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Flat Patties has gotten it right (long, mildly philosophical)

I haven't been into Flat Patties for a couple months, because I'm rarely hungry when I'm in Harvard Square. But this afternoon was so freakishly nice that I kept walking after running my bank and post office errands and found myself in Harvard Square and famished.

But first, the backstory: by both birth and family roots, I am a Texan. Texans are born with a certain set of core beliefs, and most of them have to do with food. (One important non-food one is that no one born in New Haven, Connecticut who went to Philips Andover and Yale can pass as a Texan, no matter how much brush he clears.) Foremost among these beliefs is what constitutes a hamburger, and the Platonic Ideal for Texans is different from the Platonic Ideal for New Englanders. (In my own case, the PI would be the cheeseburger at the late, lamented Navajo Inn in Menard, Texas.) The burger patty itself must be wide in diameter and, crucially, flat: flat enough we find the ongoing Boston Board debate about whether this restaurant or that will serve a rare burger is ludicrous. This is a burger that's going to be cooked medium no matter what. So, obviously, Flat Patties has been on the right track from the very beginning.

The bun, like the burger, must be a minimum of five inches in diameter. It should also look like a hamburger bun. (And frankly, here is where FP's primary competition for my burger ideal, Grille Zone, falls short: that's a sandwich roll, not a hamburger bun.) Crucially, the bun must be toasted, preferably on the same griddle the burgers are cooked on. (Yes, griddle. Grills are fine, but the most ideal burgers are griddled.) The condiment is basic yellow mustard. No ketchup, mayo or secret sauce. The vegetables are lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles, preferably in that order of application. The cheese is *maybe* a mild cheddar, but ideally a basic deli-style American, and it is melted onto the top of the burger after its final flip.

The resulting burger is subtly but crucially different from the Boston standard, and as a result, I hadn't had a truly transcendent burger since moving here about five and half years ago. Several have come very close, but until this afternoon, not one has had the Proust's Madeleine effect. But today's cheeseburger, ordered with mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and pickles, was just exactly it. From the first bite, it was exactly the burger I've been missing all this time.

I feel a certain pride of ownership on this point, because at my last visit to Flat Patties minus one, sometime last spring, I had a long conversation with the guy who runs both FP and Felipe's (which, eh, but that's another story), and we talked at some length about my Platonic Ideal of burgerdom, and how he could help bring that to fruition, and on my last visit, I was happy to see that some of my suggestions had been implemented. This visit, after an absence of at least three months, shows tremendous further improvement, and it has taken Flat Patties from a good burger with strong potential to, so far, the single best burger I have yet had in New England. Naturally, other folks have different conceptions of the Burger Ideal, but this place has successfully filled a desperately necessary niche in the local market.

Now to convince someone to open a New Mexican restaurant and an okonomi-yaki house...

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  1. I too think it's really good and while I like a flat patty, feel that this one is just a little too flat. Have yet to have double burger, but would like the single to have a little more oomph.

    1. There is a place in Bridgeport, CT that serves what I would consider to be the closest to your ideal - griddle cooked, thin patties, cooked well but still juicy, the fixings you listed and as you said, a toasted bun from the same griddle...

      Tomlinson's - http://www.hotdog1.com/

      Standard disclaimer - I have not been there in a while, and I hear that the hot dogs that made them famous aren't quite the same, but maybe the new griddles have finally been seasoned. Also, the burgers just barely meet your 5" diameter rule, but otherwise, I bet you'd like em.

      (Side note: OMG, they have a website - I knew that they had upgraded significantly to have seating, but it used to be just a hut in a parking lot, with seating on the curb or your car.)

      2 Replies
      1. re: Bob Dobalina

        Mangia Mangia is what I tend to think of when I want a burger along this lines. The bun is larger than a supermarket hamburger bun, but it is a hamburger bun and grilled. Inexpensive, griddled to order, etc. And if you can't stand O'Sullivans, then head to Sully's in Southie (better for their dogs, but it seems poetic). In New England I think a lot of flat patties were turned into "cheeseburger subs" maybe in Greek grinder shops, which there are some decent ones around, but it fails your bun test (some roast beef places have taste cheeseburger subs) and toasting means a few minutes in the pizza oven. Pretty close to Allston/Brighton you have Celebrity on Mt Auburn which has such a burger, although I can't remember if they griddle the bun. Believe it or not, but some tony Yacht clubs serve up decent thin burgers. I enjoy thick burgers, possibly more, but a round patty was never exclusive in this area.

