Nice Buns


The all-American hamburger turns 122 years old this year. By most historical accounts, the creator of America’s most successful sandwich was a Wisconsin teenager named Charlie Nagreen who, in 1885, set up a concession stand to sell meatballs at a county fair. When too few customers came over to buy his beef balls, Nagreen supposedly had the bright idea of making a more portable sandwich by flattening the meat into patties, then tucking it between two slices of white bread.

Others also lay claim to the invention, including the descendants of Louis Lassen, a Connecticut luncheonette owner. To his dying day, Lassen insisted that he sold the first hamburger in 1890 to a customer who wanted a sandwich in a hurry.

That lunch-in-a-hurry idea elevated the burger from a lowly diner staple to the top-selling item in what’s now a $140 billion fast-food industry. But the burger also gets kicked around for at least contributing to this country’s burgeoning obesity problems. The total fat content of a McDonald’s quarter-pounder with cheese, for example, is a hefty 26 grams. Not exactly diet fare, but this juicy burger is cheap and filling. It tastes good, and, even better, you can eat one while driving a car or talking on a cell phone.

Meanwhile, American tastes have evolved, and some conscientious eaters are hungry for a different kind of burger, one that’s just a little healthier. And I’m not talking someplace that serves vegetarian knockoff burgers.

The 17-month-old Local Burger isn’t a health-food restaurant. In fact, the organic sandwich shop in Lawrence is probably a lot closer in spirit to Charlie Nagreen’s burger booth at the Outagamie County Fair. Back then, Nagreen’s beef likely came from cattle raised in the same county; similarly, Local Burger’s menu promises that it serves “local meat raised using sustainable and humane practices.” The beef here comes from grass-fed cows, without any added antibiotics or hormones; same goes for the buffalo and elk patties and the natural turkey burger. Even better, these burgers don’t cost much more than the fast-food variety.

On one trip to the glass-walled building (it once housed an auto dealership), I brought along Franklin and Ned, who had both rolled their eyes at the idea of a healthy hamburger hamlet. Standing in line, they looked witheringly at customers wearing Birkenstocks in the middle of winter. Ned was even more scandalized that the restaurant didn’t serve onion rings or tater tots. “They’re vegetarian items, for God’s sake,” he groused.

Ned’s sour mood changed after his first bite of Local Burger’s soothing chili — he went so far as to call it “emotionally satisfying” — and a plain beef burger from Amy’s Meats in Lawrence. Franklin, a devotee of greasy Town Topic burgers, thought his grass-fed beef burger and organic green salad were terrific. (He was tempted to order all of the side dishes at once — except for the combination of brown rice, cayenne and vinegar called “Master Cleanse.” After all, he said, “It’s a long drive back to Kansas City.”) I also enjoyed that day’s sandwich special, a luscious lamb burger topped with melted feta cheese.

On another visit with my friends Bob, Audrey and Dan, a crew from the Sundance Channel was filming a segment about Local Burger for its upcoming Big Ideas for a Small Planet series. That was the same night Local Burger’s owner, Hilary Brown, told me that she had been looking at some rental spaces in Kansas City’s Crossroads neighborhood for a second location. Since then, Brown has had to downscale her plans.


“I would love to open a location in Kansas City someday,” she told me, “but I found out that I’m going to have to move my place in Lawrence by next year so this neighborhood can be redeveloped.”

The library across the street is scheduled to be torn down to make room for a convention center, but that seems unlikely to stop Brown from following the dream she says she first blurted out as a teenager: “I want to sell healthy fast food.”

As a college student, Brown got her degree in occupational therapy but supported herself by catering. After attending a natural-cooking school in New York, she pulled together the resources to open Local Burger in 2005. It’s not fancy: Brown bought the blond-wood tables and chairs at Target. But her place caught on quickly. Maybe too quickly.

“We were packed even before we got all the kinks worked out,” Brown said.

That was no surprise to Audrey and Dan, who live in Lawrence. When they first visited the restaurant shortly after it opened, they encountered a sense of chaos in the dining room and the kitchen and had not enjoyed their meal at all. They’d been wary of returning. But a lot can happen over six months, and Brown has assembled a professional crew to oversee the tiny kitchen as well as the counter, where patrons order from a limited but appealing menu.

We shared a starter of Cowgirl Hummus — a thick, crumbly, warm concoction that tasted more like refried beans than anything served in a Middle Eastern restaurant. (I was afraid to ask what the “Cowgirl” ingredient was, so I didn’t.) Bob and Dan also gave thumbs up to the spicy, hearty chili made with ground buffalo meat from the Lonestar Bison Ranch near Overbrook, Kansas.

In true diner fashion, Brown offers inexpensive combo plates that include a Local Burger or an organic hot dog with a side dish. Sorry, no french fries (although Brown is contemplating adding potatoes fried in coconut oil). Instead, there are Progressive Potatoes — soft slices of baked yukon, red and sweet potatoes. For his side, Dan chose the dairy-free rainbow slaw to eat with his buffalo burger — he said the meat was a little dry but tasty. To accompany her elk burger, Audrey opted for an odd, salty salad of cucumber, onion, hijiki (a sea vegetable) and tamari sauce. “It’s probably very good for me,” Audrey said as she pushed the salad in my direction. It looked hideous but tasted great.

I was curious about a Metsker Farms pork burger but decided to test Brown’s version of a veggie burger. It turned out to be excellent — meaty rather than doughy, with a slightly crunchy exterior — but, like most veggie burgers, it was even better dressed up, in this case with a slice of melted Kansas-made cheddar cheese and a superb organic whole-wheat bun.

Unlike the meat and cheese, though, that bun wasn’t made in Kansas. “They’re from an organic bakery in Boulder,” Brown explained. “We have great bakeries in Lawrence and Kansas City, but Rudi’s Organic Bakery had the product I wanted.”

The nearby Lawrence bakery Wheatfields probably had the kinds of desserts that I wanted, but I bravely nibbled away at Local Burger’s handmade organic sweets. Bob, Audrey and Dan liked the honey-sweetened peanut-butter balls, pecan-pie bites and chocolate-covered dates more than I did.

But at least I had an epiphany while biting into an organic peanut-butter cup: I really do prefer sweets that still have gluten, dairy and refined sugar in them.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews