Hamburgers may rule the fast-food sector and backyard grilling sessions, but hot dogs typically reign at ballgames and fairs. Not so at the Puyallup Fair, where the burger's supremacy has gone unchallenged for nearly a century. There are Krusty Pups, of course, but the fair's concessions are uniquely dominated by the onion burger that Al Myers made famous back in 1915.
Myers' 81-year old son still oversees two concessions at the fair, although the Tacoma News-Tribune this year reported business has dropped off from the 1990s, when Hamburger Myers sold 10 tons of onions over the fair's 17-day run. Now, five tons of onions will usually see both stands through the annual event. The downturn may be partly attributable to increased competition: A half-dozen vendors sell thin patties heaped with sweaty grilled onions, and another clutch of stands specializes in oversized burgers.
After being stunned last year by the sheer number of burger stands (I'd recently arrived from corny dog country), I set out this year to find the fair's best onion burger. Sadly for Mr. Myers, I didn't find it at his stand. But the good news for fairgoers is the various burgers being flipped and onion-topped are very different from one another - and most of them are pretty good. Read on for details, and my ratings on a three-onion scale.
Like most of the burgers served at the Puyallup Fair, the Louie's burger is seated on a bland Franz bun. But the stand wins points for leaving its smoky patty on the grill after topping it with cheese, so the finished product is a perfectly unified jumble of salty beef, sweet onions and melted cheese. TWO ONIONS
Kay's Kitchen/Murph's II
The peppery patty at Kay's Kitchen might be interesting if the onions were better executed (or if the vendors had slapped on a slice of cheese, as requested.) The onions had an odd winey-tomato flavor, and were chopped too stout to meld with the burger beneath. ONE ONION
The fair's sentimental favorite, Hamburger Myers employs a crew of senior burger flippers and cashiers who've been barking the same slogans for decades: "They're all ready, ready/ And they're all red hot/ You can even have them/ With mustard on top." But when it comes to the burger, savvy patrons just want onions on top. "Everybody copies us, but they never could figure out what we do," a cashier told me.
Interestingly, few of the copies are very faithful: a Hamburger Myers' onion burger has an orange cast that's unique at the fair. So does Myers use peppers? Paprika? The cashier wasn't telling, but there are plenty of sweet onions for the curious customer to examine: Myers applies about twice as many onions to its burgers as its competitors do. I'm guessing the onion farmers eat here. TWO ONIONS
Fred E's Famous Fair Burgers
A search for the fair's best burger is bound to lead to the fair's worst burger, and I found it at Fred E's. The burger was burnt, the cheese wasn't melted, the onions were flavorless and the bun was cold. NO ONIONS
If you order your cheeseburger with grilled onions, the Marlowe's cashier will instruct the grill guys to prepare a "Cheese Fair." But if you ask for raw onions, the Marlowe's shorthand is "Cheese Mar," because that's how Marlowe likes it. Methinks Marlowe is missing out.
Marlowe's is the only vendor which presents its burger in two separate Styrofoam compartments, a la the McDLT. Both sides of the bun are smeared with mayonnaise, which is an ideal counterfoil to the mess ofdrippy, translucent onions and well-seasoned beef. To keep the burger trials fair, I disposed of the lettuce, tomato and pickle, but the burger was fine without them. Restraint isn't much valued at the fair, but should you decide to eat only one onion burger this year, I'd suggest buying it from Marlowe's. THREE ONIONS
When I toured the burger stands, the line was longest at Sales, and not without reason: Sales serves a Louie's-style burger (since Louie's opened its stand in 1920, three years before Sales, I feel comfortable giving Louie's naming rights.) The cheese melts into the meat, which has an appealing campfire quality, and the onions are soft and sweet. TWO ONIONS