LAURINBURG — Two local burger joints may disagree on how to assemble a burger, but they strongly agree that freshness of the ingredients is the most important quality.
Lauren Smith and her mother Shelia owners of Mamie’s Drive In in Laurel Hill, say they had no idea how to cook a good burger when they bought the roadside restaurant and are still perfecting it.
“We have been diligently working on it for about 10 years now,” she joked. “You definitely have to start out with fresh ground beef not frozen patties. Mamie’s [under the former owner] has always been known for that. So we get our meat locally every morning.”
The burgers are hand patted and weighed into five-ounce burgers. To keep the burger from drawing up,there is an indentation in the middle of the patty, a tip Smith says she borrowed from the Food Network.
Clayton Brooks, owner of the Dawg Haus in Laurinburg, learned the importance of freshness from working in his parent’s grocery store and restaurant that stood where the Dawg Haus not stands.
“My father had a grocery store, and then we had a restaurant. My father couldn’t stand to throw anything away. So it was my job to pull bruised apples, anything that won’t last long, ripe bananas from the produce section, and we would carry that stuff to the restaurant,” Brooks said. “Everything was fresh. Nothing was frozen, ever.”
The restaurant would then turn the still fresh, food into meals. Brooks carries on the tradition of fresh ingredients today.
Brooks started out selling hot dogs, giving his drive-through stand its name, and swore he would never do hamburgers. Fast forward a few years and his hamburgers sell as well as his hot dogs.
“The day I introduced hamburgers, my business doubled overnight,” he said. “The first thing is the quality of the meat and the blend. I buy a special blend. It’s fresh hamburger meat and it’s Black Angus.”
Brooks planned to use the ground chuck he uses in his homemade chili but the vendor told him to do a comparison between that and the Black Angus. Brooks says the difference was “night and day.”
He hand presses his patties and also has a special spice blend of his own creation to use in the meat. He will allow that two of his ingredients are Lawry’s season salt and garlic. Each day, cooks roll the meat into a ball, stack it until it’s ready to cook and create the patty when they put it on the grill.
“We don’t do it a day in advance because hamburger pressed meat tastes different, and also another day after you’ve pressed it out the air gets to it. It just deteriorates,” he said. “It’s cooked to order, and it’s served immediately.”
For the tenderest hamburger, Brooks recommends not handling the meat much and creating a loose form without compressing the meat too much.
Mamie’s does not have a secret spice blend that they use to make their burgers a hit with people from across the state.
“A lot of people don’t believe us, we’ve had people joke and cut up that we put some kind of addictive drug in it, but we don’t; it’s just salt and pepper,” Smith said. “We like to tell them that the flat top grill that we use that’s probably been here as long as Ms. Mamie had the place…58 years or more. We pick at everybody and say the flavor is still on that flat top grill.”
To cook a burger on a flat top grill Smith recommends not pressing or flattening the meat while it cooks to keep the juices and grease in the burger. She and Brooks both agree that as bad as it sounds, the grease is what helps to flavor the burger. She tries to only flip her burgers once but depending on the grade of meat, Smith concedes that it is occasionally OK to flip a patty more than once.
Brook’s also uses a flat top grill and says the best method to cook a burger is to let it sit in the juices and grease as it fries.
Mamie’s, however, has another trick up its sleeve to seal in the goodness.
“We use a pot lid to cover it to let that steam kind of become everything in there and that flavor,” Smith said.
The most important part of the flavor of a good burger is the toppings according to both Smith and Brooks, but that is where they part ways because they disagree on how put together a burger that allows the toppings to best enhance the meat.
“At Mamie’s we use homemade chili and homemade slaw. That’s gonna be your kicker. That’s what’s gonna make the difference,” Smith said.
Brooks likes to put the chili on the bun as opposed to the burger, but Smith begs to differ.
“If you put your chili on your bun, that chili is gonna soak through it and it’s just gonna be sloppy. You don’t want to flavor the bread. You want to flavor the meat,” she said.
