Our intrepid food writer consumed thousands of calories, traveled hundreds of miles, and visited dozens of restaurants, drive-ins, and dive bars across the state. Why? To bring you this: The definitive, ultimate, be-all, end-all list of the greatest burgers in Minnesota.
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It seemed a simple enough task: Which Minnesota burgers should you eat before you die? Granted, to the less food-obsessed, this might seem like a peculiar question, and to a health-care professional, perhaps even a suicidal one. But to me, the question seemed urgent. Critical. Life-defining, even.
Toward the end of my journey, nothing about it seemed simple. After two months of trying every cult burger, every rumored-to-be-great burger, every once-great burger, and every potentially great burger in the state, my quest began to border on the ridiculous. “Are you trying each individual McDonald’s in Minnesota?” asked a co-worker. “What is taking so long?” I looked up from the pile of menus and receipts on my desk and sighed.
It seemed important to get this right. Maybe it was just something in the air: The year had seen movies like The Bucket List, in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman decide what must be done before they kick the bucket. Bookstores are crammed with titles like A Thousand Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler’s Life List, Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die, and 1001 Historic Sites You Must See Before You Die, which suggests that life isn’t complete without a visit to Mozart’s birthplace. Well, pick your poison, I guess. I’m certain I will go happily to my eternal rest without having glimpsed the spot where Mozart first contemplated milk and daylight, but I do feel very sad that Mozart will never know the singular pleasure of a $2.75 hamburger consumed at the counter of the Tender Maid in Austin, Minnesota.
Yes, I drove to Austin for a burger. I also went to Waconia, Waseca, Cloquet, and plenty of points in between. Because who could say where the best, the very best, the must-try-before-you-die burgers in Minnesota could be found? I had promised myself that this story wasn’t going to be a kindergarten award ceremony: Not everyone was going to get a gold star. If there wasn’t a burger in St. Paul that you would regret your whole life for having missed it, then so be it (there is). Past performance was not taken as a predictor of future behavior. And no one got a second chance. It was a sudden-death, one-shot challenge. If I experienced a once-great burger on a lackluster day, then that was it—it was out. No mulligans. No mercy.
But still, the drive to Tender Maid seemed indicative of mental illness. It was a 206-mile trip (at $3.50 a gallon for gas) to experience a $2.75 burger.
But oh, the Tender Maid. You should see it. I mean, really, you should. It’s in downtown Austin, in a white clapboard building with red-and-white awnings—one of those places that is so thriftily built that there are no vestibules to keep the winter out, no bathrooms, no nothing. It’s a shack, really. But a shack is all they need. Inside, there’s a gold-flecked counter ringed by a dozen chrome-edged barstools, and a big trough where they steam the beef for “loose-meat” burgers, something that was big during the Depression (and in Iowa), but has lived on in Austin ever since Tender Maid opened 1938.
Yes, 1938. For 70 years, these loose-meat hamburgers have been a classic of Minnesota cuisine. An unheralded classic, perhaps a completely unknown classic, but a classic nonetheless. Why a classic? Because the Tender Maid burger is just so American. You walk in. You sit at the counter. A hard-working woman in an unironic T-shirt asks you what you want. The most popular options? A burger with everything or a burger with cheese (and everything).
Upon hearing your preference, the woman behind the counter reaches into a steamer box, grabs a warm bun, and places it on a sheet of wax paper. She slathers one side with a spatula-full of ketchup, the other with a spatula-full of mustard, sprinkles finely cut onions on the mustard side, and ladles a scoop of meat between the two. She shakes a bit of salt on the meat, wraps it all together in the wax paper, and presents it to you—with a spoon. Yes, a spoon. If you order a cheeseburger, the process is slightly delayed: the woman will throw a classic slice of American cheese in the meat bin first, flip it back and forth, submerge it in the meat, unearth it, and assemble the burger with a slice of cheese in the middle.
How does that loose-meat burger taste? Good. Iconic. A little meaty. A little sweet. A little salty. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever eaten, but it is quite likely the most American. The most Minnesotan. The most Minnesotan-American edible icon we have. In short, it’s something you should experience before you die.
Just like the loose-meat burger, the other burgers I selected for this story are also amazing and eternal bits of essential Minnesotan character. And yes, they are eternal (or as close as you get to eternity with restaurants). In Edina, the Convention Grill has been serving those same burgers since 1934. At Matt’s Bar, in south Minneapolis, they’ve been making Jucy Lucys the way they do since 1954. Up in Cloquet, Gordy’s Hi-Hat has been making their burgers the exact same way since 1960. And at the Black Forest Inn, they’ve been doing their near-perfect burger since 1965. The youngsters in this field are places like the Lions Tap (the current incarnation dates back to 1977) or Newt’s in Rochester (opened in 1980).
