Aug. 1, 2016 10:46 AM

An anatomy of, and love letter to, a Lafayette culinary novelty

A Lafayette burger caught in the wild at Max's Pool Hall
Photo by Robin May

Greasy-spoon lunch houses around Acadiana are producing a curiosity that most residents probably don’t realize is a novelty — the Lafayette burger. This particular culinary creature can be found in its natural habitat, Lafayette’s sundry plate lunch houses and dives. You will know it by its signature plumage of heavilyseasoned beef, adorned or drenched with a special sauce, capped with liquefied cheese and fired hot to a crust on a wellflavored griddle.

More than likely, you’ve eaten one of these this week. The phenomenon is so widespread and fundamentally genetic to Acadiana that we generally take it for granted. For visitors, these burgers can be anathema. Check out interloper Yelp reviews for Judice Inn, Gary’s or Max’s Pool Hall and see for yourself. Out-of-towners are routinely mystified by our commitment to simplicity. Lafayette loves the Lafayette burger. But not everyone from the outside does.

“It’s almost like a meatloaf burger, that’s super seasoned,” says Marc Krampe, executive chef at Social Southern Table & Bar and the man behind the return of Pete’s. “It’s not what I’d call a traditional burger, which would just be salt and pepper. Most of the time it’s cooked on a griddle, and some work the meat more than others.”

Krampe has his feet in both worlds. On the one hand — err foot — his flagship restaurant serves what’s best described as the traditional American pub burger. For that approach, the true star of the thing is the beef. Krampe sources a grass-fed grind cut into a custom blend. His cooks kiss the outside of the patty with salt and pepper only and finish it on a griddle for a seared crust and juicy interior. Travel around the country and this is generally the burger specimen you’ll encounter.

On the other, Krampe is a longtime fan of Lafayette staples like Judice Inn, a joint he frequents with his daughters.

Cooks at those joints lean on peppery blends to bring a bolder taste to more economical patties that don’t have bespoke meat blends sourced for perfect fat marbling.

Gerald Judice, the scion currently in charge of the restaurant that arguably birthed the trend, says the flavor profile at Judice Inn came from spice blends and components imported from the family kitchen. The famous — or infamous, if you’re Yelp’s Brock D. from Colorado — Judice sauce is a tomato-based condiment created by the Inn’s founder’s aunt for home-cooked steaks. Not so much crafted in a laboratory of culinary science, the sauce is an extension of home.

Given that Judice Inn is coming up on its 70th anniversary in 2017, it’s hard not to see its take on the American staple as the archetype of seasoned burger plus special sauce.

“I don’t know that there is another place in town that does what we do,” Judice says. “Our burger is about [as] Plain Jane as you can get. I hate to use the word special sauce, people throw mustard and mayonnaisse in a pot and call it special sauce. Ours was truly one of the originals.”

Taking a trip around Lafayette’s bestkept burgers — Dwight’s, Legend’s, Southside Bakery, Twins and countless plate lunch joints — it’s hard not to see that influence. But it’s equally likely that the phenomenon represents a common theme in Cajun restaurant cooking — making it like they do at home.

It seems obvious, of course, that what this all comes down to is the Cajun cook’s love for his family spice cabinet. As a lunch house phenomenon, the Lafayetter burger is yet another expression of Cajun cuisine’s ingenious approach to populist dining. The right spice blend can elevate any product to a quality and taste well above its price point. When it comes to burgers in Lafayette, you don’t get what you pay for. You get more.

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