The P & L Burger: Recognizing Big Boy as the Original Hipster

Parts and Labour’s offspring, P &L burger, was in part due to its performance on Burger Wars, in which it beat out rivals Burger’s Priest and Dangerous Dan’s to claim supremacy.  It opened its doors recently near Queen and Spadina, only a few doors down from Burger’s Priest and in an  area with an ever increasing number of fast/snack food options. Upon entry, I was greeted by a young lady with modern enthusiasm who quickly took my order. Fifteen minutes later, almost to the second, my number was called and I proceeded to the counter.  The cook was as cool as his facial hair and engaged me in a very pleasant conversation about the weather, cycling and growing up in Windsor, Ontario…a far cry from the less than enjoyable service I often receive from other places in the area.

Let’s do a quick historical recount of the evolution of the burger culture in the United States. It would be hard to argue that the Big Mac is not one of the most iconic and recognizable food on earth.  In fact, economic models use the cost of a Big Mac to standardize the state of the economy across the globe.  The brilliance of the Big Mac lies partially in the use of a secret sauce to add some tanginess to the other layers of flavours one would associate with a burger.  The Big Mac was “invented” by a Pittsburgh franchisee in 1967 who developed it to compete with the Big Boy (developed circa 1937), the flagship burger of the restaurant of the same name. The Big Boy is a three layered burger, served on a sesame bun with all the fixings including a special sauce (sound familiar?).  Once a presence throughout the United States, Big Boy still exists although primarily within the state lines of Michigan although a few still exist in Ohio and California.

What struck me the minute I tried the deluxe was the fact that I was eating a hipster Big Mac. It had most of the components with an extra emphasis on the the huge beef patty, which was cooked a juicy medium-well.  The P&L sauce was an excellent condiment and resembled the special sauce that made the Big Mac famous.  The cheese was melted nicely and crispy bacon pieces lined the thick patty.  It was a big, sloppy and delicious mess.  Consuming it did make me wonder why too many other burger places haven’t made an effort to mimic one of America’s favorite and most recognizable foodstuffs.  As far as the sides, I found the fries rather soggy and the slaw unappealing in both colour and taste.

The Deluxe $9
The Deluxe $9 (aka The Hipster Big Mac)

 

Somewhat Soggy Fries
Somewhat Soggy Fries (plus $3 with drink)

 

P & L Slaw
P & L Slaw ($3)

My Take

Not only did Big Boy invent the saucy burger, I argue they invented the hipster.  I mean, look at the mascot:

1. He wears checkered clothing.

2. He has a clean side part and a a flip in the front.

3. He is wearing light blue shoes.

4. He has that “I’m cool because I’m about to eat a burger” look on his face.

Big Boy- The Original Hipster
Big Boy- The Original Hipster

Now McDonald’s stole the Big Mac concept but  alienated the hipster concept and instead introduced Ronald McDonald in 1963.  The famous clown (which apparently has 96% recognition in the USA), was created by Willard Scott (yes…the same Willard Scott who gained fame as a Today show weatherman).  Since then, there have been eight actors who have portrayed the famous clown and none of them have worn, plaid, plastic rimmed glasses or parted their hair to the side.

Willard Scott as the original Ronald McDonald- This would be enough to make me a vegetarian
Willard Scott as the original Ronald McDonald- This would be enough to make me a vegetarian

P&L has created a DELICIOUS burger which competes for the best under $10 in Toronto.  The sauce is the key, adding a tangy cut through the richness of the thick beef patty and accompanying melted Amercian cheese and bacon.  The bun is terrific and the condiments are as harmonious as the Big Mac song itself.  The fries were soggy and the slaw was unremarkable.  You’re likely in for about a 15 minute wait but I think it’s worth it (after all some people in Toronto have no issue waiting hours for a stool tucked in the corner of a popular snack bar). Now that I’ve read a bit about burger history I realize that in fact the classic sandwich is the perfect food for the modern day hipster; you can dress like Big Boy and act like a clown.

 

The P & L Burger on Urbanspoon

 

 

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My Favorite American Restaurants of 2013

Please keep in mind that I have been to select cities throughout the US this year so this list is far from comprehensive.  I have, however, been to enough to warrant a list paying homage to restaurants  which stood out during my travels.

10. Voulas Offshore Cafe– Seattle

This cute, old school diner is not far from the University of Washington’s beautiful campus.  The staff are friendly and courteous. Watching them set up the coffee station for the line of people who couldn’t get there early enough to beat the lines is endearing.  It has a great feel with an amazing biscuits and gravy you wouldn’t expect on the West Coast. The greek omelette was a reflection of good old fashioned family values.

9. Bop ‘n Grill– Chicago

Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this joint has burgers and bop plates (essentially rice plates topped with a number of choices). I went with asian flare and tried the umami and kimchi burgers although other unique combinations are available. The deep flavours lovingly punch you in the mouth while filling it with bite after bite of moist, meaty goodness. This ain’t McDonald’s.

