It’s easier to scare up a liberal Republican than it is to track down the history of the wineburger.
Hamburgers cooked in red wine turn up from time to time on restaurant menus here and abroad, but a lot less often than one would expect. And assuming that every big city — even every state — has its own wineburger operation is an unwise assumption. It just isn’t so.
Phoenix, on the other hand, has two wineburger joints. Both have been around for a long time, and one has recently relocated. But how they got here in the first place, and where they got the recipe for their namesake sandwich, is cloaked in mystery.
One version of the story claims wineburgers are an invention of Roman chefs, whose union contracts entitled them to all the wine they could drink while they worked. This led, as the story goes, to a lot of drunk chefs making a lot of cocked-up entrees. Lousy cooking gave way to a new law prohibiting capocuoco from drinking on the job, so chefs began pouring vino onto their meat grills and huffing the fermented steam.
Somehow, some of that wine made its way into American hamburger patties at some point, perhaps in Davenport, Iowa, at a gloomy bar known as Al's Lounge, which in the 1940s billed itself as the "Home of the Wineburger." The popularity of burgers cooked in wine caught on at another Davenport bar-and-grill called the Ray-O-La.
Some versions of the story claim wineburgers first saw flame in Manhattan; still others place them first in a Chicago disco called Mother’s. But that’s where the story stops cold. How ground round and merlot made it to Phoenix from Davenport, Iowa, or New York or Chicago — or from wherever — remains a mystery.
Most folks who claim to know say that sometime in the late 1950s, a fellow named Ron Hall opened Harvey's the Wineburger King on 16th Street, south of Camelback Road, where it’s still serving up sirloin soaked in cheap red. Others insist the first-up honors belong to The Original Wineburger, which recently relocated from its longtime midtown abode to the old Roma Pizza building on Seventh Avenue (more recently the home of Toasted, that grilled-cheese café that’s also reportedly relocating).
Personally, I prefer the story about how a former newspaper columnist named Tom Tarbox first brought wineburgers to the Valley. After getting fired from his column at The Arizona Republic in the mid-'50s, Tarbox (a cranky guy from northeastern Ohio — two more reasons to like him) allegedly bought a downtown bar and began serving wineburgers there. That recipe wound up with the guys at The Original Wineburger, somehow.
Anxious to check out the new location and to unravel this meaty mystery, I spoiled my diet with a visit to The Original Wineburger's latest digs the other day. The nice young man who waited on me corrected me, explaining that there was no wine in my meat. The red is poured over the burgers while they’re cooking.
The original Original grill was left behind when the restaurant relocated, he said, because it was too big and too heavy to get out the door. Most of what did make it over in the move appears to have come from an old sports bar: lots of wall-mounted, widescreen TVs playing baseball games; black pleather and chrome stools; rolls of paper towels on each table. There’s a wall of unflattering pastel portraits of people, presumably celebrities, who’ve eaten at Original. One of them looked sort of like Betty White.
Our friendly server didn’t know anything about Tom Tarbox or about where wineburgers came from, but he did know that the French fries (I ordered both the sweet potato and beer-batter variety) weren’t made in-house. I could have told him that, after tasting them.
My wineburger was tasty, although overcooked. I’d ordered it medium, and it arrived well-done. My other sandwich, the Burgermeister Meisterburger (a wineburger with two patties), was cooked medium. I’d ordered it medium-rare. The burger-to-egg-bun ratio was perfect, but neither of my beef patties tasted especially winey. So what was the point?
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It turns out that the point of cooking a burger in wine is as mysterious as where wineburgers come from. I’m happy to keep guessing, although I personally prefer the wineburgers over at Harvey’s.
The Original Wineburger
4221 North Seventh Avenue
4812 North 16th Street