When I lived in New York City, the world of burgers opened up to me in unexpected ways. I fell in love with the Cafe 112 burger on the Upper West Side—beef ground on the premises, mixed with red wine and parsley, formed into thick patties, served on a bun whose top had an egg wash. Then there was the nearby West End burger, and the burger from the Corner Bistro in Greenwich Village. They were large, fell apart, and their liquid ran down my forearms. One night I watched a guy, Phil Winn, pile his West End burger with condiments, take a serrated knife and cut it in half. Cutting, he said, made it easier to eat. I started slicing and never looked back.
Now nearly everyone I know, upon the arrival of the burger, immediately dresses it, then cuts it in half. It is the necessary, subtle acknowledgment that no responsible human should really be eating a giant slab-of-meat sandwich.
Enter the miniburger, which can be found all over Seattle: the Satellite Lounge, the Celtic Swell, Cascadia, Maritime Pacific Brewery, Denny's. There's something inherently appealing about miniature anything—most people with a heart have pointed to a small object (a young animal, a baby's foot) and said, "That is so cute I just want to eat it"—and there's no arguing with the portable, straightforward coupling of protein and starch. The miniburger and its Chinese brother, hum bao, have the universally delicious "spiced meat inside a toothsome shell" formula down. (Shout-outs as well to the samosa, the knish, the tamale, the piroshki.) Miniburgers also make beef accessible to those who approach flesh with hesitancy. A part-time carnivore I know explains: "It seems less brutal somehow; a cow didn't necessarily die to make my miniburger. It could have survived—two miniburgers amounts to less than a leg, right?"
Of course, responsible discussion of miniburgers requires mention of East Coast fast-food franchise White Castle. Before the miniburger of today, there was the original: gray meat square, steamed in stacks on poles (hence the holes in the patty) with onions, served on a damp sweet bun. I recently discovered White Castle burgers in the frozen section of my QFC ($5.49 for a box of six) and ate nine in two days. My microwaved burgers tasted exactly like those served fresh in New Jersey: delightful.
Frozen miniburgers are fine for private dining in your pajamas, but for a more luxurious experience, head directly to Cascadia, the Belltown mainstay where miniburgers are given the red-carpet treatment. The vintage Mini Cooper parked out front—with "MINIBURGERS" painted on the side—makes priorities clear. During happy hour (Monday–Friday 5:00–7:00 p.m.), a basic burger made of hanger steak will cost you $1, and a cheeseburger with white Vermont cheddar cheese is a mere $1.50. Happy hour at Cascadia is a compelling argument for the existence of a merciful god. For two minutes, you eat the way you have been manipulated into thinking only those who make more money than you eat. You are a person who takes taxis everywhere without a second thought and gets eight weeks of vacation a year to travel to your own island in the South Pacific.
Uncompromisingly fresh, the Cascadia miniburger is grilled dark and charred on the outside, but served rare, its insides perfectly pink. When it arrives, you hear juices bubbling within the patty, cooking the burger as you ogle it. The basic accompaniments are nothing special and it does not matter. What matters is the beef—pure, unadulterated. It tastes like sustenance, solidity, the stuff of which we can only wish we were made.
A simple miniburger is a beautiful thing, but for a few extra dollars, you can add a variety of toppings and condiments, including barbecued lobster, homemade mayonnaise, and crisp Italian pancetta (which, when added to the mini cheeseburger, results in the smallest, fanciest, saltiest bacon cheeseburger imaginable). I opted for black-truffle butter. When my burger arrived, some of the butter was liquid and dripping, some still solid, and I watched rivulets of earth-scented fat mingle with animal fat. I took one bite, put the miniburger down and said, "I'm not sure I deserve to eat anything that tastes this good." I ate three.