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Patty Melt: The Perfect Roadside Diner Sandwich (and 3 Fun Spinoffs)

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Are You Ready for a Road Trip?

It was the 1950s. Europe was rebuilding and their hunger for American products was fueling an economic boom here in the States. In response, post-war production shifted from military goods to automobile production; in fact, one in six jobs were in the auto industry—the car was king. In the first half of the decade, the number of automobiles on the road doubled. People were traveling as they had not in years, and California was a popular destination.

In Hollywood, at the corner of La Brea and Sunset Boulevard, was a drive-in restaurant called Tiny Naylor’s, which was named for its six-foot-four, 300-pound owner/operator. At that time, drive-ins were almost as prolific as Starbucks are now, but Tiny Naylor’s was ahead of the curve. First, it was one of only a handful of 24-hour restaurants. The menu was innovative; in addition to the typical burgers and shakes, Tiny Naylor offered steaks, baked potatoes, ribs, and corn on the cob—everything made fresh, never frozen. And Tiny had a great imagination, knowing how to combine tastes and textures to create the patty melt. Yes, Tiny Naylor was the first, and some say that his sandwich is still the best.

Sadly, Tiny passed away in 1959, but the tradition of great roadside food (and patty melts) continues with his son Biff and granddaughter Jennifer who have expanded the empire to a chain of Biff’s and Tiny Naylor restaurants.

I found a link to Jennifer Naylor's patty melt recipe in an article on the Eater Los Angeles website.

Jennifer Naylor's patty melt. Tiny’s Patty Melt features a Harris Ranch grain-fed chuck patty. Each sandwich comes with French fries, Cole slaw, fruit or buttery griddled hashed browns.

Jennifer Naylor's patty melt. Tiny’s Patty Melt features a Harris Ranch grain-fed chuck patty. Each sandwich comes with French fries, Cole slaw, fruit or buttery griddled hashed browns.

4 Basic Components of a Patty Melt

What does it take to make the perfect patty melt? Well, of course, there is meat, cheese, bread, and onions. Let's define the best of each of those.

1. Meat

The star of the show is the beef patty. You might be tempted to source out the best quality, twice-ground mixture of Prime sirloin and Kobe beef. Please don't. A patty melt is a celebration of classic roadside dining, and the only way to create that is to use ground beef with a higher percentage of fat. A grind of 80/20 is perfect.

2. Cheese

Ten years ago (gosh, it seems like yesterday) my friend Kenji at Serious Eats did an analysis of the "Ultimate Patty Melt." His contention (and I agree with him 100 percent) is that most patty melts fail because of a lack of cheese—not just cheese, but tasty, ooey-gooey, melty cheese. We need two kinds, one on top of the patty and one underneath (yes, we're talking two layers of cheese):

  • Swiss cheese: It has a nutty sweetness that coyly plays against the savory, umami flavor of the ground beef patty.
  • American cheese: Yes, I'm talking about the "plastic" cheese that causes food snobs to turn up their noses in disgust. But, here's what Kenji has to say about that.

The cheese police cry “American cheese is not cheese," but even the "fancy" stuff you get at the deli is not exactly cheese. But saying "American cheese is not cheese" is like saying "meatloaf is not meat." Just as meatloaf is a is made by blending real meat with texture- and flavor-altering ingredients, so American cheese is made by blending real cheese with texture- and flavor-altering ingredients. There's a good chance there's more cheese in your American cheese than meat in your meatloaf.

— J. Kenji López-Alt

3. Yellow Onions

These are considered the universal, all-purpose onion and makeup about 75 percent of the world onion production. They are astringent yet sweet, and their sweetness intensifies with low, slow cooking. Slice them from pole to pole.

Mom's rye bread

Mom's rye bread

4. Bread

This is not the place for white bread. I don't care if you've upped your game to choose an 'artisanal loaf created in small batches by angels.' But don't go all Darth Vader and opt for the dark side. In between a whole-wheat white and a dark rye/pumpernickel is light rye, a blend of wheat and rye flours. Of course, the easy way to go is to grab a loaf at your local grocery store or deli. But, when I'm feeling especially creative (and have a few hours on my hands) I bake the rye bread from my Mom's recipe file.