You might find it odd that our longest-lived restaurants in Minnesota are all burger joints, but the longevity of all these places becomes less puzzling when you realize Minnesota’s iconic food is, in fact, the hamburger.
I mean it: Minnesota is burger country. It’s our defining fare. Like Chicago hot dogs, New York pastrami, Texas brisket, Memphis ribs, California tacos, and Maine lobster rolls. Our core food is not hotdish. It is not meatloaf. It is not wild-rice soup. A Prairie Home Companion to the contrary, Minnesota has always been more than farm-based Lutherans. It’s plant workers in small towns. It’s Catholics in St. Paul. It’s truck drivers on the Iron Range. It’s third-generation lawyers in Minneapolis. It’s the entirety of the North and South Dakota brain-drain who find San Francisco to be too much, and Minot too little. It’s also a whole lot of people from the coasts, Asia, and Mexico, who stumble across this little crossroads of forest and prairie and call it heaven. And the one thing we all have in common is that we love burgers. We argue about them. We eat them with friends, with loved ones, and alone in the car. We wait for an hour, two hours, for our favorites at places like the Nook in St. Paul or Matt’s in Minneapolis. We don’t wait outside in the cold for hotdish. We wait outside in the cold for burgers.
This epiphany came upon me several years ago when I was trying to determine what was the Most Minnesotan Food. Was it fried walleye? No, get far enough south or west, and the fish fry is as much of an import as mandarin oranges. Was it hotdish? No. Get into the urban centers, where most Minnesotans actually live, and hotdish becomes something like urban crime: You think about it, you know about it, you fear it, and you almost never are in the same room with it.
But burgers? Burgers are the only thing which readers have written to me about detailing their epistemological bar debates, some of which revolve around ideas like: Are burgers actually purely situational? Eating one while you’re falling in love, after seeing a great show, being hungry—is that what makes a great burger? To which I answer: No, no, a thousand times no.
Great burgers are quantifiable, knowable, definable, and inarguable (see Best Burger Methodology). And the following are all great burgers. These are the burgers you must try before you shuffle off this mortal coil. For the sheer joy of it—and because they will help you understand something new and important about what it truly means to be Minnesotan.
Best Burger Methodology
Introducing the Burger Inherent Awesomeness Quotient™
BIAQ = M(3F + T + Ch)2 + Co + CfE + [A + U + B/F]
Behold the BIAQ, the Burger Inherent Awesomeness Quotient. Is it math? Science? It’s math plus science plus truth (minus ketchup). Or rather, it’s my best idea of how to compare a $2 burger in farm country with a $12 burger in the city.
The most important quality of any burger is the flavor of the meat. It should be beefy, clean, rich, and robust. And this: There must be no flaws. No freezer-burn aftertaste, no pallid wet-dog notes. So, give the flavor a score from 1 to 10, multiplied by three. It’s that important.
Texture is critical. A gritty, chewy, dry, wet, gloppy, or gummy texture can ruin an otherwise pleasant burger. 1 to 10 points.
A great burger should juxtapose exterior caramelized char with interior tenderness. If a burger doesn’t have an exterior/interior contrast, it’s meatloaf. Meatloaf is fine, but it ain’t a burger. Award 1 to 10 points. Now square
it (math!), divide by 100, and round off: You now have your basic meat score, the highest possible value of which is 25.
There are two kinds of burgers: Those that are improved and/or made notable by the use of condiments, and those that are perfect without condiments. There has to be some way of factoring these differences. So, award both the condiment-topped burger and condiment-free burger 1 to 10 points, add together and divide by two.
Ambience covers the pleasantness of the room, parking lot, or other space the burger is in. 1 to 5 points.
Ultra-Minnesotanness: because being Minnesotan is a good thing, and should be rewarded when found. Otherwise, why don’t we all just eat at Boston Market? 1 to 5 points.
A great bun and great fries make a great burger even greater, and if you disagree you must be addlepated. Award the bun and/or fries from 1 to 5 points.
The highest possible score for non-meat related points is 25. The highest possible score for meat-related points is 25. So the highest possible BIAQ could be 50. This is right, good, and true. And that’s why they call it science.