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George Motz on Hamburgers, America, and Secret Sauce

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Photo courtesy George Motz.

The second edition of George Motz's Hamburger America just came out — buy at Amazon — and the burger expert has bumped his list of recommendations up to 150 restaurants across the country. We talked to him about America's infatuation with hamburgers (and cars), why smashed burgers are better, and how he chose his wife's first hamburger after 17 years of vegetarianism.

How have hamburgers changed in America since the first edition of the book?
America has gone hamburger crazy since the last book came out. There's no question about that. Not because of the book, there's just a general awareness about eating hamburgers. The economy has definitely changed, as have people's eating habits, and they're more likely to get beefy hamburgers than a steak sometimes.

There's definitely been an uptick in gourmet burgers happening out there. And sort of middle of the road, there's this gourmet, downscale burger that's happening, which is great. It takes from both sides: I don't want to pay a lot for my burger, but I want to eat something that's made from great ingredients. Shake Shack, New York, but all over the country, I think this is happening all over the place now.

Are there trends you're seeing now in terms of flavor combinations or new ways people are doing burgers?
Yes, there's actually two major things. Smashing burgers, which people started doing years ago — decades ago — but for some reason stopped doing it. The difference between smashing burgers and grilling preformed patties is — those are the two standard ways to make a burger — for a long time you put a preformed patty onto a flat top griddle or a grill and that was how you did it. But there was a method that was completely forgotten about which is starting to come back in America which is the smash method. And that's when you take a ball of meat or a scoop of meat, you throw it on top of a flat top griddle and you smash it flat once while it's on the flat top and it smashes into the shape of a burger.

And now what's happening is they're doing it at Five Guys and they're doing it appropriately enough at a place called Smashburger. The whole trend of smashing burgers is really picking up. Which is not surprisingly one of my favorite ways to make a burger. I would actually say more than half of the burgers in the book are smashed burgers.

So why is smashing a burger a better way to do it?
When you smash a burger, it completely changes the integrity of the cooking process. Totally. When you hand-form a patty, the heat from your hands slightly cooks the fat and creates sort of a barrier between the inside and the outside of the burger. Which can be good and can be bad. Something that happens when you smash a burger is that is actually makes the beef slightly crumbly. The beef is actually not being held together by pressing it and forming it, the beef is being held together because some of the fat is melting as you cook it and it's barely staying together.

So obviously if you have a leaner burger and you smash it, it's going to fall apart. If you have a fattier burger and you smash it, that melted or cooked fat will sort of adhere the burger, keep it together. So even with a crispy exterior and a cooked through interior, it still stays extraordinarily moist. It's just the best way to make a burger.

What's the Platonic ideal of a hamburger? What things must a hamburger have to qualify as a hamburger?
I go back to the classic method of pickles, grilled onions, and mustard. Some people just do mustard, but I think the ideal burger is really, you know, a hamburger on a bun. The thing I figure is you put a hamburger on a bun and cook it correctly, the grease becomes a little bit of a condiment, and that really goes a long way. Because if you put too much on a burger, you end up hiding the actual reason you cooked the burger in the first place. Which is to eat beef. To me, the less ingredients you put, the less condiments you use on a burger lead to a much easier end game.

What do you think it is about the hamburger that people find so fascinating? Other than of course the fact that they're delicious.
The delicious factor is, of course, important, but I also think people like the portability of it. There's not a real commitment. The minute you try to make a commitment out of a burger, into a sit down thing, you know, with the waiters and all that, I think it's just becomes too much. And that's not the way the burger's supposed to be enjoyed.

Burgers are a very quick food, it's something you know is going to be satisfying, and you know it's going to be quick and easy to make and easy to pick up at a hamburger joint or a restaurant. I think people are also fascinated by the fact that it's entirely American. It's a very American food. Not so much in New York and LA, but everywhere else you go in the country people eat them from their basic pride in being American.

Is there something about the burger that makes it quintessentially American?
It's a freedom food. It's one of those foods that is portable, and some of the best hamburgers were born out of a necessity to eat quickly, and eat in your car. All those great wax paper-wrapped burgers. California burgers were designed literally to be eaten in your car. The drive-thru was invented in California. The hamburger drive-thru was invented by In-N-Out, and that was pretty much the first drive-thru. And that was the idea: pull up, and then you could eat a burger in your car. And I think that's something people liked a lot. The age of eating a burger on the road. It's evolved much more since then, but there's a lot of nostalgia that goes with the taste for burger.

So what are your favorite chain burgers?
Any chain that's going to use fresh ground beef is a friend of mine. I have a section in the book called Notable Chains, and in there I have Smashburger, I have Five Guys, and a place called Steak 'n Shake, which is a Midwestern phenomenon.

Oh, yes, I'm from Wisconsin. I know all about Steak 'n Shake.
Oh you're from Wisconsin! Where are you from in Wisconsin?

I'm from Madison.
Guess where I'm sitting right now?

You are not in Madison, Wisconsin. Are you really?
I'm actually about to walk into the Plaza [Tavern & Grill] right now for a burger.

