Old Fashioned ’50s-Style Diner Cheeseburgers

Actual Greene’s cheeseburgers

If you ever find yourself in a suburb of Detroit called Farmington Hills (it’s a bit of a long shot, I know), you simply must try Greene’s Hamburgers.  This restaurant has been a family favorite since decades before I was born.  My dad and his 5 siblings, lovingly raised by my Namma and Dampy, grew up in a small house (that’s eight people total in a house with just one bathroom!) around the corner from this famous diner-style burger joint.  My dad has memories of walking there as a kid and bringing home a bag of 6 burgers for a grand total of 96¢!  Can’t beat it.

The prices have changed a bit since the late ’50s, but as my family tells me, every other bit of it has remained exactly the same.  From its shiny white exterior to the beautiful, old ‘play-at-your-own-risk’ jukebox (my uncle selected some Janis Joplin and Beatles during our recent visit), it feels like you’ve gone back in time — even aside from the food, visiting the joint alone is an experience you won’t forget.

Every summer during our annual family trip to Michigan, at least some of us stopped here for burgers to relive the age-old tradition of juicy, Midwest, never-frozen, griddle-cooked beef burgers.  Somehow, at least in my memory, I had never been.  I’d heard about it a million times, been shown pictures of the food (thank goodness for being raised in a family of foodies), and seen my Dampy sport his Greene’s T-shirt on several occasions, but in the midst of the craziness and fun-filled days at the lake with the people I love the most, I missed the boat — up until last week.

Mmmm. Perfect Greene’s cheeseburger.

My first Greene’s experience (with 6 other Thoresens) blew me away.  I couldn’t get enough.  No, really — I ate 3 cheeseburgers…2 singles and 1 double.  With fries.  And a chocolate malt.  Ehhh.  Don’t know where my enormous appetite came from that day, but I do know that it sure as hell came at the right time.

Greene’s chocolate malt and curly-cut fries

Small balls of ground beef are smashed flat into patties over slices of white onion on the hot, greasy griddle, and then topped with your choice of American cheese, sliced dill pickles, ketchup, and yellow mustard, all on a soft, smushy, white bun.  The fries are crinkle cut and served right out of the fryer, piping hot, just as they should be, allowing you to enjoy a salty, crispy exterior with a soft, steaming, fluffy inside.  The malts are classic (I dipped fries in mine — I’m a big sweet/salty combo girl) — thick, rich, and not too sweet.  The sodas come in one size only, just as they did in the ’50s.

Greene’s griddle

Natually, after my first Greene’s experience, I was transfixed.  I wanted these burgers again and again, and most of all, I wanted to share them with Kyle.  So I did my very best to recreate a Greene’s burger at home.  My Auntie warned me that it was a ballsy move, and she’s absolutely right.  They aren’t exact, and no other burger ever will be.  But I gave it a shot, and I think I came pretty close.  These burgers are simple, classic, and mouth-wateringly all-American.  I hope you guys love them!

I started with a pound of 85-15 ground beef.  This isn’t the time for super-lean.  Greene’s burgers are juicy and a bit greasy, which is the point.  Also, there’s no mayo on this burger, so you’re even further encouraged to take advantage of the grease factor, otherwise, you’ll end up with a dry patty.

One other thing — I almost exclusively buy my groceries at the HEB here in Austin (major grocery chain), which is super cheap and awesome.  There is a lot to admire about HEB.  I remember, back in Boston, I searched 3 grocery stores one day, looking for canned chipotle chilis in adobo sauce, to no avail.  HEB, on the other hand, practically has a whole aisle devoted to them.

For these burgers, however, I bought some fresh ground, organic beef at Whole Foods with the super high animal welfare rating (whatever that means — doesn’t that sort of equate to a jail bragging about excellent accomodations and conditions for the prisoners, and then killing them?).  I would never, ever turn my nose up at the standard grocery store stuff, but I wanted the absolute best beef I could get my hands on for these, since the whole point is to highlight that ingredient.  Honestly, I think spending a few bucks more did make a difference.

I separated my pound into 12 equal-sized pieces.  I did this by forming a thick rectangle shape with the meat and then cutting it into small pieces.  You see 9 in the picture, but I decided 9 didn’t make small enough pieces, and recut 12 (and subsequently forgot to take a picture).  They will be about the size of small meatballs.  Each of these is a “single.”  Everyone has a different opinion on their meat-to-bun ratio, and doing it this way, you’ll be able to tailor-make every burger however you like.  I loved the single at Greene’s, but the double hit my meat-to-bread ratio spot on, so that’s what I made for Kyle and me.

It’s best to prep your meat first so that it can come up to room temperature while you get your other fixings ready.  Roll each piece of meat into a ball and smash it just slightly, so it’s still about an inch thick.  Sprinkle salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce over both sides of each ball of beef.  Cover loosely with waxed paper and let these hang out on the counter top for the next few minutes.

Next, you’ll want to make sure you have everything ready so that as soon as your burger comes off of the heat, you can slap it together and enjoy while it’s good and hot.

