Drive anywhere in Utah and you’re just as likely to see a regional fast food burger joint as a McDonald’s or Wendy’s. These local burger stands are known for their beefy pastrami burgers, and if you Google where to get them, you might notice a lot of Greek sounding names: Yanni’s Greek Express, Apollo Burger, Olympus Burgers, and Atlantis Burgers all sell the Jewish-deli-inspired sandwich. But one restaurant gets more national recognition than the others, and it’s Utah’s crowning achievement: Crown Burgers.
Crown Burgers, open since 1978, has eight locations spread across Utah, and most of those outposts are found throughout the Salt Lake Valley. The restaurant specializes in burritos, salads, thick milkshakes, and the aforementioned pastrami burgers—but also gyros, souvlaki plates, and rice pilaf. It’s Greek cuisine meets the classic American burger stand, and it’s not just Crown Burgers that has this style of menu. Many of the burger restaurants in Utah have the same Greek slant.
Greek immigrants arrived in Utah early in the 20th century, fleeing poverty to hold down labor jobs; the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway provided ample opportunity (the first transcontinental railway was completed just north of Salt Lake City). Today, there is a thriving Greek community in the area, and Greek food traditions have naturally endured as part of it.
Fast forward to sometime in the ’60s or ’70s, when pastrami burgers were just beginning to take off in California. There, James Katsanevas learned to build them. He eventually relocated to Utah, where his family founded the original Crown Burgers in 1978.
And that’s how you get a Greek-Jewish-American burger restaurant.
Multiple families now own Crown Burgers, which has operated for 45 years. It’s said to be the first burger chain in Utah featuring Greek cuisine, and it holds a special place in many Utahans’ hearts. So, how’s the food? Do these Greek dishes work in a drive-thru setting?
The pastrami burger is enormous, filling, meaty, and, curiously, kind of sweet. While some pastrami can taste peppery and smoky, Crown Burgers’ version tastes heavy with allspice, coriander, clove, and sugar. It’s got a sweet corned beef vibe to it and reminds me of brisket brined in pop.
It’s not an incredible burger by any means. The burger might as well be a pastrami sandwich, because the beef patty itself is barely detectable under so much shaved deli meat. All of the condiments—Thousand Island dressing, tomatoes, lettuce, and onions—become saturated with the sweet and savory pastrami flavors, too. Unfortunately, it tastes like a hat on a hat. But it only costs 10 bucks, which is a damn good price for a sandwich these days.
Utah loves to champion itself as the state where fry sauce was invented, but most of the stuff I’ve tasted isn’t all that unique. Utah fry sauce needs to be more than just ketchup and mayonnaise to live up to its name, but most of the pink condiments I’ve had throughout the state don’t taste all that inspired.
Crown Burgers’ fry sauce, however, is some of the best you’ll find anywhere. It has hints of onion powder, Worcestershire, and maybe even pickle juice, briny and speckled with spices. Anyone can make good fry sauce from a few simple ingredients at home, but at Crown Burgers it’s free, and it’ll improve upon fries, onion rings, and even that pastrami burger. Load up on it.
The difference between standard rice and rice pilaf is that the latter is boiled, strained, and sautéed with oil, turmeric, lemon, herbs, and sometimes garlic and onion. While Crown Burgers’ rice isn’t nearly as oily as I would prefer (I want more fat), it carries an intense, mouth-smackingly tart lemony flavor. This is where Greek cuisine and burger culture marry perfectly: Spoonfuls of citrusy rice in between bites of a pastrami create a wholly balanced, undeniably unique burger experience. Where else can you experience this but in Utah?
A chicken souvlaki plate is quintessential takeout food. Crown Burgers serves this dish with a skewer of marinated and charred chicken, which doesn’t have much flavor outside of the char. It’s also a bit dry—these have, after all, probably been sitting under a heat lamp—and it’s accompanied by a fairly standard pilaf, some pita bread, and an underwhelming side salad. I was ready to be let down by this combo, but Crown Burgers’ Greek dressing makes up for every shortcoming, adding some much needed moisture to the chicken.
As mentioned, the pilaf itself lacks fat, but this dressing attaches some handily. Salad dressing and rice is a combination I would never have thought of on my own, but I’m telling you, it works.
The Crown Burgers milkshake menu exemplifies the uniquely thick Utah style, engineered to ensure the milkshake takes longer to melt. You’ll need a spoon for the first 20 minutes or so (seriously, thick milkshakes take a long time to eat), but it’s worth it. A thick milkshake with a pastrami burger is as Utah as it gets.
Crown Burgers succeeds because it never got too big for its britches. It’s local fast food that hasn’t sacrificed its character, flavor, or integrity. Eight locations is, in my opinion, about as much as a regional chain should aim to handle. Conversely, when a fast food joint like Runza decides to expand, the quality in food is likely to dip, the natural trade-off of nailing down a repeatable, scalable product. I wish there were more regional restaurant chains that stay regional rather than leaping into the franchise model.
I also wish more fast food joints were injected with the cuisine brought by the immigrants who helped shape their respective communities. We need a fast food chain that serves toum with its burgers. We need kimchi as a side order with a spicy fried chicken sandwich. Tortas served alongside beer-battered onion rings, and french fries presented with mojo rojo, chimichurri, and aji verde. Crown Burgers proves that when the whole American melting pot thing happens in a fast food setting, the results taste no less than beautiful.