After my whirlwind trip to New York, the best way to come home and kick off the 2016 season (season? sure) of Burger Fetish is with the biggest Minneapolis burger question of them all.
There’s no Minneapolis food item more iconic than the Juicy Lucy*, and no greater rivalry than that between Matt’s Bar and the 5-8 Club. Both bars claim invention of the cheese-stuffed burger, but every Minneapolite has an opinion on which Lucy is best. Luckily, I am a Minneapolite, full of both opinions and, at the moment, a lot of beef and cheese.
I’ve never actually been to the 5-8 Club, having accepted on hearsay that Matt’s Jucy Lucy was the better. I recruited my favorite native Southsider, Kyle, to join me, partly because he’s the only person I know who prefers the 5-8 Lucy, partly because he loves burgers enough to go eat two of them with me, and partly because he’s one of my best buds in the whole wide world. AWWWWWWW. Shut up.
According to legend, soon after Matt’s Bar opened in 1954, a customer asked proprietor Matt Bristol to make two patties with cheese in the middle, causing him to declare, “that’s one juicy lucy!” and a sensation was born. The 5-8 Club opened in 1928 as a speakeasy and went legit following the repeal of prohibition. Originally called the 58th St. Club, patrons began referring to it as the 5-8 and eventually the name stuck. It has no cute origin story for its Juicy Lucy, but say they invented it “in the 1950’s,” which sounds dubious, but I’m not here to quibble on undocumented history.
At the 5-8, you can get your Lucy stuffed with American, blue, Swiss, or pepperjack. I, obviously, went American. I misunderstood the server’s question and ordered mine without fried onions, which I’ll admit is a misstep, especially when it comes to a fair comparison. Otherwise, the only topping was pickles on a notably less-than-squishy bun. The patty arrived relatively medium-well, still pretty juicy with basically no sear, but well-seasoned. This leads me to believe they don’t keep their griddle cranked the fuck up like most burger joints. Lucys are traditionally cooked through to ensure the cheese melts thoroughly, and keeping the griddle at a more moderate temperature makes sure the meat doesn’t dry out, which I respect, but as I learned in New York at Whitman’s, this isn’t actually necessary. They stuff an incredible stack of three slices of cheese between two quarter-pound patties, and it came out looking like a beef patty that got pregnant. The solid quantity delivers an awesome mouthful of meat and a grip of cheese in every bite. They season their grill daily with bacon and onions, and despite my embarrassing omission, there was a definite subtle oniony taste to it reminiscent of a White Mana slider. I squirted some ketchup on the side for strategically acrobatic–so as not to spill that precious cheese–dipping, and I was pretty damn impressed with what I’d heard was the lesser Lucy.
Then on to Matt’s.
First of all, vibe-wise, Matt’s was on point. It’s a total dive, as opposed to the 5-8’s updated family restaurant, near-Applebees feel. Everything from the music to the attitude of the servers just screamed we-care-but-only-barely. You walk in and know where you are, and I frankly felt at home. I’m a dive bar dude.
The Jucy Lucy, on the other hand, could use some work. They pride themselves on having a griddle seasoned with over 60 years of Lucys and onions, but it mostly gave it an overcharred taste with added bitter notes of burgers past. The onions completely overwhelm the patty, which is not something I typically frown upon, but it was too much. And the pickles were weirdly overpowering. Not so much sour, they were over-seasoned, and they had way too much influence on the overall taste of the burger so I took them off, which is an enormous deal for a pickle fiend like me. Most egregiously, Matt’s puts a single slice of cheese between two 3oz. patties, which is not an awesome amount of cheese to have with six ounces of meat. The sear was wonderful, and the patty was seasoned respectably, the bun perfectly squished itself to the meat, but it plainly just wanted more cheese. I could respect the ratio if the meat was better and cooked less well, but for fairly standard well-done beef, you need to get fucked in the face with cheese.
In the end the 5-8 Juicy Lucy wins for me, on the basis of cheese. If you’re literally putting cheese at the heart of your burger, it needs to be amazing, and Matt’s American turns to a hot cheese grease that mostly just burns your mouth. The 5-8’s cheese-beef ratio has too much cheese, which is actually just enough, and it stays gooey and flavorful.
Again, I don’t do rankings and I don’t do ratings, but the next time someone asks which Juicy Lucy is better, I’ll tell them the 5-8. Then I’ll send them to the Blue Door for what I consider the best Juicy Lucy in town. Both bars stick to methods that might have been novel in the 1950’s, and good on them for keeping people interested for 60 years, but burgers have gotten better since then. The rivalry will never go away, die-hard adherents will maintain their allegiances, but I’m honored to add fuel to this ongoing fire.
*A word on spelling, because it matters. The 5-8 Club calls it a “Juicy Lucy”. Due to a spelling error they decided to run with, Matt’s calls it a “Jucy Lucy.” Because writer [sic], I consider “Juicy Lucy” to be the “correct” spelling of the category of cheese-stuffed burgers, but a restaurant can name their burger anything they want; at the Nook, it’s a “Juicy Nookie”, and at the Blue Door it’s a “Blucy“. I will use appropriate spelling when discussing each bar, but use “Juicy Lucy” in reference to all cheese-stuffed burgers, without specific allegiance to either Juicy Lucy**.
**See what I did there?