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Feature Story

Ultimate Burger Challenge


They are contradictions on a bun, simultaneously the scourge of nutritionists and the piece de resistance for low carbohydrate and paleo dieters — without the bun. Although they have been around for at least 800 years, hamburgers celebrated their 100th birthday in the last decade. Despite being the most popular meal of the American masses, they fulfill any gourmet criteria.

Hamburgers have it all. They are both hot (meat) and cold (lettuce, mayo, pickles), both sweet (ketchup) and sour (pickle); both acidulous (onion) and alkaline (bun). Textures range from charred to soggy, and every color of the prism is stacked between, or among, their buns. Even blue, the rarest color in the food galaxy, appears with Maytag blue and Gorgonzola. Hamburgers account for four out of every 10 meals served in American restaurants, and almost half of all burgers are consumed during the summer grilling season.

In America, they are a guilty pleasure for which no one apologizes. After a New York City restaurant gained notoriety by claiming the most expensive burger in America at $41, a war of decadence broke out. Prices rose quickly to $100. Now $100 burgers are the greatest contradiction of all, for the simplest hot sandwich is the long-time poster child for affordable food in America. In the last 50 years, fast food systems made it possible to raise a baby calf from 80 to 1,200 pounds in 15 months, rather than the five years it took back when burgers were first sold by that name in the U.S. Iowa was ground zero for that revolution, first with King Corn changing the feeding habits of cows and then with the innovation of modern meat processing, which began with Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) in Denison.

Hamburger is Iowa’s birthright. The state made it the cheapest protein in the history of the world. But modern food systems created a frightful downside. Concerns about E-coli bacteria, which lives in the acidic rumens of corn diets, created a new market for the old-fashioned grass-fed burger, plus elk burger, venison burger, alligator burger, plant-based burger and buffalo burger.

Despite their Tartar origins and German name, hamburgers are the most American of sandwiches. Like all great contradictions, the invention of the modern hamburger has been claimed by several different cities all over the USA. Towns in Texas, Wisconsin, Missouri, New York, Connecticut and Ohio all claim its origin. Burgers were definitely sold at the St. Louis World Fair of 1898, but perhaps even earlier at Ohio’s Erie County Fair.

Prep Iowa

Burgers at St. Kilda are freshly ground and served on homemade bread, with chips.

The name derived from the fact that the minced meat was popularized in northern Europe and brought to America by 19th century immigrants, many of whom debarked for the New World from Hamburg, Germany. Recipes for steak tartare came to Hamburg from Russia when the German port was the most important of the trade savvy Hanseatic League. A German from that city also invented the first machine that could mince or grind beef economically.

The oldest existing reference of a Hamburg steak in America is from Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City in 1873. It was listed at 11 cents, twice the price of a steak. Before mechanical processing, ground beef dishes almost always cost twice as much as steaks.

Delmonico’s is still one of New York’s most famous steakhouses, and it still has one burger on its menu, a Hollandaise burger with bacon, English muffin, truffle Hollandaise and farm fresh egg, for $36. Their signature Delmonico, known as ribeye in Iowa, goes for $51.

Burger became popular, and “healthy” after being recommended in medical clinics of the 19th century run by Dr. James Salisbury. He named them after himself and wrote this about them.

“Eat the muscle pulp of lean beef made into cakes and broiled. This pulp should be as free as possible from connective or glue tissue, fat and cartilage… Steaks cut through the center of the round are the richest and best for this purpose. Beef should be procured from well fatted animals that are from four to six years old… The pulp should not be pressed too firmly together before broiling, or it will taste livery. Simply press it sufficiently to hold it together. Make the cakes from half an inch to an inch thick. Broil slowly and moderately well over a fire free from blaze and smoke. When cooked, put it on a hot plate and season to taste with butter, pepper, salt; also use either Worcestershire or Halford sauce, mustard, horseradish or lemon juice on the meat if desired.”


Burgers without cheese and ketchup would be a hard sell today, but burgers have overcome other challenges. Mad cow scares made agencies trace carcasses to their origins, since parts of scores of different cattle can wind up in a batch of burger that comes from the modern processors. Eric Schlosser’s turn-of-this-century novel “Fast Food Nation” documented the new horrors of food processing, gaining a reputation for muckraking the meat industry similar to Sinclair Lewis’ for “The Jungle” a century earlier. Schlosser’s book was also criticized for categorizing all fast food meat processors together. It led to many healthier changes in the beef industry, several led by McDonald’s, which was previously painted as the bad guy.

B-Bop’s has become a central Iowa staple thanks to its top-notch offerings of burgers, fries and shakes.

The fatter, tastier flesh of corn-fed, feedlot cattle also raised the red flags of some cardiologists while others promoted paleo, keto and other low-carb diets that encourage beef eating. It also began a stampede of major players like Burger King and Tyson to enter the plant-based burger market.

