The hamburger—like jazz and comic books—is a purely American art form. Don’t try to argue that the hamburger was first developed in the German city of Hamburg, from which it took its name, because you will lose.
A “Hamburg steak”—made of chipped, dried beef, onions, and damp bread crumbs—was survival rations aboard ship when sailors on the Hamburg America Line (and some of the immigrants riding along) ran out of hardtack, salt pork, biscuits, weevils, and rat stew. It was loved only in the way the Irish love coddle or the French a nice tête de veau—as a memory of a time when one hot meal of boiled pork scraps or a calf’s head with rough mustard was all that stood between them and starvation. This muddled concoction of low-grade beef, spice, bread, and onions didn’t become a hamburger until it touched American shores, and even then was more closely related to what we’d call a Salisbury steak than a proper burger.
A proper burger must come as a sandwich, either between bread or in the middle of a bun. It must be the kind of thing one can eat on the move, because the history of the hamburger is also a history of motion in the United States. This is why the oft-quoted (though likely false) claim that the first hamburger in America was served at Delmonico’s in New York City is wrong, and the counter-claim of the Clipper Restaurant in San Fernando, California, serving one in 1871 is also wrong. They served (or might have served) Hamburg steaks; and while much scholarship has been devoted to the quest to find the First Hamburger in America, it is all misguided. Hamburger-the-meat is different from hamburger-the-sandwich, and hamburger-the-sandwich is different still from the cheeseburger, which stands today as the ultimate expression of the form.
The modern American hamburger wasn’t truly born until the day Ray Kroc got it in his head to rent a single-engine airplane and a pilot and fly all over the country looking for elementary schools and grocery stores that didn’t yet have a McDonald’s restaurant close by. There’s just something about that kind of voracious drive for conquest that gave the burger its stamp of honest Americanness. But the world’s first hamburger sandwich can arguably be attributed to Hamburger Charlie: Charles Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin, who one day in 1885 went to the Outagamie County Fair with an oxcart full of meatballs to sell. When that failed, he started squishing them between two slices of bread and handing them out as sandwiches. History does not say that he made a fortune doing so, but it’s fun to imagine he did.
Ever since that moment, people have been arguing over who has the best burger. Arguing over burgers is what Americans have instead of tribal wars or violent battles over religion. If God and John Madden hadn’t gotten together in the 1970s and invented modern football, we’d likely all be spending our Sunday afternoons watching highly organized teams of burger-flippers beating the ever-loving shit out of each other kill-the-carrier-style on some kind of weekly televised Best Burger showdown.
Still, even without National Hamburger League cookoffs to amuse us, we can continue to argue about these things. And do, as evidenced by the Blog-o-Land scrapping over who has the best burger in Washington after Pick-Quick in Fife got tagged by USA Today as serving the Platonic ideal of hamburgers. Most people agreed that Pick-Quick was good. Most people also had very firm ideas about who did a burger better. And last week, I decided to see for myself who deserves to wear the crown.
Pick-Quick Drive In is barely even a restaurant. It’s more like an elf house with meat and lots of women inside, all working to turn out burgers, fries, and shakes with amazing speed and accuracy.
Pick-Quick opened in 1949, as the cheeseburger was becoming a dietary staple and frying itself hard into the American subconscious. People were driving a lot, traveling, moving into cities, out to suburbs, off farms and into towns. And whenever they moved, they needed food. Hamburgers were perfect—they could be made fast and cheaply, served hot, and eaten on the go. It didn’t take much to open a hamburger stand: just a hut, a grill, some beef, and bread. This was before the big chains started to push everyone out of business, back in the day where virtually every town, every neighborhood, every crossroads, had its own unique burger place. Pick-Quick was one of those.
Over the years, nothing and everything about the place has changed. It’s gone through more shifts in ownership than most people can remember, yet still serves a menu that would be recognizable to the customers who frequented it in 1949. Prices have gone up, but the location has stayed the same. It was popular back then and remains so today, doing nothing but walk-up business through a single window and offering a seating area that looks kind of like a cemetery, with bunches of flowers and picnic tables on a verdant, grassy patch out back.
I stood in the rain with about a dozen other customers on a Thursday afternoon, all trying to cram under the overhanging roof. When my turn came at the window, I made the most basic order I could: a double cheeseburger (delivered in a paper envelope), an order of fries (hand-cut, but fried hard and a little burnt), and a cherry shake, mixed with good ice cream and fresh fruit, so thick that I nearly collapsed my eardrums fighting for that first sweet sip.
