Rhapsody in Beef 

Where the burger's still king

Despite a tainted image, America's favorite sandwich continues to dominate menus across the Big Sky

The almighty hamburger has been many things to many people over the ages, but let's face it: Since the first time someone thought to grill up their steak tartare -- instead of wolfing that ground round down raw -- there has been little mistaking chopped beef for anything other than meat.

Even packaged in plastic and styrofoam, when you reach in and shape that patty, perhaps mixing in seasonings, burgers remain the quintessentially most meaty of American sandwiches. Throw a plate of fries on the side and there's little escaping that this meal, the meal of our forefathers, will continue to be dinner until a revolution more radical than E. coli and Mad Cow Disease combined shakes us by our collective lapels and hands down that eleventh commandment: Beef -- it's no longer what's for dinner.

In Montana, despite changing diets and the raging debate over grazing reform, that's a good thing for lots of folks.

In Missoula alone, from Higgins Avenue on out to Reserve Street, throughout the belabored urban service area now being fought over in city hall, there are scores of places to get a burger. Statewide, where more than 725,000 cows were inspected on their way to market last year at an average cost of nearly $600 per head, it's easy to imagine that the whole damn economy might just collapse if it weren't propped up by the carnivorous hordes that make their home on the Big Sky's range.

As for my own interest in hamburger, it grows out of the meeting place of curiosity and lust. I confess I am one of those reformed vegetarian types who upon moving to Montana from the more progressive (some might say more repressive) city of Seattle, learned to do as the Romans do and now gorge at regular intervals on ground bovine parts.

Plus -- and almost everybody has wondered this at sometime themselves -- I needed an excuse once and for all to discover where on God's green earth do hamburgers come from -- and I don't mean like what animal, but rather literally who invented them. It turns out the burger in question, which we recognize as beef -- not ham -- owes its invention to the Teutonic seaside town of Hamburg, although it was American ingenuity that resulted in its colonization of palates worldwide.

According to the scholars at Bon Appetit magazine, Baltic sailors returned to Hamburg, having traded unknown geegaws for shredded beef, and as opposed to eating the meat raw, some German had the bright idea of cooking it. The first patties, meanwhile, were rumored to appear somewhat later. The first recorded appearance of a burger on a bun was not on the European continent, but here in the United States.

To the best of my knowledge, the first true burgers were invented (discovered? refined?) during the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1804. The rest, as they say, is history.

In order to get at the heart of the continued popularity of hamburgers, I turned to a woman who has dedicated much time to the design of some of the tastiest burgers this town has come to experience. Of course, there are lots of folks with different preferences, but loyal readers will recognize that I have already eschewed any appearance of objectivity

I approached Marianne Forrest, of Hob Nob Cafe fame, to find out what a culinary professional had to say about burgers. Given that Forrest has two decades of chefdom under her belt (and not a few burgers, I would venture, though you wouldn't guess it by her figure) as well as a host of hamburgers on her menu (including a regularly advertised 1/3 pound organic burger special and one delectable non-beef patty known as the Planet Burger), I thought, why not get some expert insight?

And this is what Forrest told me: Burgers are popular because they are familiar. They are as much a part of our psyche as any dish involving meat and potatoes. Plus because they're so damn common, many restaurants ironically seek to make a name for themselves by serving a better burger -- at least that's the drift I got speaking with Forrest after a midweek lunch rush.

Looking at the advertising for various establishments, including not a few fast food chains, it's hard to deny Forrest's wisdom in this arena. Despite the recent turn away from beef by Dave Thomas, President of Wendy's (can you say by-pass surgery?), who lately has been hawking pita sandwiches, everybody from White Castle to the Burger King himself has tried to entice the American public with juicy, dripping burgers.

And, so it seems, even in the face of various health risks, the burgermeisters have succeeded.

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of recommending some burgers, though, it would be a gyp to avoid beef's deadly downsides. First and foremost, there's the question of fat in the diet, roughly half of which in the case of burgers -- not to mention cheeseburgers -- comes from the fat in the meat itself.

Most people at this late date realize that the health standards propagated by the meat and dairy industry strike a slightly skewed tone. Perhaps meat won't kill you outright, but even a burger every couple of days is too much according to most health professionals. Beyond this fact, however, there remains the question of that deadly beef bug, E. coli or, more fully, the strain Escherichia coli 0157:H7.

Ever since the 1993 deaths of three Seattle Jack-in-the-Box patrons (maybe there's something to Jet City vegetarianism), questions surrounding E. coli have plagued the beef industry and hamburger purveyors in particular.

A recent edition of Beef Today, a trade magazine, poses the question, "What to do about beef's bad bug?" The problem, according to the article, tends not to be with the servers -- Forrest points out that standard operating procedure requires the meat be heated to 180 degrees -- but with the producers. In order to combat the spread of the disease, ranchers and, more importantly, processors must make sure to keep the beef clean and keep infected cattle away from those being shipped to slaughter.

While the magazine goes after "pseudo-consumer advocates -- some with a very obvious anti-beef agenda" and argues that deer, birds, horses and flies have all been shown to carry E. coli, the author acknowledges that "To consumers, it's the 'hamburger disease'" and, that "many will simply buy or eat something else rather than accept the responsibility for decontaminating it."

Quoted in the article, microbiologist Gary Acuff says: "Cattlemen can put their heads in the sand and continue to talk about how safe the beef supply is" -- indeed science has shown that only 1 in 2,500 tests reveals E. coli in beef -- "but when something happens, they aren't very believable."

