Saturday, 8 December 2007

Golden Star

Monday August 27th, 2007

Hot today: summer returns. The see-saw weather of late August. I’m questing once again with Saira (who you might remember from The Yellow Griffin) and we are on the College streetcar heading towards the Yonge subway line (so much better than the OLD subway line, hyuck hyuck) where we then head North. Go North, young man! The subway rattles along the tracks, taking us as far North as the subway can, dropping us off at Finch station. Oh, but this planes, trains, and automobiles style journey isn’t over yet. Our friend Sudenshna is waiting for us with her car. We pile in and continue North. What’s next? Biplane? Hot Air Balloon?

No, next is driving through a neighborhood of strip malls and billboards, very Dallas-like only these store signs and billboards are in Korean or Arabic. Ah, the multicultural flavor of Toronto! And then... there it is. The old school 50s-style Golden Star sign rising from Yonge Street, conjuring Neon images of Vegas and Frank Sinatra. “Golden Star: Since 1964.” Also on the sign, in small black letters: Charcoal Broiled. Beneath that, in huge red letters: HAMBURGERS.

Inside we walk up to the lunch counter, past the orange booths with pale wood tables, and place our orders. I opt for the homemade All-Star burger, onion rings and a lemonade. The burger and rings are served in a red plastic basket lined with brown butcher paper: classic. The lemonade tastes exactly like the lemonade at the S.M.U. pool (Southern Methodist University) where Mom would take me swimming as a child. My Dad (“Pop”) was a Professor there so we had family passes and could use the pool whenever we wanted, jumping in with the intense athletes churning back and forth, surrounded by sorority sisters tanning with their sunglasses and bikinis, fire ants streaming from a crack in the red brick wall enclosing the pool and floating above it all, the smell of coconut sun tan lotion and the delicious smell of fresh bread baking in the Mrs. Baird’s bread factory a few blocks away. Fire ants, man-- there are no fire ants in Ontario and I don’t miss the little buggers one bit.

Saira and Sudenshna kick back and talk about school and shopping. I stare over at a portrait on the wall of a balding businessman and then glance over at the man sorting trays over by the trash cans and I do a double-take. That’s the guy! Much older now, eyes not as clear or sharp as the man in the portrait, but that’s him. “Yep,” Sudenshna tells me. “Three generations of the same family run this place.”

The ambiance is caught in a time lag and I couldn’t be happier. The orange booths, the fake plants hanging by the windows... it all definitely reminds of me of Dallas burger joints from my 1970s youth. Outside Golden Star is surrounded by car dealerships, another thing that reminds me of Dallas. Will the burger measure up?

I unwrap the burger. Looks good, looks good-- and it smells fantastic. I dig in, taking that all-important First Bite. Meat! Yes indeed, that rich Charcoal-broiled taste of straight-up flame-cooked meat. This burger is freakin’ good. There’s a reason Golden Star has been around since 1964, and I think I just figured out what that reason is. I take another big burgery bite, and then another and another. Switching over to the onion rings... they are perfect. Crispy and golden brown.

Saira and Sudenshna and I eat and laugh and eat some more and then it’s time to go. I take one last glance around, soaking in as much of The Ambiance That Time Forgot as I can and then we head back into the here and now.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Bellwood Bar & Grill

The gates of Trinity-Bellwoods Park

Sunday August 26, 2007

Restless Sunday-- phone calls made but no one is answering. Back to the Basics: a Solo Burger Quest. And where else to go on this restless Sunday but back to The Old Neighborhood? Yes, Queen Street West is calling my name. I’m not headed to any of the so-hip-it-hurts bistros or clubs-- I don’t want a burger with @#$%*@ shaved truffles on it, I just want a big ol’ honest hamburger and I know just where to get it. I call the restaurant first to make sure it’s open. This is Sunday, after all, and the long arm of The Protestant Church still reaches into many of Toronto’s nooks and crannies. The phone rings a few times-- my heart sinks-- and then a dude picks up and shouts, “BELLWOOD!” They’re open.

Outside is quiet and cool. Summer winding to a close. The streetcar trundles me uneventfully along Queen Street. A little four year old girl sits boppin’ to her ipod. Music ends and she lifts off her headphones and turns to her mother: “I want Mickey!” A crazy lady changes seats five times.

I step off the streetcar and land smack dab in the middle of Queen Street memories. I lived here for five years in a rooftop shack built atop a fabric store. Below me was an alcove where my homeless friends-- Greg, Stephanie, Punker Dave-- would gather to drink and smoke and shoot the shit. I did my drinkin’ on my rooftop deck (about the same size as my shack) with Saira, my friend and neighbor and bartender, who would knock on my door around five o’clock with a tray of martinis in her hands: “It’s cocktail hour!” Friends would drift by with more booze and the evening would slowly unwind, sun slowly setting behind the public housing across the alley. Good times!

If you’re heading West along Queen Street West, you’ll hit The Bellwood Grill right before you come to Trinity-Bellwoods park. (Hmm... makes sense.) Inside The Bellwood is strictly no frills: a long lunch counter and a few tables. Two T.V. sets blaring. I opt for the (empty) patio: four picnic tables on a concrete slab. Cinderblock wall and a sky blue fence. Birds rustle in the trees. The leaves are changing color, fading to brown. Fall nostalgia rushes in. School days long since over but the anxiety dreams return like clockwork near the end of every August. It’s usually a variation of sitting happily in High School on report card day. I get my report card and panic: there on my transcript is a class (usually math) that I didn’t know I had and therefore have never attended in my life. My mark? Zero Percent, a whopping big fat goose egg. The dream then continues with me running around freaking out trying to find the classroom and talk to the teacher and see if we can somehow straighten this whole mess out. I run through the crowded hallways and get hopelessly lost, hallways slanting downward, stairs appearing and then disappearing-- and then finally in my dream I pause and say, ‘wait a minute-- this report card must be okay because I already graduated from high school. Wait a minute! I’ve already graduated from University!” With this realization all tension dissipates and I wake up, relieved to be done my schoolin’-- or at least my formal schoolin’. If you’re lucky, you never stop learning.

On the patio: a cool breeze and darkening clouds. Can I gobble down my burger before the rain hits? It’s so quiet and peaceful here, tucked away from the steady hum and hubbub of Queen Street West. My fall nostalgia becomes tinged with loneliness: I miss my friends, I miss my wife. I’ll see them all (friends and wife) soon but as the postcard says, I wish they were here.

I just caught a whiff of grilling meat and my caveman instinct awakens-- grab my club and start swingin’, vaulting over fallen bodies to get at that sweet, sweet meat. Yep, I have done the improbable and ordered a Sixteen Ounce Burger. Many times have I passed by the chalk menu on the sidewalk outside The Bellwood and thought, ‘man... sixteen ounces. I’ll have to come back someday when I’m really, really hungry.’ Guess what? That’s right! Today is the day.

The burger arrives in all its sixteen ounce glory. Oh man it smells good and it looks good: toasted bun, huge thick patty garnished with lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and mustard, the whole burger cut in half for easy handling.

THE FIRST BITE: hot and nourishing. There’s something mixed with the meat but it tastes good. Black pepper? The first half goes quickly, leaving me smacking my lips, a salty aftertaste tingling on the tongue. I breathe deep and dive back in. It’s a Beef Extravaganza!

This is one seriously beefy burger. It’s definitely about the meat. This is a take-no-prisoners burger not intended for lightweights. I stare down at the last bite sitting on the white oval diner-style plate and for a minute I think about walking away but I know I won’t. I gobble down the last huge meaty bite and then sit stunned. I should’ve brought a hammock in case I lapse into a beef coma. Yep, I’ve got Post-Meal Nap Syndrome in full effect. I want to stretch out atop the picnic table and fall asleep. I want to fall back into the straw and doze with the dogs like they did back in Medieval times.

The friendly server pops in to see how I’m doing. I crack wise about taking a nap and she laughs. “There ya go! I’ll bring you a pillow.”

All right-- gravity is pile-driving me into the ground. Better go pay and walk it off. At the counter the grillman squints at me. “What did you have?” A burger, I tell him. Fries? No fries. The grillman nods. “Five bucks.” Five bucks? FIVE BUCKS!? I hand the server a two-dollar tip. This has been the best deal so far, by far. I say goodbye to the grateful server and step back into the flow of Queen Street West: an ocean of hipsters and graffiti. Ahead of me is a cute Asian woman with a tattoo an antique gramophone on her back. It’s a sign. I walk into Rotate This, buy some albums and then head for home.

Monday, 1 October 2007

The Yellow Griffin

Thursday August 16th, 2007

Come with me now to The Yellow Griffin, land of a thousand burgers. Okay, 35-- but still 35 different burgers is pretty damn impressive. You might even say generous. “Care for a burger?” “Please!” “Care for 35 different hamburgers?” “Wha--?!?” And in actual fact there are more than 35 different burgers at The Yellow Griffin, because you can mix and match the toppings and the meat. Beef Burger? Check. Lamb Burger? Check. Turkey Burger, Salmon Burger, Veggie Burger? Check, Check and Check. My buddy and fellow Burger Quester Beau suggested I handle The Yellow Griffin’s bountiful burger offerings in the same manner as a wine tasting: “You should have a bite of each and then spit it out into a giant bucket.” An interesting (albeit disgusting) idea but I’m going to opt for the more traditional route, to wit: walking up Degrassi Street through the beautiful sunshine wearing a loose and billowing shirt my wife bought for me, heading to meet Saira, my friend and fellow burger quester. Together Saira and I head for the streetcar, talking burgers along the way. I’m bitching and moaning about Hal Burger shutting its doors-- that’s right, Hal Burger, the number one entry in the Quest so far, has closed down. Oh how cruel the fates! Alack alay! “Here’s your Texas-style burger, guy.” Smack gobble chomp-- and then it is gone, gone forever. “You never know,” says Saira. “We could be on our way to a new champion.” Yes! Keep hope alive. For what is a Quest but a journey of hope?

In Classical Antiquity The Griffin (also spelled Griffon or Gryphon) was a symbol of divine power, emblazoned on shields, tapestries and manuscripts. If you follow the thrilling world of heraldry-- the practice of designing, displaying, describing and recording coats of arms relating to the duties and responsibilities of officers of arms-- you’ll know that if you combine a Griffin (symbol of divine power, remember) with the color Yellow (also known in heraldry as Gold or ‘Or’) you get not a Wizard-of-Oz-esque Cowardly Griffin but a bold statement about the bearer of the coats of arms: this person is not only full of divine power but is also generous with that power, as Yellow (Gold, Or) most often means generosity. A generous divine burger? That works for me.

The subway disgorges us outside the Runnymede Station and we stumble blindly through the humid city, not exactly sure where the Yellow Griffin is but we know it’s got to be around here somewhere. In another journal, not the one I have clutched under my arm, is the address but of course that doesn’t help us now. “I think it’s this way,” says Saira, so away we go. I fix my eye on a pubby-looking establishment farther along the street but surely that can’t be it, not with the patio bristling with thatched tropical beach style umbrellas. A British-style pub with thatched beach umbrellas? Does-- Not-- Compute. And yet... yep, there it is, a big yellow sign with blocky black lettering: THE YELLOW GRIFFIN.

