Ted's Steamed Cheeseburgers; Meriden, Connecticut
If it's Tuesday, it must be time for another review from Nick Solares. Nick is also the publisher of Beef Aficionado, his blog that explores beef beyond burgerdom.
"They lined us all up in front of a hundred yards of prime rib—magnificent meat, beautifully marbled. Then they started throwing it in these big cauldrons, all of it—boiling. I looked in, an' it was turning gray.... I couldn't f****** believe that one...."
1044 Broad Street, Meriden CT 06450; map); 203-237-6660; steamedcheeseburger.com
The Short Order: The cheeseburgers are steamed here. Yes, steamed. In little trays in a custom-made cabinet. Unfortunately, the novelty doesn't make up for the dry beef, as all the juice are poured out of the tray and discarded
Want Fries with That? Yes. The homefries here are amazing ($1.75)
Price: Steamed cheeseburger, $4.25; steamed hamburger, $3.25
Fans of Francis Ford Coppola's seminal 1979 film Apocalypse Now will recognize the quote above from the character Chef (Frederic Forrest) as he explains to Willard (Martin Sheen) why he quit working in the Army mess hall.
I had a similar experience walking in to Ted's. I couldn't believe what they were doing to their beef.
Ted's is a famed burger stand that I want to love, but I simply cannot overcome my aversion to their specialty. Said specialty is the steamed cheeseburger, a culinary curiosity that is indigenous and exclusive to central Connecticut. Although Ted's is not the creator of the steamed "cheeseburg," as they are known locally (that honor goes to the now defunct Jack's Lunch in nearby Middletown), they have been serving them since 1959.
Upon entering the diminutive roadside burger shop, you see a long counter, behind which you see huge piles of fresh ground chuck with a beautiful red hue and what looks like a generous flecking of fat. A burly counterman scoops up beef and loosely packs it into small trays so that it remains somewhat flaky. He fills separate trays with generous slabs of a pale-white cheese and then slides them all into custom-made breadbox-size contraption: the steam cabinet.
Steam billows out as he opens the door to insert the trays and, moments later, when he opens them to remove the the cooked patties and now-molten cheese. He deposits the patties onto a Kaiser roll, pours the cheese on top, and piles on lettuce, onion, and tomato, as well as ketchup, mustard, and mayo. Speaking of pouring, after the burger has been removed from its little tray, the copious juices that came from the beef are emptied in to a receptacle and discarded. I could have cried when I first saw this happening. All that juice, all that flavor, is just poured away. I know that the fat is the unhealthy part of a burger, but it is also the source of all the flavor and succulence. I actually thought about asking for the juice, to poured onto my Kaiser roll.
Unbalanced and Dry
The resulting burger is large and puffy, and the generous condiments and lavalike cheese all obscure the beef from view. The cheeseburger at Ted's often looks like a cheese sandwich more than a burger. The result of the steaming process is that the patty is quite compact and gets lost in the shuffle.
I find the beef-to-bun and, indeed, the beef-to-cheese ratio to be way off, stacked wholly against the meat, which has trouble asserting itself. The shape of the burgers is also curious. They are oblong rather than square or circular, which would better fit the large roll. At least from a shape perspective, it would make more sense if Ted's served them on toast, like Louis' Lunch, but mere toast might not be able to cope with the oodles of gooey cheese.
The provenance of the white cheese is a secret, the only divulged details are that it is a cheddar from Vermont along with the cliched "tell you but kill you" exhortations. The cheese is not very sharp, has little tang, and is quite bland. It is closer, in fact, to a packaged mozzarella than your average cheddar. Texturally it melts perfectly with no separation of oil, and it remains molten for a long time after it is served, at least qualifying the steaming machine as an effective cheese-cooker.
I did not find the meat succulent in the least, how could it be with all the juice poured off? The resulting texture of the patty is a cross between dry meatballs and meatloaf. You are dealing with what is essentially a desiccated burger here. The mountain of cheese, almost equal in volume to the patty is very gooey but does not help moisten the burger (although it does make the puffy Kaiser roll more tolerable). Personally, I don't like Kaiser rolls for burgers; they tend to tear when bitten, unlike regular buns, which easily succumb to the slightest pressure. A burger needs to be beefy and juicy to keep up with the Kaiser, and the steamed cheeseburger is anything but.
I think the numerous oversize plastic squeeze bottles filled with ketchup and mustard that line the tables and counter speak volumes to the amount of condiment the burgers require to lend them moistness. While the beef and cheese are steamed, the roll receives no heat at all and was rather cold. What a missed opportunity, since steamed bread can be delicious, as any fan of White Castle or Chicago-style hot dogs will tell you. Steaming the Kaiser roll would have made it a far better match to the rest of the sandwich.
One of the steamed cheeseburger's claims to fame is that it is a "healthy" burger because so much of the fat is poured off. I suppose that the beef itself might be leaner than average, but the massive amount of cheese added to it must surely negate any calorie reduction. Further, ketchup, mayo, and a bleached, refined white roll are hardly healthy either.
But the Home Fries Are Great
If I am down on the sandwich, and I admit that I am not a fan, I absolutely loved the home fries at Ted's, the finest I can remember eating. The incredibly seasoned griddle top on which they are prepared looks as if it would turn out an equally amazing burger. But, alas, the mounds of ground chuck that sit on the opposite end of the counter never make it that far down, the steaming machine comes between them.
If You Go, Go for the Novelty
I may not like Ted's burgers, but please don't let that dissuade you from trying them if you are ever in central Connecticut. They are a unique regional specialty and an important, albeit esoteric, variation on the quintessential American sandwich. And who knows, you may just like them. There are many a denizen of central Connecticut who swear by them—and they're all probably going to be steaming mad at my disparagement of their beloved local hero.