George Motz frequently punctuates his enthusiasm for hamburgers with a bubbling laugh. Motz is a director of photography and documentary filmmaker whose Hamburger America was shown on the Sundance Channel in 2005. He's now spun his cross-nation ramblings into a guidebook, also called Hamburger America, and subtitled A State-by-State Guide to 100 Great Burger Joints.
You'll find burgers filled with cheese, patties made from ground beef mixed with ground bacon, burgers made with an entire pound of ground beef. But the places Motz writes about all have a homespun allure, too, with red stools and shiny silver napkin holders and names like "Snappy Lunch" and "Brown's Diner" -- remnants of a less complex, more optimistic America.
I guarantee that a few moments paging through this book will have burger lovers doing two things:
- Heading to their own favorite burger joint.
- Making plans for a road trip.
Motz joined me on the phone for a little burger-centric Q & A in advance of his 6 p.m. Saturday, May 10 appearance at Dotty Dumpling's Dowry, where he will be relishing the availability of fried cheese curds, which he's chosen as one of the top ten side dishes in the U.S., and signing copies of the book. Appropriately, it comes with a side dish, a DVD of the original documentary.
The Daily Page: Can you tell a fresh burger patty from frozen?
Definitely. I can tell without asking. The best way is to cut it in half. When meat is flash-frozen, the quality of the meat changes. Fresh ground meat is pebbly. You can see the shape of the way it came out of the grinder.
Can you taste the difference among the kinds of griddles that patties are fried on?
I'm not that good! Well, there's a place, Hodad's, in Ocean Beach, California, that has quite the griddle, an old cast-iron model. It's seasoned. It gives the patty a kind of terroir. I can taste a new grill or one that's not seasoned correctly.
Do you prefer a flame-grilled burger or one that's cooked on the griddle?
Griddle! Most people do not know how to cook a burger on a flame. It's harder to control the temperature over an open flame. You can control the temperature on a griddle and the burger sits in its own juices so it doesn't lose moisture. Hamburger [stands] traditionally serve griddle burgers, all over the country.
What's the weirdest condiment you've come across?
Matt's Place Drive-In in Butte, Montana, serves something called a Nut Burger. It's a regular meat patty topped with ground-up sundae peanuts mixed with Miracle Whip. It sounds disgusting, gross, but it's great, and the texture is incredible.
Are you seeing a rise in the use of organic beef?
The rise is nominal. But people are waking up. They're going to naturally-raised beef. And more chains are going to fresh ground beef -- Red Robin, In & Out, Five Guys.
Is there anything that distinguishes the Wisconsin burger as a genre, looking at the four spots in Wisconsin that made the book [Dotty Dumpling's Dowry and The Plaza, in Madison; Peterson's in Jefferson; and Solly's Grill in Milwaukee]?
Not really. Of course, Dotty's is one of the few places where they know how to cook a burger on an open flame. And the secret sauce at the Plaza is the best [burger] sauce in the country. I've tried to recreate it and completely failed. There's a sauce in the Pacific Northwest called Goop -- it's similar to Plaza sauce but it has mustard in it, so it's not quite the same. There's nothing like Plaza sauce.