Here’s the beef
Photography by Penny & Finn
A great hamburger will in time become undoubtedly legendary.
As Americans, we can rightfully claim only a handful of foods as being invented on our own soil. A little over a hundred years ago, a guy by the name of Louis Lassen was working in his minuscule wagon turned lunch kitchen when a hurried businessman accosted him to make something that could be eaten quickly on the go. Louis was out of steaks but had a few scraps from the trimmings, which he ground up and placed into his vertical cast-iron gas stove. He threw a slice of tomato and onion with a smattering of yellow mustard between two slices of toasted white bread, along with this newly invented flame-broiled patty, and sent the impatient man packing with what he later on called a “steak sandwich.” As with any groundbreaking invention, there are a dozen or so claims to be the first. However, Louis’ Lunch, in New Haven, Connecticut, has the sole distinction from the Library of Congress to be acknowledged as the true originator of what we know in this modern world as the hamburger.
Although technically in my mind a hamburger is a sandwich as it’s typically housed between two pieces of sliced bread, the hamburger holds itself in a category distinctively its own. As far as a general concept, the hamburger is simplistic. Bread. Meat. Condiments. All set. Yet, there are various TV programs, magazines, and blogs that give every possible ounce of content in order to praise the existence of the burger in all its many incarnations. People even devote vacation time to travel the country in search of the perfect burger. In our lifetime, though, the hamburger has gone through an identity crisis
By the end of the twentieth century, assembly-line food had taken over. Hamburgers were being lumped in as the king of the fast-food menu due to the ease of preparation and relatively low cost to produce. In the beginning, no doubt, only a handful of places even made the things. In the 1950s, in Central Florida at least, it was more likely to find an old former cow poke slinging burgers filled with beef fat and character in the kitchen of a mom and pop, than to see some teenager in a brown and yellow uniform pulling a microscopic, limp gray puck out of a steamer box.
As the years have gone by, the two approaches — that of a mom and pop vs. fast food — took a more drastically divided path. Respectfully, they each still have a viable stake in the market. Culturally speaking, we talk a lot about the evolution of food, and how American consumers took a quarter turn at the onset of the new century toward adjusting the quality of our consumption. Now there seems to be a third category of the burger maker: one who makes a style of hamburger which is being touted at many varied restaurants as gourmet or haute. Something that once cost my dad a quarter to purchase now can come with a hefty price tag upwards of fifty bucks. You know what? Based on the quality of ingredients, I’m happy to oblige payment today for a hamburger I can have … today.
As hamburger fanatics are plentiful, you may have already composed your own list of top local burgers. We have a wealth of quality in this category, so there’s much room for personal interpretation. Whatever your preference, we can all agree with the words of a very wise man: “There’s nothing in the world that can compare to a hamburger, so juicy and rare. There’s nothing in the world so divine, as a hamburger, tender and fine.”
The following is a mélange of a few of our favorites showcasing the extraordinary flavor profiles, along with the classic hamburger architecture which Lakeland has to offer.
A Lakelander burger almanac
We went on a hamburger crawl of sorts to showcase some of our favorite local options to be had. Some joints are landmark destinations, classic and untouched by time and trend. Others have tackled the culture that is the hamburger head-on with the most up-to-date flavor profiles, creating a King of the Lakeland Burger Ring type scenario. Almost every neighborhood is well represented in our travels, from north to south and east to west. After coming to a cumulative conclusion of which places to go, our staff agreed: In our book, Lakeland has indeed distinguished itself as a burger-lover’s utopia, with many different cooking methods and cuisine styles vying for a shot at your flavor receptors.
There are burgers, and there are sandwiches. Humanity has an understanding that the two are not one and the same, notwithstanding the physics of both being an extremely similar structure. The Sturgis makes the rule a lot cloudier, with its inclusion of gargantuan slabs of buttered Texas toast instead of a traditional bun, as well as the out-and-out bold exclusion of the word “burger” anywhere in the title. It’s topped with French-fried onion rings and an incredible alternating avalanche of sweet hickory BBQ and cheddar sauces, with a viscous consistency similar to felsic lava. The Chop Shop offers a dozen or so unique options including a great choice for non-meat eaters, consisting of a homemade veggie patty called the Bunny.
126 S Kentucky Ave. Mon 11:00 am – 3:00 pm Tues-Wed 11:00 am – 9:00 pm Thurs-Sat 11:00 am – 11:00 pm Sun 12:00 – 8:00 pm (863) 603-4040
As unconventional as it looks, Patio 850’s contribution to Lakeland burger culture has all the vital statistics that cause greatness. You’ll find an abundance of vibrant flavors including sundried tomato, softened onions, fresh arugula, and melty Muenster layered beneath their house-made “bun.” You’ll fool yourself into thinking you’re eating a pizza. But you’re not. It’s a burger.850 S Tennessee Ave. Mon-Thurs 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm Fri-Sat 4:00 am – 11:00 pm Sun Closed (863) 940-2030
There’s little argument among the myriad of Lakeland lifers about who makes the best hamburger in town. From kids to adults, we’re all enamored with the Combee Settlement centerpiece that has been doing exactly the same thing for over thirty years. Do not let the constantly packed parking lot or the lines waiting at the counter discourage potential visits like it did to me for years. Their standard hamburger is worth however long it takes to wait. They are everything the legend has made them out to be. If this is your first trip,after one bite you will feel a great deal of both joy and pain all at once. With every bite your love for S&L will grow. At the same time, you will curse yourself for procrastinating.
