She wasn’t your typical grandmother.
Grandma Fern was an Auntie Mame, see-the-world type, the kind of grandmother who would take you to a piano bar or teach you how to play blackjack. Her exuberant personality matched the bustling energy of Pie ’n Burger, the cool restaurant in Pasadena, Calif., where she would take her grandson Michael Osborn, when he was a child in the 1960s.
Now, decades later, Mr. Osborn owns the restaurant.
“For a lot of people, it’s like home,” he said of his 35-seat establishment.
One item on the menu, the hamburger steak plate, has been served for as long as Mr. Osborn can remember. But the dish is a bit of a relic — more common on diner menus decades ago — and these days, it can be hard to find.
At Pie ’n Burger, it’s a half-pound of prime ground beef that’s formed into a patty, then cooked on a flat griddle. The plate comes with a salad and hash browns made from potatoes steamed in-house, plus a buttered and toasted bun. Mr. Osborn’s diners treat the patty like a steak, eating it with a knife and a fork and adding Worcestershire sauce, Heinz 57 or ketchup for seasoning.
Americans today might ask: Why would anyone order this over a regular bunned hamburger, or even a steak?
“Sometimes at night, people want something other than a sandwich or a burger,” Mr. Osborn explained, adding that the burger plate is “a lot more cost effective for a customer than a steak.”
Today, Mr. Osborn sells far fewer hamburger steaks than he does the traditional burgers for which his restaurant is known. But he recalls a time, during the heyday of the Atkins diet, when the hamburger steak was all the rage.
The history of these patties stretches back even further. In the late 19th century, German immigrants to the United States brought with them Hamburg steak, a round of minced seasoned beef. It was later called hamburger steak and became a popular item at American restaurants and lunch counters.
During World War I, “hamburger steak” became “Salisbury steak,” part of an effort to curb the use of German loanwords, according to H.L. Mencken, the scholar of American English. The name nodded to Dr. James Henry Salisbury, who famously recommended eating this dish three times a day (for health reasons). Now, it usually comes in a brown gravy, sometimes lacy with onions.
This recipe, inspired by Salisbury steak, German Hamburg steak and other patties of the world, including Danish frikadeller, Japanese hambagu and Korean hambak steak, flavors a patty of ground beef with Worcestershire sauce, nutmeg and grated onion, which keeps the meat moist. The rest is mere assembly, arranging fresh, crunchy accouterments — tomatoes, onions and pickles — to accompany the tender patties.
Though, of course, you could sandwich all of these ingredients between bread, eating them separately lets you appreciate each part — a chance to truly relish what makes a burger great.
Recipe: Burger Plate