        1. re: itaunas

          Your cheeseburger sub comment reminded me of the little place near the train station in downtown Waltham that does up cheeseburgers, etc. Can't remember the name...I think it's still open....

      2. I haven't tried Flat Patties, and I don't have a strong position one way or the other on flat versus fat burgers (I prefer fat, but have enjoyed some great flats in my time, too). However I do have a strong reaction to your position on yellow mustard. I strongly believe that the ideal burger condiment is Heinz ketchup. I will defend to the death your right to favor yellow mustard. However, It's just hard for me to get wrapped around the yellow mustard thing. My goodness, Texas is different.

        3 Replies
        1. re: FoonFan

          I'm a midwestern girl, and I fully agree with the yellow mustard position. The combination of American cheese, mustard and pickles makes for a perfect flavor combination. (With cheddar, I'd agree that ketchup is better, but then I generally try to avoid cheddar on my burgers...) I'm also a big fan of Flat Patties' special sauce though.

          BFP, you make a lot of good observations about the burger culture here in New England. Maybe that's why I rarely end up ordering burgers here, but whenever I go back home the first thing I do is run to Steak & Shake...

          1. re: cambridgejen

            Like FoonFan or cambridgejen, I'm also not a fan of yellow mustard unless that's all they've got. I'll choose brown mustard every time, be it Gulden's, Grey Poupon, or something else. Also not a fan of American cheese as it doesn't taste like anything to me. Also prefer a thicker burger, so it can potentially be cooked less than medium. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

            1. re: bachslunch

              Although to be fair, I think cambridgejen was coming out in favor of yellow mustard. I have nothing against brown mustards -- and actually prefer them for most other applications -- but on burgers I'm a bit of a purist.

        2. Ah, that explains why my husband, who is from Texas, has to hit Whataburger (double meat w/jalapenos) the minute we land when we visit family.

          I think he'll like Flat Patties - thanks for the suggestion!

          1 Reply
          1. re: Rubee

            I have been known to do the same: I'd argue that there's been a slight decline in quality there over the last ten years or so, and I've found that locations that are in-state generally are more reliable than those in other states (closer to the home office and on a tighter rein, maybe?), but Whataburger is the only fast-food chain I've found that consistently delivers what I'm looking for in a hamburger.

          2. No rare = not a burger. More like elementary school cafeteria food.

            1. You describe the American greasy spoon / lunch wagon, griddle cooked burger first chain done by White Castle and then by the McD's of old (not today). Because of the thinness of the meat patty, they cook up fast and their appeal is partly that the fast cooking time means the fat hasn't fully rendered out so the meat is juicy (and sometimes greasy, depending on the meat used).

              A big issue is size. This kind of burger needs to be relatively small because it fits on a standard size roll and is thin. A Grille Zone burger, by contrast, is a relative behemoth at 1/2 lb, a kind of burger with roots more in the backyard charcoal grill than in the diner / lunch wagon.

              The popularity of this kind of burger has dropped tremendously since I was a child. It was pretty much the standard type in the 60's.

              My experiences at Flat Patties have been marred by too much grease. The burgers themselves were fine but a key to cooking that kind of burger is keeping the griddle clean enough of grease that burgers are mostly their own juices. I hope that's improved.

              6 Replies
              1. re: lergnom

                No, this is not the White Castle standard: for one thing, WCs are partially steamed, not just griddled. For another, as I said, this is considerably larger than the White Castle/old McDonald's standard: the ideal of this burger is between five and seven inches in diameter, far larger than either of those.

                1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                  Barmy, WC was the original hamburger chain and their method was based on lunch carts and the like but organized into an industrial method. The original method was a burger ball, squashed down with onions on top, flipped and then - as many diners et all do today - the bun top is put on top. The bun top would then be partly steamed, partly infused with onion-burger-grease taste. The more modern WC method uses steaming and doesn't flip the burger but the original is what you describe. WC burgers were smaller only because that was a marketing gimmick - 5 cents apiece, tiny price from a tiny building.

                  I think it's a great pity that most griddle restaurants - almost everyone, from McD's on down - do some version of steaming and don't actually fry their burgers in the old way.

