Required summer reading for burger fans: Hamburger America, by George Motz, a canonical listing of the hundred hands-down greatest, most historic burgers served in the United States. While I am not usually one to pimp any sort of guidebook or top-whatever list (since they are generally compiled on the fly, by folks who wouldn't know a chimichanga from a chilaquile), Motz is different. This man knows his burgers. And while the simple fact that he chose to include Bud's Bar in Sedalia as the exemplar of Colorado's burger greatness (a choice with which I wholeheartedly concur) was enough to convince me that Motz knew his business, I also got the chance to talk with him last week, and I am now convinced that his position as America's go-to burger guy is well deserved.
Hamburger America is Motz's second work dedicated to his passion for dead cow on bread. The first was a documentary film of the same name, completed in 2004, in which he focused on eight burger joints around the country. Nominated for a James Beard award in 2006, the movie attracted the attention of the publishers, who wondered if Motz might be interested in taking all the research he'd done for the film and turning it into a book. Sure, he said; he thought it would be easy.
"I hit about a thousand places," Motz explained. "Probably in the last seven years, three thousand." And all of those met his one rule: that a restaurant had to have been making burgers for over twenty years.
He made what he calls "hamburger circles": flying in to some city and using that as a starting point for thousand-mile loops through the country, always on the lookout for more burgers. "I find somebody, or a group of people, who are passionate about a place," he said. "Just regular people. People at the airport. Truck drivers. Front-desk guys at hotels. I never trust top-ten lists."
For Bud's, he actually thinks he got the heads-up from me — from my frequent insistence that a Bud's burger is the best there is in Colorado, has been for decades, will be for as long as the place survives. "Who are you again?" he asked. "Yeah, I remember reading some loving thing in West-something..."
He first visited Bud's on a long layover, flying down from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, renting a car, driving down to Sedalia, eating a burger, then flying out again just hours later. But evidently, that one taste was enough: Bud's is the only place in Colorado that got a mention in his book. "It's funny," he said. "I know people from around the country, or even from Denver, who'll ask me where to go for a great burger." He'll tell them to go to Bud's. He'll tell them how good it is, how worth the trip. "And even the people who are in Denver, they'll bitch and moan about going down there." But then every single one of them will call Motz back and say that he was right. A year later, they'll still be talking about their burgers at Bud's.
Being no burger slouch myself, I decided to quiz the man.
Best burger in Pittsburgh? "Tessaro's," he said without hesitation. "The only restaurant in the country that cooks their burgers over a hardwood fire."
The original Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico (my favorite burger joint on earth), also made the book.
"What about Philadelphia?" I asked. "What's the best burger in Philadelphia?"
"There are no good burgers in Philadelphia," he said matter-of-factly. And you know what? He's absolutely right.
When I asked Motz for his favorite — of the hundred in the book, the thousands he'd eaten over the past seven years — he went all philosophical, quoting Plato at me and everything.
"I can't answer that question," he said. "The more you know, the more you know you need to know."
What he could say, though, was that he's not yet sick of burgers; that each day brings him "a new, more profound appreciation of hamburgers," and that he's not sure if he's ever going to stop.
"My fear is that someday, twenty years from now, someone is going to look at some McDonald's burger or other fast-food burger...that they're going to point and say, 'That is a cheeseburger.' But these places in the book? This is how they've been done for years. These are the primary sources for hamburgers."
That's right, kids. Bud's Bar: a primary source. And even if Motz wouldn't admit to it, I think we both know that the only burger better than Bud's is the one at the Owl.
Plato be damned.
Leftovers: Last week, I heard a rumor that Frasca — one of the best and brightest restaurants ever to call Colorado home — might be moving from 1738 Pearl Street in Boulder, where owners Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and Bobby Stuckey have had such success.
"So is it true?" I asked Lachlan.
"Yes," he said. "We're looking all over the place for a building we can own so we can have a home for Frasca that we can pass down to the next generation." A home with a bigger kitchen, a bigger office, some room for private dining. In Boulder, of course — and it may take up to two years to find it. But there's no hurry, according to Lachlan: "We want to be rooted here for the rest of our careers."
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