Well aware of this problem, Larry Petersen, of Montana's Department of Livestock, describes the elaborate testing schema employed by the 20 or so slaughterhouses registered with the state. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Petersen says, the state takes samples from cow corpses at the processing plants, testing for both E. coli 0157:H7 as well as the bacteria's less virulent strain.

Generally, Petersen says, there haven't been problems. But if any number of screenings -- including additional, privately-administered tests -- come back positive, state inspectors sit down with plant workers to look at ways for changing processing practices. Petersen adds that the cut of beef most likely to contain E. coli is, in fact, hamburger. Lots of human handling, he says, increases the chance that the meat will come into contact with contaminated bovine fecal matter. He also points out that sometimes "beef takes a bad hit" and that E. coli can be found in vegetables, too.

In the end, the state does what it can to prevent consumers from coming into contact with the disease, Petersen says. Once the meat reaches restaurants and supermarket, however, he cautions that most people need to make an extra effort to handle the meat safely and cook it properly.

Forrest, for her part, says that consumers -- both restauranteurs and their customers -- should be making sure they know where their meals are coming from. There are just too many people marching along blindly, huffing burgers like Popeye's pal Blimpy, ignoring the fact that some bad things can get into our food despite the best precautions.

"In the end," she says, "if you can't rely on the provider, it's in the consumer's lap. It's all about what the consumer demands."

What most consumers demand, ultimately, is a burger their own way. Along with a band of crack burger tasters, I took a brief reconnaissance mission around town to find some good burgers. The burgers we tried ranged from fast-food style pucks of beef to greasy elbow-producing sandwiches. What follows are brief descriptions of a mere sample of the dozens of restaurants which serve burgers in Missoula:

Big Sky Drive In
1016 W. Broadway

For 23 years, this Missoula landmark has been serving 'em up hot and tasty. With delicious shakes, a variety of fried side orders, including three different style of potatoes, and both walk-up and drive-through service. The line of cars stretching down the block offers a clue to how well these burgers hit the spot. Singles and doubles, basic and deluxe are all available. The food may not fly out of this place like your standard fast-food joint, but the difference is obvious from the first bite.

Dinosaur Cafe
428 N. Higgins

The Dino may have made its reputation with excellent Cajun food, but the burgers here are done right too. From the piled-high Dino Burger, sure to make you feel like going extinct with two cheeses of your choice and bacon, to the Mexi Burger, piled high with spicy peppers, there's no escaping that the beef is here, too. The french fries, meanwhile, are curly cut from raw potatoes and the fried mushrooms, dipped in ranch dressing, make for a piping hot alternative. (If it's not beef your looking for, try the Chicken Sante Fe.) Hot tip: If your looking for a kick-back meal, try to beat the Charlie B's bar crowd -- or stick to lunch.

2805 N. Reserve St.

My first Fuddruckers experience came during a cross-country drive outside of Minneapolis a few years back. This now-nationwide chain locally claims to be the only Fud's with an associated casino and bar, which isn't bad, since a beer can be a swell way to wash down either the 1/2- or 1/3-pound burgers they offer. The trick here is that the toppings, including salsa and a wide variety of other sauces, laid out near the service counter are yours to pile on. Just as good as I remember it, plus they ask how you want it cooked.

Hob Nob Cafe
208 E. Main St.

As noted, Marianne Forrest offers a standard array of quarter-pounders, topped with cheeses ranging from stilton to cheddar. The specialty, though, is the organic burger -- courtesy of Lifeline Farms up the Bitterroot Valley. Usually listed on the specials board, this 1/3-pounder is the sandwich to make a vegetarian feel bad about eating greens, because the folks at Lifeline are so committed to local production and the healthy raising of cattle. Hate meat anyhow? Try the Planet Burger, which with luck may find its way to local supermarkets some day soon.

Missoula Club
139 W. Main St.

The crack bar staff at the Mo' Club specializes in a simply classic array of patties specially seasoned with secret spices. For three years running, the Missoula Club has won the Independent's readers poll despite a distinct lack of side dishes. (Potato chips, if you want 'em.) Mo' burgers don't necessarily make a full dinner, but a double lays down a good base for a few cocktails. Burger o' choice: double hot pepper. Other toppings include cheeses, onions and bacon. Watch out for the spicy, horseradish sauce. Bonus track: try a milkshake.

Old Town
127 W. Alder

The burgers at the Old Town are nothing fancy, but they're damn good -- not too fatty, cooked to a perfect medium. Similar to those made by mothers the world over, they don't overwhelm, and make for a suitable brunch on those late-rising weekend mornings, especially because they're served with home-fries (gravy optional). A personal favorite: the ortega burger -- topped with mild Mexican peppers and cheese.

The Shack
222 W. Main St.

The Shack offers lots of different burgers and cheeseburgers. While the waitstaff doesn't generally check for doneness, you're pretty much assured a juicy, medium burger topped with an assortment of tasty toppings, including chipotle peppers, mushrooms and bacon. A longtime favorite for those with a hardy constitution is the bacon, blue cheese burger (see if they won't add peppercorns). Served with beans, pasta salad, cottage cheese, nacho chips or french fries.

John Dugal works the grill behind the bar at the Mo' Club. Photo by Jeff Powers.

Roughly half the fat from a hamburger comes from the meat itself, rather than condiments. Photo by Jeff Powers.

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