Into the pub we go to grab a table and wait for our third party, one of Saira’s friends who lives in the neighborhood. Inside The Yellow Griffin is tiny, a few booths and a handful of tables. A server brings us menus that look like the sign, yellow and black and blocky. Our eyes goggle at the menu, burger after burger after mouthwatering succulent burger. Shall I opt for the Bollywood Burger, perhaps with lamb instead of beef as a shout-out to my Hindu friends? Or perhaps the Firehouse Burger for a jolt of that spicy summer heat. The Calypso Burger? The list goes on. Mangos, Avocados, Peanut Butter... Peanut Butter?!? You name it and you can probably find it on top of a Yellow Griffin burger. Our friend joins us and we place our orders. I opt, of course, for The Classic: straight-up beef burger with mustard, onion, pickle, lettuce and tomato. Oh, and some onion rings. Didn’t I say months ago that I was going to cut out the fried sides for the remainder of The Quest? Arnold Schwarzenegger voice: “I Lied.” Or, more to the point, I caved. I folded faster than Superman on laundry day. Sorry, arteries: I just loves me some Onion Rings.

We The Questers kick back and wait for our food, all of us ravenously hungry and growing hungrier by the minute. “Good Food Takes Time,” a sign on the Yellow Griffin’s wall proclaims. Hopefully not too much time. To while away the minutes we chat about summer fun: chicken wing battles (“Whose wings will reign supreme?”) and sunbathing at Hanlan’s Point-- Toronto’s nude beach, frequented mostly by gay men.

After not too long a wait the burgers arrive! My burger is served open on a wooden plate covered in brown paper with four large onion rings on the side. The rings are large, but still-- four? I should’ve gone for the fries. Saira’s friend tells me I should’ve gone for the Sweet Potato Fries, which apparently are the best in the city. I bite into one of hers and she’s right. These are the best darn sweet potato fries I’ve ever had. Crispy on the outside, smooth and creamy on the inside. The onion rings are delicious as well: crispy, oniony, not at all greasy. But I’ve gotten distracted. The Yellow Griffin isn’t about onion rings or fries, sweet potato or otherwise. It’s about BURGERS!

I look down at my almost blackened burger sitting on a toasted bun, a tangle of red onion, pickle, lettuce and three tomato slices piled atop the meat. That blackened burger is pretty damn black... is it overcooked? I take a bite and find I am worried over nothing. That first bite is juicy and bursting with Beef. Yes. Yes. YES. This... this is a burger. I take another bite, bigger this time, letting the flavors roll around my tongue: charred beef and fresh onions and just a hint of salt. Not quite as highfalutin’ as Hal Burger but a worthy substitute. This is so close to what I’ve been searching for, so very close: a big meaty burger that tastes like BEEF. The last bite comes all too quickly, the last beefy delicious morsel disappearing down the hatch.

And with that The Burger Questers disperse, heading back to separate lives in the city but not before making plans to hit another burger joint together, and soon.

Sunday, 9 September 2007


Sat. Aug. 11, 2007

It’s a beautiful day, full-on summer sun lighting up the sky. At the Degrassi/Gerrard crosswalk I press the button, point to the other side of the street and start crossing. Some dyed blonde woman in sunglasses blabbering on her cellphone plows through the crosswalk in her SUV. On the other side of the road a long-haired dude shouts out, “Get off the phone, you idiot!” I grin and say, “Yeah, really.” Walking across these push-button crosswalks is always a gamble. Traffic Roulette. Be alert, fellow pedestrians!

Onto the streetcar I climb. I’m heading over to College St. and Clinton, the heart of Little Italy. Pizza Burger? Pasta Burger? No, I am meeting my wife for lunch at Utopia. No less than twelve-- count ‘em, twelve-- people have told me to go to Utopia to find the burger of my dreams. Does this bode well? I’m expecting a tasty burger but in Greek Utopia translates to “No Place” which is what Sir Thomas More, author of “Utopia,” was getting at: there’s no such thing as a Perfect Society and there may indeed be no such thing as a perfect Texas-style hamburger here in Toronto. We shall see, we shall see.

On the streetcar I sail through the streets, past the homeless woman at College and Bay sitting on the sidewalk with a dirty pillow (no case) behind her back, past the steely-eyed stone griffins guarding the outside of the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library (which reminds me, I still need to go to The Yellow Griffin, fabled land of 35 different types of hamburgers) and onwards, heading West. To the South The Goodyear Blimp is circling and a thought flickers through my head: why is The Goodyear Blimp circling over Kensington Market? “Yeah, uh, I need some saffron, papayas, chocolate-covered coffee beans, a jumbo chicken empanada and... uh...” Looking up, one hand shielding eyes from the sun, Goodyear Blimp turning its lazy circles in the sky. “Oh yeah! Four steel-belted radial tires, please.” It’s more likely that The Goodyear Blimp isn’t circling over the coffee houses and dive bars of Kensington, it’s circling over the rides and fried dough stands of The Ex (AKA The Canadian National Exhibition).

No fried dough for me, no-- not today. Today only a burger can satisfy. I jump off the streetcar at College and Clinton and two and a half minutes later (give or take-- it’s not like I was sitting crouched at my table with a gigantic cartoon-style stopwatch in my hand) Emma walks in and joins me. We peruse the menu and my eyes slide right to the hamburger. “Homemade Charbroiled Burger. A 1/2 pound of lean ground beef, grilled and served on a sesame seed bun topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, mustard, relish, pickles and green onion mayo.” Green onion mayo, eh? MUSIC NERD JOKE ALERT: What, is this place run by Booker T. and the MGs? AND NOW, for those of you who are not obsessive music geeks: Booker T. and the MGs (including Donald “Duck” Dunn) recorded a song called ‘Green Onions.’ What’s that old saying about jokes? Oh, yes-- if you have to explain them, they ain’t funny.

Em wants a burger, too, which is tricky because she can’t eat wheat. The menu gives her a brief ray of hope-- “Look! A Potato bun! You think it’s made with only potato flour? I can eat that!” But nope, unfortunately not. Also, the server goes on to tell us, there are bread crumbs in the beef. My heart sinks for my sweetheart but it also sinks for the notion of a delicious 100% beef burger. Man, folks sure like to stretch out the meat with all kinds of crazy shit. Bread crumbs, eggs, oats... OATS?!? I don’t want a meatloaf, I want a hamburger. Echoes from the epigram of this book: “You’ll get nothing! And like it!” (Caddyshack). Still, you never know. Never say die! I order a burger with everything except relish and my hunny orders a smoked salmon salad.

We lean back in the casual hipness of the restaurant and wait for our food. Em grabs a napkin and wipes off our table. “This table is covered with sugar!” She’s right: the tabletop is grainy, gritty and sticky. Music is pumping through the speakers and the music is too loud. WHAT’S THAT, GRAMPA? Yep, I have crossed the hipster rubicon and there’s no going back now. Time to put on loafers and a faded yellow cardigan.

The food arrives! The burger looks great: big and juicy, charred meat resting nicely on toasted bun. THE FIRST BITE is as juicy as it looks. Rivulets of mayo and meat juice cascade down my chin. This is a good burger, a very good burger but it’s also a bit of a head-scratcher. As good as this burger is, it’s not ‘twelve people telling me to go to Utopia’ good. Then again, those people and I are working with different measuring sticks. This Utopia burger is a very tasty Canadian-style burger but... Exactly. Not what I’m looking for.

I settle back with my burger and fries. These fries are fantastic, salty and hot, very crispy on the outside, light and fluffy inside. I share the fries with my wife and we have a tense conversation about housing and money and I mean belly-constricting tense. No fun at all but we manage to pull it together and head back into the city streets to wait for a streetcar that never comes. We hop into a cab and together we head for home.

Saturday, 1 September 2007


Friday August 10th, 2007

Somehow I’ve gotten totally turned around and I’m walking up and down the Danforth for the third or fourth time, totally lost. Where The Hell is Lick’s? For sure that’s it up ahead with the red awning, yep, gotta be. Nope. I pause and scratch my head. What goes on? I know Lick’s is around here somewhere. I’ve walked past it many times. Maybe back this way? But I’ve just come from there. I’m going in circles on a long straight road. A good metaphor, perhaps, for this Quest itself. Venturing forth, feet beating all over The City and then every night I’m back at home, safe in my comfy bed. What am I doing? What am I really looking for? Several people have told me I’m going to fail at this Quest, that I cannot find the Texas-style burger of my youth here in The City of Toronto and if that’s true then what the Hell am I doing? Back and forth, back and forth, runnin’ around like a fool stuffing my face with ground meat. Where the Hell is Lick’s?

I have not gone far enough. That’s the problem right there. Go farther, keep pushing, keep truckin’ on down the line. Lick’s is not where I thought it was but is farther East, at Danforth and Pape. I have found it at last and I step inside, a ‘Welcome’ banner strung up over the cheerful yellow counter. I step into the kid’s birthday party atmosphere of Lick’s, all bright primary colors and balloons and streamers, red and gold stars stuck to the walls, plastic balls and Hawaiian leis and inflatable whales suspended from the ceiling. I walk past the wooden antique-ice-cream-parlor-style benches Lick’s has instead of booths and go up to the counter and place my order. The friendly countergal takes my name but doesn’t sing to me as I was fearing. Instead the countergal turns and sings the order to the grill gals who sing back to her, a hamburger call-and-response that is part of the official Lick’s party atmosphere but these gals seem to be having a genuinely good time. Perhaps more businesses should instigate this singing policy, Board of Directors at The Bank of Montreal leaping onto the tabletop and throwing up the Jazz Hands: “Money! That’s-- What I Want!” Yes indeed, a Motown classic that would no doubt cause the workday to roll by smooth. My buddy and fellow Burger Quester Beau once worked at the Lick’s in Kingston, ON briefly one summer and he did NOT like singing especially to the drunken students who would walk in snickering and give fake names... “Yes, hello, my name is Phil McCracken and I would like a tasty hamburger.” But even worse than that, Beau tells me, is the time a mutual friend of ours, a comedy genius, stepped into the store. ‘Here we go,’ thought Beau, preparing himself for the onslaught of mockery. Instead our mutual friend couldn’t even make eye contact, shuffling forward, staring embarrassed at the floor.

Lick’s is a Canadian Institution, founded by Denise Meehan in 1980 and unlike other formerly Canadian institutions that are now owned by Americans-- The Hudson’s Bay Company, Molson Breweries (makers of Molson Canadian... you won’t be seeing “I Am Actually American” advertisements anytime soon), and Tim Horton’s-- Lick’s is still 100% Canadian owned. At Lick’s the thing to order is their Homeburger, which according to their website is “a huge patty made with top quality pasteurized ground beef grilled perfectly over charcoal and a special sauce called Guk!” This is the burger I order and then as I stand in line waiting for my burger to cook the countergal sees me jotting in my journal and asks, “you write?” Why, yes, yes I do. This is a Burger Quest First. No one else has made a peep about me scribbling madly in my big black journal. Ah, the anonymity of The City! I explain myself to the countergal and tell her about The Quest. “Cool!” She says. “Yeah,” I say and then she is off to take more orders.

