Americans eat more than a billion hamburgers each year, most of them at fast-food restaurants. That's a lot of bad, sad burgers. Having read Eric Schlosser's harrowing Fast Food Nation, I've eliminated McDonald's and its ilk from my diet, but I still regularly crave a quick, inexpensive burger. I don't mean fancy burgers, which many fine-dining restaurants have added to their menus since the recession hit. I mean a five-dollar burger that I can order and eat on a short lunch break and that doesn't fill me with nausea and regret a half-hour later. That's a rare bird, but it's just what Lee's, a 14-seat counter-service storefront, produces.
The burger ($4.50; $5/with cheese; $6/with bacon), served wrapped in wax-paper-lined foil, is gorgeous: a high-quality toasted bulkie roll; crisp, unchopped iceberg lettuce leaves; a fat, ripe tomato slice; thin-sliced raw white onions; some pickles; and a six-ounce beef patty. (The "special sauce" of mayo, honey mustard, and spices is recommended.) The patty is grilled over gas to order, and Lee's does internal temperatures below medium, something many lawsuit-wary chains won't do. Cheese options include American, provolone, Swiss, and cheddar. The result is big without seeming excessive, juicy as all get-out (that wrapper is a necessary place mat), and pretty as a food stylist's work. If I have one reservation about its deliciousness, it's the all-sirloin patty, leaner and less beefy-tasting than chuck, but also healthier and lighter: the dreaded gut-bloat so common to chain burgers never arrives. The enormous sides include superb sweet-potato fries ($2.50/small; $3.50/large), very good onion rings ($3; $4), and French fries ($2.50; $3.50) that are merely good, a trifle pale, not quite up to the burger's excellence.
Other options include hot and cold subs ($6), including a worthy hot pastrami, large salads ($4–$6) with produce to put chain salads to shame, daily-changing soups ($3.50; $4.50) like an undersalted but otherwise tasty lentil, and a practically perfect all-beef Pearl hot dog ($2.50) on a toasted, split-top bun. Sandwiches of fried fish ($5) and grilled chicken breast ($5) share the burger's roll-and-toppings virtues. Drink options include sodas ($1.25–$1.75) and fruit juices ($2.75). When I passed on these, one of the very pleasant staffers brought a pitcher of ice water, a welcome surprise. Ultimately what I'll return to Lee's for is that burger, a dog, and those sweet-potato fries, all extraordinary enough to banish the memory of a hundred nasty fast-food meals.
Lee's Place Burgers, located at 216 Sumner Street, in Newton Center, is open daily, 11 am–9 pm. Call 617.795.2022.