Salt Lake City: Tracking Utah's Pastrami Burger at Crown Burgers
Multiple locations in Utah listed at crown-burgers.com
Cooking Method: Charbroiled
Short Order: The Crown Burger features a quarter-pound patty topped with pastrami. Even if the final product tastes more of pastrami than burger and is a little dry, meat-topped-meat is delicious.
Want Fries with That? The fries were just fine, but worth the Utah cultural experience of dipping them in fry sauce.
Price: Crown Burger, $4.95; hamburger, $3.50; cheeseburger, $3.90
Damon referenced Utah's pastrami-topped burgers in his review of The Hat in Los Angeles, and Kenji tried to not-quite-recreate it in The Burger Lab, but until now, this famed burger had yet to be reviewed on AHT. It's time to put the spotlight on this pastrami burger—specifically the one from Crown Burgers.
Pastrami burgers—and Utah fast food hamburgers in general—are inextricably linked with a history of Greek immigrant restaurateurs. You can read more about the story in the New York Times and Salt Lake City Weekly, so I'll simply summarize it as follows: Greek immigrants in a Mormon town take an all-American food and top it with Jewish luncheon meat.
Pastrami burgers are on the menu at a number of local mini-chains, but the originator in Utah was Crown Burgers, which opened its first branch in 1978. There are now seven locations throughout Utah, all owned by members of the Katsanevas family. The places offer a full-on fast food hamburger menu with some Greek touches (the gyro isn't bad), but the pastrami burger—fittingly called the Crown Burger—is the signature.
The Crown Burger comes as a quarter-pound patty topped with at least that much pastrami, along with American cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, and a bit of onion, all on a lightly toasted sesame seed bun. The ultra-thin patty made of fresh-ground beef is charbroiled—waiting in line at Crown Burgers means occasionally getting to watch flames leap from the grill towards the ceiling. With a patty this thin, cooking it all the way through is the only option. It's not moist, but it sports a caramelized exterior and some healthy grill marks that you can definitely taste.
Then there's the pastrami. It's made in-house and sliced to a medium thickness—these aren't the hearty slices you'd expect at a Jewish deli, nor are they quite paper thin. Crown Burgers' pastrami isn't powerfully spiced, but it's still salty and smoky. Even this somewhat mild pastrami overwhelms the flavor of the burger, which is a shame since there's good beefy flavor there. Nonetheless, the entire concoction is flavorful and pretty satisfying. If there's a major complaint, it's that the whole offering is a bit dry.
There's a solution to that: Add fry sauce. For those who don't know, fry sauce is a mixture of ketchup, mayo, and often relish or some variation of spices. Basically, it's Thousand Island dressing. It was supposedly invented at the Utah-based chain Arctic Circle, and though you'll find it in other states, fry sauce is so firmly linked with Utah food culture that when the Olympics came to town in 2002, one of the available souvenirs was a fry sauce lapel pin (yeah, that's pretty awesome). A little bit of the sauce is already on the bottom bun of the Crown Burger, but a judicious dollop here and there moistens up the whole operation. Just don't go overboard because fry sauce is a tad sweet.
Beyond the main event, Crown Burgers has all the usual trappings of a fast food joint. I found the fries completely unmemorable, except that I got to eat them with the fry sauce. The chocolate shake was pretty standard, though extra-thick—the straw didn't stand a chance.
There's a thriving burger culture in Utah that's just begging to be explored. If you're a burger-phile, Crown Burgers seems like the right first stop. Try some fry sauce and indulge in a pastrami burger. It's not the perfect burger, but it's hard to complain about meat-topped-meat, and I'd peg it as better than your average chain-burger. Start with Crown Burgers, and then there's Astro Burgers, Apollo Burgers, Olympus Burger, Arctic Circle, Hires Big H...
I'm going to need to have AHT send me to Utah again soon.
About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. Though he's an equal opportunity eater, there's a special place in his heart for crispy slices of pizza and juicy hamburgers. You can check out his pizza reviews over at Slice.