My burger and onion rings are ready! On my direction the grill gal loads up my burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, mustard and yes, Guk Sauce which is like a garlicky mayo. I take a seat surrounded by balloons and streamers and dig in. THE FIRST BITE is beefy, spicy and delicious. No toasted bun... I should’ve asked for it toasted. The onion rings are none too fresh, sitting in a wire rack above the deep fryer for who knows how long, becoming heavy and laden with grease. This burger is great, though: one of the best chain (as of this writing Lick’s has twenty-four stores) burgers I’ve ever had. I pop the last bite into my mouth and then I am gone, retracing my steps, heading for home, moving in circles on a long straight road.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Square Boy

Friday July 31st, 2007

A hot sweaty day. I’m swimming in a soup of myself as I stagger through the rapidly gentrifying Toronto East neighborhood known as Leslieville. I’m going over to meet my buddy Beau (who you might remember from such stops on the burger quest as The Rivoli) and then we’re headed North to The Danforth and the next stop on The Quest: Square Boy.

Yep, time to restart The Quest. Emma and I have been out of town on a honeymoon of sorts, hanging out with her sister Thaba and Thaba’s husband Phet and their kids and other various assorted family and friends at Thaba and Phet’s house near Wiarton (home of Wiarton Willie, Canada's answer to Punxsutawney Phil.) We’ve been swimming at the beach, reading Harry Potter, eating good food, running around with the kids on the lawn... cheers to Thaba and Phet for their generous hospitality! But alas, as John Milton puts it in Paradise Lost, “All things move toward their end,” and our Wiarton vacation is no exception. So here I am, swimming through the concrete city beneath a blazing sun, still striving for that perfect burger.

I meet Beau at his house and we detour over to Value Village so Beau can drop off a load of crappy-- and I mean really crappy-- records. Then we catch the Pape bus-- which is air-conditioned, thank God-- and off we go, heading North toward The Danforth.

The bus drops us off and we start trekking Eastward. “I used to call ‘Square Boy’ ‘Burger Cube’,” Beau says, and as we walk closer I can see what he means. The restaurant is in fact a giant cube, a good example of the utilitarian architecture of the 1970s. Not quite Brutalism, but pretty damn close. ‘Square Boy’ is in a square building... makes sense. Oh, so you mean the owner wasn’t a big fan of Spongebob Squarepants? Not to my knowledge, no. But why is it called Square BOY? I envision a restaurant frequented only by stereotypical nerds from the 1950s, all tucked-in button-down shirts and thick black-rimmed glasses, calculating burger prices on their slide rules while a goateed beret-wearing hipster walks by sadly shaking his head. “Those boys are Square, man. I’m talkin’ boxed in and uptight. Real Nowheresville, Jim.”

Is that me? Am I now, after my marriage, a Square Boy? Is it time to move to the suburbs, put up a white picket fence and start waxing philosophical about lawn care? In a word, no. In two words, HELL NO. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a Square Boy. These are the people who keep the entire ball of society bouncin’ along. If everyone wanted to live like a crazy artist... well, it wouldn’t work. “Sorry, man. I’d love to fix your exploded toilet but I need to be inspired first. Hey, you mind if I borrow some of this water? I’ve got an idea for a watercolor painting. I call it... ‘Exploded Toilet.’” So here’s to The Square Boys for providing us all with Goods and yes, Services! There’s nothing wrong with being a Square Boy, but it’s just not who I am. There are many, many ways to lead your life on this planet. You do not have to accept the default. You can find your own way and negotiate your own system of living. Some time-honored traditions make sense and some do not, and we here in the Secular West have the luxury of being able to pick and choose which traditions to keep and which to kick to the curb.

Emma and I have been talking about traditions a lot recently during the run-up to the wedding. Makes sense, right? Marriage is an institution that carries a lot of cultural baggage. This baggage sinks into our heads as we grow up: this is the way A Wife acts, this is the way A Husband acts. Oop, now we’re married-- better start up the lawn mower! I suppose the important thing to keep in mind is that there is not A Husband, there are husbands and there is not A Wife, there are wives. And there, waiting for Beau and myself on the Square Boy patio, is Emma, my lovely wife.

Into the ‘Burger Cube’ we go, lining up next to the vintage (or is it fake vintage?) tabletop Galaga/Ms. Pacman arcade game. Man, that video game takes me back to the first video game I ever saw, or at least the first one I remember seeing. The year was 1981 and there it was, a Pacman tabletop game in a Pizza Inn back in Dallas. I remember being intrigued by the colors and the noise and I wish I could say that I knew right then that the world was on the cusp of a technological revolution but man, I didn’t have a clue. I was just an 8 year old kid who wanted a slice of pizza. My childhood pizza topping? You guessed it: hamburger.

Back in The Here & Now we The Burger Questers sidle up to the counter, peer at the lunch counter-style menu board and place our orders. I order a Homemade Burger with fries and a root beer and then we walk over to a lavender-colored (Lavender? Dirty Lavender? Off-Lavender? Hospital Purple?) booth and wait for our numbers to be called.

Business is boomin’: it’s around noon and Square Boy is packed with the lunch rush but our orders are ready in no time at all. working with the counterman I get my burger assembled: I point out the toppings and he piles on the pickles, onions, tomatoes, mustard, ketchup and mayo. Back at the booth I lift the bun and take a gander. Big burger, nicely grilled, on a toasted sesame seed bun. I dig in. The First Bite: The Square Boy burger doesn’t have that extra-beefy extra-smoky charcoal-grilled flavor I love, but it is still a great diner-style burger. The bun is a bit too big for the patty but the toppings are nice and fresh. No wilted pickles here. We eat our food and drink our drinks and then it is time to go back out into the punishing summer heat, smiles on our faces and our bellies full.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Wedding Burger

July 21st, 2007

Outside my parents’ window is a perfect summer day and I breathe a sigh of relief and a prayer of thanks. Down in the field are two white tents framed against a blue, blue sky: not a cloud in sight. Today Emma and I are getting married.

My Mom Frances and my Step-Dad Don have very generously agreed to host the wedding at their house in the Ontario countryside and this is where Emma and I are now, an hour and a half North of Toronto. Friends and family are converging on the house and some folks are already down by the tents setting up tables and tablecloths and centerpieces. I plunge into work, rolling round tables across the grass.

My Groomsmen arrive and plunge in, too: stringing up lights, carting boxes of booze down from the house. Margie (Mother of The Bride, Mother-In-Law-To-Be) comes down from the house with a basket of freshly made sandwiches, which we gobble down gratefully. More people arrive-- The Photographer, The D.J. Time blends by and the wedding grounds miraculously transform, a full banquet hall emerging from piles of random gear like a butterfly emerging fully formed from an old cocoon.

An army of caterers arrive and fan out, taking care of the finishing touches. My best man Iain hustles me and the other groomsmen back to the house to get dressed.

Inside the house people are everywhere, rushing around and getting things done: The Quartet, The Florist, a madcap flurry of coordination and logistics. Emma and her Bridesmaids are getting their hair done and the photographer is snapping off shots. Best Man Iain shelters me from the activity and leads us down into the basement. We emerge about twenty minutes later to meet The Minister for the Wedding run-through which is like an Abbot and Costello routine: “Wait-- who goes first?” But The Minister is very patient with us and we get it all worked out.

And then it is time. My Best Man nods to me. “Let’s go.” Outside The Quartet is Quartet-ing and guests are piling into the Ceremony Tent, dresses and light summer suits glowing in the sun. The Minister, the groomsmen and I pause a few feet from the tent and Emma-- radiant, glowing-- and her bridesmaids come down from the house.

The Quartet kicks into the wedding processional and we walk down the aisle. At the front of the tent Emma and I turn to face each other: wide eyes and smiles. Ring bearer Ji (who you might remember from The Tulip) in his tiny tuxedo very solemnly brings the rings. Do I, Adam, take this woman to be my lawfully wedding wife? I do. We kiss among the applause and the Quartet plays us from the tent.

Then photos, cocktails, dinner. The caterers have put on a magnificent spread. Smoked prime rib, BBQ chicken, veggie pasta. Em and I make the rounds: handshakes, hugs and backslaps. Everything and everybody looks great. I can’t stop smiling. We dance our first dance: “You Are Adorable” by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. We won’t be going on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ anytime soon, but we have fun.

The seal broken, folks flood onto the dance floor: my cousins, my brother and his fiancee and my Dad, boppin’ around the dance floor in his sunglasses like a 1940s Jazz Hipster.

Hours go by. In the corner of the tent there is a rustle of catering activity and folks start lining up for The Midnight Snack. Originally Em and I wanted a poutine truck AKA a chip wagon AKA a concessions truck to come rollin’ in around midnight to be greeted by shouts and cheers and much rejoicing from the crowd but alas, the caterers’ concessions truck was already booked so we got the next best thing: hot dogs, hamburgers and poutine, the fresh-cut fries deep-fried on the premises. As my buddy and fellow Burger Quester Beau put it: “I saw somebody walking by with poutine... I’m not such a poutine fan. Then I saw someone with a hot dog and thought, well... maybe I’ll get a hot dog. Then I saw someone with a hamburger and said, “they have HAMBURGERS?!?”

Yes, indeed we did. I wish I could say that this burger was IT, that mythic perfect burger from my Texas childhood, the best hamburger I have ever eaten. I wish I could say The Quest ends here at my wedding-- the classic Shakespearean ending-- but alas, it does not. This burger is lukewarm, cooked from a frozen patty, the kind of burger one wolfs down while walking the midway at the fairgrounds, heading for the whack-a-mole game or the bumper cars. Burger fuel: a sustenance burger. Still, I munch it happily. This burger is not about the mythic past or the distant future, this burger is about The Now. I am in the middle of the moment, a huge grin on my face. I am married to the woman I love and we are surrounded by family and friends, wrapped in a swirl of love, hope, happiness, hamburgers.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

The Tulip

Tuesday July 17th, 2007

If, like me, you’re a fan of Mass Hysterias, you won’t be able to think “Tulip” without instantly making the mental leap to “Tulip Bulb Mania“: The raw speculative craze which swept through 17th Century Holland and drove prices of tulip bulbs-- that’s right, tulip bulbs-- as high as $76,000 in today’s dollars. Seventy-Six Grand for a single tulip bulb. A freakin’ Tulip Bulb!!! In 1636, the Tulip Market did what all overheated markets do: it crashed, and hard. Within a period of six weeks tulip bulb prices fell by 90%, and kept falling. Soon that $76,000 tulip bulb was selling for less than a dollar. Classical economics teaches us that human beings are rational actors who only act in their best interests. Stories like the above show that human beings can get swept up in speculation beyond any point of rationality and thus Classical Economics is full of crap.

