Footscray, in Melbourne’s inner-west, has been a working class migrant suburb for the best part of 100 years.
Many Italians, then Vietnamese and more recently Sudanese moved to Footscray, making it famous for its two markets (one recently burned down) and its mix of those diaspora’s cuisines.
While the suburb’s reputation for food was built over decades, it took just weeks for a hamburger joint to steal the limelight from more traditional culinary landmarks.
That hamburger joint is 8bit, a video game-themed burger restaurant that’s widely considered one of, if not the best in Australia. It’s located just off the main street, across from a funeral home, and is constantly packed.
8bit is a symbol of the suburb’s unstoppable gentrification. On New Year’s Day its windows were smashed and graffitied with the slogan “f*** off hipsters”.
In the same way that the suburb’s relatively cheap rent and close-to-the-city location has recently attracted younger families and students, so too has 8bit.
Yep, burgers in Australia are powerful.
8bit’s co-owner Shayne McCallum says his shop’s location and the popularity of its burgers go hand-in-hand.
“A big reason for our success is the fact we opened in an area with no other burger places,” Mr McCallum tells The New Daily.
“We had the spot and the burger idea before the video game branding concept.
“It ended up turning into more of a destination to come, you had people in Nunawading [in Melbourne’s opposite eastern suburbs] saying ‘holy crap the best burger in Melbourne could be in Footscray?’.”
Hasn’t Australia always loved burgers?
Well, yes. To be clear, burgers have been popular in Australia for some time. In the mid-20th century, for example, Coles (in its Coles Cafeteria stores) sold hamburgers.
And who hasn’t eaten a fish and chip shop burger? Or been to Hungry Jacks or McDonald’s for a burger? We’ve been loving them for a long time Down Under.
But since 2012 (according to Mr McCallum and another burger expert who spoke to The New Daily) there has been a sharp and rapid increase in the popularity and ubiquity of burger joints in Australia.
That was when hatted Melbourne restaurant Huxtable, led by Daniel Wilson, opened a burger shop in trendy inner-city suburb Collingwood, named Huxtaburger.
It offered reasonably priced burgers in a distinctly American style, using high-quality ingredients and focusing on keeping the food as straightforward as possible.
Crucially, Huxtaburger also used soft and sweet brioche buns to house its patties, which simply consisted of fresh, high-quality meat mixed with only salt and pepper (no onion, garlic, herbs, breadcrumbs, egg or any other nonsense involved).
“Huxtaburger changed burgers in Melbourne and from that everyone went burger crazy, they had lines out the door,” Mr McCallum says.
“People saw that from a business perspective, and saw they’re relatively simple to make and the set up for a shop is easy to do and burgers started popping up more.
“For the customer, they saw the Huxtaburger hype and it became burger craziness.”
Jimmy Hurlston – known for his Australia-traversing burger blog Jimmy’s Burgers and now owner of burger joints Easey’s in Collingwood, Truck Stop Deluxe in Werribee and Guilty in Sydney – agrees.
“Huxtaburger was the spark, I wouldn’t deny that,” Mr Hurlston tells The New Daily.
“I guess it brought the US-style burger to the masses on a greater level, it was that US burger but it wasn’t McDonald’s.
“Although there were at the same time a number of other places popping up [Dandenong Pavilion and Mr Burger].”
Why we love burgers
Burgers have managed to fight off the rise of the foodie fitness and wellness trend, which has recently embedded itself in Australian culinary culture.
Cafes serving kombucha, acai bowls, chia puddings, buckwheat noodles and wellness smoothies are hugely popular.
Those ingredients, and ones similar, are also flying off supermarket and health shop shelves.
But salty, fatty and sugary burgers have stood up to that threat. They’re the “perfect cheat meal” and really not that unhealthy [if made with top produce], Mr Hurlston says.
“The burger has been able to progress through the “fitspo” [short for fitness inspiration] generation because it is the ultimate cheat meal.
“They look big, juicy, fattening and can be split with friends. It is easy to be shared on social media which allows the attraction to grow.
“And at the end of the day if a burger is made using good products, it looks a cheat, but may not be.”
Social media is vitally important to the Australian burger renaissance. Mr Hurlston aka Jimmy’s Burgers has 64,000 followers on Instagram where he reviews burgers.
8bit, Mr McCallum says, owes a lot of its success to social media. And something he and co-owner Alan Sam painstakingly worked to create has helped that online popularity – the standing burger box.
“Our packaging is a little different as well,” he says. “It’s the boxes. We thought it would be awesome to have the burger sit upright in a box so that you could walk around and eat it.
“But it’s also meant the burger comes to the table in the perfect configuration to be photographed and put on social media.”
At first Mr McCallum and Mr Sam made the boxes themselves but eventually found a manufacturer. Mr McCallum says “some people hate the boxes”, citing angry emails.
But most love the stand-up burger box, so much so that the box has been copied all over Australia, he says.
Mr Hurlston believes Australians love to copy and follow Americans.
“A lot of Australian culture looks to the US culture for direction and you watch television and read magazines you see images of what is happening in the US. So Aussies think ‘oh we want that’, and because of that the US-style burger has taken off.”
Being such a force in the US, it’s no surprise the country’s burger ubiquity is trickling over to Australia. Celebrated and late American food writer Josh Ozersky wrote a book on the hamburger, titled The Hamburger: A History.
In it he arguea that the hamburger is an “irrepressible economic and cultural force”. Its history, Mr Ozersky writes, is “entwined” with the history of American business and consumerism.
“The hamburger is the most powerful food object that ever existed and it only gets stronger every year,” he tells Revel, while promoting the book.
Social media, location and our infatuation with America aren’t the only reasons for Australia’s burger love affair.
American-style burgers, wildly popular around Australia, have a distinct taste. And it’s a bloody delicious one.
They are overtly unctuous, incredibly meaty (no herbs, onions, garlic etc to spoil the meat patty’s taste) and salty but also sweet (owing to mustard, ketchup and those oft-brioche buns).
Toppings are either very simple or ridiculous. The traditional American cheeseburger calls for only a patty and cheese – the bright yellow processed stuff – in a bun, that’s all.
Add to that lettuce, tomato, pickles and some form of sauce (mustard, tomato or the burger joint’s “special sauce”) and you can’t go wrong.
Bacon isn’t bad thrown in, nor are some pickled jalapenos. And an extra patty is never discouraged.
But try and avoid slipping hash browns, mac and cheese patties, onion rings, potato cakes or dim sims inside the burger (people and burger joints do).
Simplicity is the key with the American burger.
Eating one of those simpler burgers every now and then probably isn’t that bad for you. But add sides and you’re on the way to heart attack city.
Loaded fries (often covered with cheese, bacon, mince meat etc) go very well with a burger, as does a shake (and hopefully it’s thick).
Both Mr Hurlston and Mr McCallum agree that there will be new food trends, but they also agree that the burger’s popularity will take a while to die (if it ever does).
“I think burgers will continue, I don’t see any reason for it to stop, we have so many great burgers in Australia,” Mr Hurlston says.
“But because there are so many places opening there will be as many closing.
“It is patently obvious to me when someone has opened a venue just to make money, I can taste it and see it in the service and their restaurant.”
Mr Hurlston says that macaroni and cheese, donuts and American BBQ will be, and currently are, the next food trends to move in on the burger trend’s territory.
“Donuts will grow, we don’t have what they have in the US with donuts. Mac and cheese is another one.
“Poke is huge in the US and is already here in Australia. It will come here in a bigger way, it taps into that fitness market, similar to what sushi did.”