Normally, we think of the hamburger-fry combo as "American food." And why not? Though the hamburger's origins are shrouded in the mists of time, no other place has adopted the burger as a pillar of its national cuisine quite like we have in North America.
But some very interesting things begin to happen when you put this core American dish in the hands of a talented "ethnic" chef. Take, for instance, the heavenly burgers served at Motor City Sports Bar in Hamtramck. Balkans know how to tweak beef, given their skill with cevapi, a Balkan staple made of grilled minced beef, or a pljeskavica, which is like a Southeastern European beef patty.
Or look where we at Burger Quest went this week: Dearborn's M&M Cafe, where chef Maurice Ltief works magic in the mediums of American and Middle Eastern cuisines. Some of that skill definitely crosses over, a prime example being his "Maurice Burger," a quarter-pound ground beef patty that's mixed with chopped parsley, green peppers, tomatoes, and onions. It's almost as if the loving touches put on tabbouleh or falafel have been infused into a patty. More on how that magic works later.
The M&M Cafe is an institution whose history spans 30 years in Dearborn. Older cats may remember the joint when it was a greasy spoon a bit farther east, on the south side of Michigan Avenue. Since 2000 or so, it operates out of spare but effective digs just across the street from city hall (with ample parking out back). It's a softly lit room of tables and booths, with those in the front afforded views of the verdant park in front of city hall. It's a simple but homey setup, with prints on the wall and stained-glass lamps hanging over dining areas.
We ordered the medium "Maurice Burger," for $4.75, as well as some fries for an additional $3. The order arrived quickly, the fries still-glistening shoestrings, the burger coming on an onion roll, with lettuce, tomato, mayo, pickles, and onion — and just in the right amounts. Sometimes, a place will do you to death with unrealistically large portions for your toppings, to the point where you can build a little side salad out of it. Not so here.
The patty was something to behold, juicy, lightly speckled with red and green, clues to its richness. A bite into the burger revealed an unusual complexity, with a softness like that of the moistest meatloaf, but diffused throughout the patty, no doubt a product of the amount of mixing and kneading the meat must go through to be thoroughly infused with such exotic ingredients. That first bite began a forward slide that was pure pleasure unto the last bite.
This small café has its loyal adherents. One of them, a longtime patron, figured out what we were up to and spoke to us at length, as only a five-days-a-week, 20-year customer can, going through the litany of Thursday's meatloaf, Monday's carrot cake, and the ever-famous lemon chicken. You can even bring burger-averse friends along, as Ltief's kitchen turns out spectacular knife-and-fork meals, and even some sophisticated specials. On the day we visited, it was crab cakes.
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