The burger itself was as classic as the surroundings: thin patties, double-stacked, cooked on a flat grill with yellow American cheese and sandwiched between two halves of a squishy bun warmed along the griddle’s rail. The toppings were fresh and generous—a thick slab of tomato, pickles, raw rings of white onion, and a sauce of mayonnaise and relish—and, in the heat, all the flavors melded into one competent whole. It was a great burger, if not quite epic.
I will drive a good long way for a truly historic burger, but won’t walk 10 feet for a Five Guys franchise. Pick-Quick landed right in the sweet spot between age and distance, meaning that I’d gladly make the drive for another, but would like it even more if they opened a new location in my garage.
RedLine Burger Co. has farm-raised beef, hand-cut fries, and four kinds of burgers, all in a space about the size of a shoebox, decorated with nothing but a giant mural of Richard Petty’s #43 STP car and a Harley-Davidson mirror like the kind you can win at a Ukrainian street carnival for popping three balloons.
I added RedLine to my list because I’d heard it was good—fast, friendly, and wickedly popular among burger fanatics. Unfortunately, that ought to have read good for Lynnwood—fast, friendly, and wickedly popular among burger fanatics who happen to be in Lynnwood.
RedLine is a prime example of a modern neighborhood burger joint—better than McDonald’s and better than most places which do not focus exclusively on burgers, but not rising to the level of greatness that makes a classic. I ordered a burger with cheese and bacon—a “Full Throttle” on the NASCAR-y menu—and got a flame-broiled 1/3-lb. burger that was oddly flavorless, mounted with a wisp of a tomato slice, thin shavings off an onion, skimpy curls of fatty bacon, and cheese that seemed to have steamed into nothingness between the bag and my hand.
It wasn’t a bad burger, just less-than- memorable.
Most legendary burgers happen by accident.
The greatest cheeseburger in the world is served at a place in San Antonio, New Mexico, called the Owl Bar. The only reason it serves burgers at all is because its bar used to be frequented by some of the brightest minds in America—the guys working on the Manhattan Project, who regularly got hammered there and took off driving across the high desert for Los Alamos hundreds of miles away. In order to keep them from splattering their very valuable brains all over some cactus somewhere, it was decided that these men needed some food to temper the effects of cold beers and shots of agave juice, so the Owl installed a grill and started serving green-chile cheeseburgers, forever linking the American cheeseburger with the birth of the atomic bomb.
If things had gone just a little differently, Zippy’s would’ve been a teriyaki joint, a pizza restaurant, or an old-fashioned soda fountain. Owners Blaine and Rahel Cook considered all these possibilities, but because of a fortuitous arrangement of fryer and grill left behind when the Cooks picked up the former teriyaki restaurant in West Seattle in 2008, Blaine (aka Zippy) became a burger-slinger, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything better to do.
In two years, Zippy’s has earned itself a fiercely loyal following simply by making burgers better than almost everyone else around. The kitchen hand-grinds the meat every day, because hand-ground meat is just better and makes for a burger with some texture, one that holds together nicely in a patty and crumbles slightly when bitten. It mounts them on good rolls—even though I could live without the cornmeal on top—and dresses them with smart toppings: red onions, chopped iceberg lettuce (so much better than a whole leaf, which wilts the minute it touches the hot meat), pickles, big slices of tomato, and a “secret sauce” which is just Thousand Island dressing and chopped pickles. And the cheese selection is smart: medium Cheddar, smoked Cheddar, Swiss, American, or Monterey jack.
Put all this together and what you have is an excellent, thick, beautiful burger which, like Pick-Quick’s, seems to melt all together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t love the fries (underdone and not salted enough), and would kill for them to add cherry to their list of shakes, malts, floats, and sodas, but the burger is one I’d cross state lines for—a perfectly balanced example of the burger-maker’s art.
In fact, if you look closely, right near the front door, there’s a small, framed photo of Pick-Quick’s iconic neon sign glowing hotly against a night sky. Which is appropriate, because Zippy’s are among the few burgers around that can hold a candle to Fife’s finest.
Pick-Quick Drive In
Double cheeseburger: $3.55
Cherry shake: $2.35
RedLine Burger Co.
Full Throttle: $6.50
Zippy’s Giant Burgers
Zip burger: $4.35