After loading up the bus and introductions by Michael Stern, we departed for Meriden and the first official stop, the Lunch Box (Roadfood.com review). When we first heard that a steamed cheeseburger stop was on the tour, I thought for sure it would be Ted’s. Even though it’s not my personal favorite, Ted’s seems to get most of the national press because it was the first eatery to offer steamed cheeseburgers. In recent years, however, Ted’s has been surpassed both in flavor and quality by the Lunch Box, and you could bet that owner Anita Dufresne and her staff would be ready for us. The first wave of hungry Roadfooders filed in and occupied every counter seat, so we stayed outside to chat with new friends and old.
Amy: While Chris performed his mayorial duties outside, I snuck inside and saddled up to the counter behind the eating legends: Buffetbuster, Cousin Johnny, and ChiTownDiner. I knew with Greg ordering there would be plenty of food to go around, and of course there was. Although I had tried (and very much enjoyed!) the steamed cheeseburger on a previous visit, the steamed cheeseburger omelet was an entity unknown to me. As I watched the cook pour a hefty ladle of melted cheese over the multi-egg monstrosity, I knew that this was going to be a one-biter. Their cheese is definitely some of the best around, but man is it rich!
Chris: When Amy finally waved me inside, I noticed that ChiTownDiner, Buffetbuster & crew had stalled on polishing off their platter-sized steamed cheeseburger omelet. The tangy cheese was so rich that, like Amy, I could only eat one bite! The burger, of course, with bacon and cheese was a-m-a-z-i-n-g. The meat was so juicy and tender, almost crumbling between my fingers, and the mantle of cheese that held it together was sharp and gooey.
Bruce: The Lunch Box was a hurly-burly madhouse, and loads of fun.
This first stop set the tone for the entire tour, in that the owners were clearly thrilled to be hosting us. Their enthusiasm and good spirits played a big part in the overall success of the Roadfood tour. The first thing to show up near us was the infamous steamed cheeseburger omelet:
Yes, it is ultra-rich and cheesy, but the cheese is good and sharp. I only had a forkful, because it was someone else's food, but I loved it and, under different circumstances, would have no difficulty polishing it off. Next came a straight steamed cheeseburger:
This is good cheddar, but it's easy to detect, even visually, a problem here: the cheese is over-steamed, with the result that it separates and clumps up in granular clods. Maybe this happened because they were slammed, or maybe it has to do with the cheese they're using, but we found it to be the case with everything we tried. I still loved it, because of the flavor, but other folks I was with didn't find it very appealing. Next came a steamed cheeseburger prepared Military Style (how that name originated, I haven't a clue, but it comes with the works and then some):
If you love over-the-top amalgams like this, as I do, you will love Military Style. For me, the highlights were the bacon (of course), the fried onions, and the hot jalapenos. Now that's breakfast! See the burger? Of course not, neither do I. Truth is, this would have been just as good sans beef. And therein lies my second problem.
Allow me to digress a moment. Everyone who has ever been to Bobcat Bite in New Mexico has pronounced it to be the best green chile cheeseburger they have ever had. Notice I didn't use the word consensus. The decision is apparently unanimous, especially here at Roadfood (see the Roadfood.com review). Why? Because it IS one of the very best burgers in the country. It would be awfully difficult to argue that point.
But feelings about Bobcat Bite are not really unanimous, because I am a dissenter. So who do I think makes a better GCCB than Bobcat Bite? Almost everyone! I know, heresy, but allow me to explain myself. The burger at Bobcat is wonderful, and it would be just as good without the green chile. It's for burger lovers; the chile, while good, is a condiment. For me, that defeats the whole point of a GCCB. The two should play an equal role - no, correct that, the green chile is more important, because great green chile on an indifferent beef patty is still a great GCCB.
And that is my problem with The Lunch Box. Granted, the food is good, the people are wonderful, the atmosphere is Roadfood... but it's barely a steamed cheeseburger. Yes, the meat is steamed, but between the small burger, the good, sharp cheese, and all the toppings (if you get them, but even if you don't), you can't really tell how the burger was cooked. Could have been grilled, microwaved, or cooked on the flattop, for all it contributes to the overall effect.
It's been a few years since we've been to Ted's, and there's a lot of Internet chatter about Ted's having lost some of its luster lately. Perhaps. But based on my memory of Ted's the way it was, there is no comparison. With Ted's, you knew you were eating a steamed cheeseburger (and a piece of history), with all its unique and quirky qualities. It may not have ever been a great burger but, for better or worse, you left with an appreciation for what a steamed cheeseburger is all about. The Lunch Box burger is good, but it ain't a steamed cheeseburger.
End of sermon.