Luckily for me, there is no current speculative Burger Mania sweeping through North America. I can go to The Tulip diner on Queen East and not have to pay seventy-six grand for a burger. This is a good thing. Accompanying me on this leg of The Quest are my future Father-in-Law Randy (who you might remember from *link* earlier in The Quest) and my five-year-old nephew Ji Hong.

The Tulip is a Diner Lover’s Diner, all dark polished wood and deep purple booths and chairs, stained glass Tiffany-style lamps dotting the lemon yellow walls, red-orange floor tiles the color of Mars. The delicious smell of frying onions wafts through the air to be replaced by the smell of freshly-made coffee. Behind the lunch counter is the same pie display case full of frothy cream pies, chocolate cake and cheesecake that you find in every diner everywhere.

The Tulip reminds me of the diner my Great-Grandmother and my Great-Aunt used to take us to in Oceola, Iowa. It was here I had onion rings for the first time in my life. Me, tiny and goggle-eyed at the mountain of crispy golden-brown onion rings in front of us... thank you, Grandma Houston and Aunt Jane for brightening my culinary horizons.

“Let’s sit in a booth,” says Randy. “It’s always cool to sit in a booth.”
“Why?” Asks young Ji Hong.
Randy: “Keeps the chairs from breaking.”
Ji, a devilish gleam in his eye: “When the World explodes, The Restaurant will break!”

In the booth Ji is full of 5-year-old energy, squirmy and full of questions:
“What’s a Quest?”
“Who’s King Arthur?”
“Can I go to the washroom?”

Randy leads his Grandson away and I lean back, cushioned by diner sounds: sizzling grill, murmur of conversation, clang and clatter of silverware, electronic beep de boop of some idiot in the booth behind me playing a video game on his cell phone.

Ji returns and climbs into the booth. “It’s lunch time and I’m having breakfast!” It’s the first meal of the day for me, too.

I flip open the menu. 9 ounce Jumbo Burger or 6.5 ounce Regular Burger? I think we all know the answer to that one, don’t we, Burger Fans? Jumbo, with coleslaw. “It comes with coleslaw.” And a water.

Restaurants in Canada hardly ever automatically set out water glasses. You have to ask, and in some cases (like today) you have to ask more than once. In Dallas, as soon as you sit down, BAM! Huge plastic water glasses as big as your head. Or in nicer restaurants, glasses made of actual glass, but delivered just as speedily. Chalk it up to the climate: in the blistering heat of the Texas Summertime, you must continually down liter after liter of water just to stay hydrated.

The Burgers (and Randy’s Corned Beef) Arrive! Randy helps Ji assemble his burger. “What would you like on your burger, Ji?” “Relish, of course!” Ji, unlike me, is a Relish Man.

The Burger is huge, grilled to perfection and served on a toasted buttered bun on a white oval plate just like at all the roadside diners from my youth.

Across the booth from me Ji strains to get his mouth around his massive hamburger. Ketchup falls into his lap. Grampa Randy steps in and helps him out, cutting the burger first in half and then cutting one half into smaller bites.

I turn to my own burger and dig in. The First Bite is beefy and meaty and delicious: grilled meat, mustard and onion. This burger is similar to Dangerous Dan’s: a member of the thick Meatloaf School of Burgers. It’s not quite what I’m questing for, but it is delicious.

The coleslaw, on the other hand... well, someone has to get the last of the batch and I believe today that someone is me. My slaw is a wilted dingy puddle. Across the table Randy’s slaw looks vibrant, fresh and festive. Ah well-- such is life. The Rose and The Briar. Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you. You can’t always have the freshest coleslaw on the block. This isn’t Coleslaw Quest, anyway. It’s The Burger Quest, and this here burger is mighty tasty and is soon gone, consumed into memory.

After the burgers are gone we get our server to crack open the pie case and we finish our meal by splitting a slice of chocolate cake. I turn to my nephew. “So what did you think of that burger, Ji?”
Mouth full of chocolate cake, Ji gives The Tulip burger Two Thumbs up.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Wimpy's Diner

Monday July 16th, 2007

“I am J. Wellington Wimpy, and I suggest we all have a hamburger on the house.” So proclaims Popeye’s sleepy-eyed mustachioed pal Wimpy at the beginning of “Plunder Island”, a sequence of ‘Thimble Theater’ Sunday comic strips that ran from 1933 to 1934. This was the only occasion that Thimble Theater’s creator, E.C. (Elize Crisler) Segar used the Sunday strips to tell an ongoing narrative: usually Segar’s Sunday strips were reserved for self-contained gags. In ‘Plunder Island,’ however, we see a comics master at work, weaving an intricate tale of piracy and adventure full of memorable characters (Wimpy, Olive Oyl, Alice The Goon, The Sea Hag), mystery, danger, and hamburgers.

J. Wellington Wimpy is a True Burger Lover. When captured by the Sea Hag he asks, “Do you, by chance, happen to have a bit of sandwich handy?” To which The Sea Hag replies, “I have fifty pounds of delicious frozen hamburger in the refrigerator. I’ll have the cook fry one for you.” Wimpy’s normally sleepy eyes pop open as he exclaims, “I beg pardon? Did you say Hamburger?” Wimpy then begins kissing The Sea Hag. “Wonderful lady, I cannot restrain myself any longer-- O pearl of sky-blue waters... eyes like distant suns radiant with atomic fire, my beloved hamburge-- ah, I mean Sea Hag.” Later, back on Popeye’s ship, Roughhouse the ship’s cook builds a hamburger stand on the deck to alleviate his homesickness (“You know, Popeye, I’m getting kind of homesick. Say, we used to have a lot of fun in my restaurant back home, didn’t we?”). Unfortunately for Roughhouse, his first customer turns out to be the ever-mooching J. Wellington Wimpy. “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Roughhouse gets so angry he pushes his hamburger stand into the ocean. Wimpy, fully clothed, dives in after it. In the last panel of that strip we see Wimpy inside the hamburger stand, bobbing on the waves and talking to himself: “What’ll you have on your hamburger, Mr. Wimpy? I’ll have pickle, onion and lettuce, both.”

As ‘Plunder Island’ continues we see Wimpy wrestle a live cow (“Hamburgers on the hoof! Relax, you brute! I have you!”), make hamburgers out of five lions guarding The Sea Hag’s treasure (“Good heavens! My lions!” “No, Haggy-- my hamburgers!”) and get beaten up by a gorilla who refuses to be knocked out and turned into hamburgers.

It makes sense that a restaurant named after a character who is willing to risk life and limb for a tasty burger would know a thing or two about hamburgers-- so I head for Wimpy’s Diner on The Danforth. Wimpy’s Diner (“There’s No Place Finer Than Wimpy’s Diner”) is a 50s-and-60s-themed restaurant chain with locations all over the city, but the Danforth location is near the glasses store where I’ve ordered new glasses for my Wedding Day. My old glasses are busted and twisted and scratched and chipped and held together by sheer force of will. If I stopped believing in my old glasses they would turn to dust and waft away in the breeze.

Earlier at the eye doctor I got eye drops and then went stumbling around outside with dilated pupils, the world blurry and washed-out white. I bought new shoes and a cream-colored shirt-- more items checked off my wedding checklist-- and then I dropped off my prescription before heading for Wimpy’s.

Walking into Wimpy’s is a blast of primary colors, red and blue: Red vinyl booths and stools, red and blue neon around the lunch counter. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” is rockin’ from the speakers. The walls are plastered with images, a shrine to pop culture of a bygone era: Popeye, Lucille Ball, Babe Ruth, Elvis, Betty Boop, Jayne Mansfield, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, The Three Stooges.

I sit down and a friendly server brings me a menu. I overhear another customer: “Their burgers are so good.” My napkin proclaims, “Our Specialty: Charcoal Broiled Hamburgers.” I order a hamburger.

The burger arrives lickety-split: a huge ten ounce slab of meat overlapping its bun. The burger is served open and the smell of grilled meat is making me INSANE. I lean closer, taking in the crosshatched grill marks and the condiments and toppings laid out on the bun: mustard, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, onion, relish (I should’ve asked for no relish) and two pickle slices arranged in a cross. The bun itself is a yellow egg bun, toasted, no seeds.

I pick up the huge burger and take a bite: nothing but meat. It’s beefy and salty with that odd Canadian taste that I still can’t quite place. Is it the feed? Something in the water? Additives to the beef? More research is called for!

So this Wimpy’s Burger is not quite right. Still, the toppings are fresh and $5.99 for a ten ounce burger is a good deal. Outside the street rumbles with construction and inside one of two T.V. sets is tuned to Cable Pulse 24: weather, traffic, stock prices scroll across the screen. If my Mom was here she would reach up and calmly turn off the Television, doing her part to reduce noise pollution.

Last bite: Gone! That was a truly mighty burger but I could eat another right now. That bacon burger at the neighboring table looks so good I want to run over and snatch it and then dart out the door. My Doctored Eyes have returned to more or less normal so I could make a speedy getaway. No, No-- stealing is wrong, we all know that. I’ll just have to come back another day.

What is it about 50s diners? The familiarity, I suppose. Familiarity and Nostalgia for the Pop-Culture version of the 1950s we’ve all learned from “Happy Days” and “Leave It To Beaver.” MAD TV did a sketch once where two couples go to a 50s diner on a double date. “You’ll love it,” says Couple Number One. “It’s so authentic.” The couples proceed into the restaurant only to be stopped by a waitress. “Sorry,” she says, “we don’t serve their kind.” The second couple, who happens to be Black, looks properly horrified. The first couple laughs it off. “See? What did we tell you? So authentic!” Seen through a primary-colored lens of Pop Nostalgia, The Fifties was a lot of fun: Davey Crockett Hats, Sock Hops and Hula Hoops... but like any Era, The 50s had its Dark Side: Racism, Sexism, Fear and Hatred. Am I seeing the Hamburger of My Youth through a Nostalgic Lens? Of course. I am seeking a hamburger that might only exist as an Idealized Memory, made up not of ground beef but of the sights and sounds of my Dallas childhood, a childhood that gets more golden with each passing year as The Dark Side retreats, leaving only memories of Happiness. That, of course, is how the mind works. With time, the mind throws out the bad and clings to the good. As Homer Simpsons says, “Everything looks bad if you remember it.” But now and then Memory and Reality happily intersect: a smell, a taste, a place... I still have hope, and so The Quest continues.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Magic Spot Grill

July 3rd, 2007

(Go west) Life is peaceful there
(Go west) in the open air
(Go west) where the skies are blue
(Go west) this is what we're gonna do
--Pet Shop Boys covering The Village People

“Go West, Young Man.”
--Horace Greeley covering John Soule

1851: Newspaper man John Soule of The Terre Haute Express writes “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” Fourteen years later, in 1865, publisher of The New York Tribune Horace Greeley chops off the end of John Soule’s phrase and renders it thusly: “Go West, Young Man.” And that’s what I’m doing, heading West toward The Magic Spot and the blue skies of Etobicoke.

