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Mar 12, 2010 08:31 AM

The Ju(i)cy Lucy Dilemma - In Defense of Matt's

I didn't intend those Michael Pollan references, but I'll own em :)

I'm not a world traveler by any stretch of the imagination, but I haven't come across a food item that provokes more heated, passionate debate than the venerable Ju(i)cy Lucy. It started out as patrons of Matt's vs. those of the 5-8 club, and as the popularity of the sandwich has flourished, the debate has spilled over into more gourmet interpretations of the burger by places like Blue Door and the Nook. I've even seen it show up as a special at higher end restaurants like Muffaletta.

Part of it is that people like to stand up for places in their neighborhood or places where they have had a positive experience. But from a food snob perspective, I think one of the biggest reasons is this:

As a burger, the Ju(i)cy Lucy is inherently and irreparably flawed.

Stuffed burgers have existed all over the midwest, and they usually suck. When you put cheese inside a burger, it's not going to melt properly unless you cook it to the point that the meat is dry and overdone. So you either have a properly cooked piece of meat with an unappetizing, chewy puck of cheese on the inside (Blue Door), or properly melted cheese-like material inside of a overdone beef patty (Matt's).

In my opinion, the argument is really over which philosophy more effectively rescues the burger from that inherent flaw. Even though I usually abhor American cheese and non-artisan buns, I would argue that the version at Matt's is most successful here; the molten core rescues the dried out beef around it by providing flavor and moisture. On the other hand, the cheese core of the BDP Blucy's detracts from the quality of the burgers - they would be much better burgers if the cheese were properly melted atop the patty.

That (and the blue-collar armosphere) is why Matt's is such an icon, in my opinion. However, I'll include the caveat that if you want a really great burger, don't order a JL.


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  1. I have had lucy's probably 25 times at all the various places in my 6 years in the twin cities(which I am still astounded with the level of cuisine available here)...including a few others like rudolphs....others I cant even remember they were so...meh

    Matt's Bar's lucy is smaller it seems then others. After eating it I feel that I could easily eat another. Their fries are basically mcdonalds grade....which isn't as bad as it sounds but to be featured on tv...i mean come on....I would say average at best. They also serve sodas in can's...a little unreasonable for a neighborhood joint if you ask me...something I expect more from a skyway place or food stand. I also don't like that fries don't come with a people really eat a burger w/o fries or at least a side of some kind?

    The nook is the best place I have found. Hard to get a seat as it got VERY popular since it was on DDD...finally I understand why people keep secrets :-) Their fries are hands down the best of any jucy joint, skin still attached which is nice and overall good flavor and crunch. Their burger in my opinion is the best quality....I have been there maybe 15 times...even when its not quite as good its still juicier than matt's.I also like that you get a burger and fries together in a basket...for something like 7.95. I will still always go here even though Streissand recommends it....

    5-8 is a way distant third. Their burgers are basically average quality in my opinion...and their lucy is one of the more forgettable ones. Also, I like the environment better at Matts or the Nook. 5-8 always offers coupons for their burgers....that tells you something....

    I have been to Shamrocks and must agree with previous posters...I wanted to like it...they say its the same...but its not....when someone tells you it taste like chicken....well usually it doesn't taste like chicken they just think everything does

    I have friends and family come into town...The Nook is always the burger place I take them....when we are in the mood for a burger that many good places in the twin cities too choose from...what a great problem that is...

    To the OP's last comment...I personally haven't been able to order a regular burger out since I got started on the lucy...the only thing I have found close is actually grilling it yourself at home....just my two cents....but we all have different tastes...thankfully...and I can see why someone might not like the lucy...the key...really is the how you eat big bites...let it rest for a minute once you get have to treat it like a burrito....hold the back so a bite in the front doesn't push the cheese out the back...its something it took me a while to perfect....but worth I dont lose one drop of cheese

    6 Replies
    1. re: brlattim

      Do any JL places do them with other meats? Like a chorizo stuffed with something? Been to Matt's, 5-8, and the Nook but never to fancier places that do them.

      1. re: larssten

        Yes, McGarry's Irish Pub and Eatery in Maple Plain has a McGarry's Juicy Lucy that is 8 oz fresh ground lamb burger stuffed with drunken goat cheese topped with red wine portabelle mushrooms.

