Three Burgers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Stewed, Screwed and Lassoed

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[Photograph: Nick Solares]

Traveling through Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Eve, searching for a burger rather than food fit for a manger, I happen upon some of the oddest burgers I have yet to eat.

Pete's Hot Dog Shop: Stewed

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Pete's Hot Dog Shop

400 Broadway, Bethlehem, PA 18015 (map); 610-866-6622
Cooking Method: Stewed (if you can imagine such a thing)
Short Order: Stewing burgers never really caught on; this is why
Want Fries with That? You don't want "that" so you may as well skip the fries
Price: $2
Notes: Mon. to Sat., 7 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Sun., 7 a.m. - 6 p.m.

I have eaten griddled burgers, grilled burgers, broiled burgers, fried burgers, steamed burgers, and microwaved burgers, but stewed burgers were new to me when I rolled into Pete's Hot Dog Shop. Before you get all up in arms about me ordering burgers in a hot dog spot please note that this is called "A Hamburger Today"—we review burgers here, wherever they are to be found. In fact, I have had some very good burgers at places better known for their dogs such as the Glenwood Drive In, Hot Grill and Father and Sons,

I was thus optimistic about Pete's, especially because they have been around for over 70 years. They appeared to be precisely the type of Mom and Pop operation that can have a great burger and that we champion here at AHT.

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All optimism evaporated as soon as I placed my order for a cheeseburger. I averted my eyes for a second to retrieve cash from my wallet and when I looked up my burger was sitting on the counter in front of me. I have never been served a burger this fast, even at a fast food joint. It turns out the burgers at Pete's are "stewed"—they are bathed in onions and water for hours, maybe even days. If you have never had a stewed burger before, consider yourself lucky.

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Quite frankly the burger at Pete's was the worst burger I can remember attempting to eat. It was certainly not 100% beef—there was some grain-like filler evident in the patty. And even the parts that probably did have bovine origins were not the parts you would want to eat. The patty had an odd, disconcerting gray/green hue; texturally, it was mealy and crumbled and cracked in an odd manner. It wasn't so much a beef burger as a cow patty.

Dad's Hot Dogs: Screwed

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Dad's Hot Dogs

2362 Catasauqua Rd, Bethlehem, PA 18018; map); 610-691-8220
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Frozen puck of a burger gets completely lost in the bun
Want Fries with That? Also frozen
Price: $3

Having struck out at Pete's I decided to try another hot dog spot a shot with decidedly low expectations, which were entirely met. When I asked what type of burger was served, the answer was "a fast food" style. It wasn't even close to a fast food burger. In fact, it was insulting to fast food to compare the burger at Dad's to one. A fast food burger would have been preferable.

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I knew I was in trouble when I heard the patty hit the griddle—from across the room. It did not have the splat and sizzle of a fresh hamburger; rather, it elicited a loud "thonk" followed by an angry sputtering sound. This was the sound of a frozen burger hitting a hot griddle and rapidly defrosting. There was no sizzle from rendering fat and caramelizing; instead, I heard water go from solid to liquid to gas leaving a desiccated patty it its wake.

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The resulting burger was so thin that the pickles that came on it were thicker. Do you remember the Wendy's "where's the beef?" advertisements? That is what the burger at Dad's looked like—all bun and a sliver of beef. A sliver too much. It was so over cooked that it was crunchy. If it had stayed on the griddle any longer it would have caught fire. I didn't think that Bethlehem was technically in "coal country," but after eating this burger I am not so sure.

Beef Baron: Lassoed

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Beef Baron

2366 Catasauqua Road, Bethlehem, PA ; map); 610-868-8995
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Flame grilled burger.
Want Fries with That? Not available
Price: $6 to $8

Just a couple of doors down from Dad's is Beef Baron, which is a western-themed bar rather than a butcher shop or steakhouse as the name might imply. A wagon wheel and a wooden fence on the outside sort of set the stage. The interior is decked in wood paneling vaguely evocative of a log cabin, and there is an open grill at the end of the the long bar that dominates the space.

It is is in the grill that large, flat and wide 8-ounce burgers are grilled and served on plump Portuguese rolls. I am not sure that in absolute terms the burger I had at the Baron of Beef was especially remarkable, but compared to the two other burgers I eat in Bethlehem it was more than edible—it was actually enjoyable.

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The beef was cooked rare as ordered. The beef was quite finely ground and lean, but juicy none the less. It wasn't the last word in beefy flavor, but it was respectable enough. The exterior could have used a bit more char. I imagine that a burger cooked to medium might achieve a more pleasing crust, but at the expense of juiciness—not a worthwhile trade off in my book.

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The Portuguese roll was a pretty good substitute for a proper burger bun. It was certainly robust enough to hold the big patty and the mountain of grilled onions that I ordered instead of cheese. The burger achieved a pleasing synergy; it didn't want for cheese or additional toppings. Even without the onions the burger worked.

Conclusion

Have I learned my lesson about trying out burgers in hot dogs stands? Not really, but I know what to avoid if I am in Bethlehem again, at least in the way of burgers. Both Pete's and Dad's served hamburgers that would send me running to a McDonald's; these are precisely the type of burgers that allows fast food to exist. I often wonder how fast food chains stay open in places that have amazing Mom and Pop stores, but in Bethlehem I wonder why Pete's and Dad's even sell burgers.

The Beef Baron is a different story. The burger was decent, not world beating by any measure, but worth eating if you happen to find yourself in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, or anytime of the year for that matter.

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