The steamed cheeseburger is one of the most geographically focused of all Roadfood specialties. It is available within a twenty-five mile radius of Middletown in central Connecticut, where a handful of restaurants make and serve it. Fifty miles away in Connecticut, or anywhere else on earth, it is almost unknown.
A steamed cheeseburger is cooked not on a grill or grate, but in a steam cabinet, the meat held inside a squarish stainless steel tin as it browns but does not sizzle. Adjacent to the cooking beef patties in the steam cabinet are tins into which are placed small blocks of cheddar cheese. The effect of the steam on the cheese is to make it molten. The concept of steaming meat and cheese was supposedly devised in the 1920s, when steaming food was considered more healthy than frying it. Local historians credit Jack’s Diner as source of the first steamed cheeseburgers. They say Jack’s began as a horse-drawn eats-cart out of which Jack served steamed cheese sandwiches to local construction works. When the men wanted a more substantial, he added beef to the steam box and the steamed cheeseburger was born.
Jack’s is long gone, but at Ted’s in Meriden, you can eat a steamed cheeseburger made to perfection. A steamer is assembled by putting a steamed rectangular patty onto the bottom of a hard roll, then using a spoon or spatula to slide a big gob of partially melted cheese out of the steel tin onto the top of the burger. Into the bun go lettuce and tomato and, preferably, mustard; and you’ve got one heck of a messy but delicious cheeseburger.
Ted’s is a tiny place with four booths, but the best place to sit is at the counter. Here you have a view of the bin of chopped meat from which fistfuls are retrieved for the burger boxes as well as a pile of hard rolls and big blocks of cheese ready to be melted.
I usually pass this way very early or very late, so I was happy to find myself in Meriden at lunch time. I know there are mixed reviews of Ted’s, but I love it.
The burger is flavorful and juicy. The cheese also has a lot of flavor, unlike the wax-like cheese in some places, and the toppings, such as lettuce, tomato, and onion, are fresh and of good quality. Even the roll is a beefier variety to help withstand the rigors of holding a juicy steamed burger. This, in my mind, is one of the best burgers around. I also had some home fries, which were a bit bland… but hey… I didn’t come to Ted’s for potatoes!