When I was growing up in New York City, nobody had ever heard of a Big Mac with Special Sauce…because it hadn’t been invented yet! To hard-core NY eaters like my dad, a burger was all about the meat. When he first saw the new burger culture coming out of California in the mid-1960s, he freaked out. “That’s not a hamburger,” he said, doubtless like so many of his generation. “That’s a salad!”
Now, I must confess that today…I consume burgers all the time, all over the country, and the world, replete with crazy toppings, lots of distraction for the burger inside. Truth be told…I kind of like the variety of it all. However, I must also confess that when I make a burger at home, I absolutely keep the distraction to a minimum. I focus on great meat (with at least 20% fat), and the perfect cooking of that meat. And the perfect bun. At serving time, I revert to childhood, and mostly serve the simple toppings that so enchanted my dad.
The burger doesn’t fall far from the tree!
Here are five of them (with one small apostasy)…all freshly cooked and photographed in my kitchen. I hope you have the discipline to give one or more a try, simple as they seem. If you have a great burger inside the bun…you will have a great burger experience!
1) Raw onion and ketchup
The only provision here is: get a juicy, delicious sweet onion, not tear-inducing, and slice a round that is see-through thin. Handle it carefully so it stays intact. I would say that 90% of the hamburgers my dad consumed…were served exactly like this! It is still my go-to today…
2) Raw onion, tomato and ketchup
Yes…this has an entirely different taste! My dad viewed this variation as very exotic. On the weekends, we’d drive down to an Irish bar near Rockaways Playland called Bogie’s, and feast on hot dogs, fried fish, and burgers. Bogie’s always insisted on adding a tomato slice to the basic onion-and-ketchup burger…and my dad loved it (though he never added the tomato at home). The little bit of juice that it adds to the gestalt–without distracting from the beefy burger-ness of the burger–seemed like some kind of new world to us. Which it was. Today it seems like the model of restraint.
3) Raw onion and green relish
Another “exotic” variation, but another winner my Dad occasionally wheeled out that has stood the test of time. The germinal idea here anticipated a generation of pickles on burgers, and a generation of sweet things on burgers. Again, compared to what we see today, this is vastly understated–but once again, it is the subtlety that works so well. As in the first two burgers, the thinness of the onion slice is key:
Another key is the relish. Sure, you can make this dish with the crappy, too-sweet, mass-market relish that’s in every supermarket. But relish has become kind of a locavore obsession–and I’d strongly recommend you check out your local farmer’s market for a high-quality, spring-green, fresh-tasting relish. The one I purchased recently at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket, made by Beth’s Farm Kitchen, from Stuyvesant Falls, New York, is fabulous on this burger–not too sweet, positively herbaceous-apply in its fresh pickle-ness.
4) Fried onions with ketchup
And this may be my favorite “traditional” topping of all. Slice the onions thinly, sauté them slowly, with a cover, until they melt, then turn the heat up a bit for a few minutes to develop a medium-brown. I dream about this taste that my dad served up when he wanted to go “fancy”: somewhere between a French bistro and an American burger joint.
5) Focaccia bread with dolce gorgonzola
One of the transformative burgers of my life has been served for many years at my beloved Zuni Cafe, in San Francisco; I first had it in about 1985. The burger is always perfect, of course–but it has always been served on focaccia, with a slab or two of dolce gorgonzola cheese. This Cali job certainly would have gotten my dad’s contempt–but, with a little reflection, he probably would have leapt from contempt to love. I just made it last week, and I fell in love all over again: the creamy cheese, and the herb-y bread, combine to bring out a kind of High Funk in the burger. I do love cheeseburgers of all kinds–but this one, un-New-York as it may be, is at the top of my list.
Photos Via:, Emily Oberto, Danielle Lieberman