Regional Burgers and the Search for a Seattle Style

I’ve been thinking a lot about regional burger styles lately, mostly because I’m experimenting with cooking less meat and haven’t eaten one in over a month. And when I heard Seattle resident Kenji Lopez-Alt reference an “Oklahoma City” burger on a recent episode of the Special Sauce podcast, it raised a few curious questions. First, what the heck is an Oklahoma City burger? Did the city steal the style from Seattle along with our NBA franchise? And if the city doesn’t already have a regional burger identity, what would Seattle’s look like?

First things first. From a handful of burger roundups floating around the Internet, I learned that an Oklahoma City burger is a thin griddled patty into which onions are smashed during cooking. As the story goes, a chef at the Hamburger Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma, invented the style during the Depression to help stretch the expensive ground beef he had on hand into a bigger burger. The smashed onion patty soon caught on in El Reno, just outside Oklahoma City, and eventually became popular elsewhere in the region.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that many corners of America claim their own regional burger styles based on common toppings available locally. Sometimes these are added directly to the grilled meat, but they can also be slathered onto the bun. In your travels you might encounter a California burger with avocado or guacamole, a Southern burger with pimento cheese, a New Mexico cheeseburger with green chiles, or even a Missouri goober burger with peanut butter.

But more intriguing to me are the examples of regional burger styles that, like the Oklahoma City burger, involve transforming the meat itself, either through cooking techniques besides grilling, or by adding ingredients to the patty. Here are a few versions you might seek out on your next visit to these places:

  • The Juicy Lucy, invented in Minnesota, is a burger patty that’s stuffed with melted cheese, usually American or cheddar
  • The butter burger, a Wisconsin creation, has butter mixed into the patty before cooking, with more butter added on top of the burger as well as on the bun
  • The Mississippi Slugburger mixes bread crumbs or other extenders like flour and soy meal into the patty
  • The Connecticut steamed cheeseburger cooks the burger in a steaming cabinet rather than on a grill
  • The Frita Cubana, originally from Cuba but widely available in Miami, is a thin patty seasoned with paprika and cumin (and then topped with thin-cut potatoes, raw onions, and ketchup)
  • The Tennessee deep-fried burger is smashed to a thin patty and then fried in oil

So what’s Seattle’s quintessential burger style? There are any number of candidates for the best burger in the city. My favorites include the mushroom burger at Uneeda Burger, topped with gruyere and truffle aioli, the Big Max at Eden Hill Provisions, with patties that are a mixture of wagyu brisket, dry aged beef, and bacon, and the Rough Draft smashburger I still need to try and recreate at home.

Still, while these are all great burgers, none of them seem ubiquitous enough to represent a distinctive Seattle style. I wonder if the lack of a singular burger identity is a symptom of a larger question about what makes Seattle truly Seattle. Is there a burger we should name after Mt. Rainier? One that’s inspired by tech companies like Microsoft and Amazon? Or should some enterprising chef develop a Juneuary burger to commemorate our gloomiest season?

With apologies to the Dick’s Deluxe, maybe the quintessential Seattle burger isn’t a hamburger at all. Considering our abundance of seafood, maybe it’s actually a salmon burger. Or perhaps the regional style we should claim is the teriyaki chicken burger, influenced by the city’s large Asian population.

But until someone invents the archetypal Seattle burger, we might be left taking our cue from the Seattle Dog, which as late-night Capitol Hill revelers and stadiumgoers know, is a hot dog topped with cream cheese and sauteed onions. I’d suggest that a burger with these toppings should be known as a Seattle Burger.

And, with a nod to Oklahoma City for having its own regional burger style (and a middle finger for stealing our NBA franchise), I have the perfect name for the Seattle-style burger. From now on, let’s call it the SuperSonic.

Do you have a favorite regional burger style, or a nomination for a Seattle-style burger? Leave a comment and let me know!

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What I Ate: Beacon burger from Perihelion Brewery

Cities like Oklahoma City have their own regional burger styles, so why not Seattle?

Want Crispy Burger Edges? Smash Early, Smash Firmly

Two nights ago, I finally got to taste the burger from Rough Draft Burger Shop, one of the popup restaurants I wrote about last week. (Rough Draft is opening up their lower Queen Anne shop next month and is selling burgers until then on an irregular schedule that’s announced on Instagram.) The burger was everything I had anticipated it would be – well-seasoned beef on a soft bun with gooey American cheese, pickles, onions, and a tangy sauce. But what stood out to me most were the crispy edges that added a textural contrast and a ton of extra flavor.

I almost couldn’t fall asleep last night, thinking about how I can get those edges on my own burgers. So as with yesterday’s post about crispy potatoes, I turned to Kenji Lopez-Alt’s indispensable book The Food Lab for the answer.

