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Ground Around 

With a little help from the onion, LEE'S HAMBURGERS locations for decades have been serving their own version of the sweet meat.

Like fingerprints and Sazeracs, no two hamburgers are identical. Every burger is, however, a variation on one of three principal archetypes. First are the diner-variety burgers, flattened and fried and served on white buns -- the anti-gourmet burgers slung with ample grease at places like Ye Olde College Inn and Camellia Grill. Well-done is the only acceptable temperature for a diner burger.

On the opposite end of the burger continuum are the fist-thick, fresh-ground-beef burgers sold most famously in New Orleans within the smoke-saturated walls of Port of Call. Such sloth-inducing burgers satisfy red-meat cravings as effectively as a ribeye; ordering one well-done is borderline masochistic.

In between slides the hand-formed beef patty of imprecise thickness that's most often cooked in po-boy shops and at home. Equally enjoyable when cooked in a skillet, in the backyard or on the countertop a la George Forman, this is the most variable of burgers. Temperature is negotiable.

A Lee's Hamburgers hamburger is a variation on all three archetypes. It's always fried, always well-done and always dripping with grease. At the same time, it's made with freshly ground beef and tastes like it -- as if to flaunt its freshness, clear plastic tubs filled with watermelon-red, recently ground meat prop up beside the griddle in most kitchens. And while the specific thickness of a hand-formed Lee's hamburger depends upon location, each one is middle-of-the-road bulky.

That happy medium quality makes a Lee's hamburger good. Onions elevate it to greatness. Unless you specify otherwise, chopped onions are embedded into the surface of all Lee's hamburgers; they caramelize on contact with the griddle and continue to sweeten as the burger cooks. Since the onions lose both bite and color in the frying process, sinking deep into the burger's beefiness, their presence is alluring but not obvious.

You may -- you shouldn't but you may -- order a Lee's hamburger without onions. This wasn't always the case. Lester "Lee" Hash, who opened the first Lee's Hamburger Stand at 115 University Place around 1930, turned away customers who didn't want onions. Hash used to browse the French Market with a paring knife, peeling and tasting onions from various vendors until he found a worthy batch to buy in bulk. And he demanded his customers treat his onion burgers with similar reverence; he forbade the use of catsup, dressing them with nothing but yellow or hot mustard. Regular customers were allowed to store their own jars of mayonnaise in his restaurants.

This information comes from Carl Saizan, whose job as a teenager in the late 1940s was to deliver beef to Lee's, then located on Tulane Avenue, from the market where his father, Leon Saizan, worked. Leon eventually left the grocery business to work with Hash, opening his own Lee's location in Mid-City. When Hash died in 1968, he willed his legacy to Leon. The Saizan family still fries onions into beef patties at Lee's in Slidell, on one of Hash's old griddles.

Signs at all five current stores claim Lee's hamburgers date to 1901, even though city directories don't acknowledge Hash's existence in New Orleans, or credit him with a restaurant, until 1925. That's just the spark of confusion. While Lee's franchises numbered in the teens not long ago, all five current stores are privately owned and operate independent of one another. There's no Lee's headquarters, no hard-and-fast recipes, no employee handbook and no one supervising the overall consistency and quality of product.

The five locations don't share a common look or menu, either. There's minimal table service at the indoor-outdoor Slidell restaurant, while the Belle Chasse location is little more than a walk-up shed and the Kenner store is attached to a Wagner's Meats. The most old-fashioned-looking Lee's is located at 904 Veterans Memorial Blvd., directly beside the vintage Lamp Lighter Lounge. You'll find milkshakes only at 4301 Veterans Memorial Blvd., hot fried pies in Slidell and an extensive catering menu in Kenner.

It's inexplicable that the burgers don't suffer more from this disconnect. New Orleanians who are old enough to remember Lee Hash's mustard-only burgers, which now exist only in lore, will never be satisfied with the current disjointed state of things -- and perhaps they shouldn't be. But that needn't keep the rest of us from wrapping our mouths around freshly ground, hand-formed, fried-to-order burgers at less than $3 a pop, whatever the zip code.

Which isn't to say that I didn't discover some favorites. The slimmest burger, in Slidell, also contained the carameliest onions, the highest onion-to-meat ratio, enough mustard to cut through the catsup and an extra turn of black pepper. Whatever the location, burgers ought to be dressed with everything, except grated cheddar cheese, which tends to overwhelm the onion nuances.

Meanwhile, the onion rings -- a modern Lee's signature, hand-cut and freshly battered at every location -- stood out in Belle Chasse for being perfectly uniform, well-seasoned, pebbly loops. The sweet onions themselves crunched almost as forcefully as the batter did.

Onions, again. Where would Lee's Hamburgers be without them? That's like asking where a Sazerac would be without Peychaud's bitters.

click to enlarge LEE'S HAMBURGERS, the area's distinct burger - purveyor, keeps it blissfully simple with side - servings of fries, onion rings and soft drinks. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • LEE'S HAMBURGERS, the area's distinct burger purveyor, keeps it blissfully simple with side servings of fries, onion rings and soft drinks.
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