Why metro Detroit is endowed with a rich meat-and-potatoes heritage

Burger 101

Custom burger from Clubhouse BFD. Courtesy photo.
Custom burger from Clubhouse BFD. Courtesy photo.

We have reason to be ambivalent about our meat and potatoes heritage. Though today’s new restaurants all seem to be exotic and gastromolecular, we’ve been a bit defensive about our traditionally smallish fine dining crowd, our select group of sophisticated restaurants, and our preponderance of burger joints. But now that we seem to be catching up in the fine-dining department, is it time for a fresh look at our burger culture? Almost everybody offers one, whether it’s all-beef or vegetarian. And, in many cases, our burger emporiums are the businesses with the longest pedigree in town. As part of our big Burgers & Pizza issue, we invite you to join us for a trip through selected burger joints.

Burger mecca: The holy grail of burgers in Oakland County, the Red Coat Tavern, has been owned by the Brown family since 1972. Red Coat's corporate general manager, Juan Garcia, tells us, "We just try to do our best, providing a consistent, quality product for 40 years." Fairway Packing grinds them a specific blend of meat with dictated percentages of fat and lean, of brisket, rib, and sirloin, every single day to ensure it's fresh. The patties aren't hand-formed, but take their shape in a mold that Garcia says was cast "just for us." As for the ingredients in the restaurant's secret sauce, Garcia says, "Don't hold your breath on that one." And, of course, the list of toppings is insane, with everything from fried eggs and bacon to guacamole and pico de gallo. Garcia is a medium rare man himself, and when asked if a burger can get too complicated, he says he's seen some diners "try to reinvent the wheel. ... But sometimes simple is just better."

An international classic: Are we including Big Boy? Yes, we are. We all know what to expect when we see the portly boy with the high-waisted checkered trousers: a classic burger experience. The fundamentals of Big Boy's signature creation, the "Classic Big Boy," haven't changed much in 70 years, down to the special sauce. But if you're going to eat one of these, or their super-sized "Super Big Boy," there's no better place than Warren, the home of Big Boy Restaurants International, and where there's enough old-fashioned charm to set the proper tone.

Pimp my burger: It created a sensation when it opened four years ago, but Vinsetta Garage is still pretty amazing. That's no surprise: Its owners have a reputation for excellence, with such successful restaurants as Clarkston Union and Union Woodshop standing strong behind them. And that mix of down-home and high-flown find a perfect mix in the Vinsetta Burger: two 4-ounce patties with American cheese, sliced McClure's pickles, Michigan maple bacon, and more, all enlivened with Vinsetta Garge's special "burger sauce."

Balkan burgers: Hamtramckans are all over the map, but one thing they seem to agree upon is that Motor City Sports Bar offers the very best hamburger. They're flame-broiled, two-hander, three-napkin monsters. Each burger has a half-pound of beef, and co-owner Nick actually says there's more than a half-pound of meat in the patty before it's cooked, because it shrinks on the grill a bit. Where does all this hamburger skill come from? We think it's a Balkan culinary know-how, since the bar also serves an excellent cevapi, a minced beef dish that's a staple of southeastern Europe.

West-side best: It's never a surprise when our readers pick Miller's as having the "Best Burger in Wayne County." Family-owned since 1941, you'll still often find Dennis or Mark Miller presiding over the bar. Dennis tells up the burger has bulked up a bit over the years, going from about 5-1/4 ounces up to about 7 ounces now. They still use the same meat man they always have, Ken Davis Meats out of St. Clair, who grinds grass-fed beef for Miller's fresh every morning. The patties used to be made by hand, but they now use a special German press, one of only a few in the country, that doesn't squeeze all the air out of the meat. "It's not as good as hand-pattied," Dennis says, "But it's about as close as you'll get." Miller's trade secret? A 90-10 mixture in which the 10 percent fat is a special blend. Dennis also says the seasoned grill, after decades of cooking burgers, doesn't hurt either. He adds that he likes the burgers at other places, including Nemo's, but still prefers the ones he serves. "I'm prejudiced," he admits, "but I still don't think anybody in town has got one as good as ours. And I've tried them all."

