6504 Delmar, St. Louis, MO 63130 (map); 314-727-4444; blueberryhill.com
Cooking Method: Gas grill
Short Order: A once great burger fails to adjust to advances in burgerology.
Want Fries With That? No—they're flavorless and mushy.
Price: 5-ounce burgers, $5.25; 5-ounce hickory burgers, $5.50; 7 ounce versions of each, $5.95 and $6.25
Some styles of burgers have defied the shifting tastes. Places that rely more on unique cooking methods than quality beef, including any number of slider purveyors, are just as delicious today as they were decades ago. Steakhouses that have always made burgers from higher quality meat have also withstood the test of time. But when a place puts out a thick burger on an ordinary bun with minimal toppings, grocery store-quality meat is no longer going to satisfy the discerning burger eater no matter how perfectly it's cooked.
That message was really brought home when I visited Blueberry Hill on a trip to St. Louis in December. When I lived in the Gateway City from the fall of 1998 until early summer 1999, if I craved a good burger, I went to Blueberry Hill. Eager to see if it stood the test of time, I returned with a friend I had made in St. Louis to this comfortable place that may be better than any other for catching up with St. Louis friends and reliving St. Louis memories.
Unfortunately, there isn't too much to talk about regarding the actual burger. Yes, it's cooked perfectly, and given the volume the place does, that should be applauded. But the meat has all the beefiness of once-frozen ground chuck sitting on a Styrofoam platter and wrapped in plastic at your local supermarket. Some people can do special things with that kind of beef, but on a gas grill with ordinary accoutrement, it may not be possible. That's not to say the burgers are bad—they just don't belong in a serious discussion of great burgers.
Up first was a cheeseburger topped with provel. I discussed provel in some detail when I reviewed Imo's over on Slice last fall. Long story short, provel is a cheese product that made from Cheddar, Swiss and Provolone cheeses along with some other stuff that causes it to not meet the government definition of cheese. I'm a fan of the tangy, gooey provel and think it works well on a burger, but it was not enough to save the meat. It was fine, but not remotely exciting.
While the regular burger at Blueberry Hill remains relatively satisfying, if nowhere near the showstopper I once considered it to be, the hickory burger is an affront to cows and the people who eat them. The meat is mixed with liquid smoke or some equivalently awful fake smoke flavor. Making matters worse is the hickory sauce, which seems to be a blend of Thousand Island dressing and more liquid smoke. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive to the topic since smoking meat is the star of my limited repertoire in the kitchen, but if I stumble across a good use of liquid smoke, it will be a first. In the meantime, I can add burgers and hickory sauce to the list of foods the stuff has ruined.
The trio of sides we got with our burgers were all disappointing. The fries almost certainly come the bargain bin at Sysco or an equivalent mass distributor—they are mushy and virtually devoid of natural potato flavor. The potato chips had a nice crisp outer shell, but the insides of the thick chips were indistinguishable from the fries. The last thing I tried was the toasted ravioli, the fried treats that will make any St. Louisan's heart go atwitter. Sadly, Blueberry Hill, that iconic St. Louis institution, does not make its own toasted ravioli, and customers are much worse off because of it.
I should note that thousands of St. Louisans will disagree vehemently with everything I've written here. Every single year since at least 2000, the readers of The Riverfront Times have selected the place as home of the city's best burger. Presumably, the streak is longer, but prior years are not available online. The burger isn't terrible. Well, the hickory one is, but regular one is fine. But I have to think that the voters are basing their opinion far more on nostalgia than taste.
Despite this review of the food, I will say that I am still a big fan of Blueberry Hill as an institution. It is as comfortable a place to visit as any bar and grill around. The décor, with cases full of and walls covered with an amazing array of sports and pop culture memorabilia and various pieces of taxidermy all over the place, provides endless amusement. And as an intimate live music venue, The Duck Room remains great, especially on the one Wednesday a month that Chuck Berry still performs. I will gladly return to Blueberry Hill on future visits to St. Louis, but until something significant changes, I won't have another burger there.