      2. re: brlattim

        I used to manage a restaurant in Burnsville years ago. We had a popular burger similar to the Lucy, we had mushrooms inside and cheese on the outside.

          1. re: larssten

            Two patty's with mushrooms in the middle instead of cheese. Your choice of cheese or not. Sorry if I didn't make it clear.

      3. I disagree. There are countless dishes worldwide that require the cooking of two disparate elements, one inside of the other. Simple meat and simple dairy are the least of the worries of a competent cook.

        The appeal of the JL is that the meat's juices inform the flavor of the core, and the core's heat continues to cook the burger. The Blue Door, in particular, does this well. Matt's works hard to ensure that the meat contains the cheese, which is necessary but insufficient.

        But it isn't rocket science. Cheese can be melted inside of something without drying out or burning that something. For my money, BDP brings the best combination of flavors to the table. If the hockey puck cheese problem exists, I have not encountered it.

        3 Replies
        1. re: kevin47

          You are right. It is not rocket science. On my first try I made this home jucy lucy with better hamburger, better cheese and better bun than you will find in most of the restaurants. Cheese melted and the core meat stayed pink.

          1. re: Davydd

            The things I have found that help is steam (if not on grill) and not flipping it too often (as little as possible). Thore more you flip the more it allows them to break. Also, make the bottom patty bigger than the top one so its easier to fold over....when you make the two patties the same or similar size it seems to be a little harder......just some thoughts I had.

            Doesn't Vincent A do like a pulled meat lucy or something similar? Whatever their burger is I have heard its execellent.

          2. re: kevin47

            I agree with this post 100%. I've never had a "puck o' cheese" in any of the BDP burgers I've eaten (which is all of them). I've been to all the ju(i)cy places listed and believe BDP puts out the best looking and most consistently delicious ju(i)cy lucy.

          3. I haven't had a JL since Hector was a pup. But back in the day I cut ny teeth on and lost my ;' virginity at 5-8. Many years later I had one at Matt's.

            Both to me were good - at the time. I did prefer 5-8's, but you always love your first love. If you have read any other of my posts, you'll pick up on how I tend to seek out/replicate my firsts or what I grew up with.

            So, that said. I cannot comment further in this discussion. It's been... Oh, over 15 years aince I was at Matt's. Many, many more years for 5-8. All I can say is I love a good JL and my poor memory goes with 5-8 over Matt's. Why? I can't remember. Juat that they were a tiny bit diffwerent. Both were great, though.

            From my perspective, so much of what we want/crave involves our brains as much as it does our taste buds.

            I now return you to your discussion. Carry on.

            1. I like Matts. And I like the juicy lucy too. I go there regularly. I wouldn't say it's the greatest hamburger that I've ever had, but it's pretty good and I like the style. I usually throw some more cheese on it anyway. But then again, I don't know if I've ever had a really great burger. Is there such a beast?

              1. I'd like to say that my screen name qualifies me to talk about this subject....but it doesn't. I do like eating burgers and have had many Juicy Lucy's. Saying that you can only get them burnt on the outside and melted on the inside, or vice versa, is only telling part of the truth. Keith may have only experienced burgers either over- or under-done, but I'll state that some restaurants do get it right. I even got it right the first time that I grilled one at home, so this isn't an "inherently and irreparably flawed" food. It's just a difficult one that has different methods of preparation.

                IMO - indirect heat during grilling is the key to a successful Juicy Lucy.

                11 Replies
                1. re: GutGrease

                  To play devil's advocate -- the difficulty in getting one right is part of what makes Jucy Lucys an exercise if futility. You have to suffer through 19 medicore burgers to hit one that is accidentally done right. And even then, at places like Matt's and 5-8, it's still just nicely cooked run-of-the-mill beef with Kraft American cheese inside on a store-grade bun.

                  Now...I get that that end result is just fine for a lot of people. Heck, I enjoy a burger at Wendy's or McD's or White Castle every now and then.

                  But what draws my ire is when people from out of town come on the board here looking for a great MSP meal and people start schlepping visitors across town to get to 5-8 or Matt's. It infuriates me.

                  1. re: MSPD

                    I've satisfied my curiosity in the bar grills and at home. It is an experience and really not that difficult to make. Bottom line, a regular cheeseburger probably is ultimately more satisfying for most. As for going to those places, there are a lot of people interested in chasing the cable TV food show features and it is a food bucket list experience.

