Used to be, going out for a burger meant keeping it real. If you had a burger, fries and a beer for dinner, you were slummin' it.
It also used to be that “keeping it real” and “slummin'” meant nothing in particular to no one in particular, but those are now phrases used casually by the middle class and the middle aged.
Times and the language have changed, and so has the station of the humble hamburger, which is anything but just a hamburger anymore. Grass-fed is better than corn-fed, organic better than simply natural. Kobe is not just a city in Japan famous for its 1995 earthquake, and if you care to know the provenance and pedigree of your ground beef, the restaurant serving it is proud to oblige.
Transformed from working-class commodity to boutique luxury, two patties and special sauce are no longer the badge of the proletariat. Once trimmed with just tomato, pickles and lettuce, the burger of 2011 is dressed like a beauty-pageant contestant with exotic greens, Spanish cheese, caramelized onions, charred peppers, and truffle-infused oils.
All kinds of everyday foods have been treated to this kind of culinary makeover — cupcakes, donuts, hot dogs — but none more than the hamburger. Cultural sentiment toward meat production and consumption might have retreated, but burger love has soared.
Smitten restaurateurs everywhere have started a burger arms race, creating a new category of burger joint that fills a void between high-end restaurants and steakhouses and the fast-food stands that have traditionally served most of the country’s hamburgers (and probably still do).
One of the most popular models for the gourmet-casual burger is Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack (www.shakeshack.com), which opened in the summer of 2004 as a retro, California-style, outdoor stand in New York’s Madison Square Park. There are now five Shake Shacks in Manhattan, one in upstate New York at the Saratoga horse track, and one in Miami Beach.
The Counter burger empire — one franchise is located in Ballard — and its encyclopedic list of toppings is in nine states and three countries after starting from one shop in Santa Monica. The hottest burger chain in Los Angeles, the birthplace of burger culture, might be Umami Burger (www.umamiburger.com), which claims to grind its own beef, process its own cheese, pickle its own vegetables, and blend its own sauces.
Seattle’s burger-spectrum has grown considerably wider the last few years with the addition of chains like The Counter and Five Guys and smaller outfits like Blue Moon, the Lunchbox Laboratory (which recently relocated from Ballard to tonier accommodations in South Lake Union), and Uneeda Burger, the newest place in town to go all Bobby Flay on the beef patty.
Uneeda Burger is more similar to Umami than Shake Shack in that it does not just refine the fast-food burger, but elevates it with unconventional ingredients like watercress, cilantro, Gruyere cheese, and fried eggs. It, too, grinds its own patties out of designer-label beef (Painted Hills from Oregon).
Uneeda opened a few months ago on Fremont Avenue in what used to be a garden store and before that a car and boat shop of the same name. Uneeda’s small dining room — in warm weather diners can also sit outside — is consistently full, proof that we have not yet overtaken demand for the chef burger. Started by the owners of Quinn’s gastro-pub on Capitol Hill, Uneeda serves a steakhouse quality hamburger in a burger-stand setting, albeit a very nice one.
Perhaps to make the diner feel more at home while eating an artisanal hamburger, the newest and hippest burger joints prepare and serve their fancy burgers in a simulated dive, in other words a place that is supposed to recall or bring to mind a dive but is not covered in actual grease or grit.
The décor of Uneeda could be described as low-culture chic, artfully capturing the essence of the kind of place that Lyle and Wade would have hit after closing up the shop, still wearing their stained coveralls, grease still under their fingernails. Except in this case, Lyle and Wade are just names on the wall, part of a piece of art made from 90 name tags (Lou, Cliff, Chet, Shelly, Lorraine, and so on), the kind stiched onto a uniform.
Hypothetical Lyle and Wade are more likely to be hypothetical Dylan and Anand, two programmers of infographic software who graduated from Carnegie-Mellon last year and know the difference between Gruyere and manchego, which comes with Uneeda’s lamb burger ($12) along with tempura lemons and arugula.
Most of Uneeda’s one-third-pound burgers are $7 to $8, unless you want to pay an extra $4 for “Whidbey Island Crescent Harbor 100% wagyu (Kobe) grass-fed beef.” (If you eat grass-fed beef, do it for the ethics and the politics; don’t do it for the taste.) Uneeda’s basic quarter-pound burger, with romaine and tomato, is $4. French fries (waffle or skinny) are $2.50, onion rings $4, salads $5 to $9. Beers can be as little as $3 for Pabst Blue Ribbon and as much as $10 for an imported brand.
The finish carpentry in the restaurant was meant to look simple and rough. The front counter and tables are constructed of tongue-and-groove boards (2-by-6's); the railing is fashioned from inch-and-a-quarter black pipe, the kind used for natural gas; the floor is made of plywood sheets painted black; metal shop lights hang from the ceiling.
True to the space’s origins as an auto and boat shop, the main wall of the dining room can be opened up with two giant garage doors. Customers sit in metal garden chairs and get their food on metal trays like those you might find in a prison or hospital, a subtle reminder that the dinner on your plate is just a burger. While no one item on Uneeda’s menu is very expensive, a typical check for two runs $30-$40, which is not exactly what you spend at the drive-in.
Spending more than $3 on a burger (the line that appears to separate production-line burgers from handmade) exposes some truths about the experience. Firstly, it is not that difficult to make a great burger: You need to use good meat and preferably grind and form it yourself if only to be sure it is good; don’t overcook the beef (Uneeda’s default setting is medium, which it accurately describes as light pink in the middle); toast the buns on a griddle; use soft bread (fancy, chewy bread works for a cold-cut sandwich but not a hamburger). Fancy toppings make for a nice floor show, but if you take care of the meat you do not need much more than tomato and pickles.
Another truth the chef burger reveals is that the disparity between great and ordinary is small. Put ground beef between two slices of bread and it is hard to go wrong, which is why an $8 burger is not four times better than a $2 burger.
Luuvu Hoang, a filmmaker and something of a burger aficionado, brought three of his friends last weekend to try Uneeda Burger for the first time. They ordered up the menu and left happy.
“This is good,” Hoang said after finishing his burger, “but I would be satisfied with Dick’s.”
If you go: Uneeda Burger, 4302 Fremont Avenue N., 206-547-2600. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.