The French really love their burgers, maybe as much as they love steak frites. Even McDonald’s is viewed as sort of exotic or at least a little exciting, rather than the last resort we think of. French burgers tend to be big, juicy things, served in bars and brassseries, as well as in white tablecloth restaurants. And mostly they are really, really delicious. Different, but delicious.
The burgers are often presented on the menu as “with salade,” but “salade” is the word for lettuce, and what you get is not so much a salad as Americans know it, but a morsel or two of lettuce, perhaps barely enough to cover the burger should you decided to place it there, which the French don’t, along with a couple of fine slivers of carrot. It is, more than anything, what they refer to as a “garniture.”
For cheese, as in cheeseburger, what shows up is not a slice of Kraft American, nor is it slice of cheddar, or pepper jack or swiss. It is not even Velveeta. It is often a dollop of what passes for Cheez Whiz, or perhaps queso. And that’s ok. It’s tasty, if drippy. But since the default French way of eating a burger is not to grab it with two hands, hunch over and have at it, those burgers are often so big and thick that people commonly eat them with a knife and fork.
Over time we’ve become aware of a culinary thing going on with burgers here in France that is a little puzzling. At first we thought it was just a quirk of one particular place, but we have since encountered it in a number of dining establishments in different towns. And, loving potatoes in almost any form, let me add here that while finding it odd, I also find myself eating every last bit of it.
When your burger arrives at the table, you appear to be presented with a burger on a bun, with a hefty side of fries. But upon closer examination you see it’s not a bun at all. The burger is nestled, instead, between two hockey puck-shaped, bun-sized discs made of deep fried tater tot. This in addition to your order of fries.
You can’t pick it up. It’s impossible. So you have at it with a knife and fork, and all the while you’re thinking, “God, this is weird, and that’s a lot of potatoes! And God, it’s good!” Then you finish it all and you have to go to confession.
Enter into this hamburger fray, the good folks at Frenchie’s Burgers.
A few years ago a group of enterprising youths from the area took leave of France and headed to Australia just for the heck of it. While they were there they hit on the idea of opening a burger place, which they did. They called it Frenchie’s Burgers, and it was pretty darned successful; so successful that they decided to return home and open up in La Fleche. Which they did. And which Anthony told us had the best burgers in town.
By luck, wisdom, or both, Frenchie’s opened up right next door to a very busy bar that serves beer, wine, and liquor but not a lick of food, and they share a swath of sidewalk outside their doors where alfresco dining is in order. The staff is young, enthusiastic, and dead serious about their burgers. And while they have a constantly changing array of variants, they are devotees of what Americans consider real burgers; each individually made to order, with buns purpose-baked at a nearby boulangerie expressly for the burgers. Every week or so they offer up new regional specialties, all with wonderful ingredients and “special sauces” that for some reason just work on a burger the way our American taste buds expect, without drifting over to tastes that just don’t seem right. Like, brie.
The first time we entered the place it took them, as is usually the case wherever we go, about ten seconds to peg us as Americans. In that instant there was a perceptible pause by everyone behind the counter. A few comments to confirm that we were indeed Americans, and then a fury of industry to prepare the burgers. They handed them over and I could sense them watching closely as we sat down to eat and dove into them with unconcealed enthusiasm. At that you could feel a little lift in the atmosphere.
One of the young guys looked at me and I just slobbered a thumbs up at him. When I could speak intelligibly, I told him these were the best in town. That elicited a chorus of smiles from the crew, and a noticeable easing of concern on their faces. It appeared that at least on the subject of hamburgers, at Frenchie’s Burgers the opinion of Americans matters.
Now when we enter the place you can sense a kind of unspoken “Attention On Deck! There are Americans here!”
And then there are the fries. The frites.
If you really want to put a Belgian off his feed, just mention the subject of “French Fries.” Hoo Boy. If there is anything that will agitate a Belgian, it is to suggest that the noble sliver of twice-fried potato called fries or frites should be prefaced by any word other than “Belgian.” To preface it with “French” is pure heresy. They’re really, really nationalistic about it.
Cross over the border into Belgium and you see signs for frites everywhere; it is the national dish. And they eat frites in a particularly Belgian manner, dipping each frite into a dish of mayonnaise on the way to their mouths. Talk about gilding the lily. It’s a practice I find unappetizing not to mention unhealthy. I mean, the potato is already deep fried. Twice.
I’m a potato purist. To me a beautiful French fry (sorry) perfectly cooked, with a bit of salt and pepper is just the way it should be. Yes, in moments of weakness or in the presence of a mediocre fry I will on occasion opt for a smidge of ketchup on the fries. But mayonnaise? No.
The mayonnaise thing has crept into France. I have seen Anthony subtly dip a fry or two, which, by the way, are eaten with a fork, into mayonnaise at a restaurant. Beloved Wife wants no part of it. I, once in a very great while…like every year or two…. will try to figure out why anyone would do such a thing, and will try a fry in mayo while Beloved Wife looks on with barely concealed disgust and asks, “So, how’d that go?” As usual, not well.
The question of mayo, ketchup, or nothing on fries appears to be wrestled with at most restaurant tables. Management chooses not to take sides or get involved. Every order of fries includes a supply of plastic packets of both, ketchup for Americans and mayo for Belgians. Me? I’ll take mine neat.