Mechanical meat grinders and the great cattle empires of the American west, including Iowa, turned burgers into an affordable food. Placing such chewable meat between slices of bread was an invention of convenience. Visitors to fairs wanted food they could eat while walking around. By the heydays of fast food in the mid 20th-century, Americans wanted food they could eat while driving. Burgers became the most popular dish of all time by meeting those needs with the creation of fast food giants that specialized in them — Carl’s, McDonalds, Burger King, A&W, In-n-Out, Burger Chef, White Castle, Jack in the Box and Hardee’s.

The first fast food joint in Des Moines, Henry’s in 1961, featured burgers for the unbelievably low price of 15 cents. The most significant fast food place in Des Moines was B-Bop’s. Modeled after In-n-Out of California, it introduced central Iowa to double drive through lanes to speed up the pickup process. A spinoff and improvement of both Mr. Quick of Newton, and Sizzling Sam’s, it perennially wins the Best of Des Moines readers’ poll for best burger. Music is old time rock and roll. Some B-Bops now have indoor sit-down dining.


Each fall, CITYVIEW opens a contest to let our readers select the ultimate local version of a popular food. Sandwich lovers picked B&B Grocery Meat & Deli’s pork tenderloin as the ultimate sandwich. Steakhouse fans went with Chicago Speakeasy, noodle lovers chose Noodle Zoo, steak de Burgo fans chose Irina’s, burger lovers went with Café at the Meadows, and barbecue aficionados selected Woody’s. Three times we held pizza runoffs, with Gusto yielding its title to Taste of New York, which repeated last year. In this, the most contentious of political years, we decided it was time to let you pick the ultimate burger in town. We are certain to have a new champ because Café at the Meadows has closed.

Food is the new politics. Both subjects inspire intense loyalties that are usually only shared by members of the same tribe. Just as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fans can’t comprehend how anyone could support fully funded police forces, thin patty squishy bun fans can’t understand how others could prefer three quarter pound patties in a ciabatta roll. If anything, food arguments are more splintered than political ones. That’s probably because every human has a unique combination of 2,000 to 8,000 different “taste buds,” each of which can be more or less sensitive from one person’s tongue to another’s. Those different combinations are as distinctive as fingerprints, yet most people want others to like eating the same things they like to eat. I know couples who broke up over food selections, and women who dumped boyfriends for not allowing them to eat off their plates.

Loose meat burgers like this one from Paula’s are Iowa’s burger invention.

At CITYVIEW, the First Amendment is our favorite. We love a good argument. We leave the complexity of political polling to Gallup, Rasmussen and Ann Selzer (who is also a font of food information). However, to determine a consensus about more intricate local tastes,
we instigated the Ultimate Food Challenge in 2010. Each summer we have begun a poll to determine Des Moines’ favorite sandwich,
steakhouse, pizza (twice), burger and pasta. These competitions whittled our fields down to a single popular favorite.

This year, we are asking you to select Des Moines’ best hamburger, a dish that is represented in Des Moines by as many different styles and sizes as any other food type. Before Henry’s brought the fast food burger to town, most local burgers were remarkably similar. Thin patties, usually 8 to 10 per pound, were grilled on flat top stoves at high heat and served with toasted, squishy buns with pickles, onions, mustard and ketchup. Some places offered a choice of raw or cooked, meaning the onions not the meat. Cheeseburgers always cost extra. Today you pay for cheese whether you want it or not at most places. I learned to love burgers at the lunch counter of Dahl’s, which made their own squishy buns with eggs yolks and toasted those buns with a lot of butter — far more than one finds on a so-called “butter burger” today.


When the fast food joints became an industry, after Ray Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers, and stockholders encouraged higher ticket prices, burger menus were fed steroids. First came double burgers, then Whoppers, Big Macs and quarter pounders. Today, a quarter pounder is often the smallest burger on a local independent menu. Burgers are so large today that an Englishwoman dislocated her jaw trying to get her mouth around a triple decker at Liverpool’s Almost Famous restaurant. She had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which makes one’s joints prone to dislocation, but this is still a cautionary tale.

The largest burgers I have located in town are at Grandma Max’s in Altoona and several Jethro’s. Eating the Big Max is described as
“climbing Mount Everest with two pounds of ground beef on a large homemade bun topped with choice toppers, four pounds total.” Jethro’s Adam Emmenecker includes a pork tenderloin, an Angus steak burger patty, slabs of Texas brisket, apple wood bacon, fried cheese and buffalo chicken tenders. There is melted cheddar cheese and white cheddar sauce, too. Prizes are given to people who can finish these burgers in a timeframe.


This burger basket is a super deal on Wednesdays at Chicken Coop.

Hamburger lovers are a most subjective lot. As with pizza, taste standards are often formed at a young age. If you learned to love burgers at a local diner that smashed patties on a hot flattop stove, chances are good that is still your favorite style. Smashburger bet heavily on that. Same thing applies with charcoal grilling, open-flame grills and pan frying.

Some people like cheese on their burgers, others don’t. Some cheese lovers only like American cheese, others only blue cheese. The same division exists with condiments like mustard, ketchup and mayo. Some folks only like cooked onions, others raw. Some don’t like onions at all. Pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, bacon, jalapenos and banana peppers all have advocates and detractors. Those are just the basics. Zombie Burger includes sandwiches made with macaroni and cheese buns, with eggs, fried bananas, fried pickles, chicken fried bacon and peanut butter. Django served a burger with foie gras, truffles and demiglace, but it’s not currently available. Trostel’s Greenbriar will serve any classical French sauce with burger or elk burger.

