Burgers from Beirut

Dec 1, 2004 at 12:00 am

Editor's note: The restaurant has since moved to a larger space at 5808 Schaefer, as well as other locations.

I supposed I was asking for disappointment when I ordered a steak in a hamburger joint, a few days after returning from Argentina. Don’t get me started on what the Argentineans do with cow flesh. It could forever change your relationship with red meat.

As it turned out, I wasn’t let down after all. For a steak that costs $7.95 (and comes with coleslaw, fried onions, mushrooms and peppers, and a huge mound of fries), Famous Hamburger does just fine.

If you’re searching for that ineffable essence of burger, the kind people drive 25 miles to find, you could skip Famous Hamburger’s quarter-pound offerings. My companions’ assessments ranged from “good” to “dry and overcooked.” For my money (and $2.49 isn’t much money), they’re a sight better than fast food, although here I’m calling on distant memory. The fries, everyone agreed, are excellent.

Come to Famous Hamburger for the fries or for the bargain steak (a special), or because the meat is halal (from cows slaughtered as prescribed by Muslim rules).

Or come just because it’s a friendly place. My party of six immensely enjoyed a guided tour of the restaurant’s history, told through photographs on the walls. Our tour guide: Mounir Hider, an engineer at Ford and one of the five grown grandchildren of the restaurant’s founder, Hussine Hider.

Famous Hamburger’s slogan is “Since 1970,” and the Web site brags that the restaurant has “served hundreds of thousands of hamburgers on several continents.” It all began in Badaro, Lebanon, when Hider opened the first hamburger joint in the country under the name “Little White Castle.” It did so well that when Hider moved the restaurant to downtown Beirut, he felt justified in changing the name to “Famous Hamburger” (and why deal with the possibility of a trademark infringement lawsuit?).

When war drove the family to emigrate to Dearborn, son Feisal Hider opened a tiny place in Detroit. And four months ago, Feisal gutted one of the oldest buildings in Dearborn, at Warren and Wyoming, and added a pleasing retro design on the outside, with red-diamond trim. Before the election, a “get out the vote” sign — in both English and Arabic — hung in the window.

The friendly cooks will ask how you liked your meal, and they actually seem to care. They offer a dizzying variety of options: cheeseburger, egg burger, veggie burger, mushroom burger, halal bacon burger (all available in double size), chili dogs, fish burger, tuna melt, wings, chicken subs, chili fries, cheese fries, chili cheese fries, onion rings, soup, Russian salad, Greek salad and Famous chicken salad.

Halal bacon is made from veal. It’s quite lean and dresses up a burger nicely. My resident veggie burger expert says the Famous version is above the norm: “Somewhat spicy, crisp on the edges — you can see the vegetables.” One night when the kitchen was out of the pre-made veggie patties, the cook offered to fry up some vegetables, with egg, on his own; the expert liked this even better.

The peppers, mushrooms and onions that came with my steak were greasy, as one would expect, but retained their snap, which one wouldn’t expect.

Fries are cut large, crisp on the outside, with a bit of skin retained. You won’t be disappointed.

Wings ($4.99 for eight) are also crisp. You probably want to ask for the hot sauce, as our “bbq” sauce was too much like ketchup. Hot dogs ($1.49) are roasted. Soon “broasted” chicken — a method that cooks the bird under pressure to retain juiciness — will be added to the menu.

My advice for the Famous cooks would be to cook a bit less. I would have liked my egg burger better if there’d been some runniness left in the yolk. My steak was not the medium rare I requested. The smallish burgers would be juicier and tastier if removed from the flame sooner — Burger 101, right?

In other words, I’d advise a tilt farther away from fast food, and more toward the old-fashioned hamburger joint. The Hiders, with their extensive experience, are already mostly there.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].