Detroit: Elmer's Hamburgers Is An Unforgotten Classic
8515 W Chicago, Detroit MI 48204 (map); 313-933-7766
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Cheap, small, perfectly formed classic burgers—this 24/7 stand is standing strong against all the odds
Want Fries with That? Sure, why not? They're only around a buck fifty
Prices: Cheeseburger, $1.49; fries, $1.29; onion rings, $1.70; coffee, $0.94
Notes: Never closes
It's a god damn shame that Detroit is a by-word for abandonment and decay, because, for me, the real story of Detroit isn't what's crumbled but what remains. The urban prairie is one thing; the homes still standing on any given block, the family still enjoying the summer air on the porch is quite another. Life goes on.
Take the Mackenzie area. The factories are gone, along with many homes; those that remain are no longer served by the vast Mackenzie High School, finally torn down in 2012 after its attendance dwindled from over five thousand in the '50s to less than a fifth of that in 2007. Among what's left, you'll find Elmer's Hamburgers.
Elmer's has been in the family for over half a century now, weathering recession, depopulation, and everything else life can throw at it. Their ability to keep going in this environment means they must be doing something right. As I discovered, that something was cheap, classically made burgers—the kind you won't find anywhere else but a family joint from the '50s.
On the outside it's a White Castle knock-off—not exactly uncommon in the Midwest, admittedly, but sparkling and stark enough to catch the eye on your way down Oakman towards Dearborn. No drive-thru, but plenty of space to park. We entered through a side door to be confronted with a take-out window, thick glass, and a menu board with prices that wouldn't have been crazy ten years ago. There is seating around the other side of the building, we found out, but we got our order to go.
The bullet-proof glass rendered it impossible to get a good shot of the cooking process, but it's something between slider and diner burger territory. Balls of beef are placed on a griddle that, while hot, will leave no crust, and pressed down to size. Onions are griddled alongside and then pushed into the patty from the top. If you're getting cheese, that'll be added to the mix, too, and the buns are given a gentle warming on the griddle top as well, picking up some of the griddle's beefy, oniony essence.
The result is predictably delicious, if not exactly beautiful. This is definitely a case of substance over style, with the sweet, tangy hit of the onions beautifully matching the richness of the little patty and the cheese.
There's no real seasoning to speak of—the condiments do that job. Mustard, ketchup, and a couple of pickle slice, are there to complete the experience, but really, it's the onions that make it stand apart. Onions of this kind were far more common on burgers in the early days of fast food—perhaps a nod to Depression-era economics—and they have it down to a fine art here. Yes, they can be hard to eat because they're cut into strips instead of diced (more on the best way to slice onions in this Burger Lab post), but, well, just deal with it.
Fries are nothing special but totally worth getting at $1.29 plus tax because they're freshly cooked—there was no sign of their being left out, as you might expect for a place that needs to be ready to serve 24/7.
A dark horse is the grilled cheese. I was surprised when offered a choice of white or wheat—I didn't think there'd be wheat in a joint like this—but the simple combo of American cheese and thick white bread is elevated, once again, by that flavor imparted by the long-seasoned griddle. The Chinese may have wok hei, but here we have griddle magic.
On that subject, it was 11 a.m. when we ate, but I was delighted to see Elmer's already doing a fine trade. Most people were in and out for a quick cup of coffee, but the dude ordering ten cheeseburgers—hopefully he had other people outside waiting with him—showed that there's a real appetite for what Elmer's is turning out.
Elmer's is miles from downtown, meaning visitors are unlikely to happen across it. There's no website, hardly any online info, and you won't expect to see a camera crew from the Food Network there anytime soon. But as long as there are people left in this part of the city, expect to see it turning out these onion burgers at any time of day. If you're ever in the area, you should really stop by.
About the author: Ewan Macdonald is a soccer writer who will probably die with a hamburger in his mouth. Born in Scotland, he was lured to the Dallas area by cheap beef and a love of 100 degree evenings with 60% relative humidity.