Melted Perfection

06.22.14

The Real Cheeseburger Paradise

Connecticut may not be the first spot that comes to mind when thinking of the perfect burger, but that all changes once you try the glorious, cheesy creation from Shady Glen.

Connecticut is rightfully famous for being the birthplace of the hot lobster roll and is widely known as the home of great pizza. To those triumphs, we add a less-appreciated honor. Connecticut is cheeseburger paradise. Nowhere else are beef and cheese combined on buns in so many fantastic ways.

In the center of the state, a ten-mile strip between Middletown and Meriden is home to several hash houses equipped with steam cabinets in which portions of ground beef and blocks of cheddar cheese are separately vapor-cooked in small metal tins. The moist rectangle of cooked meat and molten blob of cheese are then layered in a hard roll. The result is the "steamed cheeseburger"—an oozing package of unspeakable succulence that actually dates back to the 1920s, when steaming was the health-food panacea of the moment. (Steamers are, we must advise, an acquired taste. At their worst, they have all the appeal of a soggy sponge; but at their best, they are all juiciness and flavor.)

The shining beacon of Connecticut's high cheeseburger consciousness is just west of Hartford at a mid-20th century dairy bar named Shady Glen. Here you will find some of the most outlandish, eye-boggling cheeseburgers on earth (the only other burger that comes close is the Squeezeburger of the Squeeze Inn in Sacramento, California).

There's no secret to how Shady Glen cheeseburgers are made. You can sit at the counter, slurp a superb milk shake, and watch the action. On a high-temperature electric grill, a modest-size patty of fairly lean beef (90%) is cooked on one side and flipped. It is then blanketed with four square slices of bright orange cheese. The cheese is arranged so that only about one-quarter of each slice rests atop the hamburger. The rest that extends beyond the circumference of the meat quickly melts down onto the surface of the flattop. At the precise moment when the grilling cheese begins to transform from molten to crisp, the cook uses a spatula to disengage it from the hot iron and curl it above the meat like pliant arches on some fantastic imperial burger crown. The folded-up petals of cheese, which may be topped with condiments and somewhat awkwardly crowned by a bun, are crunchy at their tips, chewy just below, and creamy-soft where they melt into the surface of the hamburger.

Shady Glen uses unremarkable American cheese and choice beef that anyone can buy at the market. But creating spectacular cheeseburgers is no job for dilettantes. It requires a finely honed sense of timing and a griddle that has been seasoned just right. We have tried it innumerable times at home, usually winding up with smelly burnt cheeseburgers and cast iron frying pans that need to be vigorously scrubbed to clean off the stuck-on cheese.

"This is not about flipping hamburgers," says William J. Hoch, who started working here as a child in 1954 and now owns the place. "It requires an education to make a cheeseburger as we do. You must train your eyes to know when the cheese is ready, and you need a sure and steady hand to curl it."

Shady Glen's formula for perfection was developed by the late Bernice Reig, who, with her husband John, opened Shady Glen in 1948 as an ice cream parlor adjacent to their dairy farm. The ice cream remains reason enough to detour off I-84 for a visit to this mid-20th century gem. Fresh and innocent—and not the least bit like fattier boutique brands—it lends itself perfectly to shakes, sodas, floats, and sundaes. Plus, it comes in all sorts of interesting regional and seasonal flavors: Grape-nuts (a New England passion), autumn pumpkin, February cherry-chocolate chip, holiday eggnog.

In winter months, not as many people go out for ice cream, so early on, the Riegs decided to put something on the menu that would attract customers year-round. After much experimentation, Bernice perfected the creation that would become Shady Glen's signature, even more than its excellent ice cream. Old timers still call it the "Bernice Original."

The Reigs at one time opened another dairy bar in Manchester (it is now closed), but never considered expanding beyond that. "Bernice Reig was always too much of a perfectionist to allow a franchised store out of her control," Mr. Hoch told us. "You cannot make perfect cheeseburgers from the golf course or from a back-room office. You can make them only if you are standing at the grill."

Shady Glen: 840 Middle Turnpike E., Manchester, CT. 860-649-4245