Kansas City's Oddball Burgers, and Why They're So Good
As burgers have become a mainstay of New York City bistros, bars, and snack shops, area chefs have come to define them in a restricted way: The patty must be thick and juicy and made with designer meat, barely touched by human hands as it's shaped, and seared over high heat to medium rare, so that the inside is red, damp, and barely warm. It often tastes more like steak tartare than a traditional hamburger. Then the thing is deposited on a brioche bun, lubricated with homemade condiments, and heaped with a lettuce assortment that often includes arugula. But should this be the only way?
On a recent trip to Kansas City, in between bouts of barbecue and fried chicken, I had a chance to taste the area's working-class burgers at places like Town-Topic and Winstead's, an establishment celebrated by Calvin Trillin in American Fried. At those sorts of places, the hamburgers are exceedingly cheap and delicious, invariably costing somewhere between $3 and $5, and often including the option of piling on extra patties at around 50 cents apiece. If quantity of meat is what you're aiming for, you can get it.
But these are burgers with a difference. The patties are not very heavy, probably about an eighth of a pound. While we deplore over-handling the ground beef here, in Kansas City the patties are patted and then patted again before cooking with the express purpose of making them thin. We also denigrate the practice (as they do it at Five Guys) of squishing the patty on the griddle with the spatula to evacuate the juices; but in KC, the fry chefs smash the thin patty over and over, to make it thinner and more lattice-like. Shaved raw onions are put on top as the burger grills so that they steam, then turned under the patty as it's flipped, so they get some fry-time too.