Shut up, I am so jealous.
I'm actually here with a film crew, we're about to bring the whole crew in. That is so weird. Actually, right now we're stopped in front of the Capitol building, and we're going to head around the corner and we're going to go there right now with the whole crew.

We used to skip high school to go get Plaza burgers.
Oh, excellent. I am so glad to hear you say that.

So jealous. What were we talking about? Steak 'n Shake!
I would also add In-N-Out in there as well. I really love In-N-Out, and I love that they have stuck to their hamburger ethos. And what's amazing about In-N-Out is that all those other burger chains — you know, McDonald's, all those other big burger chains — these guys, they easily could have been what In-N-Out became. At some point along the way, they had to please the investors and turn a buck here or there, and they lost their way. They all lost their way.

White Castle! White Castle was one of the most important hamburgers in America at one point, for the first twenty years it existed. You know the popularity of the hamburger in America, a lot of it can be traced back to White Castle. But unfortunately they all lost their way with the exception of In-N-Out. Which is why they're in the main section of the book, because even though they're a chain, they're still a mom and pop at heart.

Could you tell me a little bit about the iPhone app you're developing?
I still get three or four calls a day from friends of mine and family, people who call and say hey! I'm in Madison! Where do I go? I literally become everyone's GPS. I'm like, "Take a left! Take a right!" And guide them towards the nearest, best burger. I was talking to a friend of mine, he was like, you need to make an app. So I said go for it, and he started working on an app, and basically you go to the app and it's a picture of a burger, and you hit the button, and it goes to a map with a bunch of pins on it, and it shows you where my favorite burgers are.

It's a free app, but there's a version of the app you have to pay for where it'll actually show you my favorites at the place. So like you're going to the Plaza? Make sure you say hi to Dean and get the single. With a beer. Don't put ketchup on this burger. That kind of thing.

You mention in the book that your wife was a vegetarian for 17 years, and you picked the first hamburger for her to eat after she quit.
Yeah, she was a vegetarian for 17 years, she was a vegetarian during the making of the film and the first version of the book. It was one of those things where one day she said, "Aw, I want to eat meat." And I said, boy, you're in good hands! I'll make sure you eat good meat, have good burgers. She's actually a burger fiend. Honestly, I eat burgers all the time and she is the only person I know who can eat a burger faster than I can.

That's kind of a lot of pressure! What's your criteria for how you reintroduce someone to meat after that long?
A couple of things: I steered her first hamburger experience in 17 years to a place that — I wanted it to be about the hamburger but also about the whole experience. She's a big fan of Santa Fe, her father lives in Santa Fe. And I said okay, the next time we're in Santa Fe — which I think was going to be in about month or so. And let's have your first burger be a green chile cheeseburger. You like hot stuff, you like Santa Fe, and it was an amazing experience.

She actually sat down to eat and by the time the burger came, everyone in the restaurant knew it was her first burger. And they all watched her take her first bite and people applauded. They were cheering, and suddenly someone yells out across the restaurant "What do you think?" And she shouted back "What's not to love? This is amazing!" And some guy sitting next to her turns around and says "Did you think your husband was making this shit up?"

We had Dave Arnold at the French Culinary Institute make us a burger of the future, and so I'm curious as to what you think is the future of the hamburger?
A lot of the naysayers are around, predicting that the obvious popularity of the hamburger will wane in about five years. And it probably will, but it will never go away. But I think we've reached a point in the hamburger's life where people take it seriously. I mean think about where beer was ten years ago. Beer? I'm not going to drink a beer, I'm going to have a glass of wine. Now everyone wants beer. Now you get beer lists, like a wine list! In a few year the popularity will wane a little, but I don't think it ever really will.

Craziest Hamburger: There's a cashew burger, a burger with cashews and Swiss cheese at Anchor Bar in Superior, Wisconsin. A place called Matt's Place in Butte, Montana that has a nut burger. Now a nut burger it's a burger, a regular burger, they have this mixture of Miracle Whip and crushed, salted peanuts. It sounds disgusting but it's so good.

Best non-hamburger: Yeah, I couldn't tell you. I stay away from that kind of stuff like the plague. I only eat beef burgers. Then you start getting into lamb and veggies and salmon and tuna and those are more patties than burgers.

All-Time Favorite Chain Burger: I have a hard time picking a favorite, but I'd have to say In-N-Out is one of my all-time favorites. Especially the Double-Double Animal Style is just the best.

Favorite Regional Burger Style: One of my all-time favorites is in El Reno, Oklahoma, the onion fried burger. It's basically a burger where half the content is these long stringy onions that are smashed into the patty. That's just incredible.

I have to ask: any guesses on what's in the famous secret sauce at the Plaza?
Well, I have to preface this by saying that [Plaza owner] Dean Hetue would hate me for saying this, but I do think I know. The reality is he will not tell anybody, he especially won't tell me. I have a guess that it's very close to a Greek tzatziki sauce. Almost like a gyro sauce. My guess is it's a combination of sour cream and celery salt. And many other ingredients. I've done some testing, but I have to tell you, I have tested it many times, and I have failed many times. The main reason I'm here right now is I can't get that taste anywhere but the Plaza.

· Hamburger America [Official Site]
· Buy at Amazon [Amazon]
· All Hamburger Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Book Club Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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