Southfield style: One restaurant where burgers are front and center on the menu is 32-year-old McVee's. They serve several different burgers, mostly half-pounders, all hand-pattied and made from beef that's never frozen. They're all given some secret seasoning, and served on an artisan buttered and toasted bun. The restaurant's Kristy Younger says a popular burger is the "Big Mouth Burger," piled with enough toppings to keep the diner reaching for napkins. "It's big and sloppy," she says, "That's the way it's supposed to be." But the absolute monster is "McVee's Giant 1-Pound Burger." "It's humongous," Younger says, adding, "usually people split it."

Downriver delights: Owner Jeremy Soavnik had a dream: To operate a burger joint as fun as he could imagine it. The result is Wyandotte-based Joe's Hamburgers, a retro-looking joint with a counter that's comics under an acrylic top, and a floor that's made of pennies under polyurethane. But it's not all bling: The burgers are the real thing, 2-ounce slider patties made with beef from Fairway Packing. We spoke with a general manager, Danielle Murphy, who calls the burgers "amazing." The sliders get different treatments, and customers like to mix and match and order a bunch. Some of them even come in full-sized 6-ounce editions, such as such as jalapeno Cajun, bacon-and-cheese, or even the "Cowboy Burger," which sports barbecue sauce and an onion ring.

Best in town: Is there a city where more people claim to be the best? In the case of Nemo's, though, those claims have some merit. You don't log a half-century in business by cutting corners. Nemo's gets its beef from Rex Packing on the Dearborn-Detroit border, and cooks them to perfection. The bar also uses buns that fit the patties perfectly, because no burger fan likes those few mouthfuls of bread. Pat Osman tells us he's even seen the barkeep from hallowed Dearborn burger joint Miller's in there. Osman says, "It's just the meat. It's a great burger. ... I hate the term 'old school,' but we're the old burger. We've been here 50 years."

Burger of record: Long a destination for journalists, editors, and Red Wings fans, and with a kitchen that's open until 2 a.m., Anchor Bar has a burger of some renown. The meat comes fresh — never frozen — every day from Wolverine Packing Co., and gets grilled with a special seasoned salt, put on a buttered, toasted bun, garnished with lettuce and tomato, and served with a relish tray featuring a mix of condiments. It's a nifty concession not often found elsewhere, allowing the customer to put toppings on to taste. Manager Vaughn Derderian says he liked the idea of serving a customized burger, but he aims for what he called "a solid burger-eating experience." It also features one of the more unusual bar burgers, the "Avah Burger." Turns out Vaughn's Aunt Avah, at the ripe old age of 8, had come in to see her father, Vaughn's grandfather Leo Derderian. While there, she made an unusual sandwich featuring grilled ham and Swiss cheese. It's still on the menu.

Up-to-date: Jason Van Biervliet's effort to refresh Bogart'z, his family's old-fashioned east side bar and grill, is paying off. He has brought a level of sophistication to the menu that's winning over burger mavens. Half-pound patties are hand-formed from a leaner blend of choice-quality ground chuck supplied by Eastern Market's Wolverine Packing Co. Van Biervliet also has a few tricks up his sleeve, including a special seasoning and the searing the burgers get on the restaurant's refurbished 20-year-old flat-top grill. Van Biervliet tells us, "I've used new grills, and you don't get the same flavor out of something new." He even compared the flavor he gets out of his trusty flat top to the sound a musician is able to coax from a fine old instrument. "It's got soul," he says. It also doesn't hurt that he starts every day cooking a pound of bacon on it, which only adds richness to the patties. Another of his innovations is putting the "toppings" on the bottom, below the patty, so you taste them on your tongue instead of having them stick to the roof of your mouth. His most popular burger? The "Buster," which comes with house-made pepper jack, a sunny-side-up fried egg, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and onion on a brioche bun.

Towers of power: No paean to Detroit's burgers would be complete without mention of the classic grab-and-go restaurants clad in white enamel steel: Telway, Greene's, Bray's, Bates, Campau Tower, and more. Some of them date back to the 1930s, when the White Tower hamburger chain moved into Michigan, expanding during the Depression selling a 5-cent burger. Today, they're often full of characters, especially late at night, that offer entertainment. Perhaps our favorite is the Telway on Michigan Avenue around midnight, when cops and cabbies drop in for a few onion-laden sliders, a double-double, and maybe a cup of "Hillbilly Chili."