Slice a white onion on the thin side.  I used my mandolin, but as (another) Auntie (who happens to be a professional chef) taught me recently, a mandolin is not a substitute for great knife skills.  A great tip to keep in mind, especially for me, considering how heavily I rely on mine. 🙂  Slice up some pickles, and get your cheese unwrapped.  I happen to adore American cheese.  I know it’s not the healthiest, but on a burger, it’s 100% my preference.

I can’t count the times my best friends and I have discussed and debated the best cheese on a cheeseburger.  We know how to focus on the important things in life, that’s for sure, and I mean that with no sarcasm.

Kyle doesn’t care for American cheese.  Since I love him so much, I figured I could alter the original recipe slightly and top his burger with orange cheddar instead (his burger cheese preference).  Just slice a few pieces nice and thin if you go this route.

Here’s a quick piece of the email I received from chef Auntie after she read this post, it made me laugh too hard not to share:

p.s. american “cheese” isn’t cheese.  they don’t even call it that on the label, they say something like “cheese food product” or some bull shit.  i think it’s colored oil slabs. i’m on kyles side! 🙂

Get your ketchup and mustard ready (if you want them).  As I mentioned, these are all optional toppings at Greene’s.  My preference was just onions and cheese, then pickles on the side and I dipped every few bites of the burger in ketchup.  As much as possible, you want to celebrate the beef, but everyone does that differently, so listen to your heart when it comes to toppings.

Now that everything’s prepped, the magic begins.  I don’t have a griddle at home, so I used a cast iron skillet — it worked perfectly.  If you don’t have cast iron, use your darkest pan — it will get hot quickly and give good color to your onions and beef.  You want it at about medium-high heat.  Add a little bit of a neutral cooking oil (veggie, canola, peanut, whatever you’ve got) and let that heat up for a minute or two.

Now, throw a small handful of onions on to your hot pan, fitting them into a little pile the size of a burger patty.  I underestimated the amount for the first burger, because I wasn’t sure how much they’d cook down in the time it takes for the beef to cook through.  Just keep that in mind — they reduce in size pretty quickly.  Give the onions a few seconds, then stack your beef on top.  As I mentioned, I did all doubles (as you’ll see in the pictures).  Next step, use a spatula to smash the beef down into a patty, right on top of the onions.  I’ve heard more than once before that this is the wrong way to treat ground beef, and that it will inevitably squeeze out all of the juices.  Not so in this case, tried and true, especially if you’re using beef with a higher fat content, as we are.

A double with the proper amount of onions

As you mash your beef down, don’t worry too much about shape.  Greene’s burgers aren’t perfect circles, but they’re close enough.  What’s important is that you’re sort of pressing your onions into the beef patty, and the fat from the beef is coating the onions and helping them to cook and simultaneously adding a TON of flavor.

Flip it after about 3 minutes and immediately top with cheese, and then cover with the top half of the bun.  This helps to trap in some steam, which melts the cheese and warms the bun in the perfect amount of time it takes for the burger bottom to brown up.

Here’s one great tip that my Dad told me about these burgers.  He always noticed that the top of the bun at Greene’s is a little shiny from the splattering grease on the griddle that hits it.  I loved that little quirk.  I didn’t have enough burgers going at once to provide adequate grease splatter, but I did just buy a culinary brush!  Perfect.  I dipped the ends quickly into the oils in the pan and lightly brushed the tops of the buns.  I swear, it made a difference.  So awesome.

After another 3 minutes or so, scrape it off the pan with a spatula, and place it on the bottom half of your bun.  If you opt for mustard, ketchup, or pickles, go ahead and throw them on the bottom bun before you put the burger on.  It’s important that the buns are simple and white.

Probably the best way to choose is to go with the cheapest possible bun you can find at your grocery store.  I can tell you Whole Foods will NOT have the proper bun for this type of burger, I’ve looked.  I got mine at the 7-11 across the street and they were exactly right.

Now, enjoy every last bite!  Share these with people you love.  It’s okay to have two.  Or three. 😉

An immeasurable thank you, for everything, to the North Star of our big, incredible family, my amazing Dampy (also affectionately known by his children, grandchildren, sisters, and countless other family and friends as Grap, Dampster, Big G, Pop, Dada, etc.).  We miss you desperately and our world is not the same without you.  An excerpt from a beautiful writing by my cousin Rob:

I have a million stories, a million memories, a million small joys all contained in the word ‘Grap’. They are as much a part of me as the Norwegianness that flowed through his blood and into mine. I am Grap. You are Grap. Energy does not disappear. It changes direction, changes forms, changes appearance. It manifests itself differently in different times and different spaces but it is eternal. Grap is energy. Pure, razor sharp, goodness. Decency and virtue, in the shape of a tall, tough, Catholic boy from Detroit. Grap is eternal in every conceivable sense of the word. Eternal energy existing in our minds, in our bodies, on earth as it is in heaven.

Big G came out of the sea to get thee. He got me. He got you. End of story. Beginning of story.