8.  Tamale Place– Indianapolis

You wouldn’t expect Indianapolis to be a hotspot for Mexican food but the aptly named Tamale place is amazing.  The passion and care in the preparation of each one is clear with every bite.  If you can, try one of the dessert tamales. The nachos and salsa are brilliant too.  It’s clean but not fancy but with those tamales, it doesn’t need to be.

7. Pastabilities- Syracuse

A pasta lunch set up like a cafeteria in downtown Syracuse doesn’t sound like a top 10 candidate…until you eat there.  The place is always packed for a reason.  First, the food is amazing.  Whether it is the pasta bowl doused in their famous hot tomato oil, the moist and flavourful meatball sub, the freshly made side salads or the delicate but delicious pizza, this place would appeal to anybody from age 1 to 100. Second, the prices are terrific.   It’s open for a more formal sit down dinner at night which I imagine is just as good.

6. Roast– Detroit

Michael Symon offers a fine dining experience in downtown Detroit, especially for the carnivorous at heart. One highlight is the wood fired grill which, despite the volatility and unpredictability of the open flame, produced a fantastic medium rare new york strip. There’s something about slurping bone marrow and eating sweetbreads while watching a pig spin around on a spit that just works for me.  Oh, they have naughty deep fried brussel sprouts too.

5. Union Woodshop– Clarkston (Detroit)

Union woodshop in Clarkston (just north of Detroit) was featured on triple D in the Kid Rock episode. Although somewhat reluctant to take advice from somebody who wears fur coats yet married PETA-happy Pam Anderson, I was excited to try it. My best advice is to act like your parents and show up for dinner when this place opens at 4 pm.  There are two reasons for this.  First, you may have a chance at the sauce laden burnt ends (brisket) which are delicious but when they’re gone, they are gone.  Second, good luck getting a seat after 430 without having to wait an hour. Sorry, no reservations.  It has everything you would expect in a smokehouse and more.  It produced some of the best pulled pork I’ve had in while.  Otherwise, everything from the sauces (try the Chinese Char Siu) to the butterscotch pudding are delicious.  They also have a gluten free menu, pizza and even a steak if you want it. The price is right too.

4. Clarkston Union– Clarkston (Detroit)

Kid Rock also brought Guy down the Road to the Clarkston Union.  Built in an old church, it comes complete with church pews, a bingo board and yes, huge lines.  It sports one of the best craft beer menus in Detroit, offering regional and national brews in taster sizes if you want a variety. It has a gastropub menu with its famous mac and cheese (with or without lobster), sandwiches, burgers with  pot pie and meatloaf specials.  Even the plowshare platter, a delicious array of meat, cheese and veggies is abundant and delicious. This church offers the holy trinity of a great dining experience: Great service, great food and great atmosphere.

3. Lucky’s Cafe– Cleveland

I do not go to Cleveland without going to Lucky’s.  In fact, I think once I went to Cleveland to go to Lucky’s.  Also featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Michael Symon showed up to promote this local gem. It’s all about fresh.  The front is filled with fresh baked goods and the staff is busy picking ingredients out of the garden you see through the window during the summer months. The “biscuits” is one of the best breakfasts I have ever eaten.  From the fluffy cheddar biscuits and eggs to the sensual sausage gravy, it is complete nirvana.  In fact, I awake craving it at times.  In addition, there are great beverages and lovely lunch items like a delicious curried chicken sandwich and a made from scratch Reuben that’s to die for.

2. Topolobampo– Chicago

Rick Bayless is considered one of the best Mexican chefs in North America.  Now I know why.  Once you navigate through the loud and hectic sister restaurant Frontera, doors open and you enter the serenity of Topolobampo.  From the minute you are seated you are treated like royalty.  Hands down the best service I had all year.  The waitstaff part like the red sea when you walk through the front of the kitchen to get to the washroom. The sommelier was informative and not pushy.  Our waiter knew everything about every dish. The menu changes frequently but you can always count on a delicious selection of nouveau Mexican dishes with bold, explosive flavours. Even better is everybody at the table can order what they want without the need to have a complete consensus in order to opt for one of the many tasting menus ranging from vegetarian to one dedicated to mole, Mexico’s most prized dish. Topolobampo is proof that not all eateries run by celebrity chefs are overrated…some are just “increible”!

1. Girl and the Goat– Chicago

Stephanie Izard in many ways has redefined what a great chef is.  Her infectious smile, lovely attitude and commitment to working vigorously within the walls of her two West Randolph restaurants have been rewarded with numerous accolades including a James Beard award.  The menu is a mosaic of tastes and textures which tickles every sense.  Whether it’s the escargot ravioli,  the pig face which gets smothered in egg yolk or the goat belly confit, the attention to detail from both a visual and taste perspective were amazing.  Translating passion to a plate is an art and Izard is Picasso.  I’d tour this gallery anytime.

Review:Toronto:The Annex:Harbord Room

I’ve had a few celebrity sightings in life.  I remember seeing famed baseball pitcher Denis Martinez in a café after a Red Sox game back in the mid 90’s.  I rode 7 floors on an elevator with Alicia Silverstone and her dog in Toronto hotel circa 2004.

