Foundational Foods: The Lüke Burger at Lüke New Orleans

At some point, we all outgrow McDonald’s.  The burger that comes with a Happy Meal is often the first foray in to burgerdom.  Sure, there might be a home cooked burger in there somewhere, but McDonald’s is usually that gateway drug.  This is not a knock on McDonald’s.  They put out a product that adults still crave, hopefully in moderation, to take them back to their childhood, to something that reminds them of lunches with grandma or after a tee ball game win.

Eventually everyone grows up and their taste changes.  They get burgers from other non-fast food establishments, like an Applebee’s or Chili’s, but have not yet crossed over into that realm of top tier burgers nor, if outside a big city or California, have they tasted In n Out or Shake Shack.  All of this to say, the burger is a constant in the life of most people.  It’s a classic and to have a great burger is a simple pleasure.  When a burger is bad, it can be completely deflating.  When a burger is great, it can be a milestone moment.  Even vegetarians and vegans are eating burgers that tastes (supposedly)_and bleeds like meat.  And for me, the perfect burger that came at the perfect time is the Lüke Burger.

In April of 2011, Folk/Americana rock was about to reach its peak.  Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers had just performed at the Grammy Awards the month prior both solo and together with Bob Dylan.  The latest album out for both bands were some of their biggest of their careers (Sigh No More and I and Love And You respectively).  And months before this, both had been booked to play back to back sets in New Orleans at Jazzfest.  Being at a point in my life where I could go to Jazzfest with little to no consequence.  Being a Bonnaroo veteran (more stories for another day) and having never been to New Orleans before, I and some of my friends booked tickets and off we went.

While Jazzfest was the main reason we were going, I also had selfish food reasons.  For those of you who have been hiding under rocks, they have great food in New Orleans.  We landed at the airport on a Friday morning with the bands playing later that evening.  After breakfast and beignets around 10 AM, we explored the city, went back to the hotel to change, and headed off to Jazzfest around 1 PM.  Jazzfest was hot, crowded, and wonderful.  The bands were as good as you expect them to be and we even had a Jake Gyllenhaal sighting.  The one issue was that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  The vendors inside the festival grounds shut down before the bands stopped playing.  When we finally made our way out and to the buses to take us back downtown, it was close to 7 PM.

The excitement of the concert had kept our hunger to a minimum…until we got back to the hotel and changed.  At that point, we all turned into ravenous beasts.  We looked for a good restaurant we could walk to.  Being located in the French Quarter, we had many options.  After consulting a few sources, we decided to try Lüke.  Lüke is a brasserie style restaurant owned by Chef John Besh.  Chef Besh is a bastion of New Orleans cuisine and heritage so we knew that it was quality.  Upon arriving, the wait was something extraordinary long like an hour and a half or two hours.  We decided to wait it out since it was Jazzfest and most things with decent food would have been just as busy.  But the longer we waited, the more our hunger grew.  Finally, once we were called for our table it was around 10 PM, twelve hours since our last meal.

I don’t remember what entrees I was vacillating between, but I do remember it was a hard choice.  Since we were so hungry, there were orders of a flammenkuchen (onion tart), crawfish bisque, and salad as appetizers, or more probably, something to eat so we wouldn’t kill someone for food.  I remember those dishes being extremely tasty, with the flammenkuchen being the standout.  But that’s not what made this meal memorable.  What makes me remember this meal and still talk about it to this day, to the point where all I have to say is “The Burger” and people who were there know exactly what I’m talking about was, obviously, The Lüke Burger.

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The burger was comprised of Benton’s bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, Emmenthaler cheese, and caramelized onions, all on an onion roll.  When I bit into this, everything I had thought about burgers changed.  This was not a well done patty like I had been used to having.  It was medium-rare to medium and seasoned incredibly heavily.  The salt and beef flavors mingled in your mouth and oozed down your chin.  I had never tasted a burger or ground meat this beefy before.  It was juicy and unctuous.  All of the flavors played together exquisitely, allowing each to shine through, but working in perfect harmony with each other.

This set the standard for every burger from that point forward and I have yet to have one that beats it.  I do realize that my circumstances at the time contribute to my elevation of The Burger, but outside of those circumstances I would guess that it’s still a darn good burger.  The Lüke Burger isn’t the “perfect burger”, nor will it probably ever be named the best burger in the world or even the United States.  But for me, on that day, at that time, it was the perfect burger.  It still sets the standard, for me at least, for what a burger can aspire to be.

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