There are few reasons to go to Queens. That is, unless you enjoy things like food. One of the five New York City boroughs, Queens is actually the most ethnically diverse county in North America. Which means you can pretty much travel around the world with your taste buds in the matter of a couple subway rides. New York fooderati, for example, know that the best Thai can be found in Queens. Bohemian Hall not only serves up quality Czech pub grub, but the huge beer garden (holding up to 1000 drinkers) is the last remaining relic of Queens’ 300 or so pre-Prohibition beer gardens. Why go all the way to Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan when you can eat your way through Rego Park, otherwise known as “Regostan” because of its large Central Asian population.
But what lured me to Queens recently was something more decidedly American: a Luther Burger. Dig, if you will, the picture: one beef patty, two strips of bacon, and one slice of sharp cheddar cheese sandwiched between-wait for it-a glazed doughnut. Online reports claim this heavyweight tops out at 1,500 calories. And while the burger has popped up on menus here and there, my research indicated there’s only one place in New York City that has the Luther as part of its permanent menu: the four-month-old Crave Shack in Astoria, Queens.
The origin of the Luther Burger and the provenance of its name are murky. As the story goes, the burger is named after soul singer Luther Vandross, a diabetic and legendarily voracious eater. Some say Vandross even invented the burger when he didn’t have a traditional bun in his pantry.
The Crave Shack burger flipper was so excited, he gave me a high five at the register and then with more enthusiasm than I’ve ever seen for grilled meat, proceeded to create a Luther burger, which here is called a Donut Burger. As the burger, bacon, and two doughnut halves each cooked on the grill, he told me they sell about a baker’s dozen worth of Luthers on a daily basis. “A real Luther,” he said, “uses two doughnuts as a bun. We only use one and because we use turkey bacon”-this part of Astoria is heavily Muslim so they obey halal dietary restrictions-“our version has much fewer calories.” And by that, he means the burger here is about 650 calories. So why not, I thought, call it Luther Lite?
I have to confess I was a tad frightened to bite into the Luther, fearing within seven seconds my left arm would begin growing numb. But one small bite later I was not only still alive, but impressed. The sacharine of the doughnut overwhelmed the burger, but the combination of flavors-the savory greasy beef, the sharp cheddar, the smokiness of the bacon, and the maple syrup-like sweetness of the doughnut-went well together. I’m not going to eat a Luther Burger every day, but I’d eat it again. Maybe after I’ve recovered from my first heart attack.
No one at Crave Shack could tell me the true origins of the Luther Burger. We could just go ask Vandross himself, but unfortunately he died in 2005. The cause: a heart attack.