Wimpy: “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
They say there’s nothing more American than apple pie. I say there is. It’s called a hamburger.
Now I know what you’re thinking, with a name like that, it must have originated in Germany. How can you call it American. Well I’m saying, ask a German. He’ll probably call it American as well.
I’ve never done a top ten list of my favorite things to eat. Maybe I’m afraid of hurting some dish’s feelings. But I am, absolutely, 100% sure, no doubt about it, a hamburger would be on that list.
It’s such a simple thing. Just a piece of ground meat between two slices of bread. It was Laura Ingalls Wilder who said, “It’s the sweet, simple things of life that are the best ones after all” and, if you can’t trust the woman who gave us John Boy, who can you trust? I’m not sure John Boy could have found anywhere on the prairie in the late nineteenth century that sold hamburgers but, if he could, I’m sure they would have been among his top ten things to eat.
No, I don’t think there was a White Castle in Lara Ingalls’ Midwest (I never saw one until I moved to California in 1998) but they’re the place that, if not inventing them, popularized the burger, long before I’d had my first taste of mother’s milk.
White Castle was and is a fast food joint and I think that fast food joints should be the home sweet natural home for the hamburger. And I think that a burger should never be more than 15 bucks. But I didn’t always think that way.
Back in 2002, one of my favorite Toronto chefs Mark McEwan opened a new restaurant called Bymark. And on the menu was a very special burger with a very large price tag.
I said to Don Day’s Wife, “We have to go there. We have to try it.” And Don Day’s Wife said, “Why?” and then, when I didn’t have an intelligent answer, Don Day’s Wife paused and said “OK”, because that’s what you say to your spouse when it’s important to them, even though you think it’s totally ridiculous.
The burger at Bymark was…well, very good…but it just didn’t seem right eating a burger in Mies Van der Rohe’s modernist masterpiece TD Center. In some ways, it doesn’t quite seem correct to eat a burger anywhere that doesn’t have a gaudy sign. The burger is still on the menu today at Bymark. It’s a half pound slab of beef with Brie cheese, truffled peaches (yes, you read that right), foie gras and porcini mushrooms for 37 Canadian dollars or about 500 pesos. A lot of chefs followed Mark McEwan’s lead (and McEwan probably followed Daniel Boulud’s lead who put a burger with foie fras and truffles on New York’s Bistro Moderne menu the previous year so that “people could have a burger to drink red wine with”). Chefs, often in very high-end, haughty-taughty restaurants called their creations the “gourmet burger”, the “artisan burger”, the “chef burger” and, most recently, the “craft burger”.
The new Don Day, the Don Day of the last ten or so years, hasn’t wanted his burgers in anywhere that he has to make plans to go to, anywhere that he has to request reservations in order to have the honor of eating there. There are simply some things you go out to eat and there some things you eat when you go out. Does that make sense? OK, let me try this. Hamburgers are not a destination but a destination might include a hamburger. OK, let me try a specific example.
The Restaurant is one of San Miguel’s best restaurants (the second best in town according to the 2015 Smart Awards). And Donnie Masterton may just be the town’s best chef. But I’d never plan to go there on Thursday when it’s burger night. But if I ever ended up there, by chance, on a Thursday night, I’d probably order a burger.
I said earlier that a burger is just a piece of chopped beef between two slices of bread, but really, that’s just where a burger starts.
The bread can be crusty or squishy. It can be topped with sesame, poppy or caraway seeds. It can be a baguette or ciabatta. It can be a pretzel, an English muffin, potato bread or pumpernickel. The bread can be virtually anything but sliced white spongy sandwich bread.
Any cheese can be used. And cheese should always be used. The type of cheese isn’t that important either. I prefer medium Cheddar. Don Day’s Wife likes simple Swiss. But I’ve also enjoyed a very stinky (or socksy as Don Day’s Wife says) blue. Even processed plastic fantastic slices work when they’re melted, as long as there’s at least two.
Bacon is a welcome but not essential side. It should always be side and not back bacon. And there should always be two reasonably thick slices (how I wish Dave Thomas was reading this).
Any part of the cow can be used for the patty. Probably 75 percent of the burgers I’ve eaten during my lifetime have been made of ground chuck. And I have no complaints about chuck, which comes from the neck and shoulder, where there’s lots of fat and, therefore, lots of flavor. There are better parts of the cow you can use, parts that come from close to the bone, parts with silverskin, connective tissue and collagen, parts that will make that beefiness even richer. Dry aging can take the flavor even one level higher but places that do dry aging usually price burgers over my 15 buck ceiling, a number that I soon may have to elevate a couple of floors as a hotels.com survey revealed last week that the average price of a burger in Mexico City is now up to $13.34 U.S., already a few pennies more than $15 Canadian.
I am blessed with a wife who appreciates the burger as much as I do and makes one of the world’s best burger patties. She starts with brisket, shank, short ribs or cheeks and rough grinds it in an 80/20 ratio with her “secret” ingredient, pork belly. And even I perform a minuscule role in our kitchen, for it was only my intense and avid watching of the Food Network that allowed me to catch Laurent Tourandel from LT Burger in Sag Harbor, Maine saying, “Some chefs will say this is crazy, but you can make a burger juicier and moister by dipping the patty in ice water for 30 seconds. No longer than that. Then putting it on the grill.”
Don Day’s Wife not only knows how to grind a patty and make it more juicy, she knows how to spice a patty. She adds egg, finely chopped onion and garlic, salt and pepper and, occasionally, a little yellow curry. Restaurants often use something that disappeared from many people’s spice racks about 30 years ago, onion powder and garlic powder. A recent issue of Bon Appetit revealed that the celebrated Double RL Ranch Burger at The Polo Bar uses salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and garlic and onion powders in its seasoning.
But that place is in New York, that place has a dress code and that burger costs more than 15 bucks. So where in San Miguel do I go for a burger when I’m out and I’m hungry? It certainly will never be McDonald’s and not just because I’m “anti-chain”. In a recent issue of Consumer Reports, McDonald’s finished 21st out of the 21 fast food burgers that they rated.
Like I said, where I eat a burger is all about geography. If I’m going to Fabrica de Aurora, my choice is Hansen’s (presuming it’s open that day). If I’m in the middle of town, I go to La Antigua on Canal (unless La Antigua has locked the doors for the night). In that case I go the no-name stand on the west side of the jardin for what is known by us night owls simply as the jardin burger (because after seven hours of drinking, every burger is a good burger).
If I’m on Salida de Celaya in San Miguel, shopping for goat Camembert at Luna de Queso, XXL buns at El Maple, or some obscure allen key at Don Pedro, I go to a place that almost no one else goes to. Which is a shame. Because it might not make a great burger but it makes a good burger. A very good burger when you consider the price.
It’s called La Hamburgueseria Ruta 111. I know why it’s called La Hamburgueseria, that’s pretty obvious, but I’m not sure why it’s called Ruta 111 even though I know that Federal Highway 111 runs from one of my favorite Mexican cities, Guanajuato to another of my favorite cities, Queretaro. I do know that the owners like cars. Especially Mustangs and Vettes. And kids’ pedal cars. And Harley’s. And other iconic fifties images like Marilyn, Elvis and, of course, the beautiful and bountiful burger.
Ruta 111 isn’t exactly a fast food restaurant, even though it now has two locations (the original is on Boulevard de la Conspiracion which is convenient if, like me, you have your meat ground at La Carniceria Nueva Aurora) and, I think, aspirations of having more locations. It has table service which elevates it a little above fast food restaurants. But not much.
Ruta 111 looks like a fifties fast food restaurant or, at least, looks like a 2015 walk-in fast food restaurant trying to be a fifties drive-in fast food restaurant.
The burger I order at Ruta 111 is called the Clasica. It’s advertised as more than a half a pound (250g) of meat. But always seems a little less than half a pound. The cut is sirloin which is usually a little too lean for a burger but I suspect Ruta 111 adds a little suet to the grind. The patty is cooked on a very hot charcoal grill, perfectly pink inside and charred almost to a burn on the outside. Though I can’t identify anything other than salt and pepper and the restaurant isn’t telling (“Es una receta secreta, Senor.”) it’s lightly but nicely seasoned.
It comes on an oversized soft bun with a substantial amount of sesame seeds. It includes processed cheese, a generous amount of very crisp bacon, a thin slice of tomato, shredded iceberg lettuce and raw onion. I add mustard (the classic French’s). I don’t add ketchup (another classic, Heinz).
Brought to the table (or the bar if they’re serving me) are three of those impossible to tip over bowls. One has very sour pickled jalapeños, one has fiery little yellow peppers that the server calls cascabellas, and one has bread and butter pickles that the server calls pepinillos. I put three slices of pepinillos on my burger and place one cascabella on my plate to nibble on.
On the side of the plate are thin sliced French fries that, even though single fried, are still very good.
With a diet Pepsi, my burger costs 70 pesos. With a beer…and they have every brand of popular Mexican beer, not just the ones that the company that gave them the cooler makes…my burger costs 80 pesos. If you drink a lot of beer, there’s a children’s play area.
Now, normally, I might be flattered to be one in a hundred but not at Ruta 111. The restaurant holds about 100 people and the last time I ate lunch there, I was the only customer. I didn’t feel special. I felt stupid.
There have been times when I’ve gone by La Hamburgueseria Ruta 111 at night and it’s quite full. But when I’m on Salida a Celaya at night, I’m usually on my way to or from another restaurant or bar. With a burger this good, la Ruta deserves to have a lot more seats occupied at lunch as well.
La Hamburgueseria Ruta 111 is located on the northeast corner of Cinco de Mayo and Salida a Celaya and at Boulevard de la Conspiracion 57A, Fraccionamiento La Luz, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.