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.

The Burger Shoppe

June 1st, 2007

So I stroll down Degrassi St. (yep, like the show), past a gaggle of teenage Metalheads lined up outside The Opera House: blonde ponytails, bad teenage mustaches and black clothing galore covered in Satan & Skulls. As the back of one dude’s shirt puts it, “Total F**king Metal.” I walk past the Metalheads, heading West on Queen St.-- toward the City Proper--for Burger Shoppe. The name conjures up images of 50s sock-hops, those back-of-the-bus olden days of sharing a malted with your sweetheart-- Archie Comics, Pop’s Chok'lit Shop and sure enough, the retro brown (three shades of brown!) sign doesn’t disappoint. Brown sign, orange inside walls... Burger Shoppe is reaching for the same Retro feel as A&W without feeling the need to stuff some poor suffering wage slave into a giant lumpish bear suit.

Inside the Burger Shoppe is tiny, clean and tidy and not too busy for a Friday Night: I’ve walked by here before on the weekend and folks were lined up outside (or “queuing”, as they say in Britain) waiting to get their hands on some hot fresh burger goodness. There’s a good use of limited space, as organized and aesthetically pleasing as a Bento Box (but this ain’t a blog about Sushi): a long black booth taking up the West Wall faced by four tables and the accompanying four chairs-- there are two counters on either side of the door complete with three stools each for a grand total of six. Oh, and there’s a bench out front. You can sit there and eat your burger while gazing at the Toyota Dealership across the street.

There’s no lineup: ah, the Burger Gods are smiling. I march up to the counter, scan the colored chalk & blackboard menu (There should be an international colored chalk & blackboard contest for restaurateurs, to be judged on the merits of Creativity, Penmanship, Spelling... that sort of thing) and spot a likely candidate: The Classic, which the chalkboard describes as “Basic, Beefy, Beautiful.” How could I go wrong? Beef & Bun & Your Choice of Toppings: tomato, lettuce, red onion, pickles, dijon mustard (What? No French’s? Naw, this here’s a Classy Burger Joint), ketchup and mayo. Above the list of toppings the chalk gets a little braggy: “Our beef is fresh from the butcher-- never ever frozen! We make all our classic burgers in-house, handcut our fries daily, and fry in transfat-free oil.” Transfat-free? In that case, sign me up for some Onion Rings! Now there’s a lifestyle choice I can feel good about: It’s almost as if Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio are behind the counter manning the fryer.

Wait a sec-- what’s this? On the chalkboard beneath The Classic is the house specialty: The Shoppe. Horseradish and Caramelized Onions. This is the burger I watched a buddy of mine eat at a Bachelor Party a few weeks back and the damn thing smelled so good I’ve been craving one ever since. House Specialty... would the house steer me wrong?

I order my Shoppe with Onion Rings and give the counterman my name: Adam. “Allen?” he says. Next to me a guy waiting for his burger pipes up, “No, Adam-- like Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” This only half-registers-- I look over and this guy is smiling, so I smile back. He says (in a lighthearted, friendly, hey-we’re-all-guys-waiting-for-burgers-here-way), “I’ve got nothing better to do than hang out here and harass the customers.”
I grin and say, “Everyone needs a hobby, right?” He grins back. Another Successful Social Interaction. Remember, folks-- we’re all in this together.

I take a seat on one of the stools at the counter and notice the back of the waiting guy’s shirt: “The Real Jerk.” No, he’s not a real jerk nor is he a huge Steve Martin Fan (or is he?)-- he’s from “The Real Jerk,” a Jamaican Restaurant right down the street. I take this as a good sign: Damn, these burgers are so tasty that this guy would rather eat here than at his own restaurant-- which, by the way, has truly excellent eats.

I get my burger n rings to go in a brown paper bag and head back into the humid hazy evening-- sweat sticking to my forehead, teenage metalheads everywhere. On the corner of Queen and Broadview I walk past the Starbank Convenience Store which is shaped exactly like my neighborhood 7-11 back in the Dallas of my youth. Slurpees and comic books and video games, the smell of nacho cheese and magazines, Floyd The Walkin’ Man shadowboxing out front. Floyd was a local man, a veteran of the Korean War who was never “quite right” when he returned home. He would walk up and down Inwood Avenue all day in his white undershirt and shadowbox in front of the 7-11 and make my mother fearful for my safety. She saw a deranged black man throwing punches but to us kids Floyd was simply a fixture of the store, as harmless as the magazine rack or the pinball machine.

I walk past the Starbank (no one’s shadowboxing... I bet Floyd is throwing punches in Heaven now) and I ponder my burger bag: what’s my Methodology? Am I going to eat the exact same kind of burger everywhere, with the same kind of toppings? Should I only eat in or should I only do take-out? Eating the same burger every time would get awfully boring really quickly. Did the burgers of my youth all have the same toppings all the time? HELL NO! (to be pronounced Texas-style, like so: HAIIIIIL NAW!) And besides, this isn’t a bland laboratory experiment complete with double blinds, placebo burgers and flapping white labcoats, no-- this is a QUEST, and I will go where the Quest takes me.

