California may be the land of avocado toast and kefir, kombucha, but this is a state that knows a thing or two about burgers. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
One of the world’s favourite foods will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year (January, 2024).
The story goes that Lionel Sternberger, a 16-year-old worker at a restaurant in Pasadena, Calif., was making some hamburgers at a place called Rite Spot in the first month of 1924. Apparently, one of the patties started to fall apart. Rather than serve a good customer a fragmented burger, he is said to have found a slice of cheese and placed it on top to cover up his poor patty work.
Voila! A star was born.
According to the Pasadena tourism website, the people at the Rite Spot, located on Route 66, named it “The Aristocratic Burger,” and that it was an instant smash (pardon the burger pun).
These types of culinary inventions sometimes require some suspension of disbelief. After all, how does one accept that no one had EVER put a slice of American (or cheddar or limburger) cheese on a slice of beef and placed it between a bun, or two pieces of bread? The fact is, Pasadena can’t prove that the cheeseburger sprung to life on that no doubt warm and sunny day in southern California some 100 years ago. But, a historical bun fight like this can be hard to resolve.
Intrepid reporter that I sometimes am, I went online to check. I stumbled on an American (of course) named George Motz, who calls himself a “burger scholar” and has written four books about burgers, including Hamburger America and The Great American Burger Book. He also has directed a documentary film and hosted the Travel Channel show Burger Land from 2012 to 2013.
Those are pretty beefy bona fides, if you ask me.
I reached Motz at home in New York via email and asked about the “invention” story.
“For now the claim to the invention can be pinned on Pasadena at the Rite Spot (there’s actually a plaque there on the spot where … the Spot was …),” he replied.
When Sternberger died at age 56, Time magazine wrote a short obituary that said he had invented the cheeseburger at Rite Spot.
Well, that seems good enough for me. I mean, you can’t argue if they have a plaque. And an obit in Time magazine. The Pasadena argument clearly cuts the mustard.
But wait, I reached out to destination marketing people in North America and was told that Denver was home to the first cheeseburger, and that Louis Ballast registered the name after making one at his Humpty Dumpty Barrel restaurant in 1935.
But, wait again. According to the website Roadside America, a place in Louisville called Kaelin’s is said to have been serving them in 1934, a year earlier. The Louisville Courier-Journal says the legend states that the owner of Kaelin’s restaurant, Carl Kaelin, invented the cheeseburger shortly after he opened his place in Louisville in 1934. And you thought Kentucky was best known for a colonel hawking fried chicken.
We’ll almost certainly never know the origin of the cheeseburger, but we’re lucky that someone came up with the idea. They’re so happy about it in Pasadena (the city where Julia Child was born, by the way) that they have an annual Cheeseburger Week. Forty of Pasadena’s favourite restaurants, lounges and burger joints offer their signature burgers, some special creations and great deals during Pasadena Cheeseburger Week (the exact dates weren’t known at press time, but tourism officials assured they weren’t going to miss the 100th anniversary).
California may be the land of avocado toast and kefir, kombucha, but this is a state that knows a thing or two about burgers. Rite Spot closed years ago, but as a 25-year Golden State resident I can personally attest to a few other places in SoCal, including Pie ‘n Burger in Pasadena (from 1963) and Apple Pan in west Los Angeles, which has been dishing out burgers (and Cokes in little white, old-timey paper cups inside those old silver cup holders) since 1947. If you want something a bit more upscale, Father’s Office in nearby Santa Monica makes a fabulous “Office Burger ” with caramelized onion, bacon and arugula on top of a patty with gruyere and Maytag blue cheese. The restaurant website warns there’s no ketchup allowed.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and to me there’s no better burger (or cheeseburger) in the world than the one served at Val’s Coffee Shop in Hayward, Calif, where a family has run things since the late 1950s, and where they cook burgers over an open fire (one of the keys to their goodness). They also have milkshakes as thick as Fonzie’s slick-backed hair from Happy Days, which this place would’ve been perfect for.
I had an amazing Gordon Ramsay burger in Las Vegas a few years ago. I also love a (somewhat) cheap and cheerful offering at Steak Shack when I go to Vegas or New York. (There’s one just a few meters from the Air Canada arrival gate at LaGuardia Airport now, which is far too tempting).
Of course, Canada is no stranger to cheeseburgers. Great options I’ve read about include Burger Don in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. I don’t know if they’d win an award, but I enjoyed a very good cheeseburger at Chuckwagon Café in Turner Valley, Alta., (just south of Calgary) a few years ago. Calgary chef Roy Oh of Roy’s Korean Kitchen (formerly Anju) decided to take his days off (Mondays) and pay homage to his burger lovin’ daughter Billie by hosting a weekly burger pop-up. Billie’s features a massive burger called The Original Gangster (a.k.a. the Double Double) with two Gemstone grass fed beef smash patties, American cheese, onion, mayo, pickle and shredded lettuce on a Martin’s potato roll.
Many Vancouverites swear by Wally’s Burger. La Belle Province is also a great place for a burger. Victor’s in Quebec City often gets nominated for best burger in Canada, as does Jukebox Burger, a throwback spot in Dollard-des-Ormeaux (near Montreal-Trudeau airport). Krave Burger gets great reviews in Halifax, while Salisbury House in Winnipeg (made famous by one-time part-owner Burton Cummings of The Guess Who) is renowned for its burger, which it calls “nips.” Bonus: the current restaurant at Pembina & Stafford in Winnipeg features Guess Who memorabilia and a working 1948 Rockola jukebox.
Ah, but what makes the perfect cheeseburger? That’s a whole other story. If you ask Jimmy Buffett in “Cheeseburger in Paradise” he’ll gladly tell you he likes his with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french-fried potatoes, along with a big kosher pickle.
Jimmy may know the secret to life, but don’t let him tell you how to eat your cheeseburger. If you want to pile on the jalapenos and mushrooms, do it. If you like relish, (a dying condiment, my wife calls it), go for it. As Burger King likes to say, “Have It Your Way.”
There are, of course, many variations on the cheeseburger. The classic North American patty is topped with American or cheddar cheese, but Swiss is popular, as well as gruyere and blue cheese. I like lamb burgers topped with feta, red onion and Dijon mustard. These days, vegan patties also are popular. Or, you could try ground turkey or chicken. If you pile enough things on top, you’ll barely taste the meat.
At some places in the States (not so much Canada) you can order a “patty melt,” which is a cheeseburger (usually American but sometimes cheddar or Swiss) with grilled onions (never raw) on toasted rye bread. I was in New York seven or eight years ago and introduced our tour guide to patty melts at a diner on City Island in the Bronx.
I believe I changed his life. But maybe it wouldn’t have happened without Lionel Sternberger.
Serious Eats Burger-Making Tips:
- If you have a good source of freshly ground beef that you trust, make sure to ask for meat that has at least a 20 per cent fat content.
- Don’t be too “Kneady.” Working the meat unduly will cause proteins to cross-link with each other like tiny strips of Velcro, making your finished burgers denser and tighter as you manhandle the grind.
- Do not salt beef until patties are formed. It makes them tough.
- Season liberally! Start with a large pinch of kosher salt, and hold it at least eight inches above the patties as you sprinkle to ensure even coverage. Use lots of fresh ground pepper, not that awful powdery stuff.
- Use a good meat thermometer.
- 30 F (54 C) for medium-rare (pink and warm)
- 140 F (60 C) for medium (totally pink, starting to dry out)
- 150 F (66 C) for medium-well (grayish-pink, significantly drier)
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