DINERS, DIVES – but not DRIVE IN’S…… the Humble Hamburger!

DINERS, DIVES – but not DRIVE IN’S…… the Humble Hamburger!


My “Foodie Mission” for this year on our Stateside road trip was to try and overcome my aversion to the simple humble “Hamburger” For years I have been plagued by a version of cardboard cutouts that consist of stale bread rolls, hard bread rolls, crumbling bread rolls, tasteless pastry thin meat patties and soggy tomato sauce coloured mayonnaise with overcooked lettuce. That in my opinion about sums up many of our local hamburger joints, meager offerings. On the other hand, I must say, however, that with the increasing choice of aspiring pop-up local gourmet eateries, it would appear that some of our Local Chefs are finally trying to steer clear of all of the above. Some have succeeded and some have not!! One such place that I have made an attempt to try eating a hamburger happens to be Delicious in Borrowdale – there I do know that the patties are homemade, thick and juicy, and are normally cooked to perfection with the correct trimmings. I have also noted this month that one of our  local handout magazines have taken to doing monthly food critiques –  this months one happens to be on burger joints and it would seem that between Antonio’s, Benny’s Burgers and Hamburger Hut  they were all rated between average and poorly. Not one rated an excellent – how on earth can such a food so simple, be given so little attention to detail? On the good side, via the Grapevine, I can advise you all to watch out for the first “typical American Diner” that is about to grace our foodie scene – whereby the burgers themselves are guaranteed to become a talking point on the Harare Foodie Horizon – watch this space!


As for my Hamburger “Foodie Mission” – I had an amazingly successful trip eating in Diners and Drives but unfortunately not Drive-Ins.  We toured the West Coast far and wide, getting lost amongst unfamiliar streets, long since abandoned by tourists that might have been. We took risks and ventured into some very “interesting” areas in search of my quest. I went hand in hand with my two “foodie” books, courtesy of my newly acquired American gourmet compatriot – Megan – one book, being Roadfood by Jane & Michael Stern and the other Hamburger America by George Motz who lays claim to reviewing 150 Great Burger Joints – a State by State Guide to Hamburger eating.


In this article, would like to make a mention of two such joints that I managed to find (and like all the greats hidden away) that once and for all changed my outlook on “the humble hamburger” –.


My first, a tiny diner joint simply called The Apple Pan – 10801 W. Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, California. Thank goodness for a GPS and a long-suffering partner in crime. Their claim to fame – the best hamburgers in America??? Believe me the burgers were amazing. A small 25 seated diner – a U-shaped counter surrounded by red leather and chrome bar stools built not for comfort but for speed. You arrive, you jump into a vacated seat, you order, you eat, you pay and then you clear out for the next customer. At each corner stands a shopkeeper who takes your order on a pad – a choice of two burgers – the “Steak burger with a sweet relish” and the “Hickory burger with a tangy sauce”. He takes your order, slaps it on the pass with a burger pulled from the fridge in front of him and the chefs proceed to cook and wrap in front of you. Meanwhile your soda (mineral – no alcohol) is served in a cone paper cup that is placed into a metal cup holder. A paper plate of crispy chips is given to you alongside a paper plate of poured tomato “ketchup” sauce for dipping (no frills here). The burger is finally delivered to you wrapped up in wax paper wrapping. No utensils to speak of. All in a space of ten minutes or so.  Then comes the bite – a mouthful of textures, flavour and bliss. The juiciness of the patty, the tanginess of the sauce, the crispiness of the pickle, the crunch of perfect iceberg lettuce, sweet and succulent and  then the softness of the perfect hamburger bun! Now that’s what I call a burger. At the end of this gourmet experience, a hand written bill is presented to you and payment is rung up on an old 1960’s till – no .com gadgets here – just good old fashioned service that comes from being around since 1947 that has fed the likes of Clark Gable, Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand. As George Motz stated in his book – “It’s almost as if someone forgot to tell them the 50’s were over. I hope no one does.” Their claim to success is in the thousand patties a day that are sold over that counter.


Another totally amazing burger experience took place in the dingy streets of San Diego’s Ocean beach at a small dive called Hodad’s (a person who hangs out at the beach and pretends to be a surfer). Now not only had I heard of this place via my books, but also via a bartender that hail’s from San Diego. We came across him in San Francisco. So one early evening we ventured forth and using the GPS, traveling into unknown territory we found Hodad’s in a street full of biker boys, bars and foodie joints on the edge of Newport Ave and Ocean Beach. The area had a certain dodgy look about it. However I was now determined more than ever to try a Hodad’s burger. The dive opened up onto the street just feet away from the ocean, we climbed into the queue along with the other younger punters and waited our turn to be seated. It was full, but we moved quickly and surely. At the entrance to the doorway is Surfers board with a sign reading “NO SHOES, NO SHIRT ….. NO PROBLEM!” and the menus.  The small space is packed to the hilt with rough benches and tables, a VW microbus cut in half and against the wall serves as a booth for two and the walls are festooned with license plates from all over the US. There are basically three burgers on order, a Mini, the Single and a Double.  To these are added a soft sesame seed bun, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, bacon and so on and so on. The bigger your bite the better. Included is a side of lovely crunchy wedgies potatoes. All served within minutes along with a soda or a milkshake and if requested a rather large glass of red zinfandel or merlot served in a huge jam jar, not a glass. Again order, eat, pay and go – don’t hang around – there are plenty of others waiting in line to munch on a burger.


So here I am the converted – will I find a hamburger to qualify – well the quest will be on! What makes a hamburger – the roll, it needs to be soft and fluffy. Where do we find them, well please let me know. The majority of our rolls these days tend to be part of the new “premix” family that has hit our country. Long gone are the days when bread is made from a master dough mix, it comes out of a bag. I suggest that Proton rolls are probably the ones to go for. At one stage they went through a bad patch, which hopefully they seem to have rectified. The meat – don’t’ go for the mince sitting pre-packed in the chiller. Get the meat right – ask your butcher to grind some lean sirloin / rump and shin, which is packed full of flavour with a little fat 80 / 20 %. Ask him to grind it twice or ask for a number two grind. This will ensure that the meat is correctly mixed together. These meats will give you the juices to ensure that you are about to create the perfect hamburger. Season and shape into a nice thick patty, about 2 cm thick. Pre-heat your non-stick, greased grill pan till smoking, place the patty facedown quickly away from you. Dependant on preference, grill for 3 minutes on one side, turn and another 3 minutes on the other. Do not keep turning as this will break up your patty. Longer if you prefer well-cooked. To this add some wonderful cheddar if you are a cheese fan; make sure to purchase the local Kefalos Cheddar that packs a punch, from the Cheeseman and not the South African cheese. To this you can add sweet cherry tomatoes, crispy red onions, the heart of an iceberg lettuce, a tart pickled Gherkin (to be found at Fruit & Veg) and lastly some lovely Miracle Whip mayonnaise (not the tangy one) mixed with a dash of worstershire sauce, Tabasco and either Heinz Ketchup or All Gold Tomato Sauce. After one of these – fast food burgers will be consigned to the bin and hopefully you will learnt the art of perfecting hamburger eating!


Bon Appetite!

Chef Susan Lemon