Friday, August 20, 2010

Redeeming the Burger, One at a Time

It is hard to pinpoint the time and place the hamburger was invented.
It’s a given fact that it’s origins are in the Russian dish, Steak Tartare. It’s also a well recognized opinion that the city of Hamburg, Germany is the etymology of the name.
Hamburg, a shipping town had Steak Tartare brought back from Russia in the 1600’s and renamed it Tartare Steak. As Years went by European and North American sailors would return home from Hamburg and with them came the “Hamburg” Steak. By the early 1800’s, New York City street vendors would offer German sailors “Steak cooked in the Hamburg style.” In 1900, Louie’s Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut lays claim to the first modern “Hamburger” when Louie Lassen sold a customer in a hurry one of his Hamburg Steaks between two slices of bread. This chain of events constitutes the general belief of the origin and birth of the hamburger as noted by the Library of Congress. Although the sandwich wasn’t named until years later.
However. The Town of Hamburg, New York claims the birthplace when in 1885 two Erie County Fair vendors ran out of sausage meat for sandwiches and used ground beef instead. A New York Times obituary of Frank Menches (one of the men) contradicts this claim though. Athens, Texas cafe owner Fletcher Davis is credited with selling hamburgers in the late 1880’s. A claim substantiated by the McDonald’s Corporation who claim the invention was made by an unknown 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair vendor. Later confirmed as Davis. At the same time, 15 year old “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin is said to have been selling smashed meatball sandwiches at the Seymour Fair in 1885. So named “Hamburgers” after the Hamburg steak the local German population was familiar. If all that wasn’t enough a more recent claim is that Oscar Weber Bilby of Weber’s Root Beer Stand in Tulsa, Oklahoma first served ground beef on his wife’s home made buns on July 4th 1891. The distinction being that all other claims are void as the bread of choice was sandwich bread. Not a bun.
The popular sandwich suffered from anti German sentiment for a period of time during and after WW1 but today, it’s ubiquitous in North America. If not world wide.
California native Shant Mardirosian arrived in Toronto 20 years ago and has watched as the mighty hamburger ailed. Once great burgers were sold at establishments like the (defunct) Fire Pit and Lick’s. The later still in business as a shadow of it’s former glory. More and more, fillers have been added. More and more, preformed frozen patties were the norm. Over the last half decade or so, a glut of chain, concept and “Gourmet” burger places have tried to capture the market with burgers ranging from poor, to decent but over priced to “Trying too hard.” All this has led to the TO burger scene down the wrong path.
Salvation? Armed with his love of burgers and memories of the great California based chain In-N-Out Burgers, seminary student Shant has opened the Burger’s Priest. His goal is to repatriate the “Classic American” burger to Toronto. He bristles at the thought of being called “Gourmet.”
The Priest is committed to doing it right. Utilizing the K*I*S*S* principle, the quality fresh ground meat is simply seasoned and cooked on a flat top. The bun is simple and the cheese is American (processed). No “Gourmet” toppings here. The most exotic thing you can get is sautéed onions. The fries are cut fresh in house and the chili is slow cooked using their own proprietary recipe.
The cozy 7 seat restaurant pays homage to it’s priestly name with a confessional style curtain separating the back of the house and gothic style screening through out. Pictures of some of the great American burger houses and it’s “Padre” In-N-Out dot the walls. There’s even a small pew out front.
All this is nice but it means nothing if the food doesn’t deliver. It does.
My order, the “What’s Right” combo is a “Double Double” (2 patties, 2 slices of cheese) with “Coney Fries”, a cookie and can of pop.
The burger is all it promises. Two quarter pound patties are done on a flat top. The only thing that’s done to them is they’re seasoned prior to grilling. The great beef flavour works very well although I thought it was slightly under seasoned. A few sprinkles of salt and pepper fixed that. The texture was fantastic. The fresh ground beef is very simply formed to create an extremely tender burger while the grind gives a nice bit of tooth. American is my cheese of choice on a burger so this is perfect. The bun is a Wonderbread style bun and is buttered and griddled a la In-N-Out.
The fries are all cut in house. I’m not a shoe string fry person but since these were buried under a good ladle of chili and cheese it didn’t much matter. They stood up well to the liquid of the chili, providing some crunch all the way ‘til the end. The cheddar is grated fresh in house and the chili is slow cooked, well spiced, heavy on meat and studded with a few kidney beans. The chili as Shant admits really wouldn’t work well on it’s own. It’s meant to be a topping and served with cheese. It matches perfectly with the cheddar.
Heck, even the cookie is made in house. This “Toll House” style cookie was full of chocolate, had a nice slightly crispy crust with plenty of chew.
If you’re not a meat eater, “The Option” offers an unique choice. Two Portobello mushrooms sandwich cheese and the whole thing is breaded and deep fried. “The Priest” burger is a regular single topped with “The Option”. That’ll be for my next visit.

Well that visit has come and gone and "The Priest" has been sampled. I have to say it wildly exceeded my expectations. I'm not a big mushroom and burger combo fan but this was tied together very nicely with the breading and cheese. They whole thing works really well.
Now, don't tell anyone but they've added a "Secret Menu" much like In n' Out has. In fact, there are more places than you'd think that have secret menus. 
One such item is known as the "Vatican City." A "Double Double" topped with a grilled cheese. I had one and thought it was fantastic. Very cheese but needed something to balance it out. Enter bacon. The saltiness of the bacon, the meat, the cheese. All makes this burger fantastic.
You might notice that I chose to "Add Smoke." Another of the secret menu options is the addition of deep fried jalapeno slices. 
It was also cooked "Jarge Style" which means it has a smear of mustard cooked right in. A downright awesome burger although I will omit the "Smoke" in future as it seemed a bit out of place.

Shant does plan to expand the menu slightly in the future and may even open a few more stores. He has no intent to sell out and franchise though. A question of where to put a BP was floated in the spring of '11. Not sure if it's a relocation or a sister store.

You can find The Burger’s Priest at 1636 Queen St. East in Toronto.

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You can also find them on the web and become a Facebook friend.
 The Burger's Priest on Urbanspoon

Well that’s all for now.

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