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Few contentions exist that can elicit heated reactions from otherwise composed Minnesotans. We have our great sports rivalries, sure (Vikings over Packers, obviously!), and there’s always the rivalry between our great Twin Cities (Minneapolis vs. St. Paul), but one of our most contested debates boils down to a burger: the Juicy Lucy. While its origins can be a sore spot of conversation for many, the love of the legendary Twin Cities burger knows no bounds. It’s something that most of us have grown up with and it’s something that most of us would happily take to our graves.
This story centers around two distinctly different Lucys: the iconic version that made the burger famous, and one that’s a bit more personal, but embodies the Twin Cities I know and love just as much.
For the uninitiated, a Juicy Lucy (also spelled Jucy Lucy) is nothing more than a simple burger stuffed with cheese. On the surface, it might appear to be little more than an average cheeseburger, but there’s an amazing thing that happens when the cheese is set inside the beef instead of on top. The result of hot beef fat dripping onto a highly meltable cheese (American being the optimal choice here) results in a molten concoction that brings danger onto unsuspecting mouths, but immense amounts of joy to those who display patience. (The combination of hot processed cheese and beef fat is not something to be taken lightly, if you don’t like having your mouth scorched!) In fact, a warning from your server is always a good indicator as to whether a place is serious about their Lucys.
While the stories surrounding the origins of the Ju(i)cy Lucy lack many details, the consensus always falls to the fact that one of two South Minneapolis bars—Matt’s Bar or the 5-8 Club—invented this spectacle. The 5-8 Club, having originally opened in 1928 during Prohibition as a South Minneapolis speakeasy, boasts a longer physical history, but there are no details, anecdotes, or urban legends surrounding its creation, just the ongoing word of the owners. Despite being supported by little more than a claim to the throne, ravenous fans line up in support of this lush burger in droves day in and day out to pledge their allegiance.
But according to Matt’s, back in 1954, bar founder Matt Bristol was asked by a local patron to create a two-pattied burger with cheese in the middle. While it doesn’t specify whether the original customer was looking for just a double patty cheeseburger or an actual stuffed burger, the result is history. According to Matt’s, the customer took one bite of the burger, and as the molten cheese oozed out, he exclaimed: “That’s one juicy Lucy!” As the legend goes, the burger became so popular so quickly that when Matt’s added it to their menu, they forgot to add the “I,” which is how the Jucy Lucy was ultimately born.
Both burgers have been featured nationally on TV shows like Man Vs. Food, and in 2014, Time magazine named the Juicy Lucy #10 on its list of the most influential burgers of all time. Of course other worthy Lucys of note can be found at local places like The Nook or the Blue Door Pub (“Home of the Blucy”), and fans are just as loyal to those as they are to the original, but many bars and restaurants across the state tend to prominently feature them on their menus. Some offer different cheeses and others cram on additional toppings, but as is true with most things, there’s nothing better than the original. When it comes to the definitive Juicy Lucy, I look to Matt’s: Its burger is now just as it was then, and it’s truly a product of its time featuring simple ground beef and post-war era industrialized American cheese on a soft white bun. Garnished with some grilled onions and a few simple pickles, it harkens right on back to the mid-'50s-ness of its conception.
Now, How Do I Make This Beaut?
The trick to crafting the perfect Lucy is simplicity, and it doesn’t get much simpler than processed American cheese. Love it or hate it, it’s truly the right cheese for the job. Simple ground chuck with an 80/20 fat ratio ensures a moist burger that still holds together, and just like any good burger, you don’t want to overwork your meat. Too many people smash the burger into a thin patty using some kind of implement, but really the best way is to gently press and shape each patty until they’re about 1/4-inch thick and about four to five inches in diameter. This ensures your meat stays tender.
