BY DAVE WOOD
Quest for the best hamburger
Hamburgers, hamburgers, hamburgers!
They've been part of my life ever since my father married my stepmother, who ran a small restaurant on Main Street in Whitehall, Wis. The year was 1947, and every Saturday Vance and Ina Pike walked all the way into town from their hardscrabble farm to order hamburgers. My stepmother called the Pikes, whose ancestors were among the first to settle in our hilly countryside, “The Hamburger Twins” because that's all they ever ordered or, possibly, could afford. The brother and sister were tiny people, gnarled folks, who looked as if they never got enough to eat.
I sat in a neighboring booth every Saturday afternoon, watched them order the hamburgers, and then another order, and possibly a third, smiling as if they had discovered a secret similar to the gourmet items served at the Tour d'Argent in Paris. I was a country boy, unused to dining anywhere but at home and certainly never on hamburgers, even though they only cost 20 cents apiece back in the good old days. When Vance and Ina headed back to the hills, I asked my new mother if I might try a hamburger.
“Of course,” she said. And I was hooked. Since then, I've eaten thousands of burgers and recently have been surprised to find that the lowly hamburger has finally arrived on the haute culinary scene. I knew something was up when I read a few years back that a famous restaurant in lower Manhattan was charging $100 for its rendition of Ina's and Vance's, and my favorite sandwich. What in the world was going on? The New York version included Pate de Fois Gras and other exotic comestibles, an addition that reminded me of the greasy spoons of my days in graduate school at Bowling Green, Ohio, where a burger always included a fried egg on top, unless you ask that it be omitted. We never asked, because most of us were short on protein. And every pullet egg counted.
Now of course the fancy burger has caught on right here in River City, River Falls that is, when owner Tony Leone introduced Hamburger Tuesday at The West Wind Supper Club. It's a better deal than the one in New York City. For 10 bucks, the West Wind offered a half pound burger on a substantial bun that doesn't leak juice like the flimsy buns at places like Culvers. And if you wish, you can get it with everything: Lettuce, tomato, raw onion, fried onion, two of three kinds of cheeses, mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper. Also included, housemade chips and a sixteen-ounce glass of tap beer or soda! All day on Tuesday! I should add that because hamburger sells now for $5 a pound, the price of the West Wind delicious monstrosity has been raised to 12 bucks and is still a good deal, as I've found since I joined the local Hamburger Cruising Club, Ltd., a River Falls dining institution, wherein every Wednesday members drive around Pierce, St. Croix and Polk counties in search of great burgers, where we've found that most half pounders cost upwards of 10 bucks (without the beer).
The staff at the West Wind tells me that some folks actually order the Tuesday special with ALL THE WORKS. I've never gone that far and now that I'm 85 years old, I can't even manage a half pounder. But, since quarter-pounders tend to be dry and crumbly, I am happy to report several burger joints are offering the third-pounder, which, as Goldilocks would say, is just right.
One notable third-of-a-pound burger I recently found was at Broz's Bar in East Ellsworth. It was luscious! And why? Broz buys its fresh ground beef at a butcher shop across the street. Most of us in the cruiser group are senior citizens and opted for the day’s senior special of roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy with a side of buttered corn for five bucks. They pronounced it luscious, too. But that burger … my oh my!
Other notable restaurants we've visited recently that do a great job on the sandwich under consideration would include Prescott's Philander's (a juicy third pounder cooked the way you want it) and Six Strings Saloon in Maiden Rock.
In my quest for the perfect burger, I've noticed that full service menus don't make much of an effort to sell burgers, which usually take the back seat, hidden down with the kiddy menu. But there's a real restaurant in Siren, Wis., that goes full bore with sandwich offerings. That would be the Pour House on Siren's main drag, rebuilt after the horrific tornado years ago. We returned last month for lunch, sat at the bar and were presented with three menus. One was for steaks, shrimp, and ribs. One was for sandwiches, including hot beefs, the third pounders ($7) and a grilled patty melt on swirled rye with mushrooms, ordered by my wife, who’s not a fan of burger buns that smush into grease sponges while you eat them.
And the final menu had an Octoberfest twist. German. I'm not a fan of German cuisine, but those who are will want to make it to next year's Octoberfest and try some of these: Austrian Pork Schnitzel with spaetzle and soup or salad, Sausage Sampler with Spaetzle and soup or salad, German nachos with ham and sauerkraut, sauce and cheese. “The Big Boar: a boneless pork chop topped with Muenster cheese and sauerkraut on a pretzel roll with potato pancake (10 bucks!)
Greg, owner and great bartender, said that readers will have to wait for a reiteration of this last menu until next October.