Back home on Degrassi I get set up: I get the ketchup from the fridge and I pour myself a nice tall cranberry juice with plenty of ice. What would I have to drink as a kid? Strawberry Shake sometimes for a special treat, straight-up milk more often. In the last two years I’ve developed an intolerance to lactose (and I used to be such a tolerant person, too...) so that doorway to my childhood is slammed shut forever. But the cranberry juice... it’s very refreshing.

I sit down on the couch and lift the burger from the bag. The burger is wrapped in opaque wax paper, offering a tantalizing sneak peak at the burgery goodness inside. I undo the wax paper and that first whiff of food ignites something primal: Flame. Cooked. MEAT!

I lift the burger toward my mouth and am delighted to see the Burger Shoppe folks have loaded me up with toppings: pickles and lettuce and tomato, which I wanted (I always want As Much As I Can Get-- must be the American in me) but forgot to ask for specifically. I raise the burger to my lips and take a bite.


A complex taste explosion, perfectly balanced: the grilled meat fresh indeed, how a burger should be. Then the mild bite of the horseradish followed by the sweet but not too sweet finish of the caramelized onions. IT’S GOOD... OH LORDY IT’S GOOD.

I take another chomp. Earlier in the day I had a phone conversation with my Pop who still lives in Dallas and I asked him about his perfect burger. He said, “Charcoal Grilled, Outside.” This burger isn’t that but it tastes damn close.

Chew, swallow, burp: burger taste comes rushing back. Oh, blue-bloods, lift not your nose in haughty disdain for emanations gastronomical-- in some cultures, burping after a meal is considered a high compliment to the chef, and this is how I intend it. Good show, oh Burger Shoppe Grillman! Good show indeed!

Initial craving satisfied, I turn now to the Fine Details. The bun is fresh with plenty of Sesame Seeds: the Platonic Ideal of The Burger Bun. Nice ripe tomato slice and proper pickles: the pickley-tasting pickles of my childhood, as opposed to the slap-in-the-face taste of Canadian-brand Strubbs. Strubbs! It tastes exactly like it sounds. The first time my family visited Ontario (“This will be your new home, boys”) we had lunch in a 50s-themed diner in Oakville which of course had burgers on the menu... Reader, I ordered one. It was a delicious-looking burger served with the garnishes on the side: lettuce, tomato and dill pickle wedges. I took one bite of that pickle: BLEARG! It looked like a pickle but it tasted like mud. How disappointing!

The Burger Shoppe onion rings are also a bit disappointing. They’re plenty big and their crispiness has withstood the trek homeward but they are bland with no ‘oniony’ taste to speak of. Still, I am Texan and therefore I love Crispy Fried Dough so I will eat the hell out of these rings, down to the last bite.


Horseradish! A big ol’ mouthful of horseradish! Man, what was I thinking? I didn’t dig on horseradish when I was a kid! Oh, we had some in the fridge, one of Pop’s “Mystery Jars” that held what I considered to be The Tastes of Adulthood: horseradish, dijon mustard, black olives. Back then (“The Days of Yore”) I didn’t eat spicy food until my tastebuds got “Texas Tough” after years of blistering.

So here I sit, an adult with the aftertaste of my spicy (but really not that spicy) horseradish burger still lingering on my tongue, staring down at my take-out meal’s greasy debris: wadded napkin sitting in the middle of a gently sloping wax paper boat like something designed by Frank Gehry or Daniel Libeskind, the architect who designed the Royal Ontario Museum’s jarringly awful new Crystal addition, which opens to the public tomorrow (June 2nd, 2007) in all its garish hideousness because hey, these days what’s culture without a laser light show? Or, as a friend of a friend of a friend commented on Facebook, “It looks like a Starship crashed into a church.” Exactly. What happens when a Texan crashes into Toronto? A Burger Quest is born.

The Quest Begins

“I want a hot dog... no, I want a hamburger.”
“You’ll get nothing! And like it!”

I’ve got a craving for a hamburger, and not just any hamburger: the Texas-style hamburger of my rapidly receeding youth. There’s a line in the movie Barcelona about “this delicious hamburger of memory,” and that’s exactly what I want. It might be intangible-- it might be impossible-- but over the course of one year I will scour the streets of Toronto on a Quest for that elusive Perfect Burger. I will leave no burger unturned: chain restaurant burgers, gourmet burgers, burgers from the greasiest of the greasy spoons... I will try them all, hoping to catch a taste-- just a taste-- of my Texas Childhood.

UPDATE: Did I say one year? Oh, what a naive fool I was! This Quest could take a lifetime.