Etobicoke! From the Native Mississauga word “wah-do-be-kang”, which means “place where the black (and/or) wild alders grow.” Etobicoke! A township in 1850 and one hundred and four years later, in 1954, part of The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto. Etobicoke! In 1998, the place where the black and or wild alders grow merges with five other local municipalities to form the amalgamated city of Toronto. And now, in 2007, I have a vast gleaming metropolis in which to romp and eat hamburgers. Gosh, it sure was nice of The Natives to clear out and leave us all this land!

The Westward trek begins. I walk over to Broadview, past the school where the exterior shots of Degrassi Junior High were filmed, past the school’s playing field now empty of children (SUMMER VACATION!!!!) and reclaimed by seagulls, waddling about all puffed-up and self-important. I know, I know-- there’s no bird taxonomically classified as “seagull” but I am a layperson when it comes to birds so therefore I am allowed to fall back on common usage of grouping various types of gulls under the broad umbrella of “seagull” rather than speculate as to what type of gulls I saw, which in all likelihood were ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis), the most common type of gull in all of Southern Ontario. I once saw a flock of seagulls (an actual flock, not the 1980s band Flock of Seagulls) chowing down on a heap of KFC debris but I’ve never seen a seagull eat a hamburger. I’m sure they would, though, if given half a chance. Filthy Scavengers!

If all goes well two Burger Questers will be joining me today: friend and bandmate Ronnie C. and his lovely wife and fellow bandmate Kristiina. No, that’s not a typo and no, you’re not seeing double (but if you are... lay off the hooch!)-- Kristiina is from Finland and she does indeed have three ‘i’s in her name. We’re meeting at 1:00 P.M. at The Magic Spot: will it work out? Will the spot indeed be magical? Will a magician with a twirly handlebar mustache reach into an upturned tophat and produce The Hamburger of My Childhood with a flourish and a ‘TA-DAAAA?’ Fingers crossed!

I take the streetcar up to Broadview station where I transfer onto the Bloor-Danforth Subway line heading... you guessed it... West. Man, Toronto Public Transit has come a long way since 1861. Back then the privately owned Toronto Street Railway Company was granted a 30 year franchise to provide the public with horse-drawn streetcars during the summer and horse-drawn sleighs in the wintertime. In 1894 the last of the horse-drawn streetcars was retired. One era ended and another one took its place: the Age of Electricity had begun. Watch the calendar: Sixty years flip by. It’s now 1954 and the first Toronto subway opens between Union Station and Eglinton Station. Twelve years after that, in 1966, the Bloor-Danforth line opens between Keele and Woodbine. It is this line (now expanded) that will carry me Westward toward a hopefully Magically Delicious Hamburger enjoyed in the company of friends.

The subway car smells like curry and my stomach starts to rumble. Next to me is a woman cutting her fingernails and leaving a pile of nail clippings all over the seat but neither she nor the fashion victim standing in front of me wearing a bucket hat, a down-filled vest, furry boots with pom-poms and tight (way too tight) short-shorts can extinguish this hunger. Come to me, O Burger of My Dreams!

A quick walk from Royal York Subway and lo, I have arrived! Before me is The Magic Spot, a big square building with a sign proclaiming “Under New Management: Putting The Magic Back In The Spot!” Could there be anything sadder than a Magic Spot that’s lost its magic? Yes, New Management: bring the magic back!

Inside The Magic Spot is a cafeteria-style lunch counter where you place your order. I tell the grill man I’m waiting for friends and then I grab a table up front and kick back. Now it’s a question of which will arrive first: my friends or unstoppable stomach rattling hunger?

Behind me the grill man (baseball cap and tattoos) bellows out orders for pickup: “Pork Dinner! Fish and Chips! “ The grill sizzles: the smell of pork souvlaki fills the air.

My friends are here! Hugs, handshakes and smiles all around. I walk up to the counter and place my order: 1 Homeburger, 1 Root Beer, 1 Onion Rings. I know, health fans, I know... but Ronnie C. tells me The Magic Spot has truly excellent onion rings and as it turns out, he’s absolutely right. I may be killing myself slowly but what a delicious way to die.

While we wait for our food Ron and Kristiina tell me about The Hamburgers of Helsinki, mostly served in late-night Burger Kiosks catering to hungry drunks. The Hamburgers of Helsinki are too saucy, I’m told-- too condiment-heavy and not about the meat. Too much sauce, stacked high with condiments to the point where the burgers must be eaten with a knife and fork.

Our orders are called. We swarm the lunchcounter and select our toppings. Mustard, Onion, Lettuce, Tomato, Pickle and a few Hot Peppers. Final Burger Assemblage complete, the counterman forks ‘em over: A Big Grilled Burger on a toasted sesame seed bun nestled next to a pile of golden brown and perfectly crispy onion rings all served up on a white oval diner-style plate. Looks good!

I pick up the burger-- good heft, good handfeel. The toasted bun is toasted and not soggy. I hold the burger aloft and take a whiff. I’m expecting charred beefy goodness but this burger-- which looks exactly like a burger should, right down to the grill marks-- doesn’t smell burgery at all. Maybe there is no burger in my hand. It’s all an illusion, made of smoke and mirrors. Damn you, Magic Spot!

The First Bite: an odd, spicy sawdusty taste. It’s somewhat familiar but it doesn’t taste like any burger I’ve ever had. Mental Fingersnap: Gyros Meat! Not quite but damn close. Grill haunted by The Ghosts of Souvlakis Past. Behold The Magic of The Gyros-Flavored Hamburger!

I turn from the burger and bite into an onion ring. It’s as good as it looks: hot, crispy and delicious. Ron points to his hamburger. “Would you like to try a bite of the regular burger?” I would. It’s indistinguishable from the homeburger. Outside is a beautiful summer day and we eat and talk and laugh and then the burgers are gone and we are heading back to the subway full of magic onion rings and so-so burgers. No man with a black hat and twirly mustache, no magical burger of my dreams, but we are full and fortified and ready to turn a so-so burger into an afternoon of friendship and fun... just like magic.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

The Rivoli

June 21st, 2007

A friend phones me up this morning and says, “Great day for a burger.” And whaddya know? She’s right!

When Burger Questing with friends, logistics come into play. Schedules must be checked and double checked, phone calls fly back and forth, little red pushpins get pushed into maps. Synchronize your watches: It’s Burger Time! And I’m not talking about the 1982 video game that I played as a kid in Dallas either. Man, that was one strange and oddly popular game. Hey kids! Tired of racing cars and fighting Ninjas? Now you, too, can experience all the fun of working in a Fast Food assembly line! Of course, when you work in a real Burger Joint you don’t make the burgers by walking on top of them (I hope) and you’re not dodging evil food-based enemies like Mr. Hot Dog, Mr. Pickle or Mr. Egg, unless you’re still coming down from the night before. “Peter, what are you doing hiding in the meat freezer? Get back to work!”
Peter, eyes as big as dinner plates: “Can’t do it, boss! Mr. Pickle is trying to kill me!”
“Um... You’re fired.”

I grab the phone. Let the Burger Call go out across the land! The Rivoli, One O’Clock! Two more Burger Questers agree to meet me and then I am gone, rattling over the bridge, heading back to Queen Street West.

The Rivoli is a Queen West landmark, a restaurant and club dispensing Black-clad Hipster Attitude since 1982. According to The Rivoli’s website, Mike Myers's Saturday Night Live German club character Dieter was inspired by a Rivoli waiter. The Rivoli is located on the same spot as the original 1920s Rivoli Vaudeville Theatre. I wish could go back in time and quest for burgers, Vaudeville Style!

“I feel like a hamburger.”
“Funny, you don’t look like a hamburger.”
“No, I mean: please make me a hamburger.”
“Luckily for you I’m not only a waiter, I’m also a wizard. POOF! You’re a hamburger.”

Okay, maybe not. I walk up to The Rivoli and there’s my Hunny waiting for me on the patio, smiling in the sunshine. A beautiful day, a beautiful woman... now all I need is a beautiful burger.

It's too sunny outside so we move indoors, where we are promptly joined by my buddy Beau. Our Burger Quest Quartet is now 3/4ths complete, but where’s the friend who called me this morning? She is Missing In Action. Perhaps she had a run-in with Mr. Pickle. That dastardly fiend!

Ah well: three out of four ain’t bad. We order: burger-- burger-- chicken satay. Chicken Satay?!? Hey, this isn’t Burger Tyranny. We here at Burger Quest strongly support Freedom of Choice. Although if everyone had ordered burgers I could’ve worked in a Blues Brothers reference: “Orange whip? Orange whip? Three orange whips.” In this case, it’s two orange whips and a crantini.

Turns out my Hunny would be allergic to the chicken satay, so she changes her order to a brie and berry salad. Then we kick back, talk about the upcoming wedding (Beau: “If you’re nervous, just have a shot or two with your bridesmaids. You’ll be fine.”) and wait for our drinks.

The glaciers melt and a new Ice Age begins. Those glaciers also melt and then our drinks finally arrive. “Sorry, we were changing the keg.” According to my dining companions, the beer is lukewarm. I stick with my Iced Tea, which is super sweet (not Texas-style) but cold and wet.

The food arrives and my stomach rumbles. The burger is served open on a toasted bun with no seeds, no seeds of any kind. Atop the meat is a mass of caramelized onions. On the other half of the bun are lettuce, tomato and a thin wrinkly pickle that looks like it spent too much time in the sun. You’ve heard of sun-dried tomatoes? Try New Sun-Wrinkled Pickles!

I mustard-and-ketchupify my burger from the plastic bottle of French’s and the glass bottle of Heinz on the table. Then I assemble the burger and hoist it up. I frown. The bottom of the bun-- the toasted bun-- is soggy. Is there some kind of Swamp Monster slogging through the Rivoli kitchen surreptitiously handling buns?
“Hey Beau-- is your burger soggy?”
How ironic. Burger Quest’s first toasted bun is also Burger Quest’s first soggy bun. Somewhere, ghosts of Canadian Vaudevillians are chortling.

The First Bite: It’s pretty good. A little overdone. As I chew I’m hit with a familiar taste. Soya Sauce? No, Hoisin Sauce. DID YOU KNOW? 'Hoisin' is a romanization of the Chinese word "海鮮", which literally means "seafood". Yet Hoisin sauce contains no seafood! Ah, sweet mysteries of life.

I scoop on some Chipotle Mayonnaise that my Hunny requested when she ordered her fries and the Burger goes up a notch or two in the flavor department. I slather the last bite in the Chipotle mayo and turn to my buddy.
“So what did you think?”
“Middle of the pack. I’ve had better, I’ve had worse.”*

I’d put this Riovli Burger at slightly-- just slightly-- above average. Sorry, Rivoli: ‘slightly above average’ just isn’t good enough.

* FOR THE RECORD: The best burger Beau ever had was grilled for him outside by his father, Harley. Beau’s worst burger was a plastic-wrapped and then microwaved cheeseburger from a vending machine. And the fourth member of our Burger Quest Quartet, who never showed but stopped by my house afterward, had to rectify a problem at work, which she very ably did.

