The best burgers on the shore

Published 6:15 pm Friday, July 2, 2010

The cheeseburger deluxe at Roxy's is a customer favorite, stacked high with lettuce, tomato, mayo and green olives.


What is it about the hamburger?
Sure, they’re eaten year-round. Picked up at fast food drive-through windows, ordered in fancy restaurants, thrown on countless grills across the country.
They come in all shapes and sizes on all types of buns: wheat, sesame, French rolls. They’re served up with everything from french fries to fresh vegetables, coleslaw and potato salad.
There is something inherent, however, about the hamburger and summertime — coming in from the beach, sand still stuck in the sandals, toasted and tanned skin… it seems to beg for a good hamburger, something ice cold and yes, maybe even a few fries with that.
And so, when Off the Water decided to go in search of southwest Michigan’s best burger, I took the assignment seriously.
Taking into consideration several suggestions, I headed out on what was a perfect summer afternoon, not a single threatening cloud to be found, and stopped in at a handful of local eateries to taste-test a time-honored American tradition.
I know — tough job.
If your stomach is already grumbling, no worries — southwest Michigan is in no shortage of places boasting the best hamburgers in the area.
The first stop on my culinary quest was Port 412 in downtown St. Joseph. After a look through the restaurant’s menu, I didn’t want to go anywhere else to get started.
Port 412 offers an eight-ounce sirloin burger “basted with white wine and Worchestshire sauce,” served on a toasted challah roll, with greens and roma tomatoes.
From there, customers can build their burger to their own style, choosing from mozzzrella, boursin or gorgonzola cheeses, portabella muchrooms, peppered bacon and carmelized onions.
I ask the bartender for a reccomendation and she quickly suggests the boursin cheese.
Now a quick interjection.
I wouldn’t classify myself as a professional foodie, but I’d definitely consider myself an amatuer with promise. However, I’ve not heard nor tried boursin cheese before, so I go with it.
I want to hug the bartender for bringing me my plate and introducing me to this boursin cheese. It is soft, nutty, creamy and garlicky and it smothers the sandwich without running off at the ends and creating a mess.
“You should have come to us last,” she said, “so you’d remember our burger.”
Everything about Port 412’s hamburger is amazing. The toasted challa roll is buttery and thick enough to catch the juices I can see running out of the meat when I cut it in half.
The burger itself is cooked just right and flavorful. I don’t even need the ketchup or the mustard the bartender has brought to the table.
Ambiance is just as important to any food as the flavor itself, so I can’t help but gage the eateries as I go to them. As for Port 412, the restaurant is definitely an escape from the beach. Located just off the center of downtown, where the traffic is at its busiest, with within walking distance from the shore, inside dark wood and warm lighting is like taking a step into the shade. It’s a comfortable mood. On this afternoon a group has gathered at the bar and upstairs at the restaurant’s second level to watch the U.S.A. men’s soccer team compete for the World Cup, and it’s easy to see that the idea is class-meets-comfort.
With one contender under my belt, I head up the road to the next. Roxy’s Hamburgers came with buzz. Friends and coworkers and friends of coworkers threw the restaurant’s name out when it came to the best burger.
And one thing is for sure, for Roxy’s a hamburger is more than just an item on the menu. It’s a tradition.
The car hop is brightly colored and it’s an obvious local treasure.
Sitting in a corner booth in pure 50s and 60s style, with table-side juke boxes and framed portraits of Elvis Presley, James Dean, Shirley Temple, Betty Boop and Lucille Ball, neon lights shine over a black- and white-checkered floor and the music is classic, “Hello Dolly” by Louis Armstrong, “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors, “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry.
Some might pass right on by, chalking the place up to a run-of-the-mill roadside diner. But locals and seasoned visitors know better.
I again ask for a recommendation and get the Roxy’s Deluxe with cheese. Rumor has it green olives are pretty much the standard on these hamburgers, though a regular can be ordered without them. Unwrapping the sandwich from its paper jacket, Roxy’s burgers are stacked high and taste good. Though I’ve never been quite a fan of olives on a hamburger before, this one changes my mind.
