You might think they’re all the same — hamburgers — as common on any North Carolina menu as a barbecue sandwich, as sweet tea, as a fizzy fountain Pepsi. Nothing
You might think they’re all the same — hamburgers — as common on any North Carolina menu as a barbecue sandwich, as sweet tea, as a fizzy fountain Pepsi. Nothing special, you might think: a plain bun, softened by the heat of a steamer; a patty smashed on a flat-top with melting American cheese. Lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise. Chili, slaw, and mustard.
Have I had a hamburger in all 100 counties? Close, I’d say; my first one ever at 5 or 6 years old, in Asheboro, of course, my hometown. On Saturdays, my grandmother and I would walk from her house across from the library, where we’d spent our morning, to Little Castle on Sunset Avenue, a small restaurant with a few booths against the wall and a calendar hanging behind the counter, its paper bronzed with grease splatters from the open grill.
Later, there was Ray’s Kingburger, where we’d drive after a day at the swimming pool, the upswept, triangle-shaped peak of Ray’s roof rising like a steeple, a mecca for burgers.
We went to Golden Waffle for the Master Burger Plate, two patties, and Brown-Gardiner in Greensboro for a burger with an orangeade, and when I got tired of the cafeteria food during my first year at Appalachian State University and wanted nothing more than to be back home, I’d trek from my dorm on the hill down to King Street for a burger at the counter at Boone Drug. I’d ease onto one of those yellow vinyl swivel stools and listen to the patties sizzling on the grill, the spatula scraping against the flat-top, and I’d feel better.
My dad always said, “Order the burger” in any restaurant, believing that if they could get that right, they’d get everything right. In his sandwich shop, where I’d twirl on the swivel stools and watch him flatten burgers on the griddle, he’d sometimes let me lean over the counter and press the lever on the Fresh-O-Matic bun steamer, a gentle whoosh of warm air as comforting as a sigh.
And maybe it was because he cooked them all day, but we never had burgers at home. Ground beef was for meatloaf, for spaghetti sauce, for chili beans. At my grandmother’s, we ate country-style steak and buttermilk biscuits, but she never made hamburgers, either. Those were weekend treats, food we went out for on sunlit afternoons after a day of doing nothing, which is to say, after a perfect day.
I think I’ve been chasing those burgers that I remember, the ones that remind me of those perfect days, all over North Carolina. I’ve found them at Second Street Lunch in Roanoke Rapids; at Mamie’s Drive In in Laurel Hill, a double enjoyed outside on a picnic table; at Johnson’s in Siler City, where the cooks pile on slabs of Velveeta; at Fat Andy’s in Southport, one all the way, wrapped in tinfoil and scarfed down under a pine tree; at Miller’s in Mocksville, a burger dressed with pimento cheese; at Duke’s in Monroe, loaded with slaw.
Yes, you can get a burger anywhere in North Carolina. But places like these are time machines, delivering something extra special — more than lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise; chili, slaw, and mustard — that keeps us coming back.
Editor in Chief