900 Bourbon Street, New Orleans LA 70116 (map); 504-525-9053, clovergrill.com
Cooking Method: Steamed on a flat griddle
Short Order: 24 hours a day, you can get the best steamed burger in the French Quarter featuring a 1/2-pound patty steamed under a real hubcap
Want Fries with That? They come from a foodservice bag, but are far better with chili and cheese
Prices: Burger, $5.79; cheese, +$1; w/bacon, mushrooms, egg or chili, +$1.49; w/extra patty, + $4.29; fries, $2.79
Bourbon Street is known for its laissez-faire attitudes, for bars and strip joints, souvenir shops and voodoo houses. The restaurants along the way range from Café Beignet's pastries and sandwiches to Galatoire's fine upscale dining. But where do you go for a burger on the street best identified with New Orleans?
You go to Clover Grill, that's where. The little diner at the corner of Bourbon and Dumaine is popular with the LGBT crowd, and it's the one place you can get a burger 24 hours a day in the French Quarter. It ain't cheap, but it is dependably good.
At any particular time, the pink walled diner is packed with tourists, locals, and whomever else decides to wait for one of the few tables or bar stools available. The menu is full of puns, admonitions, and adages. For instance, under the Build Your Own Burger section, diners are greeted with, "If you were a good customer, you'd order more. Our chili speaks for itself, sooner or later. You can beat our prices, but you can't beat our meat." The burger itself is described as "a 1/2 pound Choice - Pure - Beef patty cooked under an American hub cap."
No doubt you will have to wait once your order has been placed; the service is slow as molasses most of the time, and the cook seems to be of the "one order at a time" mindset. But you don't go to Clover Grill for a quick visit. You go to work off the booze accumulated as you walked down Bourbon Street or for an eye-opener. And you wait and watch as the cook seasons the fresh half-pound beef patty with a shaker, slaps it on the griddle, shoots it with water from a bottle, and then plops a big fat greasy automobile hubcap on top of it. Every couple of minutes he'll flip up the edge and squirt the burger with more water as a cloud of steam escapes. And by the time it's done the fries are out of the basket of the fryer, on your plate, and covered in chili and cheese—which makes them halfway decent.
The burger? There's no need to add chili on top; it's moist, as it should be with all that water squirted on it. It's also very gray—when you look at the thing you'll wonder where the darn crust is. That steam keeps a decent crust from forming.
But it's all right. That gray patty, spiced with a blend of salt and pepper, thyme, and garlic powder, absorbs a lot of flavors from the griddle. There are tiny flecks of onion all through the burger, and that onion flavor permeates the whole patty. It comes together well on the lightly griddle-toasted bun (mine strangely had sesame seeds on exactly half of the top bun, but this isn't typical). It's dressed with tomato, lettuce, and flat dill pickles. Mayo is the standard condiment.
It is a pretty dang good steamer. It doesn't soak the bread but there's plenty of moisture there—the patty is almost overly juicy thanks to the steaming. The cheddar I added went fine with it, but I think when I go back I'll order the burger without—it's just not necessary on this burger.
The fries? They would have been a huge disappointment had I not gone with the rather highly recommended chili (our host insisted we put chili on something). They're straight out of a foodservice bag, but they're crispy on the outside and soft on the inside like fries are supposed to be. The chili is somewhat greasy, full of beans and meat and chili powder, heavy on the cumin and light on the onions, but typical of good diner chili. The American cheese slice was runny, but it worked well with these gut-buster chili fries.