Workingman's slider: Closing in on 90 years in business, Motz's Burgers, founded 1929, it still humming. Tony Milosavljevski is often behind the counter. His parents bought the joint when Old Man Motz died in 1996. How busy is it? Around lunchtime, you'll find a hardworking cook churning out a steady procession of burgers as old-fashioned checks march along above. The cook takes refrigerated balls of beef and tosses them onto the grill, setting them up in a grid reminiscent of dough balls on a cookie sheet. The beef balls are generously showered with onions slices, and the balls are mashed down onto the grill, mixing with the onion, and then given a flip. Finally, all the buns are stacked atop the little sliders, covered briefly with a clean towel to work in the right amount of steam, heat, and essence of onion. Perhaps best of all is dining at the counter and watching the employees giving one another good-natured guff.

Curb service: Times change, but some things stay the same. One place that has done both is the Daly Drive-In on Plymouth Road in Livonia. Inside, it's a full-service restaurant with large menu and a salad bar. But outside they still have areas where you can pull up in your car, order, be served by a carhop, and dine under a swooping mid-century-looking canopy, just like when they opened in 1959. They serve quarter-pounders third-pounders, eighth-pounders, and the Daly Double (get it?) which sports two quarter-pound patties. We spoke with 40-year veteran Kathy Donovan, who tells us that Daly's uses a secret sauce, and that its ingredients include mustard, ketchup, onion, and relish.

Angular steaks: Sometime, a gimmick will help a burger joint weather tough times. Take Marcus Hamburgers, open since 1929, where the burgers are shaped like rectangles so they fit neatly into a puffy hot dog bun. They attribute this practice 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. Marcus puts in extra effort, though, and it shows. They grind their own beef, and all the buns are freshly steamed. Condiments include ketchup, mustard, a dish of relish, and even a dish of diced white onions. It's a neat touch.

A burger for all seasons: Sometimes it isn't the patties that are grand, but the toppings. For example, at Clancy's, the burgers all have half-pound patties, starting with the "Pub Burger," a simple beef patty with LTO. Oh, but it escalates from there, to an "Irish Boxer" prepared more like a Reuben, a cheese-bacon-barbecue sauce version called the "Jack Daniels" burger, all the way up to the "Mini Champ," which comes with bacon, cheese, and a fried egg.

Beyond the beer: Beer bars seem to have excellent burgers, it makes sense that the stellar brews on tap should be complemented by an excellent burger. And this isn't limited to just the old-fashioned taverns. Jolly Pumpkin offers the "JP Burger," an imposing invention: piled high with tomatoes, blue brie, smoked bacon, cremini mushrooms on a challah roll $12 Or take One-Eyed Betty's: Their "Betty Burger" has sharp cheddar melting all over it, as well as garlic aioli, applewood-smoked bacon, with real tomato slices, red, not those waxy pink look-alikes.

Uptown ingredients: Perhaps nobody has amped up local burgers quite like Cleveland native Michael Symon. At Detroit's Roast restaurant, his popular "Happy Hour" burger helped make the now-ubiquitous fried egg on top into a trend (although the bacon, cheddar, and pickled onion didn't hurt). We later learned that Michael Symon has always been a burger maven, and the evidence is in abundance at B Spot, his casual hamburger chain, with locations in Royal Oak and Rochester Hills. All his B Spot burgers are created from a 40-40-20 mix of sirloin, chuck, and brisket, prepared by Pat LaFrieda. When we sent our reviewer, they couldn't get enough, declaring that his loaded burgers "do well both by the beef underpinnings and the many possible add-ons." It's the same kind of careful treatment of beef and outrageously upscale toppings you'll find at Townhouse. The restaurant's "Townhouse Burger" starts with a hand-formed 10-ounce patty ground from steak cuts that have been aged for 28 days, cooked to order, topped with bourbon-glazed onions, aged white cheddar, and set into a brioche bun. But perhaps the most outrageously over-the-top burger is the $55 Foie Burger from the Rugby Grille in Birmingham's swanky Townsend Hotel: The burger is made with Waygu beef, sweet onion jam, seared foie gras, braised short rib, Parmesan aioli, burgundy truffles, and Thomasville tomme cheese. Damn.

Playful sliders: Several local eateries have been turning the slider into something approaching an art form, but Green Dot may be the best known. The bar's meat sandwiches run farther and wilder than mere beef, embracing quinoa, kale, pork loin, rib-eye, catfish, and even squeeze cheese. But the way they've paired beef with unusual toppings may be the most interesting. Green Dot is the only place, for instance, where we've seen a beef patty topped with kimchi and peanut butter.

