Monday, May 7, 2012

At Harvey's with my dad

It took me about three posts worth of content before I started telling folks around the office that I was writing a blog about burgers. The ideas was met with great appreciation and now I count several colleagues as loyal readers. My bosses up the chain know too, coming for advice on a Friday about where they should go for burgers on the weekend. One even offered up a parable that inspired this post.

Like many parents, he takes his daughter periodically to McDonald's as a treat and she really enjoys it. A few months ago they found themselves in the west end near a Harvey's and rather than drive around to find the nearest McDonald's. He bought her a burger, she took one bite, and firmly declared that she never wanted to go to McDonald's again. After relating this story to a few friends of mine, each had reminisced about the same experience that they had with their fathers. Was I tapping into a special central Canadian tradition?

My father used to take me to Harvey's as a child as well. We would go to the slightly ramshackle location at the corner (apex?) of Baseline and Merivale, which has since been rebuilt, and scarf down a burger and onion rings, eating inside on those ridiculous swivel-chairs because dad's MGB was too low for drive-in windows. Needless to say I had the same reaction twenty-something years ago than my boss' daughter had: 1) I couldn't understand why other chains wouldn't let you order your own toppings, and 2) while the toys were all well and good I preferred eating the better burger. Looking back, that realization was clear step towards adulthood. On our epic roadtrips through the US I would always pine for Harvey's and feel a bit sorry for my American cousins for not having access to this wonderful place. Eventually I grew up, became a yuppie food snob and turned my nose up at fast food offerings.

One of the better looking burgers from a fast food joint. Look, real bread!
Founded in 1959 in Richmond Hill, Ontario, the chain quickly expanded in the face of heavy competition until it was purchased by Cara Food Operations, an air and rail catering company, in 1977. Today there are about three hundred location of Harvey's and they are clustered almost entirely in eastern and central Canada. Typical of the GTA, the original location was demolished to build condos. Locations are scattered across Ottawa, in both urban and suburban communities. Dad and I lunched at the location on Bank and Riverside.

Harvey's is similar to Five Guys in the sense that there are few gimmicks and the customer chooses their desired toppings. The chain offers a regular burger - single or double - a premium "Great Canadian Burger" (GCB),  chicken burger, veggie burger and hot dog.  Seeing as I'm a pretty great Canadian, I opted for the premium option with a side of onion rings.

Did it meet my unreasonably high, childhood-reminiscing expectations? Read on after the break.

The burger

The GCB is 126g (4 1/2 oz) of ground beef, over 50% larger than their original burger. Harvey's cooks their burger well-done on a flame grill rather than a flat griddle; char and crust are more prominent than competing fast food offerings as a result but don't measure up to a good outdoor grill. The meat is pleasantly juicy without the intense greasiness of Five Guys, well seasoned but not teeming with flavour. A close examination of the patty clearly reveals a medium grind of the beef rather than typical fast food uniformity. That said, it's pressed into a mold so firm as to lose the sense of authenticity the meat could have, which I view as a wasted opportunity.

Close up of the meat reveals char and grinding strands, both good signs.

Harvey's centers their marketing around having the burger topped to order, a process that leads their customer experience to be more time-consuming than the instantaneousness of others. Cheese and bacon are selected at the cash when ordering and are extra; the others are free and selected after payment. Don't expect to be overwhelmed by choices or anything; you're looking at lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, hot peppers, relish and a few condiments. They tend to skimp on quantity by default so you have to specify how much you want. I felt like asking for 27 onion slivers and exactly 14g of relish, but I refrained in order to convince my father that his son is not a hoser. I had lettuce, two slices of half-sour pickles, hot peppers and barbeque sauce. They were... toppings. Largely out of someone else's jar, the toppings were adequate, fairly sparse, and tasted like grocery store brand.

If I may wield a baseball metaphor for a moment, the bun was a solid triple. It's the kind of play that you clap your hands loudly, maybe give a good "Yeah!" but don't get out of your chair for (it's a metaphor - I didn't do any of these things literally). The GCB comes on a "bistro bun," a flour-dusted bun with a reasonably firm crust and lightly-toasted crumb. It was way better than any other fast food bun I've ever tried, beating most diner buns as well.
My dad folded the foil over for the marketing shot. A consummate businessman, my pa.

I opted for the burger/drink/side combo, which was $7.49; this is very good value for what you get. Let's not forget that this is fast food and I recommend that you limit its intake in your diet because the sodium, cholesterol and fat in there is for some reason way higher than a well-made restaurant burger or something you can scratch together at home.

My dad took a few bites and grinned a bit. He said "You know, this is a good burger," in his traditionally authoritative fashion and, being the good son I am I nodded in agreement. Canada has its own Five Guys-esque phenomenon and quite frankly it's better.
The burger is big, delicious, unpretentious and a little boring. Like Canada.

Note to Americans: Harvey's has nothing to do with Hardee's despite the similarity in marketing.

The sides

With fast food onion rings you either get onions or rings, not both. It's pretty lame. Harvey's has "rings", ie deliciously battered and deep-fried former remnants of what once was the noble allium. The batter is brown, crispy and soft on the inside, but the lack of actual onion makes this little more than tempura'd air.


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