Thursday, February 26, 2015 12:00 AM
By Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY -- The scene: There is a lot of history behind Salt Lake City's uniquely Greek hamburger scene, which began with an influx of immigrants from the Mediterranean over a century ago. The large Greek community found employment in many industries, including restaurants, but it took another seven decades before Utah received its greatest culinary gift, the pastrami-topped hamburger. This debuted in 1978 at the original Crown Burger, now with seven beloved locations around the city. In 2011 Crown Burger was the focus of the very first Great American Bites column here at USA TODAY. Nearly four years later, we return to Utah for more of this odd and delicious regional specialty.
Almost immediately after Crown's overnight success - the very same year - other Utah restaurants began serving the specialty, and according to the Salt Lake City Weekly, "Nearly every well-known, independent burger restaurant in the state is owned and operated by Greeks." Today Utah has several mini-chains following in Crown's footsteps, but each doing their own unique take, including Astro Burgers, Atlantis Burgers, Olympus Burgers and my new favorite, Apollo Burger.
From the outside the restaurants look more like diners – Greek diners – than fast food shops, and this continues inside, with a high roof, quietly spinning ceiling fans and fake plants to spruce up the feel. Most of the seating is in large comfortable booths with deep benches sporting green cushioning and dark "wood grain" synthetic tables. A few little touches give it more of a sit-down feel, like salt, pepper and napkin dispensers on the table and the unique touch of serving bagged mints, the kind you'd usually find in a bowl near the front door, on every plastic tray of food. You order at the counter, but are given a number and food is delivered to your table. Most dishes are made to order, and it is appreciably slower than traditional fast food but worth the wait (there is a drive-through, but unless you are in a hurry, it's better to eat inside). One signature of the Utah Greek burger is that the patties are char-broiled on grills, and you can see this going on behind the counter here, smoke and all. Today a dozen Apollo locations span Salt Lake, St. George and other parts of Utah, plus one seemingly random thirteenth location out of state, in Hendersonville, Tenn.
Reason to visit: Pastrami-topped Apollo burger, Athenian burger, onion rings
The food: The menu at Apollo Burgers is more obviously Greek than many of its competitors, and while it does offer the city's trademark pastrami-topped burger, simply called the Apollo, there is much more. The list includes gyros, souvlaki in both sandwich and platter form, and most notably, the very Greek-influenced Athenian burger. There is an odd array of other dishes, from entrée salads to a roast turkey and avocado sandwich to a "Fisherman's Wharf" fried seafood platter, but it is the burgers that stand out. That being said, the gyro is quite good, not as exceptional as the best specialty shops, but by fast food standards, it exceeds expectations. One of the secrets to Apollo's success is that they serve a delicious version of tzatziki sauce (yogurt, garlic, cucumbers and spices), which is used generously on the gyro, along with lots of meat and little "filler," just enough vegetables to round out the pita sandwich. Portions in general are very substantial.
The Greek-style pastrami introduced at Crown Burger and replicated across Utah is generally leaner, less salty, and much moister than the better-known New York Jewish deli version, as it is soaked in warm paprika-infused beef broth. Apollo's take is sort of a compromise, with more of the Greek-style flavor but not as dripping wet. Like all its peers, the other special addition is Utah's beloved "fry sauce," similar to what other regions call Thousand Island dressing. For the pure pastrami burger, I still prefer Crown because I think their pastrami is better, but the burgers themselves excel at Apollo, especially the delicious house signature, the Athenian.
All the burgers use a quality 1/4-pound all-beef patty (except doubles, which get two!) grilled to order and served on a really good home-style bun, one of the best I've seen at a "fast food" place. The flavor of the char-grilling comes through and adds a dimension of taste that you don't usually get this quickly at these prices, reminiscent of a backyard summer barbecue. All the burgers are generously dressed, big, messy two-handed affairs. The Athenian has feta cheese, roasted red peppers and the standout house tzatziki sauce, and it is pretty awesome, one of the best specialty burgers I've had in recent history. The salty tanginess of the feta pairs perfectly with the sauce and soft roasted peppers, and the flavors of each, along with the grilled beef, comes shining through. This is just a really good burger. Other house special variants include a bleu cheese and bacon version, a Hawaiian teriyaki burger with pineapple slice, and the Western bacon with barbecue sauce and Apollo's excellent crunchy onion rings on it. I didn't try them all, but because the patties and buns are so good, it seems hard to go wrong.
As far as sides, the fries are good, better than you'll get at the big national burger chains, randomly shaped in a way that suggests hand cutting, fresh, and crispy. The standout onion rings are even better, also randomly sized, with crunchy, heavy but tasty breading, also served very fresh and hot, but not oily. Like the fries, the shake is better than expected in the fast food world, thick and real-tasting, but not quite a must-try.
Apollo Burger delivers a close-to-restaurant experience and quality at fast food prices, with big portions, great taste and good value. Today there are many newcomers to this cooked-to-order niche, an upscale take on the fast food burger experience, including Five Guys, Shake Shack, Smash Burger and many others, but this 30-year old family owned chain is better than those and better than most.