Ted's Steamed Cheeseburgers - A Connecticut Tradition
Boiled beef is sought after by gourmets all over the world. Tafelspit, the famous Viennese version, is made from special cuts and is reputed to be sublime. If I ever get to the famous Plachutta Wollzeile in that city, I'll report on it, but for now my topic is the steamed cheeseburger.
To truly appreciate a steamed cheeseburger, you have to put aside all your preconceived ideas about hamburger. Forget the sweet, crunchy caramelization produced by contact with the heat of the grill. Forget medium rare. Then you have to travel to a small area in central Connecticut where steamed cheeseburgers are a local delicacy.
I was visiting our friend Ina in Meriden when I set out to investigate this phenomenon. I went to Ted's Restaurant at 1046 Broad Street in that fair city, but there are other eateries in town where you can expand you r culinary horizons and sample the treat. Another restaurant I visited on my stay had to install a steamer to satisfy popular demand.
The burgers are formed in molds and then steamed. The moist heat keeps them juicy. The waitress at Ted's told me the steamed cheeseburger was invented there. Pinning down food origins is tricky, and there are other claims. My internet research suggests Jack's Lunch, a defunct diner in nearby Middletown, CT, was the point of origin, but Ted's has been making steamed burgers for fifty years. I learned in my research that the steamed burger was first introduced as a healthy alternative to fried meat.
Ted's wouldn't draw you in from its appearance. It has a weathered wood façade with white framed windows. Inside is a counter with the kind of stools you can twirl on. We chose a booth. The workers wear black tee shirts that say, "Still steaming after fifty years."
When my burger came, I tasted the meat and ventured the opinion that the flavor resembled pot roast. Annette didn't think so. Ina satisfied herself with a diet Pepsi, and based her scorn on intuition alone.
My attitude was more positive. I knew that many residents of this part of the Nutmeg State seek out steamed cheese burgers and enjoy them a great deal. If they can, why not I? I found the taste a little bland. I tried adding salt, which helped. The cheese is supposed to be Vermont cheddar. It's blander than the finest examples of that estimable cheese, but it melts beautifully and is gloppy when hot and slightly chewy as it cools.
Annette had a Southwest cheeseburger, which had bacon and deep fried onion strings. I observed that the bland, tender meat made a good vehicle for the condiments. Free add-ons include lettuce, tomato, onion, sautéed mushrooms, pickles, jalapenos, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, relish, spicy mustard, hot sauce, Buffalo sauce, and ranch dressing. "So, bring your own burger," Ina said.
The home fries, which are the only potatoes Ted's serves, were also a little bland, but the condiments improved them as well. I dosed mine with habanero Tabasco, which improved them greatly. They're available with a combination of cheese, chili, bacon, and jalapenos, which ought to overwhelm the blandness of your socks.
I think I was beginning to get it, but I have to admit Ina had a point, and I doubt I'll wake up in the night with an unappeasable craving for a steamed cheeseburger. Perhaps you have to grow up on them to really appreciate their appeal. I told Ina we needed an upscale version, and suggested we invent Filet mignon haché à la vapeur avec fromage , which I translated as steamed chopped filet mignon with cheese. We could offer a choice of melted Roquefort or brie and offer it on a brioche for $29.95. True gourmets aren't going to sit on a twirly stool and eat a cheeseburger that sells for $5.25.
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