The hamburger serves as an iconic treat that can be made new for each generation.
You can order variations on the basic theme, including patties of exotic ground meats topped with anything from foie gras and peanut butter to piles of bacon and artisanal aiolis. But I’m partial to the classic burger that recalls a bygone era.
As car culture revved up post-World War II, an entire generation found the vibrant, neon lit parking lots of the local drive-in the perfect place to congregate, socialize and eat hamburgers.
The hamburger won out over other offerings as a perfect vessel for convenient, affordable meals because it could be eaten without much fuss in the confines of a car. The burger was “a full course meal without all the pomp and circumstance of a sit-down dinner,” according to Michael Karl Witzel, author of “The American Drive-In.”
Drive-ins reached their cultural apex in the 1950s and 1960s, but popular culture has allowed the hamburger to remain relevant to millennials who have been only to a Sonic Drive-In. These days when Kansas Citians of any age find themselves traveling down memory lane, there are still a few classic spots to drive in and savor the flavor of a good old-fashioned hamburger with classic sides like krinkle fries or a proper milkshake or malt.
Paul’s Drive-In, 1008 Osage in Kansas City, Kan., has the old-style, canopy-covered, diagonal parking. But don’t wait for a carhop to take your order. Instead, walk inside to order the double cheeseburger basket with krinkle fries and onion rings. A butterscotch malt is a cool way to finish, or dip your fries in if that’s your thing.
Or get a root beer and a Zip Burger at Mugs Up Root Beer Drive-In, 700 E. 23rd St. in Independence. The loose-meat burgers come with mustard, onion, pickle and cheese but are small enough (the size of a regular-size fast-food burger) to order a couple if you’re hungry.
Harold’s Drive-In, 1337 Admiral Blvd., has been serving up burgers and other classics just northeast of downtown Kansas City since 1958. The burgers are formed by hand, then the grill cook uses a press to flatten the patties. The smashed patties are grilled on a flat-top griddle that has been seasoned by decades of cooking burgers and breakfast. They have malts with hand-sliced fruit and hand-chopped nuts cut fresh every day.
About the only change the drive-in has seen is cosmetic: new paint here, a new sign there and a new owner, Nancy Smith. Smith worked there before buying it from Harold McBain and, like any establishment that has persevered, the present meets the past when the next generation of “Harold’s Babies” are introduced by Grandma and Grandpa or Mom and Dad.
Not far away, at 2504 E. Ninth St., is Humdinger Drive-In, another relic of the golden era of the drive-in burger. The man with a plate of hamburgers on the red and yellow neon sign is weathered, worn by age and rust, but the Humdinger burgers are as vibrant as ever. One side of another sign reads “celebrating 53 years,” a boast you won’t find on many restaurants.
Humdinger Drive-In has the standards like burgers, fries and limeades, as well as special items like the Big Kahuna burger and sandwiches featuring two fried eggs, cheese, hot sauce and myriad toppings. You can also find lesser-known offerings like Italian steak or pork fritters alongside tacos and shrimp baskets, reflecting an eclectic menu that has developed over the years. The milkshakes come in unique flavors like pina colada and pineapple, as well as their popular strawberry-chocolate combo.
Humdinger Drive-In also has a food truck that allows it to feed customers in entirely new ways and settings. The restaurant is now on wheels, but people still gather to enjoy the ideal mobile meal.
To reach Tyler Fox, personal chef and freelance food writer and critic, send email to tfoxfood@gmail.
Homemade Hamburger Heaven
You can always pile the family into the car and head out for a night at the drive-in, but you could also bring the drive-in experience into your own home by creating an affordable, fun dinner or a customized throwback dinner party using recipes I’ve developed based on my visits to the old-style drive-ins.
▪ Serve your burgers and fries in paper bags or shakes and malts in old-fashioned frosty ice cream glasses with two spoons and straws for sharing.
▪ Don’t want to bother making your own fries? Buy a big bag of frozen krinkle fries so you can concentrate on the burgers and malts.
▪ Make a play list of your favorite songs harking back to the ’50s and ’60s, including tunes from Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.
▪ Get everyone involved in the cooking fun this Labor Day weekend.
The Drive-In Double Cheeseburger
A good drive-in burger gets much of its charm from the seasoned flat-top griddles it’s cooked on, giving it a seared crust and those delicious crispy edges. The best way to do this at home is to use a large, very hot cast-iron pan. This helps get the right texture and allows the smashed burger patties to cook in minutes.
