For the eleventh time this year I gathered up a group of friends and food bloggers to take down a burger - this time for a lunch break on a warm fall work day. This was the next to last stop in a year long search for the best burger that St. Louis has to offer, based on the input of my readers. You nominated them and I'm eating them, one by one until I crown the best burger in St. Louis this coming December.
Joining me this go around were Church of Burger alumni Bill Burge (STLBites), Kelli Best-Oliver (South City Confidential / Food Blog Mafia), Stefani Pollack (Cupcake Project), project photographer Jonathan Pollack (J. Pollack Photography), Kyle Harsha (Sippin' Saint Louis / Harsha Wines) and Corey Woodruff (Corey Woodruff Photography).
With the introductions out of the way its time to welcome you all back to The Church of Burger. In the name of the bun, the toppings and the holy burger, I present unto you the November Burger of the Month from Carl's Drive In.
There was a time in our automotive history when a strip concrete and pavement called Route 66 cut across this country, connecting small towns and rural cities that lacked easy access to what would become our national interstate highway system. The influx of travelers to these small communities -- moving between the Midwest and the West Coast -- afforded countless mom and pop establishments a chance to offer services to folks passing though, businesses like filling stations and lunch counters.
Time passed and our transportation infrastructure moved from roads like Route 66 to wide ribbons of blacktop designed to handle higher volumes of traffic moving at ever higher rates of speed. These roads were punctuated at regular intervals with quick on and off exits, and populated by a homogenized selection of services, affording travelers a consistent brand of gas and hamburger from one coast to the other.
In 1985, Route 66 was removed from our national highway system -- and with it went many of the small businesses -- like Carl's Drive in -- that had survived at the shoulders of what is known to many as "The Mother Road" for almost 60 years.
Sitting at the top of a rise on Manchester Ave (now Missouri Historic Route 66), folks heading off the beaten path will still find Carl's, serving the same drive in style smashed burgers and root beer that it has since 1959. It is no wonder that Carl's was voted the second best burger in St. Louis, if only because of the place that it holds in the history of this city.
At Carl's, a hand full of diners can belly up to a pair of counters that box in an open kitchen containing a flat top grill, fry station, prep space and a large cask of root beer, made in house. Its clear that Carl's got the idea of the "open kitchen" long before it became a restaurant design idea.
Smashed burgers are ordered as singles, doubles and triples, then topped simply with ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles. Cooked in bursts, balls of chuck are slapped onto a rocket hot flat top and then smashed paper thin with a spatula before being topped, placed on a paper plate and slid in front of a waiting diner.
Behold, the burger from Carl's Drive In:
Patties at Carl's are prepared to order -- small balls of fresh beef are taken from a cooler and introduced to the high heat of a flat top grill before being smashed down to cook. The cooking style does not lend itself to the observation of salt and juice, and its not really the point. The point is to get the patty as thin as possible. The patty essentially fries in its own fat until the edges are crisp and adorned with a pattern that resembles lace. The patty at Carl's is true to style and prepared with an expert hand. It is a thing of beauty.
"There's no rare, medium-rare, or medium to cause bitterness and confusion between patrons and staff. In the same vein, if there is seasoning on the patty, it doesn't matter; you taste char, grease, and your toppings, and you enjoy the melding of flavors as they hit your mouth."
"Smashed to "wafer thin" and cooked through. Crispy edges and multiple patties on my burger (I had a double) made it more satisfying but it's still a mere sliver of meat. Not enough meat there to really warrant analysis of the burger itself."
"The smashed burger style and the open kitchen with staff briskly slapping burgers and buns on a griddle took me back to burgers that I'd had on family beach trips."
"The preformed, smashed patty was wafer thin and crispy on the edges, and cooked all the way through. The remarkable thing about the burger is how utterly tasteless is was. I literally pinched off a piece of meat, tried it without any accoutrement, and then remarked to the person next to me that it tasted like - nothing. The patties just seem to be burger in the sense that they may have once resided on the side of a cow.
Because the patty is smashed thin and fried in its own fat, it comes off the flat top completely charred. Diners sitting close to the grill will notice how each patty ripples from the heat until the the edges take on an almost translucent quality. Each bite provides a snap of caramelized beef that mixes with the toppings to create a sensation that suggests a flavor that is more candy than burger.
"The Carl's burger is all char."
"So thin that it tastes like the caramelized outside of a burger only--there's no juice inside."
The toppings for a Carl's burger are simple and provide the bulk of the mass and flavor for the dish. Toppings are not made in house, nor are they sourced locally. The toppings at Carl's come from large commercial kitchen sized cans, bottles and crates. Carl's is fast food, prepared lovingly but without flair. Condiments are sweet and salty, pickles are crisp and onions wrung dry of moisture on the grill before becoming one with the patty.
"I ordered my Carl's burger with onions. When the burger arrived, there were no onions to be seen. But on closer examination, I discovered that there were loads of onions; they had just been very finely chopped. Each bite was full of onion flavor. I wondered why more places don't do onions that way. It's such a better onion delivery mechanism than the ring."
"Ketchup, mustard, lettuce (which was surprisingly fresh), pickles, and such. Nothing remarkable at all."
"I went fully loaded which means lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mustard. They suited the burger well and added some much-needed volume to the burger."
Keeping with the theme of standard ingredients prepared with an expert hand, there is absolutely nothing special about the bun for a Carl's burger -- it is a traditional hamburger roll made of enriched and bleached flour. To be anything but would miss the point completely. Buns sit on the flat top grilling until they are scooped up with a spatula and adorned with thin patties and toppings. I would not change a thing.
"Fresh, seedless and slightly egg-y. Reminded me of Wendy's buns somewhat. And no, Wendy is not an ex-girlfriend."
"Store bought, but I didn't exactly expect the folks to be whipping out their own brioche or something. Perfectly appropriate for the burger."
"The generic buns are perpetually toasting on the griddle, anxiously awaiting their smashed meat patty companions."
The truth is, the majority of our group did not enjoy the burger from Carl's Drive In. Most comments focused on the idea that everyone got that they were eating fast food burger, and that it came with a side nostalgia for a time long past, however nostalgia alone does not make for a great burger.
It could be my love of history melding perfectly with food for this months burger, but I have to respectfully disagree with the majority. The burger at Carl's Drive In is a near perfect example of the style; it is a collection of basic and no frills ingredients that are turned into something extaordinary in short order. Could a years worth of burgers have jaded our group to the point that we can't appreciate simplicity for what it is?
Is there a chance that the burger from Carl's Drive In is the best burger in St, Louis? No. But is it somehow a lesser burger because of its smashed style? Again, the answer is no. Unlike so many of the burgers we've tried this year, Carl's does not strive to be in the middle of the pack in town. Instead, it is ok being what it is, and that is why it excells. This is why I love this burger. This is why I disagree with so many of the group. To the naysayers, you can keep your Steak-n-Shake burgers, I'll drive miles out of the way for a double from Carl's.
I'll leave you with one of the more insightful comments I got from the group:
"The Carl's burger is all char, sliced cheese, an average bun, nothing special ketchup, and some onions, but sitting with dangling feet in a tall bar stool and watching burger after burger come off the griddle in this all-but-extinct classic American burger joint made every bite precious."