When I was about 10, my dad schooled me on how to cook a proper hamburger. He said he learned his technique from watching his mom make them in a skillet when he was a boy. She learned it from watching a man make what was known at the time as “grease-burgers”, which you used to buy for a quarter at the local farmers market back in the 50’s. The name grease-burgers, according to my dad, was earned because they were cooked on a flat top and basically fried when the fat or “grease” rendered out of the patty. This is the method I always use to make burgers at home. It gives the meat a great crust on the exterior, as well as keeping all the flavors from the fat intact. With all due respect, grilling in my opinion is a less than a desirable method of burger cookery. If you have some confidence and can cook at very high temperatures you can still get a medium rare doneness in a skillet, without sacrificing that nice greasy char.
There are many things I’ve been ashamed of during my three decades on this planet. Eating two gallons of ice cream the day after I broke my wrist when I was 17. The time I was escorted out in a wheelchair at Universal Studios for allegedly being “too drunk to stand”, I was never formally charged. Finally, and this will shock many of my closest friends to the core, never once in my life had I eaten at the local legendary burger joint S&L Hamburgers. To this day it defies logic why it took so long for me to make the trek down to no mans land for a tasting of what everyone, at least inside the city limits, considers the best. If you knew how many times I’ve driven past and noticed the parking lot overflowing with cars and a line of people outside the building, you might slug me right in the gut. Have I not been preaching that if it’s good it’s worth waiting for? Just yesterday, I stood waiting for my beignets from The Poor Porker, when a woman who might or might not be immediately related to me, approached the general area and asked “Are they really good enough to wait this long?”. As we know by now, long lines, waiting and an overflowing dining room are usually a sign of good things to come.
The moment arrived when I committed to a lunch with a friend that worked in the area. He texted me around 10:30 to ask what I wanted to order. I thought it strange to even ask since we were going to sit down and have our meal inside. He filled me in on how they do things to get people from having to wait an extraordinarily long time. If you call them in advance and tell them when you’ll be there, not only will they reserve you a table, they will have your meal ready as your arrive. Talk about a great concept!
We met at 12:00 and I got there early. I really wasn’t sure what to expect inside. Was it going to be some grimy dump that people just have gone to for years because of force of habit? That happens a lot you know. I even looked online for a menu or pictures, anything that would help me prepare for my visit. I couldn’t find anything but a blurry half of a menu from 3 years ago. It’s as if this place doesn’t exist to outsiders, save for a handful of short, mixed reviews.
Walking in, you’ll likely find a group of minions huddled around the counter, counting the seconds until their rations are ready. They’re all waiting for take out orders. There isn’t much space to breathe inside, it’s narrow and lined from wall to wall with small tables that are all filled with either hungry patrons, or soon to be stuffed ones. The aroma of sizzling beef emanating from the flat top, would send Wimpy into a state of euphoria, though he’d still have the gall to pay for his burger days after consuming it. To be honest though, after sounding a little wimpy myself, S&L is very pleasant inside. The waitresses are sweethearts and very accommodating, which is impressive, considering how fast paced and cramped the room is.
Our order wasn’t placed due to my incompetence. I couldn’t decide what to order before hand, based on what little information I could find online. When we sat down, my dining companion ordered a bacon cheeseburger without bothering to look at the menu. Less than 10 seconds went by and I spotted the patty melt. Easy choice. With onion rings. Easier choice. You always have the option to “bigger” size your burger for a $1.00. Easiest choice I made all day since deciding to rise and shine. My bud followed suit and requested his “bigger” as well. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing.
S&L uses the ol’ grease burger technique. Straight on the griddle, cooked ’til they’re done. They don’t ask your preferred doneness, you get it how they cook it and that’s just the way it is. When the food came out, I realized the error in making my burger bigger. I said “bigger” but I wasn’t aware they were going to try to kill me with meat! I recommend just a single patty so you can leave in a less rotund state.
Visually, the food was sexy, with a nice bit of charred crust encompassing the outer layers. The burger then was subject to the squeeze test. This is very technical and needs to be performed properly by a trained professional to avoid damage. You take the palm of your hand directly on the top of the bun, or rye bread in this case. By pressing down at the rate of 32 pounds of pressure per square foot, for 3/10 of a second, you can deduce if a burger is juicy or not. The test was administered and S&L passed with room to spare. I sampled an onion ring while my burger cooled a bit. It had a surprising hint of beer used to wet the batter. They were perfect and passed the rigorous “Crispness Coefficient and Onion Anti-displacement Test” perfected by my colleague here at Eat a Duck. If you wish to read about the Jimmy’s test on onion rings, please read the review of Hottie Hawgs BBQ.
The burgers were not only huge, they had character. They were everything the legend had made them out to be. I felt joy and pain all at once. With every bite my love for S&L grew, at the same time I cursed myself, for procrastinating all these years. Normally, I’d sit here and give you a long, drawn out description of how it all tasted, but it’s just something you have to try for yourself. The one thing I would give you a heads up on is that, as far as I know, they only use American cheese, which to me is like someone drawing a moustache on the girl with a pearl earring. It’s my fault for not asking if they had other choices, but can you blame me for being stricken by burger blindness? I’ve also been told by many friends that the breakfast is just as good as the burgers that made them famous. Great, now I have even more shame to deflect. I think I might need to lie down for a minute or two. The guilt is to be too much to bear.
S&L Restaurant – 2915 South Combee Road – Lakeland, FL 33803 – (863) 665-0731