the burger: griddled triple cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce and tomato
the bucks: $6.80
the coordinates: St. Louis, MO
To dine at Carl’s Drive In is as fundamental an American dining experience as having a Nathan’s Dog on Coney island, or parking yourself at a roadside stand in Mississippi for some BBQ. The parking lot is studded with soccer moms who have, perhaps under mild duress from their cargo of adolescent athletes, made a pit stop after practice. The customers are as well seasoned as the griddle that churns out the burgers. To sit on one of those ten treasured bar stools in this tiny restaurant is as much an American rite of passage as was passing through Ellis Island in the beginning of the 20th Century. If ever there was a burger stand whose humble and compact interior could draw parallels to Sukiyobashi Jiro, then it truly must be Carl’s Drive In, nestled in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. Yup, I really do love this place and so far all I have brought up is the freakin ambiance.
A quick glance at this menu makes Carl’s an obvious case for Bang for your Burger Buck. Part of that is no doubt a testament to living the Midwest lifestyle; where friendly prices go hand in hand with shuttered doors on Sundays. But what makes me swoon for these magnificently approachable and satisfying burgers is the quality that is delivered upon first bite. In the two decades that have passed since I was once one of those adolescents being scurried into Carl’s, the burgers simply refuse to disappoint. Change does come to even these quiet corners of America, but there are exceptions; Carl’s burgers stand timeless. To somewhat liberally paraphrase fellow St. Louisan Tennessee Williams, Carl’s Drive In is my edible glass menagerie. Now let’s get down to the beefy details.
Often here and in other sites of burger discourse, the term “griddled” is deployed to describe thin, stackable hamburger patties, cooked through, with crisp edges. Nowhere have I found this style taken to such delicious extremes then at Carl’s. Closer examination reveals that the burgers are smashed into a type of beef crepe, and it appears as though one cannot pry the smashed patty off, but somehow does and the result are remarkable burger patties that serve up flavor and texture in equal beefy parts. The edges of these burgers are so crisp they would no doubt draw the envy of the finest pommes frites in the Bistros of Paris. How fortunate for us that these edges belong to the best cheapest burger in St. Louis.
The lion’s share of patrons at Carl’s happily walk away with a double cheeseburger for $4, leaving plenty of room in the budget for fries or the root beer made in house. While I have no doubt that the single burger @ $2.75 would be a wise exercise in restraint, I felt like getting a little sloppy. Actually I wanted to get down right filthy with some burger topping excess. I opted for the triple cheeseburger, adding on bacon, lettuce and tomato. The total was $6.80, including tax. No question I went lux on the bucks at Carl’s Drive In, but as far as the total burger experience goes, it doesn’t get more total than this:
What I respect the hell out of, in a textbook stacked burger experience, is delivering patties that milk their time on the griddle without ever drying out. How does Carl’s accomplish this? Smashed paper thin, there literally leaves no room for dry beef interior because there practically is no interior. It’s like you are eating fond, but rather than brown bits being released by wine or chicken stock, you are eating a beef crepe being masterfully pulled off the griddle before it becomes part of that griddle. Needless to say, this is not meant to be tried at home. I often laud burgers here that perform without the need and needless expense of cheese, however at Carl’s, just look, no I mean really, look at how that American cheese just bonds with the patties above. I’m sure Alton Brown, Harold McGhee, or even yours truly could tell you something about the science of how these foods unite on an almost molecular level, but they ain’t here and I got a C- in Chemistry, so you’ll just have to trust your eye balls that this beef and cheese combo is fused with magic. Then there is the bacon. As if the burger’s edges weren’t crisp enough, biting into the bacon was like chomping down on a premium potato chip. This burger was tasty, this burger was filling, but most importantly, it was a striking textural masterpiece.
It is not unusual for a typical adult to fall into a bit of a food coma after a visit to Carl’s, perhaps playing 60 hard minutes of Varsity Soccer would change that. And while you can certainly go for more affordable burger options and spread your Carl’s budget on fries, that in house root beer or even a couple dogs, the fun of slamming patties together on your order ticket the way the patties are smashed on the griddle may simply be too much to deviate from. The bottom line is $6.80 for a triple cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce and tomato from a legendary Midwest burger institution. That’s Bang for your Burger Buck whether you are local or coming off a flight from LAX.
Route 66 is legendary for it’s eateries, and a humble looking 10 seater gem of a burger spot is most certainly a reason why. An edible Glass Menagerie that will have you dreaming of their wonderful burgers.
Carl’s Drive In
9033 Manchester Road