The Art of the Traditional Bar Burger

Cheeseburgers are the domain of bars, and the good burgers usually fall into one of two categories.

First, there are the gourmet burgers. These are the burgers with inventive toppings, grass-fed beef or bison patties, buns that appear to be hand-baked by the owner’s Italian grandmother in a stone oven, and fries that certainly come with a sauce other than ketchup. These burgers are trying to stand out, but they are becoming increasingly popular in gastropubs across the country.

At the other end of the spectrum is the traditional bar burger: the greasy mutt of a sandwich that is only passable for a meal if it is accompanied with copious amounts of beer. This is the kind of burger I came across at the Elbe Bar and Grill, one of the few small-town haunts still serving the so gross but so good patties.

Old-fashioned bar burgers are marvels in their shittiness. They are greasy, the patties were likely frozen a few minutes prior to consumption, and the toppings are bland. But combine all these awful traits, and they somehow produce a tasty cocktail of a sandwich. Unfortunately, it’s growing increasingly difficult to find these burgers anywhere outside small-town watering holes.

Elbe — population: 29 — sits on the outskirts of Mount Rainier National Park. It’s one of those small towns that yearns to be a tourist attraction, but its efforts just aren’t working. There’s a scenic railroad in town, a very old church, and a restaurant held in a train car. All fun, all cute, but these efforts have made no headway in turning Elbe into a bustling summer tourist hub. It’s a drive-through spot, not one you want to sit and stay for a while.

This is bad for Elbe’s economy, but great in that it has preserved the Bar and Grill, a decidedly local bar. There’s no tourist kitsch on the walls. When I entered, there were just a few locals enjoying lunch. All knew the bartender by name. And when I asked for a recommendation, all in house told me to order a burger — the big one.

That’s a good sign. A hallmark of the classic terrible-yet-tasty bar burger is size. You can justify ordering anything if you receive so much food that you can’t — or at least shouldn’t — finish it all. The successful low-brow bar burgers emphasize quantity over quality, and everyone in the Elbe Bar and Grill was pitching the sheer size of the Beam’s Burger Dip.

“You seen the cook?” asks Larry, my companion who spent an hour explaining the charms of Elbe and how much money his daughter is making. “He cooks like he’s making a meal for himself.”

Larry’s words make sense when out lumbers the cook, a block of a man who supposedly was a semi-pro offensive lineman. He is at least 6-foot-3, probably weighing around 260 pounds.

And, much to my delight, he dropped off a burger that would have made a lesser counter buckle.

The Beam's Burger Dip -- a pair of patties with sauteed onions, fries with fry sauce, and au jus for dipping.
The Beam’s Burger Dip — a pair of patties with sauteed onions, fries with fry sauce, and au jus for dipping.

Thinking logically, the Beam’s burger should have been gross. I was expecting a double cheeseburger, but what I received were two separate hamburgers. The bottom buns were already saturated with grease. American cheese topped the patties. Beam’s comes with au jus, something that never ever should be paired with a cheeseburger.

But, as the good bar burgers find a way to do, the Beam’s combined these awful traits and wove them into a burger that leaves the eater with a shit-eating grin and a very queasy stomach. The too-greasy patties had a guilty pleasure element that only the most unhealthful foods offer. The soggy buns captured flavored oil from the onions and the burger grease, which somehow paired well with the saltiness of the au jus. The fries, not cooked quite long enough, had just the right thickness, and it’s always a pleasure finding fry sauce outside Utah.

Oh, and it was huge. Two baskets, one filled with the burgers, the other loaded with fries. The $11 price tag now seems like theft.

In cities like Seattle, it’s not hard to find a burger with grass-fed patty, kimchi veggies, some cheese I can’t pronounce, and decadent hand-crafted sauce melding the toppings with an artisan bun. In other words, it’s not hard to find a primped $15 burger.

There is value to these high-end burgers, but sometimes we want a gut-busting burger that is cheap and provides enough calories to last a week. To find these grand burgers, go away from the city. Drive to the mountains and plains beyond the city to towns like Elbe, where the mainstay awful bar burger still awaits patrons.

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