty came into being, then the double-third-pounder, then the half-pound patty, the double-half-pounder, triple-half-pounder, etc. All notions of stacked toppings, multiple-cheese-layers, sauces, triple-buns and mixed-meats aside, the burger race is one that concerns a sprint for the sky. And he who can stack the burger highest, wins.

Or at least that's the argument in favor of the giant burger. Me? I'm with James on this. I think this quest for heavier and heavier burgers has just gotten out of hand.

To my mind, a single quarter-pound burger, unless it is being done in deliberate imitation of the old flat-burger style, is simply too small. A double-quarter-pounder? Not bad, provided there's nothing else involved but meat, cheese and bread. As soon as other toppings get into the picture, you need a patty of a large enough size to hold its own against bacon, guacamole, green chiles, what-have-you; big enough to provide both structural integrity and beefy goodness in a proportion equal to that of all the other toppings put together. A single third-pound patty isn't quite enough. A double-third-pounder is, frankly, too much. At that point, the burger is getting difficult to eat (too large to bite, too thick top-to-bottom, too messy 'round the middle), and I am four-square against any silverware being employed in the consumption of any burger.

The solution? The single half-pound patty, perfect for a reasonably-sized, loaded cheeseburger. And if you're one of those people who just doesn't feel like they're getting their money's worth out of a meal unless they're eating something stuffed, layered or stacked on top of something else? Well, you can just go to the neighborhood Red Robin I guess, where I'm sure they'd be happy to serve you a quarter-pound cheeseburger, stuffed inside a half-pounder, topped with a third-pound patty, crowned with a half-pound of bacon and a full side of onion rings and garnished with the business card of the nearest on-call cardiac surgeon.

Bon appetit!

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