How to score in Detroit, right between the buns

Burger City

Mar 9, 2016 at 1:00 am
How to score in Detroit, right between the buns

Are you a burger maven? Do you love belly bombs? Are you the kind of diner who loves biting into a two-hand, seven-napkin burger, feeling the juice streaming down your arms?

We have good news for you. While the blossoming of the gastropub has helped widen the city's offerings, it has always been a city of lunch-bucket fare. How else to explain the enduring appeal of the coney dog and fries? In Detroit, unironic meat-and-potatoes fare banks on a powerful heritage.

Of course, even the hippest gastro-joints in town will still offer a burger. It's almost a challenge to some kitchens to produce the fanciest burger possible. In the posh environs of Birmingham, the Rugby Grille serves one that costs $55, and it almost sounds worth it. Gold Cash Gold in Corktown takes a folksier, more artisanal approach with the "GCG Burger": grass-fed patties, pimento cheese, and Thousand Island dressing on a pretzel bun. Burgers remain a staple up in Ferndale, which boasts such creations as the "Famous Burger" at the Emory, or the "B.F.J." ("Big, Fat, and Juicy) at Dino's.

In a fine-dining setting, burgers are that welcoming dish that makes less adventurous customers feel more comfortable. But that's because the larger culture of metro Detroit still embraces burgers in such a big way. Whether you're talking about sliders, hamburgers, or anything with buns and ground beef, there are a multitude of out-of-the-way only-in-Detroit spots.

One of the more unusual burger stops has to be Marcus Burger, a small diner and hamburger joint across the street from Federal Pipe & Supply Co. on a sleepy stretch of East McNichols Road. Marcus Burger has been in business for an astonishing 87 years, having opened in 1929.

What accounts for this joint's staying power? Hamburgers shaped like rectangles: They make their patties so they fit neatly into a puffy hot dog bun.

It's a gimmick they attribute to one fabled day when somebody bought the wrong kind of buns, causing the cook to improvise. Whether it's true or an old wives' tale is open to speculation, but it still brings them in to enjoy these creations amid the restaurant's appealing old-time ambience.

Another ancient burger joint is Motz's Burgers, located along an industrial stretch of Fort Street.

At Motz's, half the fun is listening to the banter of the staff, hearing orders shouted out as ready, and watching the cook at work. Long before the conceit of the "open kitchen," patrons of burger joints have enjoyed watching their food as it's made. And it's a pleasure to watch the hardworking cook churn out a steady procession of burgers as old-fashioned checks march along above.

The sliders arrive too hot to be eaten, but worth the wait when they've cooled. Every bite is slider perfection, from the slightly greasy buns to the soft beef to the strands of onion each bite pulls from the burger.

Probably the best burger we ever had was an out-of-the-way place Downriver called 3 Nicks, a working-class tavern just off the highway. The patty is kind of a big, ugly thing, with the kinds of bulges and seams that practically scream "hand-formed." It's the kind of oversized patty that gives you that first, all-meat bite of buttery beef.

Depending on who's behind the grill, the burgers at Motor City Sports Bar in Hamtramck could be best. The somewhat rough exterior conceals an old-fashioned Hamtramck bar with surprising burger skills. Each burger has a half-pound of beef; they say there's more than a half-pound of meat in the patty before it's cooked, because it shrinks on the grill a bit. And that extra effort is laudable: They ensure that it's an actual half-pounder when it arrives on your plate, a patty fully as big as the puffy sesame seed bun they top it off with. It probably doesn't hurt that the bar also serves cevapi, a Balkan staple made of grilled minced beef, sort of like a skinless sausage. After all, a hamburger patty is sort of like a pljeskavica, another Southeastern European creation.

The burgers are great, but the setting is unique at Frank's Eastside Tavern in Mount Clemens. It's an old-fashioned former speakeasy with a Tiffany lamp over a beat-up old table, and really good hamburgers made with meat from Stahl's, just a stone's throw from the place. We've never seen it, but we hear that Frank, the owner, often sits at the end of the bar with his dog, Suzy.

It's basically a century-old little farmhouse with a small foyer on the front where a porch should be. Open the door and you can walk directly down into a basement bar that probably looks much like it did in 1932, when Prohibition was the law of the land. They serve a classic hand-formed half-pound burger made of 100 percent ground sirloin. Order it medium rare, throw the lettuce, tomato, and onion over your shoulder and enjoy it soft and bloody.

In Eastern Market, there's a place called Cutter's, which has been producing a consistently impressive hamburger for a generation or more. They served several different sizes of burger, from the 3-ounce sliders to 8- and 16-ounce versions up to a 32-ounce burger.

Is a two-pounder too much? Compare it to Mallie's Sports Grill & Bar in Southgate. That's where you can order a three-pound burger. Or consider the 10-pound "Monster Burger." If a diner can eat that burger in less than two hours, it's free, and the restaurant will award $100 and put your picture on the Wall of Fame.

Now, some people swear by the little slider joints that have been open since the 1920s, inner-city places like the Telway, or suburban joints like Bray's, Greene's, or, best of all, Bates. True, the enamel-steel roadside diners have their charm, and some are quite good. But one place is that experience rarefied, and that's Hunter House in Birmingham. It's kind of like a trip back in time to those fastidious burger joints of yesteryear, with plenty of memorabilia to gawk at. Best of all, they lacquer on the cooked onions and create a powerfully fragrant slider.

Then there's another burger that goes by a moniker we've only heard at local Coney Islands: the "loose burger." It's ground beef, chili, onions, and mustard. Yeah, it's what some might call a Sloppy Joe.

But when you shoot your selfie holding a "loose burger" in Detroit? That'll give you something no Sloppy Joe ever did: total burger street cred.