Sunday, 9 September 2007

Utopia


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

Lick's


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.