The Meatwagon‘s Yianni Papoutsis may be as Greek as the cheezborger guys at Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern, the inspiration for the John Belushi diner sketchs on SNL, but he speaks without an accent, making use of a vocabulary stretching beyond one essential word, “cheezborger”, and two catchphrases, “no fries, chips” and “no Coke, Pepsi”.
Last night’s communication breakdown between Yianni and myself at The Boaters Inn in Kingston was less about our respective Englishes than the shading of our burger language. I understood “medium rare” to mean pink. He took my order of “medium rare” to mean he should cook it longer than he thought desirable.
The burger was great, I told him afterwards, “but could have been pinker and juicier”.
“What did you expect?” he replied, not believing I could be the burgermonday dude he’d heard about. “You ordered it medium rare!”
Rare, the default level at this pub-roving burger trailer and twitter phenomenon, is not so much red as very juicy. The Meatwagon’s medium-rare is merely juicy. The utter joy of very became obvious to me when I tried a second burger, this one ordered without mention of the dreaded M word. (When you catch up with The Meatwagon at one of its host pubs I’d suggest you not even wear a medium t-shirt for fear of a mixup.)
Yanni wants no part of the gourmet burger trade. Unlike Goodman, The Gun or Hawksmoor he was not influenced by the New York School of Steak Burgers. His is a burger-joint burger, the speciality of American diners, drive-ins and lunch counters.
He flattens soft balls of mince by hand on the blistering griddle – no two Meatwagon burgers are exactly alike! – and only then does he season them, liberally, with salt and pepper. The burger sizzles on the griddle, encrusting both sides as the fatty juices leak from the deliberately crumbly periphery. Later Yanni squirts water on the griddle and places a metal dome over the burger to steam it. Quickly it is time to bun the burger and bed it with ketchup, mustard and dill pickle (American gherkin).
Yanni rotates an assortment of burger toppings and variations but doesn’t really get the meaning of a burger without cheese. “They all have cheese” he tells the woman taking orders and managing the queue. Guess it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t speak or think in Greek that much anymore: Once a cheezborger chap, always a cheezborger chap.