Thursday, 7 June 2007

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.


Anonymous said...

Holy Christ..

You must have been at Whimpy's in Oakville. That is the only thing I can think of that matches your 50's style burger joint - and I have lived in Oakville my whole life, until recently.

It is gone now, so you don't have to worry anymore.


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