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Ingredients

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 2 cups rye flour
  • 3 cups white flour

Instructions

  1. Place water and milk in a microwave-safe measuring cup. Microwave at full power for 45-60 seconds or until warm (not hot) to the touch. Pour into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the liquid in the bowl, stir to moisten, and let sit for 10 minutes.
  2. Next, stir in the salt, sugar, shortening and the flours.
  3. Knead on a well-floured surface for 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. (Wow, my Mom was a sturdy gal).
  4. Grease a large bowl with shortening or cooking oil. Place the dough in the bowl, turn to coat on all sides. Cover with waxed paper and set in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1 hour. (Here's a hint—the dough is doubled and ready to shape if, when you gently press two fingertips quickly into the dough 1/2 inch, the indentation remains).
  5. Gently punch dough down. Divide in half and form each half into a round ball. Place on a greased cookie sheet or jelly-roll pan and let rise till doubled in size again (about 1 hour).
  6. Bake in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes or until bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
A perfect patty melt

A perfect patty melt

Patty Melt Recipe

Ingredients

  • 4 slices of light rye bread, sliced less than 1/2-inch thick
  • 6 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
  • 4 slices American cheese
  • 4 slices Swiss cheese
  • 1/2 pound 80/20 percent ground beef
  • 2 cups sliced yellow onion (sliced from pole to pole)

Instructions

  1. Lightly butter one side of each slice of bread, using about 1 tablespoon of the butter. Place two of the slices, buttered side down, in a large saute pan and cook gently over medium heat until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Repeat with the remaining two slices of bread.
  2. Place the American cheese on the butter-browned sides of two of the slices of bread and place the Swiss cheese on the butter-browned sides of the other two slices of bread. Set aside.
  3. Divide the ground beef into two equal-sized mounds. Form each into a rectangular shape roughly the same size as the bread slices (remember, this is not a hamburger). Add another tablespoon of butter to the pan and cook the patties over medium-high heat. Cook without disturbing about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, until a dark crust forms on the underside. Flip and cook about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes more. Remove from the saute pan and set aside.
  4. Add two more tablespoons of the butter to the same saute pan (don't wipe or rinse it out). Add the onions to the pan and cook over medium heat until they begin to brown, just a couple of minutes. Normally, when we caramelize onions we cook low and slow (45 minutes is not an unusual amount of time), but cooking the onions in the cooking "juices" of the meat patties gives them a jump start in gaining richness and flavor.
  5. Add 2 tablespoons of water to the pan, stir and scrape to remove the browned bits on the bottom of the pan (the fond). Repeat this process twice more until the onions are soft and deeply browned.
  6. Place equal amounts of the onions on Swiss cheese-topped slices of bread. Next, top with the cooked beef patties, and then close up the sandwiches with the American cheese inside.
  7. Add the remaining butter to the pan; place the sandwiches in the pan and cook over medium heat until they begin to turn golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Watch them carefully. You don't want the bread to burn. Flip carefully and cook 3-4 minutes more or until golden brown and toasty.
Turkey patty melt

Turkey patty melt

Turkey Patty Melt

Kathryn is a health and nutrition editor, and so has created a leaner, healthier version of the 1950s sandwich. Her ground turkey patty melt uses heart-healthy lean ground turkey; she gives it an umami boost (so that you won't miss the beef) with a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce.

Patty melt meatloaf

Patty melt meatloaf

Patty Melt Meatloaf

The Two Cookin' Mamas are the mother and daughter team Linda and Christina. They've developed a recipe that puts all of the flavors of our featured sandwich into a patty melt meatloaf. Granted, it looks a bit messy, but so does the original sandwich. Life's too short to worry about propriety. Just grab an extra napkin and dive in.

Vegetarian patty melt

Vegetarian patty melt

Vegetarian Patty Melt

With a daughter and several friends who are vegetarian, I can't leave this topic without finding a non-meat alternative. Erin creates her own healthy veggie meat patty with brown rice and rolled oats. But don't worry—these aren't your standard veggie burger. There's plenty of texture and crunch with walnuts, pecans, and sunflower seeds. Erin also gives these the right balance of savory and spicy with miso, soy sauce, garlic, smoked paprika, and a touch of chili paste.

Her basic recipe suggests grilling the onions with the veggie patty. I would suggest that instead, you cook the onions low and slow in a saute pan with a tablespoon of olive oil. Use low heat and plan on cooking your onions for 25 to 30 minutes until soft and richly golden. Even meat lovers will enjoy this vegetarian patty melt.

Sources

© 2020 Linda Lum

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