It seems no one, especially not on the Internet, is allowed to have a valid opinion when discussing hamburgers in superlative terms. It’s because determining the pinnacle of the most pervasive American sandwich involves something entirely more than an analysis of a beef patty on a bun. It routinely involves a connection to something intensely personal – a memory, a style, or a feeling. And depending how strong the association is, accepting someone else’s criteria can feel like wanton self-betrayal. So with no delusions of having this opinion be well received, this author has no qualms proclaiming the best burgers in the state of Minnesota belong to Gordy’s Hi-Hat in Cloquet.
Opened in 1960 by Gordy and Marilyn Lundquist, the Hi-Hat is a throwback drive-in perched up a hill from the St. Louis River. The vibe is equal parts Wobegon and Pleasantville. Its address is on Sunnyside Drive, the flooring is checkerboard, and the soundtrack is full of doo-wop and surf rock. Its weathered deck seems to have never seen a coat of sealer. On it lay ancient octagonal tables whose chipped red plastic tops are worn like a proof of authenticity. Specials are scribbled in dry erase marker on a Pepsi placard. Black-and-white photos inside show the old Gordy’s shack selling cheeseburgers for 29 cents while rides on a nearby carousel are a dime “on the honor system.”
Also on the deck, stacked by the kitchen’s back door, are about 400 pounds of softball-sized onions. There have been sacks of onions sitting there for decades. They greet you when you exit your vehicle, as you stretch your back because you’ve been driving for at least an hour. The message in their multitude is clear: Skip the fries, embrace the rings ($3.49, about a dozen to an order). They nail the elusive combination of super crunchy texture and solid composition thanks to a half-battered, half-breaded preparation that involves buttermilk, cornmeal, and Bisquick.
Gordy’s burgers have a makeup as rudimentary as they come. Fresh, hand-pattied beef, smashed to In-N-Out thickness until just the faintest hint of pink remains inside. The magic comes from the flat-top grill, which ensures every nook and cranny of the irregular patty is imbued with char. The most popular order is a double cheeseburger with everything ($4.29) – “everything” in this case comprises merely ketchup, mustard, pickles, and fried onions. When the burger, onion, and cheese are cooked together, the patty picks up a bit of onion sweat while the American cheese melts over both, trapping the juices like a blanket. They’re juicy, tangy, slightly greasy, and entirely delectable.
The obviously subjective criteria elevating this burger the top of my list has to do with its location and relative lack of availability. Gordy’s is open only for half the year. Their lifeblood is cabin traffic – the thousands of travelers who veer off I-35 onto MN-33 to head toward the Range instead of the North Shore. For this author, a bite of a Gordy’s double instantly recalls Memorial Days on the lake with all the cousins, cramming into the back of the fully packed wood-paneled Plymouth Voyager, and fishing the pieces out of Gordy’s Bubble Gum ice cream to test if blowing a bubble was possible. Now, summers without a stop at Gordy’s feel fundamentally incomplete. And since Gordy’s has been catering to lake-bound Minnesotans for more than 50 years, it’s a safe bet that there are Hi-Hat devotees out there with similar experiences.
The complete lack of smoke screens and secret ingredients – the very foundation for Gordy’s success – is also what made for the most boring segment in Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives history. Even Guy Fieri, the crown prince of feigning enthusiasm, looked hard pressed to react to such straightforward fare. And it’s slightly sad that since Triple D’s visit, Fieri’s face has been plastered all over the joint – exterior signage, tray liners – as if his tepid approval was somehow a tipping point that validated a half century of burger perfection.
Also not to be missed: the malts ($2.99 Regular / $4.19 Large). Strawberry is the best bet, followed closely by blackberry. They’re perfectly creamy, though not too dense, with a slight tinge of malted milk flavor on the aftertaste and chunks of strawberries big enough to necessitate attacking it with both a straw and spoon.
Touches of modernity have slowly crept into the Gordy’s experience. Ice cream is no longer sold out of the back window, but rather at a new building across the parking lot. Named the Warming House, it also sells coffee drinks, some other sandwiches, and is complete with a — gasp — drive-thru. Two hours on the nose from downtown Minneapolis, it feels pretty nice to take a quick road trip and be reminded of the glory of a basic burger – and of all the summers passed devouring them.
Gordy’s Hi-Hat, 411 Sunnyside Drive, Cloquet, MN, 55720, 218.879.6125