In the second half of the first decade of this century, I was a college student in New York City. When I wanted a nice dinner, something just a step above Cafetasia (a restaurant Eater critic Robert Sietsema once described as “a pan-Asian refectory that one always suspected of secretly being a dormitory dining hall”), I’d go to the BLT Burger on Sixth Avenue, and I’d order a salmon burger. It wasn’t just because I had given up eating beef years earlier, although that did rule out much of the BLT menu for me — I wanted to eat salmon burgers, those fatty fish patties fried to a slight crisp, maybe with some tartar sauce for a bright contrast. I craved and sought them out, even. I believe there was a time when many of us did.
When I Google the term “salmon burger” now I’m presented with recipes that insist that following the steps outlined will produce an actually good salmon burger, like it’s some sort of mythical white... er... salmon. When I search specifically for restaurant salmon burgers, there are few results, and even fewer are restaurants I’ve ever heard of. But salmon burgers were once good, or at least perfectly fine and much better than many other sandwiches that persist on basic restaurant menus (grilled chicken comes to mind). Crab cakes — a not entirely dissimilar seafood patty — have secured a permanent and beloved place in the American diet. So why not salmon burgers?
It’s perhaps understandable that the salmon burger has disappeared from trendy restaurant menus, those restaurants being subject to said trends (and salmon burgers being decidedly, if bafflingly, lame). Salmon burgers in general may have fallen out of favor because many consider them to be (or market them as) a health food, a wimpy, feminine, alternative to a real beef burger that thus must also mean it’s tasteless and unappealing. There’s the argument that a full, intact salmon filet is superior to fish flakes mashed together in patty form. To that I say, sure, but the salmon burger shouldn’t be stacked against a full piece of salmon, or even another type of fish (unless in patty form, like the aforementioned crab cake), but to other sandwiches.
And today’s most trendy sandwich is, what, the Impossible burger? A salmon burger — moist and tender, made flavorful with a squeeze of lemon and some tangy mayo — stacks up to that just fine. As a food-consuming populace, we’ve come around to the idea that burgers not made with beef are wholly reasonable restaurant orders and backyard cookout staples. Burger alternatives have already infiltrated the fast-food market, and yet salmon burgers are only on the menu at fast food restaurants in Singapore. Why not here?
This isn’t to say that any salmon burger is a good salmon burger, merely that salmon burgers aren’t good for nothing. In fact, they’re just the thing for many occasions. The last time a salmon burger caught my eye on a restaurant menu was two years ago. I was at lunch at my new job with my boss’s boss’s boss at a nearby restaurant that billed itself as a “tavern.” I wanted to eat fish, but I wasn’t about to order the pan-seared organic salmon, nearly the most expensive item on the menu and a fork-and-knife dish that seemed fancier than the occasion merited. And so I considered the “blackened salmon burger,” with avocado, herbed cream cheese, and fries. It was what I wanted, but it did have one check mark against it: a salmon burger, thanks to all the aforementioned baggage, felt slightly embarrassing to order. I got something else. I don’t remember what it was; I do remember it was bad.
That possibly says more about me than it does about salmon burgers, but it would have been helpful then to have someone stand up for the maligned and now endangered salmon burger. It would have been nice for someone to say that even if they’re relegated to taverns, pubs, and grocery store freezer aisles — and no longer in middling-but-trendy restaurants frequented by college students — salmon burgers are a worthy order and a completely satisfying sandwich.
For those who agree, hello, here I am.