For good ol’ hamburger aficionados, the bun is high on top but you can see it soft and catching the juices at the bottom, something some fans say is paramount to a good eat.
Lettuce and olives are put on, obviously, just prior to serving and are still cool and crisp, adding just the right elements to finish off the sandwich. I’m also not a mayo fan but somehow it’s not overwhelming for Roxy’s burgers. As I take a bite, I hear a man come in through the door and tell the young girl taking his order that he doesn’t get into town that often but he never misses a stop at the restaurant when he makes his way through.
Probably not a surprise, the next stop is Redamak’s Tavern in New Buffalo, whose sign boasts the best burgers in southwest Michigan.
“The hamburger that made New Buffalo famous,” to be exact.
Rumor has it this place is always busy and on a Saturday evening, just around dinner time, it couldn’t be busier. I snag a table and tell my waitress about my quest.
The restaurant is celebrating its 35th year in business serving up “legendary” hamburgers. The waitress brings me a classic cheese burger — and I can see right away what the buzz is about.
Smaller in scale than both the Port 412 and the Roxy burgers, Redamak’s cheeseburger still looks mouthwatering and obviously a freshly made burger.
What’s striking is the cheese: thickly cut slices of American sit between the burger and the bun melted to absolute, creamy perfection.
The restaurant does not serve lettuce or tomato on its burgers, so don’t ask. Everything consists of ketchup, mustard and onion.
The onion is a full, freshly cut raw slice, a layer between the bottom of the bun and the burger — giving it the perfect crunch and the perfect flavor.
I can see why these burgers are famous — and suspect they are also highly addictive. At the end of the night, when I’ve tasted enough hamburger to last me quite some time and stack my leftovers in the fridge, against all better health and judgement, I still want another one of these.
Next up is Carlson’s Drive-In in Michigan City. The drive-in has been around since 1955 when the original owners, who bought the place in 1947, re-opened the facility as a drive-in with an added allure — the place makes its own root beer, cream soda and diet root beer in-house.
And it’s darn good root beer.
The hamburgers are ground fresh daily, said owner John Hermann, by the same local butcher Carlson’s been using for decades.
Pull into any one of Carlson’s parking spots and quite quickly one of their waitresses will come up to take your order. The restaurant employs around 50 people, Hermann said.
I get down to business.
Carlson’s hamburger is the closest to what we recognize as a fast food hamburger — small and thin in scale with ketchup, mustard and onion, but its fresh taste just adds to the authenticity of the drive-in model.
And it’s best with a root beer float.
Last — but certainly not least — I tried the Fitz Burger at Fitzgerald’s in Sawyer. The half-pound angus sirloin burger comes on a thick roll and is designed to be dressed up by the eater. I order mine with caramelized onion and cheddar cheese. The onions are red, giving an interesting purple color to the dish, and the meat is cooked to order —  tender and not overdone.
But the onions have a more potent scent than they do taste and even without condiments the flavor doesn’t quite match the appearance — which was enticing indeed.
With a full stomach, I was left with a decision to be made. Without further adieu — here it is:
You never forget your first love.
Port 412’s eight-ounce sirloin is No. 1 on my list — with the boursin cheese, of course, followed by Redamak’s original, Roxy’s cheeseburger deluxe, Carlson’s regular hamburger and Fitzgerald’s Fitz Burger.
These five restaurants were just a handful picked from and endless list of fully reputable restaurants, so no matter how much you like your burger — head out and try one for yourself.

The contenders:

Port 412
The 8 oz. Sirloin
Suggested with:
Stella draft and the Thai coleslaw

412 State St.
Saint Joseph, Mich.
(269) 982-0412

Roxy’s Hamburger
Cheeseburger Deluxe
Suggested with: milkshake

2629 Cleveland Ave.
Saint Joseph, Mich.
(269) 983-1172

Hamburger with everything
Suggested with: you don’t really need anything with this one — it’s that good. But they have some very tasty sounding milkshakes — the perfect combo for coming back from the beach.

616 East Buffalo St.
New Buffalo, Mich.
(269) 469-4522

Carlson’s Drive-In
Classic hamburger with everything
Suggested with: Root beer float. (Though the diet root beer is so good, that’ll work too.)

118 West Coolspring Ave.
Michigan City, Ind.
(219) 872-0331

Fitz Burger with caramelized onions and cheddar
Suggested with: Fitz fresh fries

5875 Sawyer Rd.
Sawyer, Mich.
(269) 426-3489