The first time I remember consciously eating myself well past the point of simple satiation and into some kind of gluttonous, fattened stupor was with my sister, Samantha. I was 13 years old, and she was 22. On the weekends, she would often pick me up in her beat-up white Toyota Corolla with no side mirrors, and we would go hurtling down the Pasadena freeway in search of Saturday adventure. At the time, she worked for a small, artsy Los Angeles monthly newspaper, and I remember that she would take handwritten notes for story ideas on a windshield-mounted pad of paper while she was driving , a practice which makes today’s warnings about text messaging and driving seem downright quaint by comparison. I would patiently wait through whatever activity she had planned, whether it was a walking tour of the Huntington, or a brisk hike up Mount Wilson, knowing that the day would inevitably end up with some tough decisions to be made at the Taco Bell drive through.
At the time, Taco Bell was a dream come true for a husky 13-year-old like myself. My sister would treat us both to lunch, spending $15 bucks on a bag of food that would feed a normal person for three days. Thanks to the restaurant’s 1990s-era pricing strategy of making every item on the menu cost 69 cents, we felt free to splurge on as many combinations of tacos and burritos as we could think of, even throwing in an order of those twisty cinnamon things, if we were feeling particularly experimental. We would drive back to her bungalow, and spread a blanket out on the grass in the courtyard, where I would regale Sam with painfully thorough re-enactments of the previous night’s episode of Ren & Stimpy, while we ate terrible burritos in the sunshine, laughing and petting her dog, who always had clumps of fur missing from his butt.
If she had recently sold a piece of freelance writing and was feeling particularly flush with cash, Sam would take me to Pie ‘n’ Burger in Pasadena for a slightly upgraded version of our weekend gorge-fest. Here, there was an even greater opportunity to stuff ourselves well beyond the limits of ordinary human consumption. It was the first place I ever tried a patty melt, served at Pie ‘n’ Burger with a huge mountain of potato salad and an enormous chocolate shake, in case you felt like a gallon of melted ice cream was just the thing to help you wash down a cheeseburger. Finishing the whole thing required my stomach to stretch to twice its size, but I always seemed to manage, even if it meant I had to immediately take a nap in Sam’s car on the ride home.
A patty melt combines the best attributes of a burger with the comforting meltiness of a grilled cheese: A thin hamburger patty, tons of Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, served on crispy rye bread, grilled in butter. When I want a burger, it’s my go-to order on any menu that lists it as an option. Our version doesn’t stray far from the classic; you won’t see any ground bison or gruyere in this recipe. I do like to add a bit of American cheese to my patty melt, which lends extra meltiness, while the Swiss handles the heavy lifting in terms of flavor. I also think it’s important to get both sides of the bread toasted in order to get the crunchy/melty balance just right, even though it creates en extra step. It’s worth it, but if either of these tweaks to our recipe bother you on some fundamental level, you should feel free to omit them. We’re all friends here.
Makes two sandwiches
- 4 slices rye bread
- 2 tablespoons butter, divided
- 2 slices Swiss cheese
- 2 slices American cheese
- 1/2 pound ground beef
- 1/2 large white onion, thinly sliced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Splash of water
Butter one side of each slice of bread, and place buttered-side down in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook until one side of bread is toasty and golden brown. Remove from pan and set aside, toasted side up. Work in batches, if needed.
Divide beef into two patties, slightly larger than the size and shape of the bread. Season with salt and pepper, and cook over medium-high heat until brown and cooked through. Remove cooked hamburger patties from pan and set aside.
Add onions to pan, along with a splash of water. Reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring often and breaking any brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Cook onions until brown and just tarting to crisp, about ten minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
To assemble the patty melt: Tear cheese into big pieces, and arrange on each slice of bread, covering as much of each slice as possible. Top one slice with the cooked hamburger patty, and a scoop of onions.
Top with second slice of bread, and butter outside of entire sandwich. Grill in a pan over medium heat until cheese is melted and bread is toasted, about 2-3 minutes per side. Serve with ketchup for dipping.