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America’s tastiest legacy

 
Long gone are the days of greasy drive-thru burgers with a mere pickle and piece of lettuce. Copenhagen's burger craze is growing by the day. We ask what really makes the perfect burger, and where can we find it? Carl Coleman investigates

What is it about this simple, handheld meal that pushes our ‘crave’ button? The ‘burger’ is essentially a classic piece of pop culture, from Elvis to Ronald McDonald and Pulp Fiction. If Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic scene from Tarantino’s classic doesn’t make you lust for a juicy beef patty covered in melted cheddar, topped with lettuce and packed in a soft white bun, nothing else will.

Apart from being the perfect hangover cure, the burger is quickly becoming a gourmet adventure that appeals to all classes and is forever reinventing itself. These days the burger can be small, massive, bunless or “nude”, half nude, medium, well done, steamed, vegan, organic, smothered with mac ‘n’ cheese, wrapped in bacon…are we getting hungry yet?

The times have changed since you raced pickles down windows with your buddies at McDonald’s. Around the country, the “Kina Grill” boom of the mid 70s, which saw a wave of Chinese immigrants set up shop, is a retro thing of the past. Provincial burger cafés peaked in the 80s and 90s, but now it’s safe to say that the big bulky focaccia style—the kind that can only be attacked with a knife and fork—is a dying breed. Many would argue that if you can’t eat it with your hands, it’s not a real burger.

The burger is supposed to have been invented by a Dane by the name of Louis Lassen. He immigrated to New Haven, Connecticut, and in 1900 opened Louis’ Lunch, which is still serving today. It’s no wonder that Danes are one of the most ‘burgin’ nations.

Louis Lassen in his Lunch wagon. The photo was taken sometime between 1907 and 1916. (US Library of Congress)

Louis Lassen in his Lunch wagon. The photo was taken sometime between 1907 and 1916. (US Library of Congress)

As with most modern cuisine, experimentation is now in fashion, and one can find all sorts of new toppings for everybody’s favourite sandwich. In Australia, the famous “Burger with the Lot,” which can be purchased at every local fish and chips shop, comes with not only the usual toppings, but also with the controversial additions of beetroot, a fried egg and pineapple. Back in its original home in America, you can find everything from the “Goober,” served with peanut butter, to “Dyer’s deep fried burger” in Memphis, fried in 100-year-old re-used burger fat.

So what’s Denmark’s take on the American classic? These days, when reading a menu, one can choose between a Greek burger with tzatziki, a Mexican with guacamole and jalapenos, or even a “Dansk” version with the king of condiments, remoulade, pickles, and crispy fried onions.

It’s all about the meat
Journalist Søren Villemoes writes about politics, religion and integration for the esteemed weekly newspaper Weekendavisen. A burger aficionado, he’s not a fan of the Danish take on the American gourmet classic.

“In Denmark people don’t know about burgerology,” Villemoes declares. “Most burgers here are awful.”

A perfect burger has several important elements, according to Villemoes. The bun needs to be very soft, a little sweet, but have no powerful flavour. That’s because its job is to draw attention to the burger patty, prepared using  a good cut of chuck, and cooked to a perfect medium rare. Complicated burgers with lots of ingredients are therefore to be avoided.

“The burger is all about the patty. Every ingredient has to amplify the taste of the meat and complicated burgers do the opposite. So always go for a simple option,” he says.

Ketchup in the burger is also a no-go because its sweetness overpowers the flavour of the meat, though he does recommend an American-style diner mustard. Selecting the right cheese is also important, he argues. It needs to melt nicely, be a little salty and also look nice.

“Putting all kinds of sophisticated cheese in a burger usually just draws attention away from the taste of the meat, and if you want it to melt properly, it has to be fake, industrial cheese. The problem with using good cheese is that it melts very poorly in a burger, while American cheese melts perfectly and has the right salt content. Sadly, you can’t get American cheese in Denmark, though the closest substitute is Den Leende Ko,” he concludes.

Tommi's Burger Joint in Kødbyen, Copenhagen

Tommi’s Burger Joint in Kødbyen, Copenhagen

Plenty of choice
While not a fan of Danish burgers, Villemoes thinks that the standard of Copenhagen’s burgers is starting to rise. He didn’t rate Halifax – one of Copenhagen’s foremost burger establishments – the first time he visited, but on a recent visit his verdict was, “actually, not bad at all”.

The chain – which now counts five restaurants in the city – started when two CBS students met on exchange in Halifax, Canada. Peter Ahn and Ulrich Dehler opened the first Halifax burger restaurant on Frederiksborggade in 2007, and it immediately took off. Since then, they have expanded to a number of locations in the city center, and many newcomers to the burger restaurant game have imitated their  design-your-own burger concept.With a relaxed and bustling in-house vibe and an interactive menu, Halifax sets the tone for burger restaurants nowadays.

But the contest is growing more and more fierce, with burger joints popping up in every corner of town, all claiming that they have the best.

Just down the road on Nørrebrogade, Grillen is one of the new kids on the block, and offers great bang for your buck, clearly pointing their squeezee ketchup bottles at the likes of Halifax, and pouncing on the opportunity to create some competition in a lucrative market.

Another newcomer is Tommi’s Burger Joint, situated in the city’s hipster home, Kødbyen. Tommi’s is keeping it real with a no-fuss classic menu and an ‘in and out’ atmosphere. The grill is placed right in the middle of the small surfer-styled shack, sending out appetite-inducing wafts of grease to all comers. The interior is covered with corny ’90s posters and the young, energetic staff sport baseball caps, but it’s not like the waitresses are serving milkshakes on roller skates. It’s Americana in all the right places, and Danish everywhere else.

The cheeseburgers are topped with the classic trimmings and cooked medium, giving them a lovely pink colour and great taste.  They are served in a yummy soft bun, and wrapped up in a basket alongside shoestring fries and a soda – all for under 100 kroner.

Moving up in price, high-end gourmet burgers in town average around 150 kroner, and can be found at acclaimed restaurants such as Haché, MASH, and Cocks & Cows.

Another venue with a strong word-of-mouth reputation is Frederiksberg’s Salon 39. Tucked away on a tree-lined suburban street corner, you immediately notice why it has such great street cred. It’s warm and romantic, with red roses on the tables, dapper looking waiters, amazing cocktails, and jazz floating within the art-deco interior. It’s classy, yet laid-back and casual. Their burgers match the ambiance. This is definitely more “knife and forky,” but it’s worth every penny.

There’s nothing too fancy about their simple and big cheeseburger, but you’re not just paying for the food at Salon 39. You can have the patty cooked to your liking (they recommend medium rare), and the big bun is perfectly sweet and savoury. The fries are accompanied by smoked mayo, which is a delicious addition, and it all comes with a whole pickle on the side. It’s a great option if you’re after something a little more formal, or for a date night.

It’s clear that Copenhagen’s chefs have got old Ronald McDonald shaking in his boots. So who’s burgin? Get out there and find your own favourite. M

Culture

By Carl Coleman

AN Australian sexual refugee living in Copenhagen for the past six years. Carl plays in Palace Winter.

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