Eat Like a Local
Ever since I watched the Hartford episode of Man v. Food a number of years ago, I longed for the day when I would get a chance to try Ted's steamed cheeseburgers and Woody's signature foot-long hot dog, the Deputy Dog. I'm happy to say I can now cross both of those off my food bucket list.
Steamed cheeseburgers? Yuuuuuup. These burgers are quite different from White Castle's "steam grilled" sliders, which are first grilled on a flat top and then steamed on top of a bed of onions. Ted's burgers are completely steamed from start to finish -- no other cooking method is used. And oh yeah, the cheese is steamed too. Crazy, right?
Apparently, the steamed cheeseburger is a regional speciality of central Connecticut, and there are only a literal handful of restaurants that make and sell them. Ted's in Meriden, CT (about 25 minutes north of New Haven) is arguably the most well known. Ted's uses small, rectangular, metal trays to hold individual beef patties as well as blocks of white chedar cheese. The patty and cheese trays are placed in little stainless-steel cabinets where they are steamed until the meat is juicy and the cheese is completely melted and gooey. Ted's expert burger constructionists (i.e., the 19-year-olds they hire as cooks) quickly lift the patties out of the trays and onto awaiting bottom buns, then hold the cheese trays over the burgers and give them a scrape, allowing the cheddar to flow like a river and completely cover and envelope each patty.
You really have to see the whole process in action to appreciate how unique it is, so watch this clip of Man v. Food, starting at 6:27. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Pretty cool, huh? Kinda makes you wonder if it's totally gross or totally awesome. Either way, the hubby and I were determined to experience this local delicacy now that we were once again living in Connecticut.
The drive up was beautiful -- it was a perfect New England fall day, and there was still some amazing foliage to be seen.
We parked across the street from Ted's, snapped a few pictures like excited tourists, and headed inside. As you can see from the Man v. Food clip, Ted's is a small place -- there's mostly counter seating with a few booths along the other wall.
And look! There they are -- the steam cabinets! (You can actually buy your own steamed cheeseburger chest online for the mere asking price of $329. Or put one on your holiday wish list...)
We ordered a steamed cheeseburger (sans toppings, just bread, meat, and cheese, so we could really taste the flavors of the cheeseburger) and a side of home fries. While Hubby waited for the food, I promptly positioned myself in front of the cooking area to watch our young chef in action. He actually moved with such lightning speed that it was nearly impossible to snap a usable photo of him assembling a burger. The best I could do is this shot of him about to pour the molten cheese glob over the burger:
Our food came out super fast and piping hot. I have to say that the home fries were disappointing. Nicely cooked with a decent sear and some crispy edges, but woefully underseasoned (or unseasoned -- I really couldn't taste any salt) and a bit on the greasy side. Blech.
The burger was much tastier. Super juicy-drippy, as advertised, with an absolutely velvety layer of cheddar cheese that added great flavor to the beef. The cheese is definitely what makes the whole burger, and thank goodness there's lots of it.
My only gripe about the burger is that the patty, while nice and thick, is way too small for the gigantic Vienna roll that Ted's uses, so the meat is just not evenly distributed across the bun. Luckily, there is more than enough cheese to cover the extra bread. Cheese to the rescue!
So was it the best burger I've ever had? I can't say yes, but was it worth $5.25 and a 25-minute drive to try an interesting variant of a burger that can only be found in central Connecticut? Absolutely. And for what it's worth, Food and Wine named Ted's steamed cheeseburger one of the "Best Burgers in the U.S." Hubby said he definitely wants to go back to try some of Ted's specialty steamed cheeseburgers -- like "The Southwestern," a steamed cheeseburger with chipotle ranch dressing, fried onion strings, sauteed mushrooms, and bacon -- and I'll be happy to accompany him, perhaps with a Martin's potato roll in my purse for my own burger. (The can't kick me out for that, can they?)
Stop #2 on our afternoon of culinary exploration was another Connecticut institution - Woody's, up in Hartford.
As a Chicagoan, I have a special place in my heart for hot dogs (Portillo's, I miss you!), so I was looking forward to our trip to Woody's even more than our trip to Ted's. As you can see in the Man v. Food clip (from 1:20 to 4:12), Woody's is famous for serving foot-long, all beef hot dogs with creative topping combinations -- like the Deputy Dog, topped with tender BBQ pulled pork and cheddar cheese.
A large dry-erase board positioned near the entrance stands ready to introduce you to the rest of "Woody's Posse." The Dog Father, with peppers, mozzarella, and marinara sauce. The Philly Dog, with grilled onions, peppers, and cheese. And so on and so forth.
The interior of Woody's is what you want out of a casual hot dog joint - colorful, kitchy, and fun. There's lots of sports paraphernalia (particularly for the Hartford Whalers, the Red Sox, and the Miami Dolphins), Superman-themed knick-knacks, and a million other little tchotchkes all over the place.
There's more than hot dogs on the menu, but why else would you come here? My better half and I already knew we were getting a Deputy Dog, and for our second encased meat masterpiece, we opted for the Mac Daddy dog, topped with mac and cheese and bacon ($5 each, *cash only). And just for good measure, we asked Woody (real name: Gary Wood) to throw in a side of seasoned curly fries. I felt eight years old again.
The hot dogs totally lived up to the hype. Both were amazing, but my favorite was actually the Mac Daddy (messy though it was). The toppings worked so harmoniously with the hot dog, and the thin slices of bacon had reached that perfect point of chewy-crispiness. Unlike the home fries at Ted's, the curly fries at Woody's were not a disappointment. Delicious. Just exactly what you want out of curly fries.
I have to say, I'm generally a fan of steamed buns with hot dogs (the Chicago way!), but the buttered and toasted buns at Woody's won me over. They added great texture, held up to the weight of their contents, and tasted like buttered Texas toast.
If you're looking to experience a bit more of Connecticut than what New Haven and its immediate surroundings have to offer, I'd highly recommend trying some of these local specialties (and maybe running a few extra miles the next day). And while you're in the Hartford area, you might as well hit up Modern Pastry Shop for some of the greatest cannoli on the planet. Not that that's what we did....<look of shame>
Hey, it's all in the name of research for the 203 Blog, right? What can I say, I'm just that dedicated....