Mamie’s assembles their all the way burgers by putting ketchup, mustard and onion on the bottom bun and ketchup and mustard on the top bun then putting their meat on the bottom bun.
“The ways ours cooks up, it’s a flat top and we put our chili on top on the meat and then we put our cheese on top of the chili,” Smith said. “That cheese, once it melts because we use the old fashioned steamer − which a lot of people don’t anymore – that cheese just covers right over that chili and that piece of meat.”
Brooks assembles his old fashioned burgers by his own special process which he says enhances the flavor. He places mustard on the bottom bun and tops that with slaw and onions. On top of that he places the burger. Unlike most people he puts his chili on the top bun to let it soak into the bread.
If the chili goes on the burger, “it’s hard cooked, all its doing is just sitting there and it’s whatever. It doesn’t help,” Brooks said.
Smith said that chill was another “big piece of the puzzle” for flavor. It needs to be homemade because canned chili “won’t cut it.”
They have a secret blend of spices they use, that Smith refused to even hint at, but she said her grandma taught her mother Shelia and herself to cook the hamburger meat for their chili in water instead of frying it in a pan.
Brooks also makes his own chili using ground chuck.
Smith recommends Mamie’s homemade onion rings as the best side, and Brooks recommends his homemade shoestring fries or his fresh cut onion rings both of which are fresh cut every morning.
As far as summer grilling goes, Smith recommends cooking together and making memories that will last a life time.
“When you get in the kitchen and begin to make memories, it’s so much more meaningful. And I promise if you’ll put love in your food. It’ll go a long way,” she said. “We remember from our grandma making the chili; my mother and I have had the experience of figuring out how to make the slaw, and it just a joy to get in the kitchen and try new things. But do it together. Do it in love.”
Burgers on an open flame grill
According to Kingsford charcoal’s website, the best way to cook a burger on the grill is to have the right consistency of meat, only flip it once, and make sure to have two heat zones.
− For the meat, Kingsford recommends an 80/20 blend 80-percent lean beef and 20-percent fat in order to make a juicy burger full of flavor.
− Molding the burger is the next important step, much like Brooks said, is to avoid over handling the meat. Kingsford recommends, “Use a gentle touch, as over-mixing or compacting the ground meat will result in dense, firm burgers.”
The best size is six ounces somewhere “between the size of a baseball and a softball.” After forming the ball, flatten it to a circular shape around three fourths of an inch thick. Next, as Smith recommends an indentation in the middle of the burger, to keep the meat from.
− To prepare the grill, arrange the coals in a “full chimney” of charcoal, or a pile of approximately 100 briquettes. Kingsford them recommends using a “two-zone fire, with coals covering about half of the grill.” The best temperature is medium high. If the fire needs adjusting do it no before putting the burgers on to cook. Replace the rack and let the coals heat up.
Place patties directly over the coals and sear until they become “brown and crispy” on the bottom side, usually between four and five minutes. Kingsford recommends making sure not to “char the meat.” The company also suggests not pressing down on the patties because that will squeeze out juices and cause the burger to lose its flavor. Use a long-handled metal spatula to flip the burgers when the bottom is browned, and cook the second side in the same manner to lock in the juices.
When the flames flare up it is the fat melting and dripping to the coals. Kingsford suggests moving the burger away from the flames, but Smith said having a water bottle and gently misting the flare up will do the trick. But be careful not to spray so much water that your coals become wet and the fire doused.
− When the burgers are seared on the second side move them to the edge of the hottest coals and replace the grill lid. Let them continue to cook until they reach the correct temperature. Use a meat thermometer.
− When burgers are nearly done add cheese and allow to remain on the grill until it melts properly. Make sure the cheese and other ingredients are already staged. Kingsford’s chefs prefer toasted buns. “Don’t forget to butter and toast those burger buns. Watch them closely — they burn fast.”
Assemble your burger, serve and enjoy!
Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169