An epic pastrami burger from Crown Burgers. Photo: Adam Dorobiala
Hires Big H
700 East 400 South
377 East 200 South
Acme Burger Company
200 West 275 South
Mormons don’t have many normal vices. The stringent lifestyle removes alcohol, tobacco and drugs from the mix, and you’d be surprised how little fun gambling and whoring around are when you’re not the least bit buzzed. Where some have turned to prescription drugs or creepy international adoptions to get their feel-good fix, many more have found comfort in food. Some local side effects are the glut of subpar chain restaurants and the fact that we have more fast food joints per city block than there are closeted homosexuals at BYU. It’s not all bad news, though. The demand has created a sizable market for those competing for the patronage of college students, young families and others whose only real indulgences are celibate teenage vampire novels and saturated fats. Thankfully, when enough discerning restaurant goers descend upon a local eatery, even things as simple as hamburgers and shakes can be elevated to mythic levels. Salt Lake’s concentration of independent burger outlets is a testament to this truth.
This article was originally going to be a review of The Counter, a build-your-own premium burger joint on the south end of the Gateway. I was going to comment on the ridiculous size of their burgers and the fact that you could pay $13 to eat a customized meat monstrosity while watching the homeless queue up across the street. I was also going to mention the creamy smoothness of their chocolate shakes and the potential I thought this chain had for longevity. This was the plan, but the restaurant closed in late October and auctioned off everything inside the building. When the cash flow dried up, the place folded. There was no loyalty to their employees or their public. Without the money, there was no reason to stay open.
The good news is that Salt Lake’s burger dollars are being funneled to one of several neighborhood burger spots. These places are sustained through lean economic times by customer loyalty and proud culinary traditions. They’re places like Hires Big H. A recent trip to Hires reminded me why this place has survived for 50 years. From specialty burgers like the Roquefort Bacon H (with country bacon, Roquefort dressing and pickles; $4.85) to more run-of-the-mill choices like the New York H (grilled onions; $4.55) Hires is consistently good. Every burger is made from fresh-ground quarter-pound chuck and is finished with their signature fry sauce, lettuce, tomato and American cheese on a bakery-fresh bun. Their long-time employees focus on quality service and ingredients. They offer curbside service at the downtown location and for those who want to recreate the dining experience at home, Hires even sells the raw patties, fry sauce and hamburger buns in bulk. I’ll never understand why they have a maître d’ whose only job is telling you to sit where you want, but maybe this is a throwback to their early days. Steeped in quality and nostalgia, Hires Big H is a favorite hamburger stop for many.
Another downtown spot is Acme Burger Company. A decidedly higher brow restaurant, Acme will challenge some people’s idea of what a burger should be. But for those willing to take the challenge, the only real risk is having your mind blown. They offer a wide variety of burgers with toppings that range from the normal (six kinds of cheese, smoked bacon, guacamole) to the utterly insane (bison chili, fried egg, hummus). A personal favorite is the Spicy Moroccan Lamb Burger ($12.50), a mildly spicy burger made with local, skillet-roasted lamb, topped with a carrot raisin slaw and served on a sweet potato bun. Add a single order of shoestring-cut fries for $4, and a large made-to-order milkshake for $6 more. Oh, and try the bread pudding. Really, it’s better than it should be.
The king of local burger joints, though, is Crown Burgers. The origins of the pastrami burger are murky at best, but even the New York Times traces its Utah beginnings to the Crown (“Pastrami Meets the Patty in Utah,” John T. Edge, July 28, 2009). I occasionally get the Chicken Strips Dinner, with fries, a green salad and a piece of grilled flatbread ($7.25), but I normally go for the pastrami burger ($4.95). Maybe I’m drawn in by the thick-sliced pastrami, dyed red from soaking in the paprika-rich broth. Maybe it’s the combination of lettuce, tomato and their unique chunky fry sauce. Most likely though, it’s the idea of a pile of meat on top of a meat patty that wins me over. Crown Burgers can do no wrong. The onion rings ($3.50) may be a little on the orange side, and the thick shakes may only be available in six flavors ($2.65-$5.25), but the eating experience is one that always fills me up, both physically and emotionally. Good luck getting that from Applebee’s.