                    1. re: MSPD

                      I agree MSPD it is a joke to send out of town people that are looking on this board for a taste of twin cities, to send them to the 5-8 or Matt's for a Jucy Lucy, its just not right to be new in town and have your first food be a J.L. its just not right, we look like food clowns.

                      1. re: cookkevin

                        To each their own...and I mean that sincerely...

                        Growing up in Manhattan for 20 years...if I went back better believe that the "Top 10 restaurants" wouldn't even be on my list of places to would be patsy's pizza or 2nd ave deli..but...I bow in concession. Clown I definitely am.

                        I do find it odd though to ask for thoughts and start a post for something where differing opinions are not welcome.

                        1. re: brlattim

                          I think that there is a burger burnout in this town. Everyone got all obsessed with burgers, their nuances, their preparation etc... Then we had 58 new burger joints (most of them awful), and the food community was going crazy over jucy lucy's and "gourmet" burgers.

                          I refused to get into the hype, and I also refuse to join in the backlash. I think it's good fun to compare the local blue collar specialty, and I think there are some solid executions here. But I think the overemphasis on burgers does discredit some of the great cuisine we have here. If I were in New York for one meal, would you really refer me to a pizza place?

                          1. re: kevin47

                            re: "burger burnout"-- and you can add "pizza burnout" (and the related local style pizza vs. neapolitan/east coast/west coast/"correct" pizza ongoing debate) here too, yup. . .

                            it's because we are a smaller metro area than for example the nyc/sf/la/chi areas, so we've always had this tension between the high end and the low end food. the high end food just tended to be just sorta crappy here for years, this was tolerated by the market (the establishments stayed in biz for a long time, serving dead boring, poorly executed, overpriced food) and we'd get a really great restaurant or two that would do great cuisine that really stood out from the old guard places. . . and then in 2 or 3 years, predictably, then we'd lose the chef(s) to a bigger metro area and their former restaurant would either be gone, leaving a *hole,* or it would be a shell of itself, doing another version of the same freakin burgers and "accessible," dumbed-down food. when our food scene finally started to gain some traction and start attracting and *retaining* top quality chefs rather than acting like msp restaurants are just training stages for chefs on their way to the coasts-- this pattern started to stop, but if you look at porter & frye in the last 6 mos/year for example, you can see it still goes on. even the great little chef-driven bistros and restaurants we all love to talk about unfailingly have a burger on the menu, almost as a concession to this unsophisticated "joe msp" diner who doesn't really exist, imo--and as a result, often the burger, out of the whole menu where the chef is actually trying to *do* something---ends up as what gets talked about. over and over. it contributes to this idea that the food audience here wants doofus food and/or can't appreciate better executions. the dumb-down effect on msp restaurant menus does drive a LOT of people nuts. i've actually wanted to start a whole thread on this subject for some time but i frankly don't know if it would just come off as contentious or whether other people want to talk about it or not. i *do* know that i'm not the only one going "oh no, not another burger thread" or "not another pizza thread" every time the subject comes up on the msp board.

                            i should just get on every damn burger or pizza thread and scream "you're the reason we lost marcus samuelsson, you nimrods!!!" maybe that would make me feel better! :-P

                            1. re: soupkitten

                              soupkitten, you know I pretty much hang on every word you post. I'll throw this in this point in my life (three little kids, tons of stimulation, rush rush rush) the burger option at 112, Meritage, the Strip Club, etc. is actually perfect. Our anniversary dinners/special occasions/date nights often consist of bellying up to the bar at the Strip Club, having Danny make us a drink, splitting their burger and fries and a dessert and just enjoying the casual chit-chat with Tim. Or showing up to Brasa in shorts and sandals.

                              Although I would kill for Aquavit theoretically, and I wholeheartedly support LBV and the Piccolo concept (we did get over there the other night), I can't fathom enjoying a 2-hour+ degustation or the serenity of La Belle Vie right now. I'd be jumping out of my seat. I honestly can't go from 100mph to zero in a snap like I used to.

                              Also, I'd say having those items on the menu, or the small plate option at Bar La Grassa, 112, TSC, etc. or a lounge at LBV, Heartland, etc., or Punch/Black Sheep is a great way to introduce the oft-stereotyped "small town palates" to the possibility that a $25 tab for two doesn't necessarily relegate you to the Olive Gardens/Applebeeses/Outbacks of the world.

