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Twelve patties, no cake

A burger safari
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  August 13, 2008
HOMETOWN HERO: The King-Kong Burger at Eagle Deli is a winner.

I love revivalist barbecue joints, but what about revivalist burger palaces? Can one revive something that is, unlike barbecue, universally American, and steeped in personal nostalgia? The first principle of hamburgers was enunciated by Calvin Trillin when, in 1970, he casually told Life magazine that Winstead’s, in his native Kansas City, served the best hamburger in the world. Pressed on this point in a later interview, he explained that “Anyone who doesn’t think his hometown has the best hamburger place in the world is a [now politically incorrect term for an effeminate male].” Of course, after a generation, a revivalist burger place becomes a hometown place, so in 20-odd years or so, someone writing in this space might proclaim B.Good to have the best hamburger in the world.

Now, my own hometown burger place no longer exists, and my objective judgment over many years is that Mr. Bartley’s serves the best burger in Greater Boston. But on my recent burger safari, covering lots of other highly regarded local burgers, things did fall rather neatly into three categories. (I ruled out super-yuppie burgers, Kobe beef burgers, and non-beef burgers.) My standard order was a cheeseburger, cooked medium if asked, and served with French fries, except for one instance in which Mrs. Nadeau arrived first and ordered me sweet-potato fries.

Hometown burgers
Boston isn’t my hometown, so I borrowed writer, electronic-crime expert, and drum-and-bugle-corps revivalist Peter Cassidy, who grew up in my present neighborhood, Jamaica Plain. It quickly emerged that Peter’s rosebud would not be a hamburger, but a meatball sub consumed during a drum-corps rehearsal break. (Ah, meatball subs! Readers are invited to e-mail suggestions for a future safari.) But in fact Peter did have fond memories of SIMCO’S ON THE BRIDGE (1509 Blue Hill Avenue, Mattapan, 617.296.3800), a place known mostly for its hot dogs. Off we went, then, toward Mattapan Square. Simco’s is strictly take-out, so we ate the cheeseburger and fries ($6.52) in Peter’s car. It was a very decent burger: double patty, both well done, with a good balance of beef and char flavors, white processed cheese, white sesame bun, and nothing to interfere with the ketchup, onions, and beef. What impressed were the French fries, which were crusty in a way that suggested the double-frying pommes-soufflé technique and had a custardy smooth inside. The hot dog ($2.86), alas, is apparently not what it used to be.

On the ride to our next burger, we may have discovered why. There’s now a second Simco’s, at the even-more-unlikely location of 679 Canterbury Street in Roslindale. While it is theoretically possible to have a chain with superior burgers or hot dogs (Winstead’s now has 10 locations), the usual result is dilution.

Onward to Jamaica Plain’s other contender, DOYLE’S CAFÉ (3484 Washington Street, Jamaica Plain, 617.524.2345). You might consider this a bar burger, but Doyle’s, though more famous for politicians and new batches of Sam Adams than for burgers, is possibly our neighborhood hamburger. It’s an entirely serviceable burger ($7.20), a bit less than half a pound, served on a standard bun with cheddar cheese and lettuce, tomato, and onion on the side. The weak spot is the French fries, real-tasting but not crisp. A bison burger ($8.95) was like many of its ilk: too dry.

EAGLES DELI (1918 Beacon Street, Brighton, 617.731.3232) is properly a college burger, but it serves as a hometown burger for adjoining Brookline and Brighton teens. The deli has a shtick with giant stacks of half-pounders, and it maintains an “Eagles Challenge” board for the vultures who’ve eaten the most burgers and patties at a sitting. Adam Collette of Tufts was the first to be so recorded, after knocking down 3 1/2 pounds of beef and five pounds of French fries. He was then joined by BU’s Sean Reilly, with three and three. The “Reilly Burger,” served with five pounds of fries and a drink, is now listed on the menu for $25, but will only be served to one person. The third name on the list is Paul Jones, apparently an independent scholar, who once ate four pounds of beef and five pounds of French fries. For $35 you can try the same thing, along with 20 slices of cheese. The Eagles Challenge Burger ($50) stands atop the menu, with five pounds of beef, 20 slices of cheese, 20 pieces of bacon, five pounds of French fries, a fountain drink (Reilly needed three), and — don’t try this part at home — a half-sour pickle.

I had what most people have, the King-Kong Burger ($7.50), a wide-body half-pounder on a plain bun, with two slices of white processed cheese and maybe a half pound of French fries. I have to say that this is a hometown burger as I remember them, with that notable beefy flavor that came from low-grade lean beef ground in a mixture with high-grade steer belly. The plain trimmings, with ketchup and onion, delivered a classic burger experience. If I were going to eat multiple pounds of beef, this is what it should taste like. The problem is the French fries, frozen-tasting and overcooked to crisp cardboard. I’d never be able to eat Reilly-esque quantities of fries this bad. My choice of drink, iced tea, was even worse. It came from an urn handily painted “House Recipe.” In my house, we use ice.

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  Topics: Features , Calvin Trillin, Cheese, Culture and Lifestyle,  More more >
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