The tattoos on the back of Tony Stanton’s arm tell a story. There’s a depiction of a hamburger oozing from the center with cheese. And next to that, dollar signs.
“That’s because ‘Jucy Lucy’ pays the bills,” said Stanton, who has manned the grill at south Minneapolis dive Matt’s Bar for a decade.
Stanton flips more than 400 Jucy Lucys in a day for a devoted fan base, who believe Matt’s Bar to be the birthplace of this cheese-stuffed burger.
Three miles down the road, the 5-8 Club has its own set of Juicy Lucy devotees (obviously the spelling of the burger is up for debate). This 70-year-old speakeasy insists it invented this stalwart of Minneapolis bar cuisine.
There’s a war going on in south Minneapolis between two rivals, and the only weapon is an endless dribble of scalding hot cheese. For half a century, these two bars on Cedar Avenue South have claimed to make the original, and best, Juicy Lucy.
While both sides were racking up supporters and media attention, their ooey-gooey burgers became as intrinsic to Minnesota food culture as hot dish.
“It’s what we’re known for,” said Amy Thielen, a Midwest food expert and author of the new memoir, “Give a Girl a Knife.”
“Minnesotans love to go to a dark dive bar and eat something it’s known for, something fun and something that will potentially burn your face,” Thielen said. “There’s an element of risk.”
Perhaps one of the reasons why the burger is so well known beyond our borders is because of the Matt’s Bar/5-8 Club rivalry. It’s been featured on Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food,” and President Barack Obama unofficially chose a side when he stopped in to Matt’s for a Jucy Lucy and fries in 2014.
“That they exist and we exist is good for both of us,” said Jill Skogheim, president of 5-8 restaurants.
People will often stop in to both eateries in the same day to compare. The super ambitious also add to their Juicy Lucy tour the Nook in St. Paul, and the Blue Door Pub with three locations in the Twin Cities.
Juicy Lucy’s genesis
It seems the dispute comes down to two points: who invented the Juicy Lucy, and which one is better.
On the first point, Matt’s Bar (3500 Cedar Av. S.) has a better story.
Back in 1954, a regular customer ordered a cheeseburger, said general manager Amy Feriancek. The customer asked owner Matt Bristol to put the cheese on the inside instead of on top. Bristol obliged, and when the customer bit in and got a face full of molten cheese, he exclaimed, “Wow, that’s one Juicy Lucy!”
The burger was a hit and landed on the bar’s menu — though misspelled as “jucy.”
The story at 5-8 Club (5800 Cedar Av. S.) is vaguer. The Juicy Lucy “was invented in south Minneapolis in the 1950s” Skogheim said. But does she know the origin? “Not exactly, no.”
As for which one is better, that’s up to fans. Both restaurants use a fatty grind of beef, and the grease mixes in with the cheese in the center to create a liquid cheesy, meaty sauce. Both season with nothing more than salt and pepper.
“It’s the simplicity of it,” Stanton said of Matt’s Jucy Lucy. “It was made up before all this artisanal [stuff].”
At Matt’s, the burgers are cooked on a tiny grill wedged in behind the bar, on the same top as a heaping mound of caramelizing onions that lend their smell and a little slick of grease to everything in the dark living-room-like bar. Even if you don’t order the onions on your burger, “you get the essence,” Stanton said. The American-cheese-only Jucy Lucys are served simply, on a bun with pickles. And that’s it.
At 5-8, the larger and cheesier burgers have a little more room to themselves on the kitchen’s griddle. The cooks there get creative with toppings and fillings. A Thanksgiving Juicy Lucy is a turkey burger filled with stuffing. An experimental concoction is stuffed with peanut butter and jelly. The classics, filled with either American, Swiss, pepper jack or bleu cheese, can be piled high with bacon, onion rings and house-made barbecue sauce.
“We were the first ones to innovate,” Skogheim said. On that point, they can be sure.
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