Friday, 22 June 2007


June 18, 2007

Perfect Summer Day (is it actually Summer? Close Enough), sunny with a nice cool breeze. Sexy summertime gal in a tiny brown microdress walks by enraptured with her cell phone-- young couples walk dogs and babies-- houses for sale, houses sold-- I walk up DeGrassi to Gerrard.

I’m heading North for The Danforth so now I have a choice to make: Turn left and walk through Chinatown “B” (FUN FACTS: Toronto has Two Chinatowns, one on either side of The Don River. “Forget it-- it’s Chinatowns.” Doesn’t really have the same ring, does it?) or I could instead opt for a longer yet more pastoral walk-- “The long way around,” as it were.

Choice Made: See You Later, Chinatown “B”! I love your Dim Sum (slurping down slippery noodles with soy sauce) and your bean paste desserts but I want to walk among the trees and lawns of houses I cannot yet afford and ponder the weighty demands of The Future. I could afford to buy a house in the city through careful savings and wise investments over a period of time... or I could haul ass to Casino Rama and bet it all on Black! No, wait-- I mean Red!

I walk past the French Restaurant Batifole (“The Best French Food In Chinatown”, claims the chalkboard outside Batifole. Wait’ll this trend catches on: ‘The Best Tex-Mex Food in Little Italy.’ “Well, I came for the pasta prima vera, but I stayed for the enchiladas.”) and I turn North on Howland and then over to Logan. On Logan I amble past the Bain Co-op and their Utopian Housing For Urban Hippies and continue on past Withrow Park: dogs, joggers and more dogs. In another part of the park Moms and a few Dads gather with little kids, soccer balls and strollers.

On The Danforth I realize I’ve overshot Allen’s by a few blocks so I head West, catching a whiff of rubber from the tires on the bikes outside the bike store. I accidentally misread ‘Ratas Optical’ as ‘Rasta Optical’ (“I and I will check your eyes, mon”) and then I am at Allen’s.

Inside is very upscale “pubby”: dark and cool, air conditioner a welcome change from the sun beating down bongo-style on my poor bald head. Almost everyone else in the place is sitting out on Allen’s back patio, but me, I take a seat at the bar. Ah, memories of my drinkin’ days, that happy drunken feeling of tottering back from the bathroom, back to the warmth of laughter and friends. On their chalkboard Allen’s offers 14 beers on tap (plus one cider), and another 65 different beers in bottles, including Anchor Liberty Ale, a 650 mil. bottle for ten dollars and fifteen cents. Yeah... 650 mil of cold dark ale... oh man... ‘Anchor Liberty Ale’ reminds of me of drinking Anchor Steam Beer illegally in Dallas, coming back from loading trucks at the Frito Lay Warehouse, sittin’ by the electric fan and sucking back ice-cold lemonade and ice-cold beer...

Snap out of it, man! Stay On Target! Grab a menu, take a look. Where are The Hamburgers? Gasp! Have my Burger Informants turned on me? Have my Burger Senses failed?

In a word: no. There in italicized script are the words “We also serve what are considered to be Toronto’s Finest Hamburgers.” No price, no other information. What is this, a silent auction at Christie’s? All I want is a freakin’ Hamburger.

The tie-wearing bartender comes over and I place my order: One Sprite. One hamburger, Medium. All the trimmings, which turn out to be lettuce, onion, and pickles, with Dijon mustard and relish in little white bowls. Do I want fries with that? Yes I do but I will not order them. No beer, no fries. Looka Me, Ma! I’m exhibiting self-control!

I sit at the bar facing a wall of liquor (“Liquor Wall? I Don’t Even Know Her”) and I wait for my burger.

And I wait.

And I wait.

I’m getting impatient. Time has stalled: inside the pub it’s always Beer O’Clock. This portion of The Burger Quest is brought to you by Samuel Beckett. “Let’s Go.” “We Can’t.” “Why Not?” “We’re waiting for a Hamburger.”

At the end of the bar the phone keeps ringing and people keep coming through the door-- families and business guys and a whole lot of little old ladies ready to Brunch It Up. A few barstools away from me is a man sitting in front of a perfect pint of Guinness. I can smell that Goddamn delicious beer from here and if I was Plastic Man or Mr. Fantastic or even the short-lived Elongated Man (first appearance: The Flash #112, 1960) I could stretch out my hand and grab that Guinness and hoist it to my waiting lips. Why use my hand at all? I could just form my stretchy lips into a super-long straw. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

My burger finally arrives and instantly my thoughts turn from Super-Mooching and click into Burger Mode. This here hamburger is tiny, brothers and sisters, tiny and lonely in the middle of the plate with no side orders to keep it company. It’s served with the bun open which unfortunately only advertises the sparsity of the meat. Toppings: a slice of onion, lettuce, tomato and a thin slice of Strubbs pickle. No Strubbs pickles in Texas, folks. I wonder if there’s a Bizarro World Burger Quester down in Dallas, a Canadian ex-pat searching desperately for the Toronto-style hamburger of his or her youth... “I sure am getting tired of all these big 100% beef burgers flame cooked to perfection. And where in the heck are the Strubbs pickles?”

THE FIRST BITE: short on taste. Has the Sprite stripped my taste buds? Nope-- my sense of taste kicks in just in time to deliver this burger’s bizarre sour aftertaste. A sour hamburger? Brothers and Sisters, that just ain’t right.

Chomp, chomp, chomp and it’s gone. The Last Bite was nothing but bread and fixin’s. As Clara Peller would say, “Where’s The Beef?”

QUICK BURGER TRIVIA: Can you name Clara “Where’s The Beef” Peller’s only movie role? “Hamburger Hill?” (1987) No, although that would’ve been awesome. “Good Burger?” (1997) Nope. What about “Hamburger: The Motion Picture?” (1986) This classic Bad 80s Movie stars famed Chicago Sports announcer Dick Butkus as a drill sergeant-like instructor at Burger University, where a young slacker has gone to get a university diploma in order to receive his sizable inheritance. Archetypes? We got 'em! They're all here: the fat guy, the geek, the sexy broad, the wacky nun-- nothing says comedy like a wacky nun, unless it's a wacky nun being taught how to make hamburgers by Dick Butkus. But alas, no Clara Peller. Ms. Peller’s only movie role was in “Moving Violations” (1985) about a group of wacky archetypes attending a driving school. Of course! “Moving Violations” also features a young Don Cheadle in his star turn as a worker at “Juicy Burger,” which is a cinematic echo of young Nicholas Cage's (back when he was still billed as "Nicholas Coppola") blink-and-you-miss-it role as a burger worker in "Fast Times at Ridgemount High" (1982). Judge Reinhold was his boss-- how humiliating!

Ms. Peller is unfortunately no longer with us, having shuffled off this mortal coil on August 11, 1987 at the age of 85, a mere three years after first inquiring as to the whereabouts of the beef. To commemorate the 20th Anniversary of her passing, on August 11 of this year (2007) I will venture forth and find the beef. It’s not at Allen’s, that’s for sure.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Randy's Burgers

June 10, 2007

As faithful Burger Quest readers have no doubt noticed by now, this Quest is not a straight line. It's not a linear progression from Point “A” to Point “B” (“B” for “Burger,” natch) but a meandering journey through various highways and byways, a journey through the present informed by the lingering memories of the past, sepia-toned like old Wild Western photographs of eager young men setting out to meet their future.

Today I’m basking in my own future, sitting smiling and sunburned in my Soon-To-Be-Parents-In-Law's backyard hours after a Jack and Jill wedding shower thrown by my Wife-To-Be’s Aunt and Uncle, where we chowed down on tasty eats (sausage rolls, cheese, grapes, meatballs... party-type food) and opened gifts surrounded by family and friends beneath a bright blue sky. After the shower a handful of partygoers accompanied us back to Margie and Randy’s (my future in-laws) for more backyard summertime fun featuring more tasty eats: hot dogs and Randy’s homemade burgers.

I wasn’t even questing today, but The Quest found me. Just like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III (which never actually happened, right? Let’s all agree that there were only two Godfather movies and they were both great and leave it at that), “every time I think I’m out-- they pull me back in!” Just as Michael can’t escape his criminal past, I cannot escape The Burger Quest.

But why would I want to escape? Chowing down on delicious hamburgers may have some health related pitfalls, but let’s face the facts: eating burgers, regardless of toppings, condiments or side orders, is, in the long run, still better for your health than running an international criminal syndicate. So forget the Mafia and pass me one of Randy’s delicious burgers.

Margie and Randy live near Danforth Ave (known to Toronto locals as “The Danforth”), renowned for its countless Greek restaurants. Although I have seen Greek Burgers for sale on various menus (feta, onion, olives), this isn’t how Randy makes ‘em. He follows his mother Stella’s recipe: fresh ground beef mixed with minced onions and a bit of egg for binding. Onto the grill they go: my Future Father-In-Law (sounds like a movie: Future Father-In Law! Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Charlie, before you meet my father, there’s something you should know. He’s... from the future.” SMASH! Arnold breaks through the living room wall with his mighty cyborg fist. “Charlie, if you want to marry my daughter, you must return with me to the future and help me defeat an evil army of nuclear-powered robots. Here-- you can borrow my jacket.”) and my Stepdad stand by the grill talking politics and are soon engulfed in a huge cloud of burger smoke.

I can’t remember my biological father (who still lives down in Texas) ever cooking hamburgers, although I’m sure he did at some point. He did tell me a burger-related story, though. As a young man, my Pop was an army officer who had arrived in Germany fresh off the boat from Oklahoma. One fine evening Pop decided to leave his base and explore the nearby town. He stopped at a restaurant for dinner and, as he knew very little German, struggled with the menu. At last he found a word he recognized: steak. “That,” my Pop said, stabbing his finger at the menu. “Bring me that.” I can picture my Pop sitting at a table in some tiny German bistro, his army khakis nicely pressed, his camera by his side, closing his eyes and fantasizing about the delicious flame-cooked slab of meat that was on its way. Pop opened his eyes and there in front of him was a raw egg pooling atop a mound of raw hamburger. “Steak” it was, in a form he had never seen before: “Steak Tartare.”

My Pop didn’t realize it at the time, but he was a unwitting participant in a food ritual dating back to the days when Genghis Khan (1167-1227) and his Golden Horde of Mongol Horsemen conquered two-thirds of the known world. The Mongol Army moved quickly, war horses thundering across the plains. Often the Mongol Warriors had no time to stop and eat so they would eat on the go, chewing on raw meat patties formed from the scrapings of lamb or horse or mutton. The patties were then tenderized beneath the Warriors' saddles as The Golden Horde charged into battle. Hey! My raw lamb patty tastes horsey!

Apparently, today's Mongol Horsemen also enjoy bicycles.

In 1238, The Mongol Army, led by Genghis Khan’s Grandson Khubilai Khan, swarmed into Moscow. During the occupation The Russians adopted the Mongol cuisine, calling the raw shredded meat “Steak Tartare”-- “Tartars” being the Russian name for “Mongols.”

