It’s Saturday morning and Mitch, Sarah, Toby and Larissa Hoelmer are sitting at a Sharp Corner Tavern table talking about hamburgers. But not just any hamburger. They’re talking about a hamburger that defies age. Mitch started flipping these burgers in 1976, when they were called “Herbie Burgers,” named after the previous owner Herb Meuller. They have defied that earlier time and moved roundly into the 21st century, much to the delight of two new generations. That’s what makes this burger so special. It harkens back to an earlier time, riding on the coat tails of White Castle and McDonalds popularity, but exhibiting a personality all its own. But first things, first.
The German Frikadelle
Who would have thought that Herbie Burgers came from a long lineage of burgers that were first made as raw ground meat, mashed and “cooked” beneath the friction of saddles and riders of Genghis Khan’s warriors in Mongolia? It looked more like what we’d call steak tartare, today and one can only wonder how it tasted. Then, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia says Russian ships brought recipes for steak tartare to the port of Hamburg during the 17th century. The city states of what is now Germany took to this ground meat product and created many of their own dishes by adding capers, onions and even caviar to the blend and selling it on the streets.
Fast forward a bit to the late 17th century and the city of Hamburg as well as other towns in northern Germany were serving something called the “Hamburg steak” or “Frikadelle.” This was a fillet of beef that was minced by hand (there were no grinders), lightly salted and smoked, usually served raw in a dish with onions and bread crumbs.
In the mid-1800’s New York City was the most common destination for ships traveling from Hamburg and various restaurants in the city began offering the Hamburg-style steak in order to attract German sailors. The steak frequently appeared on the menu as a Hamburg-style American fillet—or beefsteak a Hambourgeoise.
It is still sold in Germany today and looks similar to a meatball, or a pre-hamburger patty in the making.
No one really knows who “invented” the hamburger, but the claims fall between the years of 1885 and 1904.
“During this time, another version of the creation of the hamburger is that of German cook Otto Kuasw, who created a very popular sailor’s sandwich made of a fillet of beef patty fried in butter, served with a fried egg, between two toasted buns in 1891, at a post in Hamburg, Germany. The sandwich was called the “Deutsches Beefsteak.” Many of the sailors traveling on ships between Hamburg and New York requested a similar “Hamburg style” sandwich at American steakhouses.”
The Sharp Corner burger
That brings us up to Herb Mueller’s Herbie Burgers and what is now the Sharp Corner hamburger, actually one-in-the-same.
“The kids would come after school to eat burgers after basketball and volleyball games,” says Mitch. “Back then, parents didn’t think anything of letting their kids come into the bar to eat hamburgers. We still let the kids come in.”
Mitch refers to his hamburgers as “a bar burger that’s bigger than a slider.”
“They’re a fifth of a pound burger,” he says.
The meat is ground fresh every day at Sav-a-Lot Grocery—usually a 80-20 mix of lean beef to fat. Expert chefs say this mixture gives you the juiciest, most flavorful burger.
The patties are still made the old-fashioned 1950’s way with a scoop and a hamburger press.
Mitch and Toby say they’ll fry 200 burgers a day on their gas grill in the back. There’s nothing fancy about the old cast iron grill—“it’s just hi or low (settings),” says Mitch, but Toby thinks the grill has something to do with the Sharp Corner burger flavor.
With a bar burger, you might think there is little room for customer choice in the way the burger is cooked. Not so, says Toby.
“A lot of locals like theirs rare,” he says.
“One guy used to come in here and say ‘slap it on, flip it over and take it off,’” laughs Sarah. “Gross!”
Choice, but tradition
“When Herbie had it, you had a hamburger or cheeseburger and you got pickle and fresh diced onions on it whether you liked it or not,” shared Mitch.
“We give them a choice nowadays,” added Toby.
For example, if you want a cheeseburger you can have American, hot pepper or Swiss cheese. You can also get a double burger and a bacon cheeseburger, but the cooking process hasn’t changed.
“You put the hamburger on, flip it over and put the pickles and onion on it—that’s the way we do it,” explained Mitch. “We grill it with the onions on top of the hamburger.”
If it’s a cheeseburger, once the patty is flipped, that’s when the cheese goes on the burger. At this time also, salt and pepper are added. When it’s ready, the patty goes on the bun and it’s wrapped in deli paper.
“If you don’t wrap the burger in paper, it loses the flavor,” cautions Mitch. “Don’t ask me why, but it doesn’t seem like it steams the flavor into it [without the paper].”
Sharp Corner is a family affair. Toby says he cooked his first burger when he was seven or eight years old and Larissa, who’s in the eighth-grade, helps her parents with busing tables and taking orders.
“I raised four kids in here,” says Toby.
“He (Mitch) put me on a chair [at the grill] and taught me how to do it so he didn’t have to mess with it,” joked Toby.
He can’t tell you how many Sharp Corner burgers he’s cooked on the old grill, but one thing’s for certain. If it comes off that grill, you can be sure you’re getting the one-and-only, original Sharp Corner burger that you can’t get anywhere else, but in the place where it originated.