New Orleans, La. –
New Orleans is a town with a culinary identity quite unlike anywhere else in the world. But we're also a city where the most universal of all American comfort foods, the most crowd-pleasing, democratic, everyman meal, has an especially close following. That's the hamburger, of course, and perhaps the best illustration of what I'm talking about can be boiled down to two words: Burger Week.
Burger Week is the unofficial, tongue-in-cheek, lunchtime creation of a friend of mine and his coworkers at their downtown office. The name and the format were inspired by Shark Week, that popular string of shark documentaries aired on cable TV each summer. Instead of watching shark shows, though, Burger Week means ordering a different burger for lunch each workday for a week. Who knows what ancient, instinctive urges trigger the call to Burger Week? It's something that may start deep in the carnivorous cortex. But when someone in this group of devotees declares Burger Week, the faithful follow through with a five-day, single-minded itinerary of eating.
I've never participated in one of these periodic Burger Weeks myself, but I am regularly briefed on their exploits and achievements. And each time it gets my imagination going. After all, there is just so much material to work with in the burger realm of New Orleans.
The immense variety tends to divide down to certain recognizable categories. There are, for instance, the bar burgers, as exemplified by the Beachcorner in Mid-City, the Red Eye in the Warehouse District, Oscar's in Old Metairie and the Swamp Room in modern Metairie. They're large, yet still manageable with one hand, all the better to clutch your beverage with the other. Across the spectrum is the gourmet burger, a category that's seen explosive growth lately. Here you find a burger made from Kobe beef at the Uptown bistro Lilette, a burger with onion marmalade, aioli and house-made pickles at La Petite Grocery and a burger made from ground steak trimmings at Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse (which, by the way, is an actual Burger Week standby).
There's the famous Port of Call standard, along with its tribute and competitor burgers, those near-facsimiles served at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, Lakeview Harbor and Yo Mama's in the Quarter. There are the true individuals too, like the grass-fed beef burger at the new Cowbell restaurant in Carrollton or the organic burger at Uptown's Courtyard Grill.
And then there are those intentionally modest creations of local franchises that seem like throwback, time-warp versions of the national fast food chains, only infinitely more honest. These are the Lee's burgers, with the onions mixed right into the patties, and of course the Bud's Broiler burgers, which taste like they were lifted off a backyard barbecue, then covered in shredded cheddar.
Yes, the hamburger may be the coin of the realm for everyday American eating. But it seems that in New Orleans we approach them with our own distinctive gusto for food. Sure, you can find a burger pretty much anywhere, any day around this country. But where else are you going to find so much fodder for something like Burger Week, and the dedicated eaters ready to answer its call?
Beachcorner Bar & Grill
4905 Canal St., New Orleans, 504-488-7357
4430 Magazine St., New Orleans, 504-875-4164
8801 Oak St., New Orleans, 504-866-4222; www.cowbell-nola.com
Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse
716 Iberville St., New Orleans, 504-522-2467
La Petite Grocery
4238 Magazine St., New Orleans, 504-891-3377
911 Harrison Ave., New Orleans, 486-4887
3637 Magazine St., New Orleans, 504-895-1636
2027 Metairie Road, Metairie, 504-831-9540
Port of Call
838 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans, 504-523-0120