The fattier your hamburger, the more likely you are to send a blast of flames into your eyebrows if you use a fire grill. An engine-hot flat top sears the beef in its own juices. That’s what you want: The crackle-crust. The garage griddle that would later help Jack Perkins and Austen Wright open their first restaurant is where they tested their sandwich ideas. Perkins and Wright tried various blends, testing beef patties on neighbors and friends and family.
A cheeseburger is the camera of the food world, a sturdy but intricate thing. Tweak the light a little, and you can either gain or lose focus. For Perkins and Wright, the idea was to maintain a crisp focus on a few things over many. Do less, but execute it exactly, was Perkins’ goal.
Twelve minutes after opening on a gin-clear day, the parking lot of Maple and Motor fills up with anxious quickness. Blink once and the line for ordering runs to the front door. Two blinks and the the line cascades outside in the crisp air. No one looks pissed about it. If you know Maple and Motor, you know there’s no need to be impatient. If you burger it, they will come.
Outside, the rich dome of smoky, charred beef aroma surrounds the little restaurant shack. Inside the dome, the quiet hiss fills the room when the door jangles open: It’s the spellbinding sound of Motor’s brisket and chuck patties searing. Long planks of bacon are piled Rocky Mountain-high in a tub where Lucio Mendoza — the chef who fired the first burger at M&M — cooks at the griddle.
“If your menu description for your burger is grass-fed, locally sourced, whatever, it’s just bullshit. It's just so much bullshit." — Jack Perkins
Hats hang from the ceiling, rocking from the vented air. Guy Fieri’s flamingo visage, emblazoned on the wall, watches silently like an off-duty Santa Claus above the booth seats. On another wall, the jukebox rests. Three police officers remove their coats, handcuffs and guns snoozing in their holsters; the two dudes sharing their table smile and nod through cheeseburger bites to indicate that seats are available. Just 20 minutes after opening, Maple and Motor is a full house.
It was Sept. 11, 2009, when Perkins opened his first restaurant. Before that, he was a teacher. His financial portfolio shrunk like spinach in the pan after 2008, so he was on the hunt for a smart investment.
“The truth is, we opened it in September, and the idea was we’d get it up and going, and I’d go back to teaching in December,” Perkins says.
That didn't happen. Perkins hung close to the restaurant as it took off, cradling the day-to-day operations. Today, you’ll find the same chunk of finely ground brisket and chuck, hovering around 75 percent lean beef and 25 percent fat, balled and hard-pressed into the flat top. They don’t form patties into discs. I ask for “pink,” leaving a fine line of rare juices through the center.
“Just turn it once so there’s no fucking with it,” Perkins says, walking us through how it’s been done for years. Rings of cool red onion, lettuce, pickle and, by default, mustard are added. Sometimes no change means all the comfort. They don’t add “anything that spoils” — nothing that’d cost Perkins money if it went unused. In the first year, the burger arrived on a squishy Mrs. Baird’s bun.
"... no one cares if my beef is organic, non-GMO. They want a burger, and they want it to taste good. And they want it for the price of a burger.” — Jack Perkins
“If your menu description for your burger is grass-fed, locally sourced, whatever, it’s just bullshit. It’s just so much bullshit,” Perkins says. “I can tell you that no one cares — and I mean this — no one cares if my beef is organic, non-GMO. They want a burger, and they want it to taste good. And they want it for the price of a burger.”
Tater tots show up as crunchy-salty as if they appeared straight from your imagination. Expansion and change can loom with success, but Perkins, as of now, shrugs at the idea of more Maple and Motors. It might come in the future, if the world doesn’t end, and it might not. Right now, a decade into its existence, in a city bracing against the riptide of change — especially in the restaurant industry — it’s consoling to see that Maple and Motor is still great. It’s one of the best, actually and really, something easily taken for granted when new spots pop open everyday.
Maple and Motor, 4810 Maple Ave.