Because we need to do these things, May, for reasons known, apparently to someone, has been classified as "Burger Month." That means that online and maybe in whatever print that is left these days, we will get an onslaught of burger information including, of course, many various lists having to do with burgers. Usually I am one who resists the fray, but here I am, using Burger Month as an excuse and chiming in on an old burger standby.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the type of beef used in making a basic diner/coffee shop burger was never disclosed. We didn't know if the diner ground the meat or not. We didn't know if they made the patties themselves or if they were pre-made. The beef patty -- or should I say the slab of chopped beef -- was tossed onto a hot griddle, or, in some cases, a grill, and cooked until done. "How do you want it cooked?" was never asked.
Once done, some cheese (for a few coins more) was melted onto the meat. The patty was then put onto a bun with a leaf of iceberg lettuce, and a slice of tasteless, out-of-season tomato. In various instances, a pickle and grilled or raw onions were also added to the bun. The burger was assembled onto a plate surrounded by French fries. This was the prototypical "Burger Deluxe" found at countless diners, luncheonettes, and coffee shops when I first moved to New York. And I ate at a lot of them.
Many food folks these days, when given their weekly -- or monthly -- burger allowance, would rather spend it at a place where the beef is derived from animals that eat only grass, never consume hormones or supplements, and are treated with the utmost kindness before being slaughtered. And I can't blame them. In most instances I would rather travel to a shack, bistro, or faux joint for a high quality, organic, grass fed, humane, rare or bare, juicy five napkin burger. But sometimes nostalgia gets the better of me and I just can't help myself. That's when I yearn for the "burger deluxe." And, thankfully, they are still out there.
There's a soul tune from the early 1970s, now a classic, called Across 110th Street, by the great Bobby Womack. The street in the title of the song refers to what back then, and for the most part still is, the southern border or Harlem. Across 110th street, in and around Harlem, there is a mini-chain of diners called Jimbo's Hamburger Palace. At Jimbo's, the "burger deluxe" is a mainstay on the menu.
To satisfy my nostalgia craving, I found myself at the Jimbo's on Lenox Avenue across from Harlem Hospital. I sat at the pristine counter and, not bothering with pondering the sandwich wraps, gyros, or delicious breakfast options on the menu, went directly to the cheeseburger deluxe. The waitress who took my order did not ask me how I wanted it cooked. She didn't even ask what type of cheese I wanted. She only asked if I wanted everything on it which I assumed were the traditional, iceberg lettuce and tomato adornments. I said I did.
From my seat I watched as a generous patty/slab of meat was tossed onto the hot griddle and then covered with a bowl to steam heat it through. It wasn't long before the cheese was added -- a thin slice of bright orange American. The bun was assembled by another cook, a slather of mayo, iceberg lettuce, two slices of an under-ripe tomato, and as an added bonus, a few grilled onions.
The fries were frozen, dumped into a deep fryer and then scattered around the burger. Ketchup came in a red squeeze bottle. I decorated the burger and the fries with it. Though if I had been asked, I would have said "medium rare," in regards to how I wanted it cooked, but really, it didn't matter. The meat was cooked the way a burger should be cooked; juices running from it dampening the bun, the ketchup, tomato and thin layer of mayonnaise all melding together to form a perfect hot mess
The fries, however, were another story. Maybe my memory of past burger deluxe experiences have dimmed so much I forgot how tasteless they could be. Or maybe it's just that I doused them so thoroughly with ketchup it never really mattered how they tasted. What was the point of the pairing of frozen French fries with a burger? And then I realized that their starchy blandness bolstered the already intense flavor of the meat. The burger was good on its own, but it was the presence of those fries that made it truly "deluxe."