By the 15th century, raw minced beef was a delicacy which could be found throughout Europe. In the 1600s, German ships operating from the port town of Hamburg began trading with Russia. Among the many goods winding their way back to Hamburg was “Steak Tartare,” or, as the Germans called it, “Tartare Steak.”

In the 18th century, Germany had the largest ports in the world. Sailors from all four corners of the globe spread the word of “Hamburg Steak.” By the 19th century German Immigrants were arriving in the United States-- mainly New York-- in large numbers, bringing with them Hamburg Steak: low-grade shredded beef served both cooked or raw and sometimes stretched by adding bread crumbs and minced onion.

My future Father-In-Law’s onion-studded hamburgers, then, are closer to Ye Olde Hamburger Experience (“Hamburg Steak”) than the Texas-style all-beef burgers of my youth. Undoubtedly my Pop, who was none too impressed by his close encounter with Steak Tartare, would have gladly traded that mound of raw meat for one of Randy’s flame-cooked burgers. Alas, these burgers are Eastern European style rather than Texas-style and thus The Quest for the burger of my childhood cannot end here, surrounded by family and friends, eating burgers lifted fresh from a sizzling grill. That said, who am I to argue with History? Eastern European-style hamburgers, as made by a master chef like Randy from his mother’s recipe, are delicious. I chow down on a big oniony burger, pause to catch my breath and then go back for seconds.

Thank you, Randy. Thank you, Grandma Stella. Thank You, Margie and Thaba and Don and Frances and all the Wedding Shower and Backyard BBQ Guests. And a very special thank you to you, Emma, my lovely Wife-To-Be. My stomach is full, I am happy and content and somewhere the Burger Gods are smiling.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Hal Burgers

Friday June 8, 2007

Back on the Queen Streetcar, heading West through the washed-out summertime city, hot sun above and a cool breeze floating through the open streetcar window. Let’s be clear here: it’s hot but it’s not Texas Summertime face-melting blast furnace hot and Thank God for that.

I’m heading for Hal Burger, past the two homeless guys stretched out sleeping in the sunshine amid a scatter of newspapers on the lawn of the church on the corner of Queen and Power, past the incongruous pile of snow outside the Moss Park Rec Center Hockey Rink, into the lunchtime crowds thronging the sidewalks near Yonge Street. Outside City Hall, in front of one of the chip trucks (or “Concession Trucks,” as they’re known in the biz) a line snakes back about thirty people deep and I make a mental note: chip truck burgers? Could be good. Not long after I began this quest a friend emailed me about a High Park chip truck that apparently has the best fries (“chips”) in the city. Perhaps the burger of my dreams is sizzling on a mobile grill and I will have to track it down stunt-man style, leaping from a moving car onto the chip truck roof.

I jump off the streetcar and head south, Burger Compass steering me straight for Hal Burgers. On the corner of John and Adelaide, right across from Hooter’s, is a huge pile of horseshit. Thank you, Mounted Police! At least they could do is have a chain gang stretched out behind them to scoop up the horse droppings. What will the tourists think? “Welcome to Toronto! Never mind the horseshit!”

I continue on, getting my bearings from the Martha-Stewart-Paint-Sample-Style Hal Burgers sign. Inside: lime green paint and sleek dark wood. This is one o’ them highfalutin’ burger joints, packed with business folks in causal clothes and healthy-looking hipsters. I take a seat at the bar and peruse the menu. In addition to regular burgers and a variety of global-style burgers (Tandoori, Bangkok) Hal Burgers offers the following burger add-ons for prices ranging from a buck to three dollars:

Goat Cheese
Portobello Mushrooms
Roasted Jalapeno
Caramelized Onion
Pico de Gallo
Chili Mayo
Mango Chutney
Ginger Melon Relish
Shittake Mushrooms

I opt for an 8 ounce regular burger, medium, with coleslaw and an iced tea. The iced tea, I’m delighted to discover, is real tea: i.e., brewed unsweetened tea that’s been cooled and iced, vs. the cans of tea-flavored corn syrup you so often get stuck with when you order an iced tea. Real Texas-style iced tea! That’s a good sign. There’s no burger rhetoric on the menu or the walls, either: another good sign. Let the burgers themselves do the talking.

The bartender brings me my burger and it is beautiful: served with an open bun, meat on one side and the other piled high with lettuce, tomato and red onion. The only thing missing is dill pickle.

I assemble my burger and take The First Bite. Rich Grilled Meat Goodness! Yes. Yes. YES! This... this is a Burger. Each bite is sending me back, back to block parties and summertime cookouts. Each bite is better than the last. The Meat (oh man, The Meat!) is grilled to perfection. The bun, flecked with a few sesame seeds, is light and fluffy and golden brown, the color of a croissant. On the side the coleslaw is carroty orange and extra-tangy. Served in three little bowls are homemade ketchup with a faint cinnamony taste, mustard seed mustard and spicy mayo burger sauce. I scoop on more of the spicy mayo and plunge back in.

I don’t want this burger to end, but it has come to this: The Last Bite. It’s as good as the first, bursting with grilled meat goodness. Even as I chew I’m already fantasizing about corralling everyone I’ve ever known and bringing them here to turn them onto one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten. “Hello, friend! You say you want a burger? Come with me...”

Could it be? Have I found it, that perfect burger of my youth? This is the closest one yet. At 14.99 (before tip) for a burger and iced tea it ain’t cheap, but I would gladly pay double-- nay, triple-- the price for a burger this tasty.

Back on the streets I’m happy, ecstatically happy, filled with an incredible sense of well-being. Burger Chakras in alignment: all is right in the world. Move over, Burger Shoppe: Burger Quest has a new top burger.

p.s.: I bet you five bucks this is the most favorable review to ever contain the phrase ‘huge pile of horseshit.’ Any takers?

UPDATE: Hal Burgers is now closed. I guess flying in beef from Alberta wasn't all that cost efficient. The Quest Goes On...

Friday, 8 June 2007

Dangerous Dan's

June 5th, 2007

Man, I’m HUNGRY. Can’t risk messin’ around with some unknown and untested burger joint that might try to pass off some teeny-tiny meat speck as a full-fledged burger. No, I’m-a gonna go with the Tried & True: Dangerous Dan’s it is.

Dangerous Dan’s Diner is one of those places where Reality collides with Legend. Some folks say it’s been around since the 1960s but really it opened in 1999. Some say Dangerous Dan is the man behind the counter but in fact “Dangerous Dan” is the owner’s grandfather who got his nickname not because he was some rough and tumble miner stomping in from the Klondike (a la Robert Service’s 1907 poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”) but because he enjoyed wrestling with his grandson.

Some of the myths, however, are true. The atmosphere of Dangerous Dan’s can be a little, shall we say, rough. Amid the ripped-out car seats which double as booths neighborhood characters mingle with drunks staggering in from Jilly’s, the strip club across the street. When the owner (James McKinnon) hired his first cook, he asked the cook if he could fight. As McKinnon puts it, “I can’t teach someone to fight, but I can always teach somebody how to cook.”

And cook they do: big delicious burgers that are taken to the extreme. 8 ounce burger not enough? Then go for an Elvis Burger with bacon, peanut butter and fried bananas. Or try The Big Kahuna Burger, with a pineapple slice, peameal bacon and mozzarella. Still not enough? Well, then, you better get The Coronary Burger Special: 2 8 oz Patties, 4 Slices of Bacon, 2 Slices of Cheddar and a Fried Egg on top, served with Fries and Gravy and a Can of Pop and, as it says on the menu, “Mayo as a garnish for sure!” Sixteen Ounces of Beef ain’t nothin’, you say? Then you want the 24 ounce Bulls Balls Burger, served with fries and a pop. Or... or you could step up to The Big Leagues and order The Legendary Quadruple C: The “Colossal Colon Clogger Combo.” 24 oz burger served with a quarter pound of cheese, a quarter pound of bacon, and 2 fried eggs. The Quadruple C also comes with a large shake (flavor of your choice) and a small (gotta watch those calories, don’tcha know) poutine.

Dangerous Dan’s burgers are big, all right. At first glance they seem like complete overkill, the stuff of eating contests and bachelor parties, testosterone-crazed feats on par with those “World’s Strongest Man” contests where musclebound dudes pull busses with their teeth... but Dangerous Dan’s burgers are the very model of delicate restraint when held up alongside the the world’s biggest burgers.

If you want a really big burger you have to go to... wait for it... no, not Texas. You have to go to Denny's Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pennsylvania. Isn’t everything bigger in Texas? Not this time, my friend. At Denny’s you can order “The Olde 96er”: 6 pounds of meat, one large onion, two whole tomatoes, one half head of lettuce, 1 1/4 pounds of cheese, a cup each of mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, relish, banana peppers and a few pickles speared atop the bun.

The Olde 96er

Denny Leigey Jr. added The Olde 96er to the menu in 1998, thus throwing down the Burger Gauntlet. It wasn’t long before challengers were building bigger-- if not necessarily better-- burgers. The Baloo Burger Co. of Glasgow, Scotland whipped up a seven pound cheeseburger. The Clinton Station Diner in New Jersey also came up with a seven pound burger, called The Zeus. Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub wasn’t going to rest on their laurels. They came up with The Beer Barrel Belly Buster: 11.5 pounds of meat, 25 slices of cheese, 1 full lettuce, 2 onions, 3 tomatoes, 25,000 calories. The Clinton Station Diner continued to take their inspiration from The Gods and introduced The Mount Olympus Burger: 25 pounds of meat plus condiments for a total weight of over 50 pounds.

Once again Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub rose to the challenge with The Beer Barrel Belly Bruiser: Two 25 pound beef patties, 4 pounds of cheese, five heads of lettuce, a couple of onions, a cup of peppers, a jar of relish, and plenty of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. The Beer Barrel Belly Bruiser stands 34 inches tall and can feed 35 to 50 people. Surely now they could stop. Surely this would be the World’s Biggest Burger.

The Beer Barrel Belly Bruiser

And then came The King of Thailand. In celebration of the King of Thailand’s 60th accession year, Bob's BBQ & Grill (located in Pattaya, Thailand) produced a massive 78.5 pound cheeseburger: 55.12 pounds of meat topped with 2 large heads of lettuce, 15 tomatoes, 4 large onions, 35 slices of cheese, 1 1⁄2 cups of mustard, 1 cup of ketchup, 4 whole pickles and 4 whole Jalapeños: behold Big Bob’s Texas Belt Buster!

Everything’s Bigger In Texas... I Mean, Thailand

Back in Jersey, The Clinton Station Diner retaliated by cookin’ up a 105 lb cheeseburger (!) which held the world’s record only briefly until the good folks at Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub decided to stop messing around. They came up with the current champion, The Biggest Burger in The World: The Beer Barrel Main Event Charity Burger. 123 pounds. An 80-pound beef patty. A 30-pound bun. 12 tomatoes. 160 slices of cheese. Throw on a pound each of lettuce, ketchup, mustard and mayo — and up to five onions. And it can all be yours for a mere $379.