Nothing, however, makes me as excited as meeting anybody who has anything to do with the food industry.  I have had run-ins with icons Lynn Crawford and  Mark McEwan.  I’ve met top chef participants Jonathan Korecki, Carl Heinrich and Connie DeSousa through  visits to their restaurants.

Needless to say I was quite excited to meet Kevin Brauch during a recent visit to Harbord Room, a well established restaurant making good burgers and high end cocktails before burgers and high end cocktails were so cool.  He came in toward the end of my Monday night meal and we had a chance to chat all things food, drink, Alton Brown and Iron Chef.  Let me put it into perspective… I’d rather meet a guy who had built his career drinking all over the world and managing the egos of the likes of Bobby Flay  than let’s say, Tom Cruise, whose definition of acting is trying to convince us that he could street fight guys half his age and twice his height.

Stalking Kevin Brauch
Stalking Kevin Brauch

Must

Harbord room had a cool burger before having cool burgers was cool.  Erring on the side of simplicity, it’s as well known as Mario Batali’s orange crocs and the burger praises are ubiquitous in every critic and blogger review. It’s a gem from the bun to the perfectly cooked beef to the fries.

The Harbord Burger
The Harbord Burger

The whitefish ceviche was a blackboard special that was fresh and clean with perfect tones of heat and acidity and a Morimotoish delicacy.

Whitefish Ceviche
Whitefish Ceviche

As charcuterie crests in popularity across the GTA, Harbord room keeps up with the times with a board full of carnivorous treats ranging  from venison pepperoni to an airy chicken liver pate to a pleasant terrine that would make Marc Forgione’s hair stand on end (ok..bad example). There were house pickles, great crostini, homemade preserves  and a fried egg round it all off.

Charcuterie ($20)
Charcuterie ($20)

Harbord room has also stayed current in the world of cocktails, likely in part to the fact about a third of the restaurant is taken up by the bar.   High end liquors highlight a diverse drink menu which can get rather pricy.  I indulged in “Liquid Swords”, a complex meczal based multi-ingredient drink with an execution as meticulous and passionate as a Michael Symon lamb chop.

Consideration toward a good side is like paying homage to a good sous chef.  Let’s call the rapini the Anne Burell of sides.  Bitter rapini, salty almonds, hot chili and sweet sultanas only make sense as it appeals to all senses.

Harbord Room Rapini
Harbord Room Rapini

Maybe

There was a bit of Cornish hen controversy as our table was told it was not available due to a lack of greens.  We asked for it anyway only to find out that it hadn’t been brined for the appropriate amount of time but they would serve it anyway.  Despite the lack of bath time, the poultry was delicious and moist.  If anything the sausage, the only thing on the plate not involved in the controversy, was as lackluster as an Iron Chef trying to make dessert.

Cornish Game Hen and Sausage
Cornish Game Hen and Sausage

I enjoy olive oil cake and I like Harbord’s spin.  Priced in the single digits, it hit all the elements of a good dessert. The citrus and chocolate sides provided some variety to the neutral cake. The almond crunch added some needed texture.

Olive Oil Cake with Custard, Sorbet and Crunch
Olive Oil Cake with Custard, Sorbet and Crunch

Mundane

Let’s call this a relative mundane list.  Nothing at Harbord was bad per se, but the strength of the menu made some of the dessert seem a bit substandard.  The Valrhona Dark Chocolate & Smoked Banana Terrine, Salted Caramel, Peanut Butter Mousse & Dehydrated Chocolate & Banana Chips was a bit confusing.  A little too deconstructed, the flavours didn’t quite come together.  The Fresh Ricotta Doughnuts
Espresso & Caramel Pot de Creme, Espresso Tapioca & Crumble Meringue Wafer were decent but a bit predictable.  Although good and filled with diverse flavor, I don’t get the meringue wafer trend.  A little too much sweet on sweet.

Doughnuts and Terrine
Doughnuts and Chocolate Banana Terrine

I realize sex sells, but really……

Ummm....Harbord Cappuccino
Ummm….Harbord Cappuccino

My Take

The constant rave about the burger is a bit of a disservice to Harbord room.  The complex drinks, brilliant charcuterie and intuitive sides elevate it to iron chef caliber beyond it’s signature dish.  In a highly competitive market, Harbord maintains a balance between what works and what might work.

In honour of Kevin Brauch, Harbord room is one of the iron chefs of the Toronto restaurant scene.  Challengers emerge, claiming vivacious vibes and great burgers but Harbord has held the test of time against these admirable culinary opponents. It maintains tradition yet remains current in a manner synonymous with the likes of Geoffrey Zakarian. I’m looking forward to the new THR and Co. spin-off in May. Gotta run….I think Tom’s coming to kick my ass.  I’d tell him to pick on somebody his own size, but my 13 year old daughter is not home right now.

The Harbord Room on Urbanspoon