2915 S Combee Rd. Mon – Fri 6:00 am – 2:00 pm Sat 6:00 am – 12:45 pm Sun Closed (863) 665-0731
How to make a Hamburger
When I was about ten, my dad schooled me on how to cook a proper hamburger. He said he learned his technique from watching his mom make them in a skillet when he was a boy. She learned it from watching a man make what was known at the time as “grease-burgers” at the local farmers market. According to my dad, the name “grease-burgers” was earned because they were cooked on a flat top and basically fried when the fat or “grease” rendered out of the patty. This is the method I always use to make burgers at home. It gives the meat a great crust on the exterior while keeping all of the flavors from the fat intact. With all due respect, grilling, in my opinion, is a less-than-desirable method of burger cookery. If you have some confidence and can cook at very high temperatures, you can still get a medium-rare doneness in a skillet, without sacrificing that nice, greasy char. If you choose to defy my advice and go with a more classic backyard-burger taste, the grill can be your greatest weapon or your own worst enemy. The key to both are a few variants. First, preheat the charcoal so that it’s screaming hot. I mean white hot. Second, try not to cook with the lid up, unless you have one of those fantastic ceramic-style grills that tend to keep a more constant temperature while still being open to the elements. Most importantly, especially if you’re having trouble regulating temperature, do not attempt any patty flipping with force or effectiveness until the meat has released either from the pan or from the grill grates. We all have fanciful dreams of having perfect grill marks and great color on the exterior crust of our protein patties. Your dreams will become nightmares if patience is not exercised.
I walked into Frecoes for the first time shortly after they opened for business. Back then, it was more bakery than restaurant. One thing in particular caught my eye as a fledgling food connoisseur. The Derby Burger, with its pimento cheese, bacon, and bourbon sauce brought the pairing of sweet with savory to town long before it became a menu fixture elsewhere. Although Frescoes’ facade, dining space, and menu have all evolved for the better over the past five years or so, a remaining constant is the inclusion of The Derby on the everyday lunch menu. You can also find it lurking in the dark, ready to be devoured as part of Frescoes’ weekend late-night eats lineup.132 S Kentucky Ave. Mon-Tues 7:00 am – 9:00 pm Wed-Thurs 7:00 am – 10:00 pm Fri-Sat 7:00 am – 11:00 pm Sun 9:00 – 2:00 pm (863) 683-5267
With a title befitting a major gross-out to people thinking in a bubble, Fat Maggie’s latest special edition is a real head-scratcher. Yet, there is no peanut butter and there are no jellies. The name is simply to give the consumer something to think about as a way of playing with the mind. You might expect sickeningly sweet and confusingly creamy. This is not the case at all. There is, however, garlicky hummus and savory bacon jam to act as doppelgangers in place of PB&J. Chef thought up this masterpiece especially for our article. My one contention, and it will be yours at first taste, is that this should be laminated into the permanent menu at some point.Dixieland Mall Ln. Mon-Sat 11:00 am – 9:00 pm Sun Closed (863) 937-8962
If you think the seasonal burger of choice over at The Red Door is an attempt to slap the conventions of America’s most famous chain restaurants’ most famous concoction square in the face, you’d be correct. I remember the chef bringing me a version of this a few months back as part of what might have been his super-secret product testing. It was so secret I didn’t even know I was a part of. I was instructed to keep quiet on this beauty until spring. Well, the cat’s out of the bag now. One thing that stood out for me was the cascade of special sauce that emulsified along with the over-easy egg and the juice of the burger itself. Full disclosure: This sauce is much better than the dressings of all one thousand islands.733 E Palmetto St. Mon Closed Tues-Wed 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm Thurs-Sat 4:00 am – 12:00 am Sun 10:00 – 8:00 pm (863) 603-4040
Another topic of conversation to consider
Your burgers, whether they be beef, turkey, chicken, lamb, fish, or made completely of mushed vegetables, will only be as good as the ingredients you use. With that said, in normal life I don’t eat a lot of meat because of the high cost of excellent beef. So when I find myself craving a hamburger and I want to eat it in-house, I’ll go for the best grassfed beef I can find. My blend preference is eighty percent beef / twenty percent fat. So, eat good food and the flavor will shine through on all fronts. Another key is finding the right condiment ratio. With quality meat I tend to stick with the classics, or a simple composition of things I feel complement the protein best. There are many reasons why sliced tomato and raw white onion always are stacked neatly under a greasy burger, or why you’ll find chefs creating an avalanche of roasted mushroom and red wine demi glace to cascade down a hautecuisine stylized burger. We look for fresh and vibrant, earthy flavor to marry richness and decadence. No two palettes are built the same, hence the vast array of choices we have for our enjoyment. So go and try some of the places we’ve mentioned here. Then go make your own version.
Belly’s Grill – 943 E Memorial Blvd, (863) 242-4923
Bonefish Grill – 225 W Pipkin Rd, (863) 701-9480
Elena’s Cuban Cafe – 2246 E Edgewood Dr, (863) 665-3333
Five Guys Burgers and Fries – 2641 S Florida Ave, (863) 686-5552
Grillsmith – 1569 Town Center Dr, (863) 688-8844
R.J. Grady’s Burgers and Brew – 2905 Duff Rd, (863) 937-8992
Rib House – 2918 S Florida Ave, (863) 687-8260
Reececliff – 940 S Florida Ave, (863) 686-6661
Subs ‘n Such – 1008 S Florida Ave, (863) 686-9035
The Terrace Cafe – 329 E Main St, (863) 603-5400
Vegan burgers / Vegetarian burgers.
Anthony’s Health Hut – 5329 S Florida Ave, (863) 608-9259
Burger 21 – 1601 Town Center Dr, (863) 937-8002
Chop Shop – 126 S Kentucky Ave, (863) 603-4040