                2. re: lergnom

                  you are completely right about the grease and its why I do not like flat patties (its not just the burger, it was everything - the bun, fries, chicken, drink). Typically I'm ambivalent to the flat versus fat debate (both can be quite good) but I will say I've had way better fat than flat and I think that's partially due to flat patties typically being processed and sold as is versus fat being made on site.

                  As far as best burgers in the area go, my friend makes an awesome tea smoked one ;-) but past that I'm all about Bartlet's (and I admit, I have driven to NJ in order to get some White Castle - which isn't in the area but that steam thing works for them. Course we called them rat burgers growing up so perhaps its not the steam but the memories of eating them when I was a youth that is the draw today?)

                  oh I'm so with you on the mustard/ketchup/cheese/pickles/lettuce/tomato thing though - I love the mix of flavors. That does help make a burger better. Now if you tell me FP cut the grease* - I'll give them another go.

                  1. re: aranthe

                    "I will say I've had way better fat than flat and I think that's partially due to flat patties typically being processed and sold as is versus fat being made on site."

                    I get what you're saying here, but just to clarify in case anyone gets the wrong impression, I've seen employees forming the patties by hand at Flat Patties. They don't buy preformed frozen patties. (Which I'm not 100% against anyway: most of them are indeed disgusting, but I've grown right fond of Bubba Burgers when I'm doing a quick outdoor grill.)

                    Ironically, the main thing I hate about Bartley's, which I think is one of the worst burgers in Boston, is that I have never made it more than halfway through a Bartley's burger before the bun dissolves thanks to the burger's high grease ratio. This was a juicy burger for sure, but it did not strike me as greasy, and I have a low tolerance for too much grease. (Which, it's true, FPs has occasionally shown on past burgers.)

                    1. re: aranthe

                      Wow, all the way to NJ for White Castle, that's devotion! I liked them as a kid, went to the White Castle in Elizabeth/Hillside, but they were pretty much like thick cardboard as I recall.

                      I'm a thick paddy/cookout type burger lover FWIW.

                      1. re: aranthe

                        Ah memories. I remember burger at Chambly in Quebec that was served with ketchup and relish being so delish. Toasted bun. I'm not a fan of relish but that one lingers in my mouth. And Howdy's in West Roxbury. And the patty melt, with grilled onons and swiss on rye.
                        That being said I usually prefer fat to flat, but when the mood strikes...hmm, reading back, maybe I prefer flat to fat.

                    2. Charlie's Kitchen, right around the corner, has a cheeseburger that would be right up your alley as well. Make sure you get the two cheeseburger special- they also have "fancy" burgers that aren't what you're looking for. Ask for waffle fries.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: bobot

                        I've had the Charlie's burger. It's all right, and I love the atmosphere of the place, but it's still not quite it.

                      2. I'm something of a New England/Louisiana mutt (interesting combo, I bottle it up and then drink it away) and I love the flat patties in general and FP in particular (nothing comes close to the New Orleans style though, Texas type with the flat patty but with high quality Chicago/New York/Boston beef). My NE comes through with an absolute devotion to hamburger relish.

                        My caveat on relish aside, I agree, BFP, Flat Patties is the best burger in town. The fat burgers here, despite the often higher grade of beef, would be better off served as a steak hache rather than a sandwich. I don't have any trouble with the cheese they use at FP's though, it's inoffensive enough to be served in the greatest of flyover diners without being accused of being froggy.

                        I think I need to beg FP's to stock hamburger relish, but their grilled onions are outta this world on the burger.

                        BTW, Whattaburger pales in comparison to the Camella Grill. That being said, I truly appreciate your philosophical approach to the hamburger and I hope they make the briochey type bun an option to the more traditional (and better, IMHO) real type.

                        1. I also generally prefer a flat patty -- for me the platonic ideal is the Dagwood burger at the Sycamore drive-in in Bethel, CT -- and while I like Flat Patties generally, I've had a few burgers there with some *major* gristle issues. Now, I don't mind some tough bits - I expect fairly cheap beef - and I appreciate them not using pre-formed patties, but these had a pretty high spit-out-to-chew ratio, which kind of impeded enjoyment. Hopefully those were outliers, though - it sounds like I have to get back in there and renew the taste-testing.