Anyway, I’m trying not to start this entry with a tedious history of the American hamburger…drive ins, 50s, California culture, and the last gasp of manifest destiny. Hamburgers hold some mystical psychic place for most Americans. I don’t think it’s necessary to tackle that. Just listen to the beach boys and think of the beautiful cars you’ll never be able to drive again because of oil prices.
Anyway, there are two basic types of hamburgers: what I would refer to as the California style and the East Coast. The east coast burger, defined by places like Mr. Bartley’s in Cambridge and Corner Bistro in Greenwich Village (or maybe even the ascetic burger at Louis Lunch in New Haven, where the mullahs don’t allow condiments) features large, round, juicy burgers, thick, toasted buns, and usually a heavy helping of lettuce, tomato, and onion. The west coast style, which spawned most fast food joints (or maybe the causation should be reversed), has a fairly small patty, a thin, usually sesame bun, and mustard and cheese. Thinking both McDonald’s and In N Out here. I’m a fan of both: the juicy, steak like quality of east coast burgers and the greasy synergy of bread, cheese, mustard and meat from the west. Both versions can be done to perfection. It’s just a question of style and mood.
So, with the history lesson out of the way, where does Sesame, the newest entry to North Charleston’s failed gentrification project, fit in? (An aside on the new north Charleston and Noisette – why do people want walkable faux downtowns that are a block long and will be driven to and from anyway…why is this better than a strip mall) I’ve been there twice, and while the burgers are of the thick, east coast style, and their hearts seem to be in the right place, the owners don’t really understand what a hamburger is all about. Maybe they’ve read a little too much Fast Food Nation. And here’s the thing: a hamburger can be gourmet i.e. prepared with care, using high-end ingredients, but it should never be upscale or yuppie, and the fundamentals should always be spot on. At its core, the hamburger is an example of mechanized, assembly line food, and has been ‘fast’ since its crystallization in the 50s. Prepare the basics i.e. meat, bun, cheese, and condiments with care, but don’t alter its fundamental nature in the process.
So why did Sesame decide that everything has to be home made? While I’m all for having house ground burgers, both for the rare center and the lack of mad cow, is it really necessary to have home made ketchup, mustard, and buns. Homemade ketchup is not ketchup: it’s tomato relish. Should I really have to ask for Heinz when I’m eating steak fries?
In the scheme of things, these are minor quibbles, but they reveal flaws in the approach and understanding of what a burger should be. While Sesame serves different permutations with interesting toppings, they fail to do the fundamentals well. The burgers I’ve had both times weren’t cooked professionally. On my first visit, though my burger was accurately cooked to a medium, the outside was too charred, basically black, ruining the meat flavor. My second visit had me ordering a medium and getting a well done, with the cheese not fully melted (don’t they have a salamander). They served both burgers on a hard, toasted Kaiser role, which impedes a complete bite and pretty much prevents any melding of meat, cheese, bread, grease and condiments.
On a somewhat more upbeat note, the fries, both steak and sweet potato, are good, though they cool considerably while you ask and wait for Heinz ketchup to eat them with (and when is someone going to marry Belgian style frites and flavored mayonnaise with American style burgers). The burgers are also reasonably priced, though I don’t remember exactly how much they cost not to mention what else they have on the menu. I think they also offer chicken and black bean versions of their burgers, but who cares? And why don’t they have milkshakes, specifically Oreo?
Anyway, it’s frustrating that someone would devote so much time and energy to a hamburger joint yet show so little understanding of what makes a really good hamburger. Regardless of style, burgers are about good, basic, even assembly line ingredients heightened by their interaction, not gourmet ingredients standing out from the pack. Do the basics i.e. bread, meat, and cheese well, and provide the typical condiments.
But with their clueless approach, I wonder what’s next from Sesame: an Adria-style hamburger flavored air topped with American cheese foam?