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My colleagues and friends would exchange looks of disbelief every time I tell them that I, a food writer in the Twin Cities, had yet to try a Juicy Lucy, the messy yet operatic take on a burger where the cheese inside the burger spills out, ceremoniously, on first bite. So I caved.

I don't consider myself a burger purist, so any untraditional accoutrement or preparation is fine by me, so long as it all tastes lush and meaty. And while a block of melty cheese may very well be overkill, I am assured that it shouldn't be, depending on locale.

Favorites were named. Strong opinions were expressed. But I kept an open mind as I embarked on this adventure on a balmy Saturday, starting with Matt's Bar, which claims to have invented the burger. Legend has it that a customer there, nearly 70 years ago, ordered two patties with a slice of cheese in the middle and after taking a bite exclaimed, "that's one juicy Lucy." Matt's has since claimed this moniker and changed the spelling to "Jucy," contrary to the practices at other eateries.

But is the original necessarily the best? After paying my pilgrimages and flirting with my cholesterol levels, I have opinions. But before you hoist your pitchforks, know that we all agree to disagree.

The original Jucy Lucy (or is it?) at Matt’s Bar.
The original Jucy Lucy (or is it?) at Matt’s Bar.

Jon Cheng, Star Tribune

4. Matt's Bar and Grill

This first thing I noticed about Matt's is how they manage to pack 90 diners in a space no bigger than a living room. There's always a line, and I'm told that by 1 p.m. it stretches outside the bar and snakes around the block. Crowds notwithstanding, the waitstaff remains all-smiling, tending to lunchtime patrons consisting mostly of families.

By night the divey atmosphere looks like the type of place that Arnold Schwarzenegger would find during the beginning of the "Terminator" movies, where he steals a motorcycle jacket and pants from a fellow biker. And it smells like a meaty dream — there's only one person manning the open grill in the corner, and it hisses nonstop, trancing you with its grease. Order immediately, I shall.

"Be careful! It's hot," comes the warning, as the classic ($9.50, tax inclusive) arrives in its wrapper. The first bite isn't as hot or tongue-scalding as expected, and the cheese doesn't gush out like a river. But it's an unadorned American cheese, for sure, encased by a patty encircled with a thin, caramelized edge. There are pickles and onions for good measure, and the fries ($5.75-$7.50 extra) taste like themselves. If only the patty were juicier — both my dining companion and I agree that the meat is rough and dry.

3500 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., 612-722-7072, mattsbar.com

The 5-8 Club also claims to be the first to serve a Juicy Lucy.
The 5-8 Club also claims to be the first to serve a Juicy Lucy.

Jon Cheng, Star Tribune

3. 5-8 Club

What was once a speakeasy probably looks nothing like its former self from the 1920s. The 5-8, which stakes another claim to Juicy Lucy's provenance, is a quieter, more civilized affair than Matt's. It's roomier, lit brighter and smells neutral. "Like a retirement home for Lucy," I laugh to myself.

To be fair, there are plenty of other options to order on the menu aside from the six Juicy Lucys. But I beeline for the burger, and opt for the classic. The onions are not quite caramelized, and while the cheese is richer and more glorious, it isn't as molten as it is at Matt's. And while the patty is thicker and slightly juicier, it's under-seasoned. At least the fries are included ($12.50).

5800 Cedar Av. S., Mpls. 612-823-5858, 5-8club.com. Other locations in Champlin, Maplewood and West St. Paul.

The Blue Door Pub’s classic Blucy, but there are several varieties of the stuffed burger.
The Blue Door Pub’s classic Blucy, but there are several varieties of the stuffed burger.

Jon Cheng, Star Tribune

2. Blue Door

At Blue Door, the feeling of getting upgraded to an extra-legroom coach seat, for free, is palpable. The ceilings are higher, the bar counter is clean and looks like marble, there's space between tables and the classic Lucy — called the Blucy here — is $9.95, same as Matt's. All things notwithstanding, I miss the divey atmosphere so iconic to the quasi-original.

"Our beef is better. Our cheese is better," my server tells me, as I casually ask what makes Blue Door's new-school Lucy so special. Yes, the beef tastes pure, and the cheese is milder. As I bite in, the cheese is steaming, less of a naughty ooze and a temperature that won't burn your throat if you ignore the directive of eating it carefully.

It's a clean eating experience, through and through — some might say too austere — but not the most emblematic of what a Juicy Lucy is capable of. But as a burger? It's up there, for sure, and it's my pick for second.

3448 42nd Av. S., Mpls., 612-315-2470; 1514 Como Av. SE., Mpls., 612-367-4964, thebdp.com

The Nook’s version of the Juicy Lucy is the Juicy Nookie.
The Nook’s version of the Juicy Lucy is the Juicy Nookie.

Jon Cheng, Star Tribune

1. The Nook

No matter the time of day, the Nook, a bar in St. Paul with tall ceilings and a handsome split-level dining area, will taunt you with a musk that's reminiscent of the morning-after at a frat house.

Whether or not that's endearing to you, it is at least fitting given how robustly flavored the Juicy Nookie Burger here is. First, the patties are thickest I've encountered and cooked to a uniform medium — so they insist — which lends an unmistakably juiciness, with caramelization not just around the edges, but all over; the grilled onions are nicely browned and sweet; and the cheese! Mustard-yellow, smooth and rich, but not cloyingly thick, it oozes like a lava cake — as it should. You wouldn't expect anything less from the best in town.

Will I return for the Juicy Lucy? It is a one and done affair. I'm not sure what warrants an immediate return overall, but I applaud the novelty of it and may return for her more free-spirited cousins. But for the sake of my cholesterol, I will hold off. For now.

492 S. Hamline Av., St. Paul, 651-698-4347, crnook.com

Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at jon.cheng@startribune.com or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.