There’s no arguing Ted’s Restaurant‘s steamed cheeseburgers are world famous. Not since the circa 1959 burger joint was featured in George Motz‘s Hamburger America, the book as well as the film, and on the TV show Man v. Food.
But convincing family members that Ted’s had been worth the schlep to Meridien, a small city in central Connecticut about 100 miles northeast of New York? No such luck. Laurie, Bill, Aaron and Viv Youngandfoodish were all put off by the dense, monochromatic, flavour-challenged burger meat. So was I.
Even so, just viewing the steaming process live was a hair-raiser, literally: Follicular penetration by steamed burger grease vapours must be experienced in person, up close. The HDTV experience just doesn’t scream SHAMPOO. Likewise, plasma televisions do not do justice to plasma cheese – a steaming wet white goo poured and pushed all over the sweaty outlines of the burger.
Credit for inventing steamed burgers, as term is understood in this part of New England, goes to Jack’s Lunch, a defunct diner in nearby Middletown Connecticut. At Ted’s (and other area diners and lunch counters) they’re made by loading rectangular beef patties individually into metal trays a size larger than sardine tins and sliding these into a stainless-steel steam cabinet for a steam bath. In theory burger doneness could be controlled according to the length of time a patty gets locked up in the steam bath. Ted’s can not or does not bother: Each burger comes out well done, which, to me, is a misnomer: They should call it not very done. Most of the juice gets sweated out of the beef and is left behind in the little trays and later drained. (Heston would inject that grease back into the burger.)
Ted’s degreased and compacted burgers are not well served by unremarkable, oversize Kaiser rolls, aka Vienna rolls. (I’m sympathetic: you go try fitting a rectangular burger in a round bun.) The blandness of the white “Cheddar” doesn’t help. Yet it is the sensuously molten consistency of that odorless cheese, steamed in the same manner as the burgers, that makes me almost glad we didn’t lunch that December day at The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven Connecticut. I can’t wait to try the technique out in London on cheeses that tend to either separate or seize up when you try to melt them. For the test I’ll be sure to choose a genine Cheddar, one that that doesn’t require quote marks.