If you had asked me at age 5 what my favorite food was, I would have said a hamburger. At age 10, I would have said the same thing. And at age, ahem, I can safely say that hamburgers definitely rank near the top of my list of favorite foods (along with oysters and potatoes). In fact, when challenged recently with the foodie question, “What would you eat for your last meal?” I blurted out, “A burger, fries and a Guinness!” (My questioner chose a far more elegant option: scallops and Sancerre.)
In Baltimore, it’s a good time for hamburger lovers. Elevation Burger, with its emphasis on healthy and ecologically responsible ingredients (“Ingredients matter” is their mantra), opened recently in Harbor East, and gourmet burgers, or gourmet sliders, as the case may be, are appearing on the menu of every smart joint in town. Hamilton Tavern on Harford Road makes its burgers from local Roseda beef and tops them with fried eggs. Abbey Burger Bistro in Federal Hill, a restaurant devoted entirely to burgers, offers ones made from bison, turkey, chicken and lamb. And in a poker-like move, Abbey sees your fried egg and raises the ante by topping a burger with foie gras.
Though I’ll admit I’m sometimes seduced by a grocery list of burger toppings, I also believe the real beauty of hamburgers is their simple carnality. There’s joy in the crusty outside and juicy within of medium rare grilled ground chuck, and in the magic that happens when you mix the tang and sweet of mustard and catsup. It’s what I always wanted in my lunchbox as a kid (magically heated, of course), rather than the plastic-y cheese and crackers I took to school because I wouldn’t eat sandwiches.
That I wouldn’t eat sandwiches made my childhood burger fixation distinctly odd, even though for much of my childhood, I lived on fast food burgers. I’d get double hamburgers with my grandparents at the Burger King on Merritt Boulevard or Buckaroo Burgers from the Roy Rogers on Holabird Avenue that was built in the shape of a covered wagon. I attended birthday parties at the Gino’s on Joppa Road, went on Little Tavern runs with my dad. At all of these places, I peeled the bread away from the meat, discarded the anemic pickle slices and ate only the patty. That is, until that fateful day in the Wendy’s near the intersection of Joppa and Harford roads, when Dad announced that if I didn’t break my disgusting habit and begin eating sandwiches, he’d never take me anywhere again.
But my 1970s hamburger stories have nothing on those of the 1950s and ’60s, when hamburger joints dotted all corners of Baltimore. There was the Varsity in Catonsville, Champ’s in Towson, the Circle in Dundalk. My friend Pat Messick remembers Hamburger Junction in Carney, where the inside was decorated to look like a train depot, and the owner behind the counter wore an engineer’s cap. “You would sit at a counter,” she explains, “and a train would come around and [your burger] would be on a flatbed car.”
Another Pat, Pimlico native and Forest Park High School grad Pat Richman, remembers Friday nights at the original Ameche’s on Reisterstown Road. Founded in 1957 by legendary Colts players Alan Ameche and Joe Campanella, along with Ameche’s friend Lou Fischer (Gino Marchetti joined in later, and subsequent restaurants bore his name)— and with backing from Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom— Ameche’s was the prototypical hamburger drive-in.
“People would ride around to see who was there,” explains Richman. They they’d pull to the cement island where 20 or so parking bays were flanked by hanging menus and place an order for a Powerhouse with its special sauce and onion rings. Kids would get out and visit while they were waiting for food, slipping notes for “late dates” or occasionally picking fights. There were other Ameche’s locations— in Glen Burnie, on Wise Avenue in Dundalk and at Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue in Towson— but all are gone now. It’s no longer possible to “meetcha at Ameche’s,” as the old slogan invited.
Nostalgic for a burger memory I never had, I invite my mom to drive to Dundalk with me to look at the old Circle drive-in. For years, we’ve passed the small, round, white building with the big C circled in lights, which sits on the corner of Dundalk Avenue and Gusryan Street across from the United Steel Workers of America offices. Each time we’ve driven by, my mother has remembered aloud the chocolate milkshakes and the burgers with piquant barbecue sauce she had there. But this time, as we turn onto Gusryan, we see the building has changed. Its white paint is now tan, the big C is gone, and red, silver, and blue fringe rings the parking lot of what is now Castle Auto Outlet II. The latest incarnation of the Circle closed last September, the manager tells me, as he invites me into the building and points to where the walk-up window and the counter once were. “There used to be a gravel lot instead of paved,” he explains. There also used to be Chevys and T-birds instead of Toyotas and Mini Coopers.
As I walk back to the car where my mother waits, I sniff the air, trying to catch a faint whiff of hamburger grease … but it’s gone.
Abbey Burger Bistro,
1041 Marshall St
Baltimore, MD 21230
5517 Harford Road,
655 Aliceanna St.
Baltimore, MD 21202