Lopez-Alt explains that the crispy crust on a burger, just like the brown color on a seared steak, is an example of the Maillard reaction. That’s a chemical process that rapidly takes place between amino acids and sugars, starting at temperatures between 280 and 330 degrees. The Maillard reaction creates the crispy edges on a burger and produces a number of flavor compounds that makes food taste good.

You’ll get some browning on almost any burger that’s cooked at the right temperature (too high, and the edges will burn before the middle is cooked through; too low, and the burger may overcook in the middle before the browning happens). But smashing the burger increases its surface area, resulting in more browning.

Through extensive testing, Lopez-Alt shows that a quarter-pound burger that’s smashed to a half-inch thickness will retain nearly as much moisture as a burger that isn’t smashed at all – provided the smashing happens within the first 30 seconds of cooking. But the smashed burger, because of the Maillard reaction, will have better flavor. If you wait too long to smash, the juices will flow out into your skillet instead of staying inside the burger. And of course, you want your burger to be as juicy as possible when you bite into it.

To increase the chances you’ll get those crispy edges, make sure to use a heavy stainless steel or cast-iron skillet, which produces steady heat. And smash your burger firmly with a sturdy metal spatula, which will also help ensure that when it’s time to flip the patty over, you can scrape the entire crust without breaking it.

If your skillet is hot, it should take only about 90 seconds to cook the first side, after you smash the burger down. Flip it over, top with cheese, and let it cook another 30 seconds on the second side. Lopez-Alt says this technique is nearly foolproof and even works well with store-bought ground beef, though he’d prefer a burger with meat he’s ground by hand.

I haven’t tried this technique out yet, but it’s something I’m going to experiment with soon – especially considering how long it took me to finally taste the Rough Draft burger. Until I do, I won’t be surprised if those crispy edges start haunting my dreams.

What I Ate: Rough Draft’s cheeseburger with crispy edges

The Rough Draft burger has crispy edges that provide a textural contrast and a ton of extra flavor

How Pop Ups Are Changing Seattle’s Dining Scene

This article was published on February 4, 2021, and covers the emerging trend of Seattle pop ups gaining a foothold in the city’s restaurant scene.  

Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s decision last week to change the criteria for a region to move into “Phase 2” means that Seattle-area restaurants are now allowed to re-open for indoor dining at 25% capacity. That news may be welcome to some restaurants, who have seen their sales plummet during the winter months when only take-out or patio seating was permitted. But others are choosing a wait-and-see approach. 

Ethan Stowell’s restaurant group, which includes Staple & Fancy, Tavolata, and How to Cook a Wolf, is still only offering reservations for outdoor seating. The owners of the neighborhood butchery The Shambles say they’ll be staffing up over the next few weeks before they decide whether to re-open indoor dining. And Ballard pizzeria Delancey only offers to-go orders through their reservations system on Tock.

As established restaurants adapt their businesses to the latest rule changes, an increasing number of new players have emerged in the Seattle dining scene. These entrepreneurs are popping up with varying schedules, often only announced days before on social media. While some Seattle pop ups are partnering with breweries or other restaurants to provide a steady stream of customers, others are drive-up and pick-up only operations. If you’re not paying attention to their Instagram feeds, you’re likely to miss out.

One such business is Hi Helen, based in West Seattle and known for their New York-style bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches that sell out in minutes online. I was fast-fingered enough to score a 1:30 pickup time on a recent Saturday, and pulled up at a residential corner where the owner (who is not named Helen, by the way) handed me my order. The sandwich was spectacular, with a soft poppy-seed bun surrounding peppery bacon, a creamy fried egg, melted cheese, and spicy aioli. I’ll admit to eating half of it in the car before driving home.

Other Seattle pop ups I’m keeping my eye on include:

  • Rough Draft Burger Shop, which is known for its smashed burgers, has recently resumed operations in Seattle after opening up a second outpost in Portland. Look for Rough Draft to open a permanent location in lower Queen Anne in the next month or so.
  • Bootleg Barbecue, which drew lines of customers to its popup at Fair Isle Brewery as early as 7:30 last Saturday morning, and apparently sold out of its brisket in just a couple of hours. Look for them next (for what they say will be their final popup in Seattle) at Holy Mountain Brewing on February 13.
  • Guerrilla Pizza Kitchen, which serves naturally fermented pizza using local grain
  • Perfect Breakfast Sandwich, which popped up for a few hours last weekend at Delancey and will return there on February 13
  • Chachi’s Pizza, Detroit-style pies that pop up weekly in Ravenna and White Center

Related: How to Travel the World (of Pizza) Without Leaving the City

It remains to be seen whether these businesses will develop a secure foothold in the Seattle scene, or whether they’ll be soon forgotten. But as long as the pandemic keeps many established restaurants closed for indoor seating, these alternatives are enticing new options for your dining dollars – as long as you’re following along on social media so you’ll know when they’ll pop up next.

What I Ate: Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich from Hi Helen

Seattle pop ups like Hi Helen are changing the city's dining scene