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.

The Move

About a month and a half ago, I uprooted from Salt Lake City and moved to Seattle. I was chasing a job, a new lifestyle, and the education of my partner. After leaving the Mountain West for the first time, there are of course things I miss. But when I think back to my time in the region, it’s not the Wasatch, the sunny weather, or the open spaces that come to mind.

marymural_022710~5There’s a mural of the Virgin Mary on the side of a building in Salt Lake, around 200 S. and 200 E. The building holds Este, a New York-mimicking pizzeria with its name spelled in subway-style lettering, and a clothing store, the name of which I can’t recall.

The mural depicts the madonna with an exposed, burning sacred heart. Surrounding the mural are the words of the omnipresent Catholic prayer “Hail Mary” in Latin.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

The building next to it is Gallenson’s, a local gun store. I used to ride up 2nd South on my bike on the way up to the University of Utah, but I never noticed the store. The day I finally did notice the madonna’s neighbor was the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

To my knowledge, I’m the only person out there who thinks of the Virgin Mary mural when I think of Salt Lake. The town is known for so many other things. It’s a boon for skiers, the Mormon Mecca, a new-age business haven, and a gateway to one of the most geographically diverse areas in the country. I reveled in Salt Lake’s other assets, but the mural continues to dominate my memory.

I was raised Catholic, but no longer practice. A madonna isn’t something that catches my eye.

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners …

In many ways, Salt Lake is the epitome of a city that is growing up. It’s passed its adolescent growth spurt (well, maybe — the greater Salt Lake area should more than double in population by 2050) characterized by suburban growth that stretched geographic limits. Hike in the Wasatch, and you’ll see suburban and industrial development stretch from the Oquirrh mountains in the west to the foothills of the Wasatch in the east.

… now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

But the city realizes that kind of growth is what you do when you’re a teenager in urban development years, which most Western U.S. cities are. City officials now realize Salt Lake needs to be walkable, bikeable, and pedestrian-friendly. People don’t want to live a 30-minute drive from bars and dining. They want to live a stroll away from it, or above it.

So why the mural, the madonna?

America is a nation built on diversity. Few of its residents are natives, and the overwhelming majority of cities and geographic features are named not after natives, but the first white immigrants to “discover” them. It’s easy to argue whether this is good or bad — Congress is currently doing so — but it’s impossible to deny that for an American city to be truly great, it has to embrace diversity.

Take a look at food in America, for example. Few things are as reliable a gatekeeper to culture as food, and the food of American regions is predicated by the immigrants (read: diverse individuals) that settled the areas. Wisconsin has German and Eastern European food. New York City has plenty of Italian to go around. Hispanic food is prevalent in Los Angeles, and the New Orleans gumbo you love so much comes from Acadian French who moved down and started the Cajun culture.

America doesn’t — shouldn’t — have a singular identity. Despite what you may hear from Washington, the nation was built by immigrants, and the only way it can stay true to its character is to foster multiple cultures under an identifying umbrella in dynamic urban centers.

When I see Salt Lake’s madonna, I see a visceral Catholic mural embedded in the downtown of a city built around the Mormon temple.

That’s a sign of a city maturing. That’s a sign of what American cities should be.

I’m anxious to watch Salt Lake mature, but as I said, I left. I now live next to, I argue, one of America’s crown jewels. Seattle is dense, vibrant in many ways (socially, musically, culinary), and progressive in its views on the relationship between the urban and organic environment. It’s what many Western cites should aspire to be.

That being said, the greater Seattle area still has a long way to go. Its density was mostly facilitated by geographic

This kind of traffic happens pretty much daily in Seattle.
This kind of traffic happens pretty much daily in Seattle.

forces, not human design, meaning most live well outside the city center in quasi-suburbs. These neighborhoods have developed into dynamic, self-identifying areas, but most Seattleites still don’t live where they work. The result: choking traffic exasperated by poor road infrastructure and short-sighted transit systems. I myself commute 25 miles one way to my job in Tacoma. My partner takes over an hour of her time in the morning to get to class in Seattle’s University District.

It’s issues like this that interest me in Western cities, and the reason I’m writing this post. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be returning to this blog to chronicle, analyze, and maybe whine a little bit about what I see in Seattle. I’ve lived in Wyoming, Salt Lake, Manhattan, and now King County, giving me a wide-ranging view on how communities function.

So that’s what I’m going to look at. Every week (hopefully), I’ll tell you what I find in Seattle, what I discover in the mountains and ocean outside the city, and about the people I meet in the process. What I look for are signs of progress, signs that cities are coming to grips with what their roles are and how they want to identify themselves. Progress can mean standing pat — preserving a historical building, for instance — or accelerating change necessary to mold cities into the societal hubs they should be.

More simply, I’m looking for madonnas.