“That is one Juicy Lucy!”
So said the rhyming-prone guy — surely he was brandishing a thick, vowel-heavy Minnesota accent — who bit into the first cheese-filled patty of the burger that was later christened (and spelled) the Jucy Lucy.
That’s the folk legend, anyway.
The story of Minnesota’s contribution to the annals of American burger history can be culled from the Star Tribune’s archives.
And yes, the spelling fluctuates between “Jucy” and “Juicy.” The former is the proper Matt’s Bar verbiage, the south Minneapolis corner hangout where the burger is said to have been born (the misspelling wasn’t intentional, someone forgot the “i” and the error stuck), the latter is everywhere else. Both spellings can be found in the Strib’s archives, and the newsroom’s editors clearly struggled, for decades, over “Jucy” v. “Juicy.” Actually, “Jucy v. Juicy” would be a great name for a Food Network showdown.
(Taste debuted in the Minneapolis Star on Oct. 1, 1969 — it was one of the country’s first newspaper food sections — and to mark this 50th anniversary, we will occasionally dig into its 2,600-plus past issues.)
The Taste section’s first Jucy/Juicy Lucy citation dates to July 9, 1975.
“Thanks to a tip from a faithful Taste reader, I have found the best hamburger in the Twin Cities, bar none,” wrote Taste editor Peggy Katalinich, in one of the section’s first restaurant reviews. “It’s the Juicy [sic] Lucy at Matt’s Bar, 35th and Cedar Av. S. For $1.35, you get a thick, juicy hamburger, stuffed with cheese, served with French fries. The bar is a comfortable neighborhood one with fast service on the beers, less so on the hamburgers.”
Three years later, writer Karin Winegar chimed in on the Jucy Lucy in a feature on the city’s then-plentiful neighborhood corner bars.
“Its customers claim Matt’s is the home of ‘Juicy [sic] Lucys,’ a south Minneapolis delicacy ($1.80) consisting of two hamburger patties crowned with fried onions and embracing a stratum of cheese,” she wrote. “They have been consumed at Matt’s Bar for 20 years.”
For a 1980 Twin Cities burger roundup, restaurant critic Jeremy Iggers crowned Matt’s Jucy Lucy as the region’s second-best, coming in just behind the cheeseburger at Shortstop Tavern in Coon Rapids.
“The ordinary hamburgers at Matt’s Bar are just ordinary, but the Juicy [sic] Lucy ($2.10) is in a class by itself,” wrote Iggers. “It’s a quarter-pound of hamburger wrapped around a center of melted cheese, and is d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s. Purists may quibble about whether the Juicy Lucy is really a hamburger or a cheeseburger, but that’s a technicality.”
(Want to make your own Juicy Lucy? Find a recipe here.)
‘The ambrosia of burgerdom’
Perhaps no one in the newspaper’s history embraced the Jucy/Juicy Lucy with the eloquence and passion of Dick Youngblood, a staple in the newspaper’s business section. Reading his observations of the cheese-stuffed burger all these years later, it’s apparent that the longtime columnist and editor could have had a career in food writing.
“Ah, the Jucy Lucy: two hamburger patties crimped around a slab of American cheese, fried to succulent perfection and enveloped in fried onions, the Jucy Lucy is a $2.60 delicacy [the 2019 price is $7.75] to be savored, although, in truth, it’s impossible not to savor it for several hours after eating one,” he wrote in 1984. “It’s not a burger for the weak of spirit. Its molten innards will scar the unwary neophyte — or even the overanxious veteran who ought to know better than to launch the first attack with wide-mouthed exuberance.”
Thirteen years later, Youngblood returned to his pet subject.
“The Jucy Lucy is a concoction that I have described, with no fear of contradiction, as ‘the ambrosia of burgerdom,’ ” he wrote. “The mere aroma can add three or four pounds to my already elliptical contours. It is not a meal for the impatient, however; the burger’s molten innards will scar the unwary neophyte — or the forgetful veteran — who attacks with wide-mouthed exuberance instead of nibbling warily at the edges.”
Youngblood, who referred to the Jucy Lucy as “a misspelled, vaguely risqué name,” also noted that while other neighborhood taverns were calling it quits, Matt’s continued to prosper. There was one big cheese-stuffed reason.
“Matt’s Bar, a dark, 24-by-55-foot cavern into which 78 famished patrons can be jammed on a busy day, started out in 1954 as a run-of-the-mill 3.2 beer joint with a 2-foot-wide grill as an adjunct at one end of the bar,” he wrote in 1984. “Today, it’s a 2-foot-wide grill with a 3.2 beer license as the adjunct.”
“There’s no doubt about it,” owner Matt Bristol told Youngblood. “If it weren’t for the Jucy Lucy, I’d be out of business today.’”
Bristol’s daughter Cheryl Bristol bought the place in 1990 and ran it with her father for eight years, until selling to current owners Scott and Kathy Nelson.
Today, the Jucy Lucy remains as delicious — and as popular — as ever.
“Eighty percent of our sales are from food, and 85 percent of those sales are the Jucy Lucy,” said Matt’s Bar co-general manager Paul Rees. “We get a lot of tourists coming in, because the Jucy Lucy has become Minnesota’s Philly cheesesteak or Chicago dog. People from all over want to come in and sample it.”
It should also be said that Jucy/Juicy Lucy is a beloved staple of several other bars, including the 5-8 Club. The Blue Door Pub has dubbed its take on the cheese-stuffed burger the “Blucy.”
No matter the source — or the spelling — here’s a measure of how the Jucy/Juicy Lucy has embedded itself into the American burger landscape: On the day that Matt Bristol died in 2014, President Barack Obama was having lunch at Matt’s.
He ordered a Jucy Lucy, of course.
Where to get them
Blue Door Pub, 1811 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-493-1865; 3448 42nd Av. S., Mpls., 612-315-2470; 1514 Como Av. SE., Mpls., 612-367-4964; 3006 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-353-4838; thebdp.com
5-8 Club, 5800 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., 612-823-5858; 2289 E. Minnehaha Av., Maplewood, 651-735-5858; 6251 N. Douglas Court, Champlin, 763-425-5858; 1741 S. Robert St., West St. Paul, 651-456-5858; 5-8club.com
Matt’s Bar, 3500 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., 612-722-7072, mattsbar.com