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Fork in the Road

Getting steamed is the only way at Ted’s in Meriden, Conn.

Lettuce and tomato are free trimmings on the burgers at Ted’s Restaurant in Meriden, Conn.

David Lyon for The Boston Globe

Lettuce and tomato are free trimmings on the burgers at Ted’s Restaurant in Meriden, Conn.

One in a series on iconic New England eateries.

MERIDEN, Conn. — The sign outside this tiny eatery on a busy street proclaims Ted’s Restaurant to be home to “world famous steamed cheeseburgers.” But proprietor Bill Foreman is a modest kind of guy. “Steamed cheeseburgers are a central Connecticut thing,” he says, as if they were no big deal. “We make the best product we can.”

Foreman’s great-uncle Ted Duberek opened the restaurant in 1959, and it’s been a fixture in Meriden ever since.

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But Foreman acknowledges that steamed cheeseburgers can seem a bit unusual for those who didn’t grow up on them. “Americans are used to a fried cheeseburger,” he says. “This is stepping a little out of the box.”

For the best view of the process of steaming a burger, bypass the three booths and grab one of the stools at the long Formica counter. That way you’ll have a view of the custom-made, stainless-steel box steamers, each about the size of a large breadbox. They see a lot more action than the traditional grill sitting next to them, which is used to prepare bacon strips and home fries.

The system is surprisingly simple. Cooks load ground beef into small trays to be placed in the meat box. Trays filled with cheddar cheese go into the cheese box. They close the doors and in 10 to 12 minutes the burgers are cooked. In 4 to 6 minutes the cheese reaches a thick, gooey consistency and can be spooned over a burger.

Like many things, the devil is in the details. Steaming removes a lot of the fat from the meat, a health virtue that locals note when extolling the virtues of Meriden’s signature fast food. To make sure that his burgers emerge from the steamer moist and juicy, Foreman works with a local supplier who mixes and grinds the meat to his specifications (roughly 80 percent lean). The cheddar cheese is selected for its melting qualities. “And we don’t skimp on the cheese,” Foreman adds.

The lunchtime crowd digs in at the counter of Ted's Restaurant.

David Lyon for The Boston Globe

The lunchtime crowd digs in at the counter of Ted's Restaurant.

It’s true. A tray of melted cheese fully envelops a burger and runs down the sides. For mishap-free eating, it’s all contained in a “Vienna” bulky roll that’s considerably larger than the burger.

That leaves plenty of room for diners to embellish their burgers with lettuce, tomato, chopped onion, sauteed onions, sauteed mushrooms, pickles, jalapeño peppers, and a number of sauces. In a nod to modern “gourmet” sensibilities, Foreman even offers a “Hawaii 5-0” cheeseburger with mango-chutney mayonnaise, pineapple, and bacon.

But the basic cheeseburger with ketchup is the perfect way to appreciate what happens when good ingredients are treated simply and with respect.

Foreman estimates that about 90 percent of diners order the steamed cheeseburgers. But they can also order a bun with hot cheese sans meat (Ted’s take on a grilled cheese sandwich) or top a BLT, tuna sandwich, home fries, or hot dog with cheese.

Foreman cultivates a family atmosphere. He long ago stopped staying open late at night to satisfy the cravings of revelers after the bars had closed. These days Ted’s is busy at lunch and with school kids who stop in for a late afternoon snack. Weekends are big with families. “One of the advantages of being small,” he says, “is that we can keep our prices down.”

That’s a tradition worth holding on to.

TED’S RESTAURANT 1046 Broad St., Meriden, Conn. 203-237-6660, www.tedsrestaurant.com. Steamed cheeseburger $5.25.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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