Buns are important to some and not to others. Des Moines’ own Fancy Breads buns have a cult following but are difficult to find. Graziano’s, B&B Grocery, Meat and Deli, The Walnut and Simon’s use them. George Formaro worked an entire year to create a squishy bun that reminded him of his childhood for Zombie Burger. Burger King forsook their longtime slogan years ago, but you can still “have it your way” at B&B and several other indies. Burgers are no longer “charcoal broiled” at Hardee’s, but they are at Iowa Beef Steakhouse and three
different Rube’s.


Some of the best restaurants in town feature big bargain burgers on certain nights. Chicken Coop has burger baskets, with generous patties, cheese, tomato, lettuce and excellent fries for just $5 on Wednesdays. Alba features $7 burger night during Happy Hour on Mondays. Greenbriar has a $10 burger special on Mondays with $12 burger and beer. It’s a big half-pound ground sirloin burger with a salad or fries, lettuce, tomato and sliced pickle on the side of a buttered bun. Sully’s sells burger baskets for $7 on Tuesdays. One-third-pound burgers with decadent dressings are always just $8 at The Walnut.

Burgers are specialties of many of Des Moines’ traditional bar and grills. Kathy’s East 14th Street Tavern, Kelly’s Little Nipper, Gerri’s Tavern, Doff’s East 25th Street Pub, Dino’s Bar & Grill, Park Avenue Pub, Club 2000, Highland Park Country Club, G Migg’s and Fazio’s University Tap all feature burgers with their old-fashioned neighborhood charm. Both Jesse’s Embers and Maxie’s have burgers so famous they bear the name of the restaurants.

As with pizza, someone is always trying to invent something new in burgerdom. Juicy Lucy, a famous Twin Cities burger, is now served at Star Bar. Like so much in burger culture, different bars claim to have invented it. Two patties are pushed together over American cheese to achieve an oozing texture when bitten. Curried roast chick pea burgers and black bean burgers add some plant-based diversity to the new lineup at Lucky Horse Beer & Burgers. Ambro’s Roadhouse in De Soto serves several exotic half-pound burgers including a won ton burger that is topped with crab Rangoon.


Iowa’s original burger type is the loose meat burger. Beginning in 1926 in Muscatine, the Maid-Rite company has transformed, modernized and become an Iowa icon. Many similar places featuring loose meat burgers have also reached cult status — Canteen Lunch in the Alley in Ottumwa, Miles Inn, Billy Boy and Tastee In and Out of Sioux City, Bob’s of LeMars, Ross’ of Bettendorf, Montgomery’s of Grinnell, Paula’s
of Valley Junction, Taylor’s of Marshalltown and Brick Street of Bondurant all pull in pilgrims from all over the country.

With such a rich diversity of burger options, this year’s ultimate contest will be competitive. As in past years, readers will whittle down the contestants until Des Moines’ Ultimate Burger has been chosen.

Here’s how the contest works: The top 64 nominations for Ultimate Burger are listed here. The top 32 selected by voters will be announced in the September issue, and then the top eight in October. The overall winner will be announced in the November issue.

Good luck and bon appétit. ♦


  1. Francis Crawford says:

    Bread is acidic, not alkaline. Duncan plays at appearing well informed,
    but his lassitude in research is matched only by his insoucient presumptive attitudes.

    1. Stu Johnson says:

      Sounds like someone needs a nap. Best Burger contests are a fun thing to participate in, much like the Best Tenderloin contest. You sound as if Jim just critiqued a new leading edge restaurant.

      1. Francis Crawford says:

        Gosh gollly. Imagine a reader of a periodical wanting the writer to state accurate scientific facts.

        Bet I know who YOU’RE voting for, stormy.

      2. Francis Crawford says:

        I say, dear heart, we are in a bad way when
        a reader disparages another reader for
        the sin of wishing the writer were accurate.

        1. Jack Edgarson says:

          Lol @ Francis Crawford – You really think using “big” words and demeaning a lowly local writer on a burger article is a) productive and b) worthy of bolstering your own acumen? Look, I can do it, too – Francis Crawford is an invidious individual, who has no perspicacity whatsoever, and should not be making such impetuous judgements of others.

          You must be a real treat to hang out with, Francis, the life of the party. Enjoy a burger and calm down!

          1. Francis Crawford says:

            You reveal much when you characterize such
            simple vocabulary as I invoke as “big words”.
            Nor, by the by, is being “fun to hang out
            with” (incorrect preposition placement) any
            sort of description to which I’d aspire
            (correct preposition placement).
            See, kid, it’s not about how unimportant
            Duncan is, we seem to agree he’s tiny peas.
            It’s about a writer in a magazine being held
            to a minimum standard of accuracy. Perhaps it
            is these diminished standards which have
            produced both your pique and your president.
            I’m done with you now, post as many of your
            inadequate replies as arouses you, I shall
            have left the building, as the saying goes.

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