The Biggest Commercially Available Burger In The Whole Wide World

Yeah, that burger’s pretty big... I guess. But the Beer Barrel Main Event Charity Burger is only the biggest Commercially Available Burger in the world. The Biggest Damn Burger in The Whole Entire World was cooked up on Saturday August 4th, 2001 for the Seymour, Wisconsin Burger Fest. It weighed in at 8,266 pounds, a full one ton heavier than the previous record holder, which was made in 1999 in Saco, Montana. In your face, Denny’s Beer Barrel!

I’m hungry, but I’m not 8,266 pounds of burger hungry. Heck, I’m not even 24 ounces of burger hungry. I call Dangerous Dan’s and place my take-out order: small onion rings and one 8 ounce burger with ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles and hot peppers.
“So you want everything.”
“Everything except relish.”
By holding the relish I’ve blown my chance to order like a Zen Monk: “Make me one with everything.” But relish... it’s too damn sweet.

I throw on my “Texas Native” t-shirt (given to me by my mom last Christmas) and head out. Outside it’s a beautiful day, crisp and cool with that earthy after-the-rain smell. At Dangerous Dan’s there’s no messing around, in and out (James: “One burger, NO RELISH!”) in seconds. As I step out the door a man walks by with heating ducts on his arms: a strange robotic effect. Further down Queen Street a morbidly-- no, monstrously obese woman grinds past me on her scooter, one hand holding a cigarette, the other hanging onto her little dog’s leash. A chilling vision of things to come? With obesity rates rising, are we doomed to become a world of bloated burger-stuffed cyborgs? I decide then and there to cut out the onion rings for the rest of The Quest.

Back at home, I pull out the foil-wrapped burger and prepare to chow down. Oh man I’m so hungry I’m-a gonna eat the hell out of thing mmmm chomp gobble ROMPH-- Miss Manners shudders and turns away. Right now I’m being guided not by the dictates of Polite Society (“eat as though you’re not hungry, even if you are”) but by one of the guiding principles of The Church of The Subgenius (founded in Dallas, Texas): “Don’t just eat a hamburger, eat the hell out of it.” Passion! Gusto! Joie de vie!


Spicy! Black pepper in the meat, or is it just hot pepper juice? This burger is big and clunky, huge bun (straight up-- no seeds) and a big thick patty covered with lots of condiments. Chunks of onion and tomato tumble from the burger as I lift it to my mouth. The burger and onion rings are half-gone in seconds, and a feeling of deep contentment is spreading through my core. This is Comfort Food, solid and substantial and deeply satisfying.

The last bite hits me again with a delicious burst of spice. There is black pepper in the burger, which, although tasty, makes it different from the Texas Burgers of my youth. No better, no worse-- just different.

I am full but still I hunger. I have, to slightly paraphrase Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”, a “hunger not of the belly kind, that's banished with burgers and beans,
But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means.”

And so The Quest continues.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Hero Burger

Sunday June 3rd

Venturing Forth: rain clouds gather in a darkening sky. I hop onto a Queen St. Streetcar and head Westbound (“Go West, Young Man”) over The Don River and into The City Proper, heading for Hero Burger. Near Queen & Sherbourne (which used to be an open-air Drug market: “Crackton... this stop, Crackton.” Then someone got killed and the cops got tough) a Coors commercial is being filmed in what was once a church. Silver Coors banners flutter above a bevy of blondes in untucked white shirts and plaid schoolgirl skirts. Standing on the steps surrounded by the blondes is a grinning man in a black robe. Having A Schoolgirl Orgy? Don’t Forget To Buy Plenty of Ice-Cold COORS! Directly across the street is Moss Park, a public housing complex: Muslim Children in hijabs are buying fresh produce at the Fruit & Vegetable Market set up on the Moss Park lawn.

The streetcar trundles on, music leaking from passengers’ ipods, past the bagpiper standing next to the World War One Memorial (“To Our Glorious Dead”) in front of Old City Hall, past the homeless guy dressed all in blue passed out on a grate in front of a Starbucks and a TD Bank... past University Avenue (the U.S. Consulate is right up the street) where young women in orange t-shirts are handing out Free Samples of something... candy? Cell phones? Then we’re cutting through the Queen Street West Hipster Retail scene: a beautiful Asian woman with purple hair walks past a shirtless panhandler begging in front of the Scotiabank at Queen and McCaul and I step off the streetcar into the rush of traffic and the smell of crepes.

I continue on my merry way, past the homeless guy (belligerent and twitching) at the corner of Queen and Spadina, a cross painted on his cardboard sign... past the mental patient begging for change in a doorway next to the CIBC and the scruffy tattooed Squeegee Kids lunging into traffic, past the abandoned blue shirt and smashed liquor bottles outside the McDonalds, past the chubby Chinese man poking the abandoned shirt with the tip of his umbrella... I walk along sidewalks stained black with grease and gum through the neighborhood in which I lived for five years, in a rooftop shack above a fabric store that looked out onto the public housing (Alexandria Park) directly across the alley.

Did Dallas have this many homeless people? As a kid in Dallas I didn’t get downtown that often. Now and then Mom would take me to the downtown library which I loved-- they had every single Peanuts (featuring Good Ol’ Charlie Brown) book ever released, or so it seemed-- but the library was also full of homeless folks sleeping or reading and reeking of piss.

I walk past my old apartment doorway (which also often reeked of piss: not so much homeless people as drunks staggering home from the bars) and head on to Hero Burgers. No, wait-- it’s Hero Certified Burgers. MEANWHILE, AT THE HALL OF HAMBURGERS, The Burger Certifier sits in red cape and spandex behind a massive cherrywood desk, holding aloft a mighty Rubber Stamp. “Behold! I shall certify One Thousand Burgers Before Twelve O’Clock! For I Am-- THE BURGER CERTIFIER!” Childhood memories of rifling through the discount bins at Lone Star Comics and Science Fiction, taking my Lawn Mowing Money (Five Bucks a Lawn) and buying comic books for twenty-five cents apiece: Ghost Rider, Spider Man, Fantastic Four, The Human Fly. Back at home, sitting by the fan with an ice-cold lemonade, diving into that sweet stack of secondhand comics, that musty attic smell of acidifying paper drifting up from the pages... aw, yeah.

Hero Burgers is looking a little secondhand itself. I hope I just caught them in a middle of a reno: the walls are chipped and the ceiling is covered with exposed Terry Gilliam-style Ductwork. The floor is dirty and so are the tables. Hey-- no one ever said this here Burger Quest would be a bed of roses. Carry on, O valiant one: march up to that counter and place your order.

Behind the counter is a pretty dark-haired gal with a Katie Holmes-meets-The Mediterranean look goin’ on and behind her I read the writing on the wall: “Great Taste takes time. Cooking time approximately 5 minutes. All burgers are 100% Angus Beef, free range and free of antibiotics, hormones and nitrates. All burgers are cooked medium-well.” Next to the triumphant burger rhetoric is a list of condiments available at No Charge:
Maple Chipolte BBQ Sauce
Creole Mustard Sauce
Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Mighty Caesar
Hero Certified Sauce (“Burger Certifier, no! You mustn’t hit Sauce Certifier Lad!” “Oh no? And why not?” “He’s-- your son!”)
Tabasco Sauce
Honey Mustard
Sliced Pickle
Corn Relish
Jalapeno Peppers
Red Onion

Not a bad little list, really. But were the burgers of my youth coated with Maple Chipolte BBQ Sauce? That’s A Negatory, Good Buddy! So I order a Hero Burger (served with red onion and tomato) and add on those classic condiments of childhood: Ketchup and Mustard.

I let the cute countergirl upsell me to a combo (fries, root beer) and then I wait beneath the ducts, air conditioning humming, Hero Burgers signs all around me printed with big blocky black lettering like the posters of The Soviet Era. If I had grown up in Stalinist Russia or East Germany before the wall fell I’d be bathed in the gentle rays of sweet nostalgia but as it is I just sit hunched in this depressing industrial scene and wait for my burger.

It comes foil-wrapped on a red tray fast food style and I finally catch on: it IS fast food. Okay, I can roll with that-- let’s dig in.

Disappointment! The bun, spotted with sesame seeds and annoyingly crunchy poppy seeds, is chewy and so is the burger, which is also overcooked and too small. (What’s that old joke? “The food here is terrible!” “I know! And such small portions!”)

The burger has that odd Canadian burger taste that I’ve never been able to put my finger on... is it the seasoning? Different cuts of meat? Different cattle feed? Whatever it is, it’s Not Good.

The fries, on the other hand, are quite tasty. Hot and fresh and crisp... but then I dip them in Table Ketchup and the whole fries experience goes belly-up: the ketchup is wrong, all wrong, a red chemical soup that makes me wonder: can ketchup go bad?

I munch on, stomach churning, heart sinking as I ponder all the tasty, tasty restaraunts I walked past to get here: New York Subway, Ghandi Roti, King Shawarma... I’m a fool! A fool, I say!

This burger is truly terrible. Salty, way too salty with an aftertaste of meat scrapings burnt charcoal black. I contemplate the unthinkable: giving up. Throwing in the towel. Chuck this burger out and just walk away, searching for greener pastures. Will this happen, either today or later in The Quest? Will Toronto offer up a burger so foul, so incredibly inedible that I’ll have no choice but to heave it into the garbage and run screaming in terror?

If it happens, it ain’t happening today. I choke back the last bite (a total nonevent: one gulp and it’s gone) and stagger into the street.

POSTSCRIPT: After that postindustrial Mad Max Beyond Burgerdome nightmare I am craving Redemption. Hero Burger has sullied the reputation of good burgers everywhere and this injustice must not be allowed to stand. I contemplate Hal Burger, a few blocks away. A two-burger day... can I do it? I must. I must blot out this awful experience with a fresh tasty burger.

I walk south on Tecumseh and turn East onto Adelaide, past a faded Canadian flag in the window of a graffiti-strewn industrial building (“Airdate Traffic Service Limited”), and a church stained grimy by car fumes, past a guy wearing a Spider-man mask pushed up to the top of his head like a hat, past an advertisement for Mister Safety Shoes (“Guard your feet, Sauce Certifier Lad! Mister Safety Shoes is up to his old tricks!”) and a billboard for Bud Light: “We’re Talking 1970s Pimp Smooth.” Uh... I wonder if they’ll expand this campaign into television. “Fetch me a Bud Light before I choke you, Bitch!” Announcer Voice: “Beating Up Women and Forcing Them To Have Sex For Money is Smooth... Bud Light Smooth.”

Finally I see the Hal’s Sign: multicolored pastel dots like a Martha Stewart paint sample. Kitty-cornered from Hal’s is a Police Camera on a post, surveying the Entertainment District like the narc in my 9th grade gym class. Ain't’ misbehavin’, officers: just want a tasty burger, that’s all.

Hal’s is closed.

That’s it-- I’m going home.

Post-Post-Script: On the streetcar home I glance out the window and spot two homeless teenagers (one passed out on the sidewalk) and their dog. Propped up in front of them is a hand-lettered sign:

Dreaming of A Cheeseburger

(Double Bacon)

You and me both, brother. You and me both.