the burger: The Jucy Lucy: a burger stuffed with american cheese, topped with grilled onions and thinly sliced pickle
the bucks: $6.75
the coordinates: Minneapolis, Minnesota
The search for Bang for your Burger Buck can certainly take you places. You may find yourself so deep in the hood your Spidey Sense might be tingling to the tune of a scene from Training Day. Or you could find yourself smack dab in the middle of fly over country, at a modest looking neighborhood bar that somehow has drawn the likes of major Food TV personalities and the President of the United States. Like the slogan of the site says – it’s about the journey as much as it is about the burger. Cheap Eats, and certainly great burgers, come in unexpected places. And speaking of, this is one solid griddled to perfection serving of ground chuck, stuffed with American Cheese for $6.75. Like the City of Minneapolis, the Jucy Lucy at Matt’s Bar seems like a quick read. But after you sink your teeth into both burger and the city, you will find that what seems to be antiquated food traditions, are in actuality paying dividends in our current foodie renaissance. Before I get too carried away with all that let’s talk about how the Jucy Lucy at Matt’s Bar evokes White Castle and why that is actually a good thing.For all the disparagement the fast food titans get for what they have done to the hamburger, there are a few elements that they actually got right. McDonald’s proved to the world that certain topping combinations are, well, kind of perfect and can elevate a burger beyond the baseline quality of beef and bun. Take the Golden Arches basic hamburger/cheeseburger, that cornerstone main course of the Happy Meal: burger patty, optional cheese, ketchup, pickle and onion. My friends, this topping combination works. I have applied the very same on the most organic of grass fed beef, sandwiched between a brioche bun, sourced from Whole freakin’ Foods and damn if the McDonald’s treatment didn’t work there like it did on rainforest beef from the 1980s. As good as the combination of ketchup, pickle and onion might be, I remain at my core a minimalist when it comes to burgers. I seldom shy away from the opportunity to eat simple beef and bun and in the case of Matt’s, as is the case at White Castle, pickle and onion are really all you need . . .Great Masterpieces are best admired from a far. Though at this distance it is hard to discern the sliver of pickle at play on the Jucy Lucy at Matt’s Bar. No matter, because a little pickle can go a long way in a good sandwich. And the key to understanding what makes this burger just so damn tasty is exactly the elements that dominate the image above: well grilled chopped onion, and a char on that patty that could draw jealous glances from a grill station of a 100 year old New York Steakhouse. If ever there was a burger that should be called Umami -it’s this one right here. The caramelization of the onion, the intense browning of the beef; it’s a two for one special in Maillard reaction and it’s fundamental to the deep savory flavor that this Jucy Lucy evokes.The star of the Jucy Lucy show is of course the molten hot center of cheese, and in the case of the JL at Matt’s bar – American cheese is the call and it’s the right one. The burst of salt and its ultra soft and creamy texture make it hard to imagine anything else. And for the first time in Bang for your Burger Buck history, slicing this burger in half before taking the inaugural bite was a good thing as it allowed for the cheese to cool – many a first timer have burnt their mouth biting into the lava of dairy that lies within.As with many great burgers, it’s as much about what is not there as what is there. No lettuce or tomato. No mandatory sauce like thousand island, though ketchup and mustard bottles are offered table side. This burger is all about beef, cheese, pickle and onion and that’s when the realization hit me- oh my freakin God it’s White Castle, but, BUT, with much better ingredients. All respect to the Castle and the many late night meals I logged in my high school days, but there is a reason why it’s so cheap, and size is just part of the reason. True Burger genius strikes twice at Matt’s. First they create their signature cheeseburger experience around American Cheese, though far from the paramount say on the cheeseburger experience, it is the tantamount say on the classic cheeseburger experience. When American melts, it delivers liquid gold – the method of stuffing the cheese in the burger ensures that gold stays liquid. Second, that chopped grilled onion and pickle(White Castle’s bread and butter right there), adds a complimentary savoriness and just enough acidic tartness to bring some dynamic to this dive bar burger gut bomb. I say again, chopped grilled onion and pickle is White Castle’s bread and butter and if it can elevate that five hole mystery meat to Burger Empire proportions, than you know it’s a lock enshrining this dive bar as a living local burger legend – one that aspires to and draws in a national following. You could always add ketchup and I’m sure many a patron do – but it’s as excessive as Spinners on an Escalade. Well, maybe if the spinners were free – more like a license plate holder with the car dealer’s name on it.
But would I put this guy’s name on my license plate holder – ok well maybe a t-shirt. As with so many burger dives – it’s the skill at a grill that drive the dive’s success. As seasoned as that cooktop might be, it’s the ballet between spatula, burger patty and flat top to an orchestra of sizzles that really sums up the magic of what Matt’s Bar is to Minneapolis, and to our ever evolving Hamburger world. Far from the last word on burgers in this town, even on Jucy Lucy’s themselves, Matt’s Bar has remained a mainstay for decades by keeping their Jucy Lucy simple and timeless. An unwavering commitment to a burger request made some 60 plus years ago when a patron, perhaps through an act of divinity, changed burgers in Minneapolis forever. And with an asking price of $6.75, that’s Bang for your Burger History Buck.
In 2015, Minneapolis is a booming food scene with a breath of diversity that belies the term “fly over country”. For a guy like myself who enjoys a little injera and wat fix, my jaw dropped when I found out that Minneapolis had double the number of Ethiopian restaurants than my own city of Los Angeles. This town loves it’s Pho, which also is touted in establishment numbers that would surprise. Taquerias abound with more braised dishes than I am accustomed to in LA – me thinks the cold weather plays a part in craving the sultry effects of slow cooked taco fillings. Barbacoa and Cochinita Pibil are how you say comfort food when south of the border and during a notorious cold winter season I only see their appeal growing, as long as you can get your car to start in that kind of weather. I said earlier that Great Masterpieces are best admired from a far, and this is true for Minneapolis; where an increasingly diverse city spreads its ethos of Upper Midwestern comfort food to new faces while remembering and honoring the old ones. Tater Tots, Ethiopian Wat, chefs with tatoos and burgers with cheese stuffed in the middle are a happy mix of foods and at these prices, this is one place you definitely don’t want to fly over.
3500 Cedar Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55407