Avoiding eye contact with cattle is just one of the tricks of the trade for a restaurant reviewer, who must eat — and sometimes even enjoy, damn it! — all kinds of meat. But the psychological hazards of the job are sometimes inescapable. My friend Faith once put this one to me: "The next time you bite into a hamburger or a piece of veal, just remember the miserable childhoods that these cows and calves led."
My own childhood, I reminded her, wasn't exactly idyllic. Still, I wasn't raised in a pen, and I definitely ate well. My father loved beef and frequently grilled steaks for dinner. His hamburgers weren't so terrific because he couldn't create one to match the most incredible hamburger I had ever tasted — then or now. In my father's hometown of Lockport, New York, is a legendary hamburger joint (it was little more than an outdoor hot-dog-and-burger stand when I first laid eyes on it in the 1960s) called Reid's. It served such extraordinary cheeseburgers that I still dream about them, even though I haven't actually tasted one in decades.
With the Reid's burger as my standard, my father's home-grilled burgers seemed overcooked and dry — blah. And when the first McDonald's opened in our neighborhood in the late 1960s, we all scurried to eat there, but I didn't think they were very good, either. For years, the sacred cow, as it were, for hamburgers in Indianapolis was a double-decker creation called the "Big Teep" at a northside drive-in called the Tee-Pee. It was located near the fairgrounds and had a giant concrete cone (supposedly resembling an American Indian dwelling) on top of a low-slung diner decorated in a vague cowboy motif.
The Tee-Pee had fallen into a seriously shabby state by the late 1970s, but to my disbelieving friends — most of whom wouldn't have been caught dead dining there — I passionately defended the Big Teep as the finest hamburger in the Midwest.
Since moving to Kansas City in 1984, I've been on the flip side of that argument: I don't understand the sometimes zealous affection that natives have for the Winstead's steakburger. This beloved sandwich isn't my favorite burger by a long shot — I find it too greasy and slightly gristly. But I try to be discreet about expressing that opinion in public, Winstead's being such an iconic burger joint.
The reasons for the zealotry, I suspect, have less to do with the actual sandwich and more to do with nostalgia: Winstead's is the only local pre-World War II drive-in to have survived into the 21st century — and there used to be lots of them. Then there's the Calvin Trillin connection. Trillin is the former Kansas Citian who became a successful New York-based writer and announced to the world in a 1970 Life magazine article that "Winstead's serves the best hamburgers in the world."
Maybe his world. You want exceptional? Let me borrow Trillin's hyperbole and proclaim that the best damned cheeseburgers in the entire metro are served at L.C.'s Hamburgers in the Northland. It's a counter joint and seriously underwhelming in terms of décor, but the burgers are thick, hearty, deliciously grilled and topped with a jumble of caramelized onions on a bakery-style bun. I took a couple of friends with me, and after the first bite, all of us were in heifer heaven. None of us had the courage, however, to order a "Blue Goo" milkshake.
On a par with L.C.'s burgers, but with a lot more cigarette smoke, is another local vache sacrée: the Westport Flea Market, which has an almost cultish following of devotees who will practically wrestle you to the floor if you don't agree that this dark and smoky saloon grills up the finest burgers in the universe. I don't mind the smoke, the neon beer signs, the uncomfortable tables, the noise level, the Keno monitor — I actually like all those things. But there's a dingy quality to the old building that depresses me. I mean, it's been years since I've walked around to look in the stalls that sell the fleas — or, rather, the junky-looking collectibles. A friend of mine describes dining at the Flea Market best: "Eating in a tiny saloon in the middle of a big trash dump." Still, in my opinion, a really superb cheeseburger can act as a natural anti-depressant, and the first-rate burgers at the Flea — cooked to order, topped with grilled onions on request — have all the best qualities of Wellbutrin and Zoloft combined.
I think that many of the best burgers are served at no-frill diners, including Little Richard's Family Restaurant in Independence. It has a big ol' burger, too.
But a new contender has to be the plastic basket of "roadies" served at Logan's Roadhouse, the Independence outpost of a Tennessee-based chain. Inspired by the classic White Castle "sliders," the miniburgers (served three to an order) are heftier than White Castle's square patties and come topped with cheddar and pickles and tucked into soft, doughy dinner rolls. Unlike the more petite White Castles, it's difficult to finish several in one sitting.
And this is probably the time to eulogize White Castle's presence in Kansas City. The Ohio-based chain of burger palaces (founded in Wichita in 1921) closed its KC stores in 2001. I wouldn't call those soggy little burgers the best of anything, but if you ever developed a passion for them, there are no substitutes (and that includes the ersatz versions in the supermarket freezer case).
Another Kansas City icon, radio personality Walt Bodine, says he can still smell the intoxicating aroma of sizzling onions and frying burgers wafting through his neighborhood, where there was a White Castle at 32nd Street and Troost in the 1930s. It was just around the corner from his father's drugstore, where Bodine worked as the soda jerk, overseeing the Broilator grill behind the counter. On a good day, he could cook five or six burgers at a clip; they sold for 10 cents each.
"But there were days I walked right past our Broilator, out the door and around the corner to White Castle for lunch," Bodine recalls. "You could get a bag of six burgers for a quarter."
He won't tell which restaurant serves his favorite burger today — he says he's fond of a lot of burger joints.
"No matter what kind of restaurant it is, you can't go wrong with a good cheeseburger," he says.
It's a sacred tradition.