Living large: Is there a metropolitan area where they have more "big burger" menu selections. The Rocket Restaurant in Pontiac serves a "Monster Burger" that's as big as a hubcap. There's the "Big Baby" at the Food Exchange in Detroit, which is a massive burger piled with the usual toppings, plus corned beef and cheese for good measure. But one restaurant that has them all beat, literally, is Mallies Sports Grill & Bar. It's the home of the world-record-holding 340-pound burger, and the kitchen regularly serves a 10-pound burger that is enough to feed a family ... for a week.

As you like it: Normally, a burger joint will have one specialty burger that brings them in. But at Cutters Bar and Grill, every burger is special. For a dozen years now, the family of staff at Cutters has slung hand-formed 3-ounce, 8-ounce, 16-ounce, and 32-ounce burgers flame-broiled or grilled, including half-pound "stuffed" burgers, in which the patty is filled with everything from blue cheese to olives, including the breakfast burger, filled with cheddar and topped with a fried egg. But general manager and 11-year veteran Chimika Harris says, "We don't need all of that. It's about the seasoning and the burger. You can add all the toppings you want, but you have to start with a great base." Their kitchen relies on fresh meat daily from Saad Wholesale Meats just down the street, and uses a top secret house seasoning that is guarded jealously. The half-pounders are the most popular, but the two-patty, two-pound burgers that come skewered with a steak knife look the most impressive. Harris says, "It's a lot of bang for your buck, because it's big and stacked high for $13.50. And you're like, 'Who's gonna eat all that?' And then they'll finish it and have dessert. I'm like, 'Good lord!'"

Meat and drink: Even a veggie-friendly gastropub will put a burger on the menu, and chances are it will impress even the barbecue-and-ballcap set. Berkley's Republica serves hand-formed burgers made with prime-quality, grass-fed beef from Monty's in Clinton County. Republica's Jessica Childers says of the beef, "It just tastes better. It doesn't shrink down as much, it has a faster cook time. It's so good, it's like butter melting in your mouth." The restaurant's most popular burger is called "the Revolution," a 10-ounce burger topped with gouda, bacon, a fried egg, an onion ring, and more. Do diners take it have to take it apart to eat it? Childers says, "It can look kind of intimidating, but we found the easiest approach is to just squish it down and take a bite. ... I gave up eating meat for a while, and it was so hard with all those Revolution Burgers going out, I finally decided to break down."

A better Big Mac: Even farm-to-table hotspots need to offer a burger to make everybody feel welcome. At Corktown's Gold Cash Gold, it's the "GCG Burger," a creation that was more or less inspired by the Big Mac: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun." In this case, it's shredded iceberg, a cheddar-onion-bechamel sauce, house-made pickles, and Thousand Island sauce on a pretzel brioche. Of course, Gold Cash Gold makes everything it can from scratch, down to the ketchup, and the burger is no exception. The patties are hand-formed from grass-fed, CAB beef they grind themselves, a blend of shoulder, flap and skirt that's 75 percent lean, 25 percent fat. Even the pretzel bun is baked in-house. GCG's Kevin Burrows tells us, "It's easy to go esoteric, but we wanted to be accessible while keeping it gastromolecular everything." Plus, he adds, "They're just so good."

A family affair: Originally, the burger was a grab-and-go type of food, but at family-friendly eateries it can blossom into an entree-sized dish that can only be eaten leisurely. Those are the sorts of creations you'll find at Rochester Hills' Clubhouse BFD: Burgers can even come with dipping sauces that enrich every bite. The beef blend comes from Pat LaFrieda meats, the same East Coast meat purveyor that supplies Michael Symon's B Spot establishments. BFD's blend includes brisket and short rib, and notable burgers include the "Pretzel Burger," which piles on habanero jack and thick-cut bacon in a salted pretzel bun. But the customers keep pushing the creativity: One ordered a burger given the same treatment as their sandwich, "The Remedy" – and the result was a burger topped with cheddar, guacamole, bacon, tomato, cage-free fried egg, and cholula sauce on a sourdough bun. Jason Peltier says one diner even ordered a double-patty creation with enough toppings to astound even the kitchen staff. "We all went out and watched him eat it," Peltier says. "It was incredible."

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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