So here I am, an American living in London. Occasionally friends or a family member will ask me what it is that I miss most about the US, probably as a way of filling awkward conversational silences, but perhaps in the hopes that I'll say something gloriously clever, or at least funny. But my answer is always the same: I miss hamburgers.
(My fingers insist on typing the word out as "haumburgers" this morning - perhaps this is phonetically symbolic of my ever-increasing Englishization, which manifests itself as an enormously pretentious-sounding Mid-Atlantic accent?*)
So, yes. Hamburgers. It's not that they're unavailable in this city, or even that they're not very good. They are as widely available as in any American city, and many are very tasty. But they are not perfect.
The perfect burger must meet a number of requirements. From the outside-in, these are:
- A squashy, but not too squashy, roll or bun. If the bread is too squashy the thing falls apart in your hands and degenerates into a big gooey mess on your plate, which you must then eat with a fork if you hope to retain any sense of dignity at all. On no account should a burger ever be eaten with a fork. But, if the bread is too hard, the burger becomes too chewy, and the flavors of meat, sauce, and vegetables get lost while the diner struggles to chew and swallow.
- The right condiments. Ketchup, mayonaise, and mustard are a must, depending on your tastes. But so are French or Thousand Island dressing which are much harder to come by in this country.
- Iceburg lettuce. (I will also accept butter lettuce.) All them fancy-schmancy lettuces posh places insist on loading onto their burgers have flavors that are too strong (radiccio) or textures that are too off-putting (frisee), and distract from the overall effect. Lettuce in burgers serves two purposes: to give a satisfying crunch to the sandwich, and in whole-leaf form, hold smaller and less pliant vegetables in place.
- Pickles. Yes, most hamburger places put pickes on or near their burgers. But placing a dill pickle spear on a plate doesn't much help the burger conniseur who prefers her burger with a slight sour tang. Pickle spears cannot be piled onto a burger. Therefore, pickles must be presented in diametrical slices, that they may be piled on (or peeled off) as the diner prefers.
- Meat. It is here that we reach the heart of the matter - or, rather, burger. A perfect burger should contain all of the above, as well as the usual cheese, onions, and tomatoes. But, should one or two of the above be missing, a perfect burger may still be had depending on the meat. It's in the meat, above and beyond any other consideration, that most burger places in London seem to fail. Meat with too little fat, such as extra-lean or buffalo meat, falls apart after the first bite (which: see roll or bun, supra). Old meat has too little flavor. Thus, the best burger meat is both fresh/flavorsome and fatty. But not too fatty, of course; too much grease saturates the bread, contributing to its rate of decomposition and resulting in that big gooey mess I've referenced twice now.
In short, the perfect burger requires a glorious synergy of ingredients so that, in one bite, the diner receives all flavors in their correct proportion. That's it. The test of a burger is in that one bite.
My first favorite burger in London is to be found at the redoubtable Smith's of Smithfield. Located a hop, skip and a jump across the road from Smithfield, London's historic meat-market, (and the site of Willam Wallace's execution!), Smith's is reknown for the quality of its meat. The restaurant is four floors, each a different dining room with a different menu. Burgers are only available on the breakfast/brunch menu of the ground floor restaurant.
I've eaten any number of burgers at Smith's over the years, and no other London establishment has come close to offering any real competition. That is, until this weekend. One of our local pubs recently closed down and reopened under new management. Jared and I, nothing loath, decided to give it a shot. The results were fabulous. We walked into the Wheatsheaf at 8.55 pm and asked if the kitchen were still open; the cheerful woman behind the bar handed us menus and told to us order within the next five minutes, rather than looking around shiftily and suggesting that maybe we should try our luck some other night. The decision was painless: we both ordered the hamburger. And, within no more than ten minutes, our hamburgers were delivered. And they were perfect. Perfect meat, perfect bun, perfect proportions of the perfect toppings: I couldn't have asked for more.
This, of course, is both good news and bad news. I'm thrilled to have a back-up burger, should something happen to either the Wheatsheaf or Smith's. It is not, however, possibly the best thing for my figure to have such a good burger a mere five minute walk from home.
But I am delighted that the Wheatsheaf, which always charmed me with its gently supportive "Courage" sign, (which hangs, slightly askew, above the door), has risen from the ashes of its former self in such glory.**
So there you have it. I now must think of something else I miss about the States, as I can no longer speak wistfully of perfect burgers an an unobtainable delight. (Leave suggestions in the comments.)
Smith's of Smithfield
67-77 Charterhouse Street, London EC1M 6HJ
0207 251 7950
126 South Lambeth Road, London SW8 1RB
0207 622 3602
*Oh, wonderful. Three years in this country and I sound like Maude Lebowski.
** Yes, I know Courage is a brewery. But the sign never fails to hearten me.