Reviving the Classic American Burger

On one of my visits to Hamburger America, no fewer than three employees mentioned, unprompted, that the hot ham sandwich was the sleeper hit of the whole menu. They did not lie. I watched as Motz piled a tidy mountain of meat, freshly thin-sliced, onto the flattop, draping two slices of lacy Swiss cheese overtop. He left the whole thing to warm under a metal cloche until it was melty and rich, then transferred it to a butter-toasted burger bun. As Motz wrapped the finished sandwich in parchment paper and slid the plate to me across the counter, he asked if I was from the Midwest. I said that I was from Chicago, and he shook his head. “Almost! It’s a real Milwaukee thing, this sandwich,” he said, before turning his focus back to the whack-a-mole of the griddle, full of patties in various stages of historically accurate smash. Looking it up later, I learned that hot ham and rolls has, for generations, been a Sunday tradition in southeast Wisconsin, when families line up at their favorite bakeries for an easy, affordable post-church meal.

A stained-glass cheeseburger hangs in the window, catching the sun over Houston Street.

The servers sold the pies hard, too: “It’s the best Key-lime pie you’ve ever had,” one said as she hovered around the perimeter of the counter, taking orders and clearing empty plates. (A seating area in the back, with proper tables and yellow-upholstered booths, is self-serve, with ordering done at a fast-food-style register kiosk in the center of the restaurant.) But I saw few slices of pie in front of my fellow-diners, and even fewer hot ham sandwiches. Smash burgers are having a moment right now, having been dragged into the spotlight by the riptides of social media. With Hamburger America, however, Motz aims to engage with history, not with trend-seekers. “This is the way burgers were made in America at the very beginning. The progenitor of every burger we have ever seen, made, or tasted,” he writes in “The Great American Burger Book.”

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Motz is interested in the hamburger as an object and a foodstuff, but he’s just as invested in the restaurants that serve them, especially the counter joints and luncheonettes where burgers are the star of the show. His “Hamburger America” book and documentary are about places and people: family-owned businesses, recipes and techniques that span generations. With its throwback fixtures and hand-painted signage, the restaurant is obviously designed to feel like the sort of place that belongs in a Motzian chronicle. The walls are crowded with ephemera: old menus, newspaper ads, photographs of clapboard drive-ins and mid-century neon signs, a few souvenirs from Motz’s own résumé of burger residencies and pop-ups. Over the booths in the back of the restaurant hang three especially large photos, shot by Motz himself. One, depicting the interior of Edina, Minnesota’s Convention Grill (opened in 1934), is a near-perfect echo of Hamburger America’s own counter. Motz’s restaurant may be a pastiche as much as it’s a temple, a meticulous facsimile of the time-worn and the beloved, but at least he’s not stingy with the credit. ♦

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