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Tossing Tomatoes

May 2, 2017

Ultimately a hamburger is a sandwich. Heck, one of my all time favorite hamburgers was called the Joe’s Hamburger Sandwich. This monster of a thing was sold at The Original Joe’s in San Francisco before it tragically burned down in a grease fire.

That is how all great burger places should go.

While I could romanticize The Original Joe’s all day, let’s focus on its signature sandwich for a moment, because this was a place that got the hamburger right. The kitchen ground its chuck in house, seasoned it generously with salt, packed it loosely by hand, and seared it over a blazing hot charcoal grill. This perfectly charred and juicy patty was then nestled into a hollowed out length of french bread, and topped with a smattering of fried onions.

Truly hand-cut French fries were strewn on the plate. It was a study of brown on brown on brown. There was no piece of kale on the plate for color or garnish. Not even a sprig of parsley. And it was freaking perfect. No ketchup required.

If you wanted something bright and acidic to perk up your palate in between bites? Well, I’m sure they would have brought you a side order of pickles if you asked.

With this sandwich in mind, let’s talk about another thing burgers don’t require: tomatoes.

In theory, a thick slice of a perfectly ripe tomato brings juiciness, sweetness, and acidity to a burger. But the burger should already be juicy, sweet food is for kids, and acidity is a welcome addition to the burger-eating experience, but it doesn’t need to be on the burger.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ve never been a fan of tomatoes on grilled cheese sandwiches either. That said, I’ve long been a fan of tomatoes on all other kinds of cold sandwiches. Until, of course, one day I realized that the vast majority of all tomatoes are atrocious.

Just stop with the tomatoes.

Ordering them on sandwiches is simply a reflex. It’s a habit. And I’ll admit it’s a hard habit to break. Because the promise of tomatoes is so high.

Beautiful summer tomatoes are incredible, and some of the best things you can put in your mouth. Give me a piece of great toasted bread, spread with butter or brushed with olive oil, and a fat slice of an August tomato still warm from the sun. I’ll sprinkle that with some tender flakes of salt, and maybe drizzle it with an assertive olive oil. It needs so little to make it sing. And anything that it touches gets imbued with that liquid summer sunshine.

You don’t get those tomatoes on burgers. Nor are they kept in stock at your local deli. And they certainly aren’t on hand at your local burger stand.

Consider yourself lucky if your tomato slice isn’t white and hard in the center.

The antidote for tomatoes in the Italian sub is peppers. Grab some hot peppers, and don’t look back. Those unfortunately don’t work so well with burgers, although Gus’s makes a case for sauteed peppers with the Greekburger.

Now what I hear from readers is that sandwiches need lubrication. For argument’s sake, let’s go with that thesis. Tomatoes are thought to add this. But when burgers fail to be adequately juicy, I’m an advocate for mayonnaise based sauces.

That’s the secret to the secret sauce. Readers of the FLB recently learned that McDonald’s Special Sauce is not mayonnaise mixed with ketchup. There’s no tomato in it at all. That color comes from paprika.

Yes, I wish the state of mayonnaise was better too. The stuff from the big industrial tubs is barely food. But when push comes to shove, I’d rather put the enjoyment of my burger in the hands of a substandard sandwich dressing than a completely useless tomato.

Of course I recognize I’m in the minority on this one. So I invite you to share the counterarguments. And I welcome all comers on the Tour de Burger this Saturday. It will be helpful to have all kinds of burger ideologies represented, and we can rigorously debate them at each stop along the way.

Hope to see you there. And with any luck, we’ll get a chance to talk about lettuce very soon.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2017 10:10 am

    Appalling, but revealing.

    I am realizing what you consider a hamburger is actually a slice of meatloaf with bread. And that’s fine in its place, but it ain’t a burger. Good garnish is essential to a well-balanced burger and the tomato plays an essential part as do the lettuce, tomato, onion and yes, pickles.

    The Tour de Burger could not come at a better time for you. Take a look at the people around you. Watch how they enjoy their expertly garnished burgers and how they scheme to take a bite of meat alternating with a nibble of well-dressed vegetables. I predict the scales will fall from your eyes.

    • May 2, 2017 10:11 am

      I realize I listed tomato twice above. It was a typo, but wouldn’t necessarily reject a burger with double tomatoes.

  2. May 2, 2017 11:00 am

    Burger on hollowed out French bread? An abomination. Just what I would expect from California.

    Anyhow, you are too caught up with the meat. As per usual you are not taking a holistic view of the situation. Tomatoes are fine on burgers sometimes, sometimes not.

  3. May 2, 2017 5:50 pm

    Toppings, schmoppings.

    Do you put lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles on a great steak? Perish the thought. A great steak stands on its own. It needs just salt and coarse ground pepper, and then it becomes something magical.

    Ground beef patties, juicy with fat and properly seasoned, with an umami-laden caramelized crust, can be an incredibly delicious thing. Of course, it’s not a steak, but like a steak, it needs few accompaniments (and the bun is there only so you can grab hold of the thing.)

    You can have your topping-laden sandwiches that just happen to contain a ground beef patty; I’ll have a burger. And while I’m enjoying my burger, I’ll try not to snicker at you while you’re eating your salad on a bun.

  4. May 2, 2017 10:30 pm

    I think some of you may need a bit of re-calibration prior to Saturday’s events.
    Especially if you’re starting at Jack’s.
    A Jack’s burger has messy, sugary, soft onions..AND KETCHUP. I would argue it should have cheese too.
    THAT is a Jack’s burger.
    Jack’s burger is not to be judged against the aforementioned California “meat sandwich” or the “steak-like” burger. That would simply be unfair, inappropriate, and wrong.
    But is it really about defining “THE burger” and then searching for something matching those expectations?
    Or, is it about finding something YOU enjoy, without preconceived expectations?
    If you eat a Jack’s “slider” expecting anything other than a Jack’s slider you will be disappointed.
    No one wants that.

  5. May 2, 2017 11:22 pm

    OCtG has a good point. Like pizza, there are many different styles of burgers. A larger burger (1/3 of a pound and up) and very different than a burger that is a 1/4 pound or less. A big burger works on a good hard roll, the smaller burger is lost in a roll like that. If you’re cooking a tiny burger on a flat top so it gets good and crusty, I like that on a bun with just cheese. Been awhile, but Famous Lunch used to do this very well. I hope they still do. If you’re making a big 1/2 pound bacon burger, I like that medium rare with lettuce and tomato and occasionally bacon. Still no ketchup or mayo for me. Maybe a little bit of mustard. These are both burgers, but completely different things. Just like like a square slice and a NY slice are different. Both can be exceptional, but they’ll never be the same.

  6. Randy K permalink
    May 3, 2017 5:06 pm

    Hold the tomato on Daniel’s burger and pile it on mine, thanks :)

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