                              The fancy-schmancy burgers etc., and the cutesy VPN pizzas in my mind, are actually helping the cause rather than conceding to the average joe/playing to the demand for doofus food. At some point in their lives, people are introduced to the taste of food that was actually cooked vs. heated up and I think this is one way to achieve that. The result is, once you get them in, they won't settle for the crap any more.

                              Good thoughts here -- much better than the mindless pissing match and insults from yesterday. I like thinking about this stuff.

                              La Belle Vie
                              510 Groveland Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55405

                              410 Saint Peter St, Saint Paul, MN 55102

                              The Strip Club
                              378 Maria Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55106

                              Bar La Grassa
                              800 N Washington Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55401

                              1. re: MSPD

                                thanks very much for the post. i'm actually not the anti-burger/pizza ogre i may have painted myself as in my post above-- i just hate *talking* about it endlessly, and i do feel like sometimes the pizza and burger discussions dominate the local food conversation too much. i suppose i would freak out if i lived in philly and all anyone (visiting) ever wanted to talk about was cheesesteaks. but in real life i do really like to eat burgers at restaurants, and sometimes/often i don't have the money to get 4 courses, i'm tired, my feet hurt, i'm rolling in late & i want simple. . .and so i'm sometimes as guilty as the next joe doofus. for example when i went to try victory44 recently i did order the "perfect" burger rather than the tasting menu. had to try the grass-fed burger at the anchor recently too (good there, but fish&chips are better and still improving). i actually love the burger at strip club, & for my money it's the best in town--the damn thing's even good cold. i don't love the burger at 112 (it's the english muffin-for bun substitution i don't dig) but i do love that it's *there* for many of the same reasons you mention in your penultimate & pen-penultimate paragraphs. for sure, these small plate burgers at a chef-driven restaurant or small bistro can really go a long way towards having a well-rounded dining public, it will get new folks to come in and try the rest of the menu, and even the most frou-frou diner can have a burnout where just a well executed burger and fries at the bar will do nicely. . . yes of course there are all sorts of reasons to have a burger on the menu, not the least of which is that our local beef is really really good. it does frustrate the hell out of me when the *burger* is the one item on a great menu at a great restaurant with a great chef that ever seems to get talked about. i also find myself avoiding corporate gimmick-burger places like burger jones or the dreaded "respected chef opens second restaurant-- oo it's a fancy burger joint" type places. . .

                                crap, i'm totally talking about burgers now, when i already said i hate talking about burgers. speaking of burgers that don't get play: have you tried the lamb burger at shish? fantastic, juicy, flavorful lamb. i love that they put a little dab of the housemade strained fresh yogurt on the side of the plate to dip the burger or the fries in. they spread the toasted bun with hummus and top the lamb with thin fried onions. huge, splittable plate of food $8. take the kids and go-- i think mac is on spring break right now so you can get a booth. perfect example of a cheaper bistro with fresh, well-executed, non-dumb food.

                                Shish Mediterranean Grill
                                1668 Grand Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55105

                                1. re: soupkitten

                                  Wow, that Shish burger sounds absolutely delicious! Have been craving lamb lately, and will have to try this ASAP. Thanks for the heads up. There can be good gained from another burger thread : )

                    2. re: GutGrease

                      I agree 100% that indirect heat is the best way to cook up a JL (provided it gets a few minutes over direct heat first for searing) - it's the only way that gives the center the time it needs to melt without turning the exterior into a charred mess. And I will admit that you can't beat standing over a grill on a beautiful day (like yesterday) with a beer in one hand and a flipper in the other.

                      Having said that, I would argue that indirect heat is not the best way to cook a burger. I much prefer a cast iron skillet or griddle for that fantastic crust, which is also what they use at every JL joint in town.

                      I know I'm being nitpicky. As others have said, making ground beef and cheese taste good isn't rocket science. I just like to over-analyze things :)

                      1. re: keithinmpls

                        Grill purists won't like this but cooking burgers over an open flame actually is doing a disservice to the meat. I'd much rather let a burger cook in it's own fat over a griddle or cast iron skillet than let all those precious fatty juices slip between grill grates.