Makes 4 double hamburgers
1 pound ground beef, preferably an organic grind of chuck and brisket
3 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
4 white bread hamburger buns
1/4 cup yellow mustard, divided
4 slices sharp cheddar or American cheese
1/2 white or yellow onion, sliced in 1/8 inch rings
1/4 cup quick sweet dill pickles (see recipe)
Divide ground beef into eight 2-ounce portions, then roll each into a ball.
Put beef rounds in between two sheets of parchment paper or cling film and flatten with a burger press or heavy-bottomed skillet, making sure to press down evenly to get 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick patties.
Heat a large cast iron or heavy-bottomed skillet over medium to medium-high heat until surface is sufficiently hot, around 3 to 4 minutes. When your pan is very hot, dip a paper towel in a bowl of the oil, then quickly brush pan to coat lightly.
Season burger patties with salt and pepper, then cook as many patties as your pan can fit without overcrowding. Cook burgers around 2 minutes, then flip and cook another 1 to 2 minutes on the other side. When cooked, remove from pan and reserve on a sheet tray in a preheated 200 degree oven, then repeat process with remaining patties.
To assemble: Toast hamburger buns in pan just before serving.
Brush 1 tablespoon mustard on each bottom bun, then place a patty, a slice of cheese and another patty on the bun. Top with onion slice and a few pickles. Top with other burger bun half and serve with store-bought krinkle fries and an ice-cold Black Walnut Vanilla Bean Malt.
Per hamburger: 698 calories (68 percent from fat), 53 grams total fat (20 grams saturated), 126 milligrams cholesterol, 25 grams carbohydrates, 30 grams protein, 806 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Black Walnut Vanilla Bean Malt
This throwback ice cream malt is a salute to the black walnut malt served at Harold’s Drive-in. They chop the walnuts fresh and use high-quality ingredients daily, which they say contributes to the popularity of their malts. This version has a few extra ingredients, like vanilla bean and a sea salt and brown sugar walnut crumble.
Makes 4 malts
For the black walnuts:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup chopped black walnuts
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon fine cane sugar or turbinado sugar
1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt (optional)
For the malt base:
1 vanilla bean pod
1 1/2 cups plus 1/4 to 1/2 cup milk, divided
6 tablespoons malted milk powder, such as Carnation or Soda Fountain brands
4 cups good-quality vanilla ice cream, about 8 large scoops, divided
4 glasses, chilled for 30 minutes in the freezer
To make brown butter walnut crumble: Melt butter in pan over medium heat until it begins to brown. Add chopped walnuts and shake pan to toast and coat with butter, about 30 to 45 seconds or until nicely toasted, but not burned. Add brown and turbinado sugars, shaking pan to coat and lightly caramelize. Remove from heat and add sprinkle of sea salt, if using.
To assemble the malt: Cut vanilla bean pod lengthwise, then scrape dark inner flesh with a knife and add to 1 1/2 cups milk. Pour the vanilla milk mixture into blender jar, add malted milk powder and cover with the lid; pulse to combine. Add 2 cups of ice cream and 1/4 cup milk, pulse to incorporate and add the other 2 cups, one at a time, blending to incorporate with remaining milk to achieve consistency you desire.
Reserve 4 tablespoons of walnut crumble for topping the malt, adding the rest of mixture to blender and pulse to incorporate.
Pour into chilled glasses, then top each with brown butter black walnut crumble, a straw and a long spoon.
Per malt: 568 calories (47 percent from fat), 31 grams total fat (14 grams saturated), 80 milligrams cholesterol, 62 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams protein, 418 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Quick Sweet Dill Pickles
Makes 1 quart
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon dill seeds
1 (3-inch) frond of fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried dill leaves
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes (optional)
2 medium-size, thin cucumbers or English cucumbers, cut in 1/8-inch-thick rounds
Combine white wine, water, sugar, salt, mustard seed, coriander seed, dill seed, dill, bay leaf and chili flakes in a pot and bring to a simmer over medium to medium high heat. Simmer and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved.
Pack cucumber rounds into clean, sterilized quart jar and pour hot mixture over to cover, adding a splash of water if needed. Allow to cool to room temperature then refrigerate, at least 4 hours or preferably overnight.
These quick pickles will keep for up to a month in the refrigerator.
Per 1/4-cup serving: 14 calories (7 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 3 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 118 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.