Jimmy Buffett’s hit “Cheeseburger in Paradise” is almost as popular as the Parrothead national anthem, “Margaritaville.” And what hamburger lover couldn’t get behind the chorus of such a hit:
Cheeseburger in Paradise
Heaven on Earth with an onion slice
Not too particular, not too precise
Just a Cheeseburger in Paradise
I like mine with lettuce and tomato
Heinz 57 and French fried potato
Big Kosher pickle and a cold draft beer
Well good God Almighty which way do I steer?
From listening to other hits and whathaveyou, determining that Key West was indeed the paradise of which Buffett sang was not hard at all. So when a trip took me to the southernmost part of the continental United States I went to find whether the mythical burger could be found.
Of course, to find it you have to go to Margaritaville, Buffett’s original sidewalk café now replicated in 13 other cities across the U.S. and the Caribbean. It’s located on Duval Street, a bustling avenue of tourist shops, restaurants and historic locations a block from the end of U.S. Highway 1. The windows are usually open and there’s usually a wait, from what I gathered.
I found myself hustling to get to Margaritaville on a Monday morning, hotfooting it back over from the Hemingway House I’d just toured with the hubster. All along the way the sun beat down on us, the January light mixed with tropical warmth was more than enough to raise a little heat on the back of my neck. We met our other friends, who’d just been shown one round table at the front that probably should have only sat four, not six of us. I got the impression from the others that seating was preferable to waiting.
Cheeseburgers don’t magically appear, as any lolcat would lament. That’s fine. We all ordered drinks -- most of us variants of the margarita (when in Margaritaville…). I thought about this after the order went off, realizing I wouldn’t be true to the song -- but if I had been, then I could not have told you about the margarita and would have been stuck with draft beer to boot. The horror.
You can tell a little bit about our personalities in the margaritas we ordered. Right in our row of three, our friend Carl had himself a frozen margarita, the hubster had his traditional on the rocks and I had mine with a sugar rim. Yeah, I’m weird about that.
Our friends ordered conch fritters ($8.95), which came out looking like very large round hushpuppies. They were not dissimilar from hush puppies, being big yellow cornmeal balls with bits of white onion and jalapeno pepper mixed in. The difference were chunks of conch meat. The remoulade sauce was nicely tasty.
The hubster ordered up a Jumbo Lump Crab and Shrimp Salad ($14.95) -- a blend of lump crab meat, some pinkish shrimp, rotini pasta and olives on top of mixed greens with tomatoes in a lemon vinaigrette. He was pleased with it, though I was a little concerned on the price. Ah, it’s where we were, of course. I will say, it had far more crabmeat than I had anticipated.
So, there’s all that. Of course, it was time to get on with the Cheeseburger in Paradise ($9.95 with French fries or onion rings), and when I ordered it I had asked that it be “like the song and medium rare.” Out it came on its own special Cheeseburger in Paradise plate and everything on it just the way the song says -- with the Heinz 57 already on the table.
The lettuce was iceberg. The bun was seeded. The big chunk of tomato was impossibly red and the cheese -- a high quality American -- was melted into the meat. I almost ditched the white onions when I went to apply the Heinz, but realized that would defeat the purpose. The fries were skinless white dipping fries and the “big Kosher pickle” was a flat Vlassic-style slice.
Then there was the meat. I approved of the reddish tone that I could see through the bit of crust, though disappointed it was a griddle burger (I’d been hoping for flame broiled). It looked a little smashed on the outside, and when I went to see if the bun was toasted (it was) I noticed a little grill gristle common to hand patted smashers.
And for once I had ordered a burger medium rare that came out… not well done. The center of the burger was pink, a little more medium than medium rare but appreciably juicy. There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of spice in that burger but I can appreciate it for what it was.
And I have to say, Buffett might have been onto something. Without the Heinz 57 that burger was just another burger. But with it, the burger became a nice hearty handful with a good and almost signature flavor.
It’s not a burger I would have gone a huge way out of the way for, but being there I could appreciate it for what it was worth. And now I can say I have had a Cheeseburger in Paradise.