In Search of a Rare Hamburger
James likes his hamburgers rare. To him, cooking a hamburger any more than rare results in a dry, flavorless burger. This didn’t used to be a problem. Most places (other than fast food joints like McDonald’s) were happy, upon request, to cook a burger rare.
About a year or so ago, however, we noticed the beginning of a trend. It started with chain coffee shops. We used to frequent our local Coco’s relatively often for a quick lunch or dinner, especially when the kids were with us. We could get a decent burger and fries – cooked rare for James, medium rare for me and “Ace” (his teenaged son) – and Snuggie was a fan of their kids menu, particularly their chicken fingers. On one visit, shortly after ordering, we were surprised when the manager stopped by our table to inform us that, based on company policy, the restaurant would now cook all hamburgers medium-well. After that, James refused to order burgers at Coco’s, and although we did not stop going there altogether (it’s not easy finding a restaurant that a picky 9-year-old will enjoy), we did drastically reduce our visits.
We thought, however, that this trend was limited to chain coffee shops such as Coco’s. Better restaurants, we thought, would still cook a rare hamburger. A few months ago, we learned differently. We used to love to eat dinner in the bar at Kincaid’s (a nicer seafood and steak chain) at the pier in Redondo Beach. Food in the restaurant could be spotty – sometimes quite good, other times not so good (to the extent that we have sent food back) – so we rarely ate in the main dining room. The bar, however, was a favorite of ours. It had nice atmosphere with a view of the water, there was a pretty good selection of cocktails, and we could get good (though slightly pricy) casual food from the bar menu. James loved the burger at Kincaid’s and would order it every time we went. It was a 1/3 pound hand-formed patty of ground sirloin, with aged cheddar cheese on a sesame bun, served with crispy fries. Best of all, he could get it cooked rare.
We didn’t get over to Kincaid’s very often – maybe every couple of months or so – but we always knew that, when we did, we would get the same consistently good bar food. A few months ago, we decided to head over to Kincaid’s after work one night. As usual, we sat in the bar, ordered our cocktails, and then ordered – what else – our usual meals. The first hint of trouble came when the food arrived. James’ hamburger looked fine – until he bit into it and realized that it was medium-well. He called the waitress over and mentioned that he had asked for a rare burger. She said she would take care of it, and stepped away.
A few minutes later, the manager came to our table. She informed James that the restaurant now cooked all hamburgers medium-well, explaining that it was for our “health.” As he and I talked about it, James realized another difference – the hamburger appeared to be a pre-formed patty (such as you would buy frozen in a box at Costco). Coincidentally, my fish and chips were terrible – the thick moist fish encased in crispy beer batter had been replaced by thin dry fish in panko crumbs. We both sent our food back, paid for our cocktails and left. On the ride home, we lamented the loss of Kincaid’s bar as a casual dinner spot.
Last week, however, I read in a blog (I can’t remember which one, and I can’t find it now), as well as in Alan Richman’s article, The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die, that Houston’s not only serves a good burger, but will prepare it rare. We have gone to Houston’s a few times, but not often, because the Manhattan Beach location is about 20 miles from our home, and the other Los Angeles locations are even farther from us. We don’t mind traveling for a good meal, but we don’t generally consider a chain restaurant (any chain restaurant, no matter how good) worthy of a special trip. I did tell James, however, about what I was reading about the burger at Houston’s, and we decided that some time we would try it when we were in the area.
It just so happened that we found ourselves in Manhattan Beach on Sunday afternoon, exhausted from shopping and famished after missing breakfast. This was the perfect opportunity to stop by Houston’s for lunch.
Somewhat skeptical, James queried our waiter about whether he really could get a rare hamburger. When assured that he could, James (naturally) ordered the burger (as did Ace, who was with us). Not in the mood for a burger, I ordered the Thai Steak Salad instead. Both James and Ace loved the burgers. They were large, hand-formed patties of excellent beef, grilled to the requested temperature (rare for James, medium-rare for Ace) on fresh toasted sesame buns. They even grilled the onions at James’ request. James agreed that Alan Richman et al were right – Houston’s does make an excellent burger, worthy of a special trip. All the other food (including my salad) was quite good as well.
Our stop at Houston’s was a bit of a splurge for casual lunch – for the three of us, the bill came to about $100 (though that included some extras such as two glasses of wine, one soup starter, an extra side of sautéed broccolini, two desserts, and two cappuccinos). However, we had a relaxing time, all of the food was good, and James got his rare hamburger! Next time, though, we’ll probably forgo some of the extras. And we’ll keep our eyes out for more restaurants that will still cook a hamburger rare!