After creating your patties, you’ll want to set the cheese in the center and gently press it down into the meat. You then place your other patty over the top, and using a technique I like to call “pinch and fold,” pinch the edges until sealed and fold the pinched edges over onto itself. Press to ensure a solid seal while turning the burger and forming your patty. This method helps you shape the patty into a perfect puck-like burger instead of a thin patty with a bulge in the center, like some kind of beefy UFO. It’s important to do this because it ensures even cooking and makes it harder for your cheese to escape. Sometimes a small hole is poked at the top of the burger to allow steam to escape which helps to prevent it from exploding, but I’ve found that if you control your heat and you’ve sealed your burger well, you won’t have any problems.
Seasoning is only done after the meat has been stuffed and shaped. Do NOT season the ground beef before. The salt can start to pull moisture from the beef prematurely, resulting in a dry patty that doesn’t stay together as well. Once it’s formed, season very liberally with salt (like you would a thick steak) and a few cracks of fresh ground pepper on both sides before dropping onto a lightly oiled cast iron pan or well-seasoned flat-top. A pan that allows for extremely even heat distribution helps the burgers to develop the rich caramelized outer crust essential to any good Lucy.
The last few aspects of a good Juicy Lucy require a soft, lightly toasted bun, grilled onions, and a few pickles (either of the dill or bread-and-butter varieties). The soft bun helps to collect the beef fat and cheese drippings that release from the burger while the onions and pickles add texture, sweetness, and acidity that balance the richness of the burger. If you’re trying one for the first time, I’d highly recommend leaving it at that, but if you really insist, you can go ahead and add your mustard or ketchup.
The Other Lucy
Like I said at the beginning of this article, this is the tale of TWO Lucys. Having an understanding of what goes into the original and what makes it so special is the key to moving forward and progressing the sandwich in new and unique ways. My personal Juicy Lucy turns to fish as its primary protein. In this case, walleye, the official Minnesota state fish and quite possibly the truest of all Minnesota food items (though catfish makes a good, perhaps more accessible, substitute).
As the author of a fish cookbook and former seafood sustainability educator at the Minnesota Zoo, as well as a seafood marketing specialist, fish is my life and just as it’s a part of me, it’s also a part of Minnesota. Walleye is something that’s just as near and dear to most Minnesotans as the Juicy Lucy. In fact, while the Juicy Lucy might be the most recognizable Twin Cities sandwich to the rest of the world, locally, the crispy fried walleye sandwich might be our true treasure. And, as it should so happen, when you combine the two things, it creates a pretty outstanding sandwich and one that feels distinctly native to our state.
The basics for the Walleye Lucy aren’t all that different from the original, and only requires a bit more technique. By giving a few cold walleye fillets a couple of pulses in a food processor you get your “ground” meat. It’s important that it’s cold, because if it’s too warm it can get watery and mushy. Keeping it cold keeps the meat firm and fresh. Once you have your ground fish, you shape your patties and set in the cheese the same way you would above. After a secondary chilling to re-firm the patties, you give them a dredge in flour, an egg bath, and then a coating of panko before hitting a skillet filled with oil (or a deep fryer, if you’re so inclined). Serve it up on a bun with some tartar sauce and your mouth just got its own one-way ticket to Minneapolis.
While I’d highly recommend giving the Walleye Lucy a try, many will always remain loyal to the classic and that’s not without reason. Truth be told, the basic Juicy Lucy is a burger not to be underestimated or overlooked. While it may not do anyone any favors to deify something as simple as a burger, just as with any food item, it can give the eater a window into a culture. To know what a true Twin Cities Juicy Lucy is is to know what Minnesota is: simple, yet complex, filled with an oozing richness that just can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 4 slices of American cheese
- Salt and pepper
- Vegetable oil
- 1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
- Sliced pickle chips (bread & butter or dill)
- 4 soft hamburger buns
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 pounds walleye or catfish fillets, cut into 1” cubes
- Salt and pepper
- 4 slices of American cheese
- 2 cups panko breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 4 soft hamburger buns
- Tartar sauce
Have you tasted a Juicy Lucy before? Where? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!