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The tale of the South Sound Smitty burger, part II

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on April 11, 2014 at 10:04 am | No Comments »
April 11, 2014 10:56 am
A Smitty burger at Goofy Goose, although it's not called that.
A Smitty burger at Goofy Goose, although today it’s called a Goofy Burger.

You always can tell a Smitty burger by its shape. Think of the Smitty, served in these parts for more than 50 years, as something of a burger hoagie – a hamburger patty formed into a stretched-out oval with a hoagie or French roll standing in for a bun.

The fillings can fluctuate, depending on who’s assembling it, but a Smitty typically comes dressed with the cool crunch of iceberg lettuce, sliced or diced onions, thick tomato slices, pickle chips and almost always some kind of special sauce. If you’re doing it right, you’ll order it with cheese.

The story and lore of the Smitty burger stretches more than half a century in the South Sound. There’s actually two Smitty burgers – one still served locally, the other a burger an artifact of the Puyallup Fair (more on that in a minute).

Last week, I reported about the new coffee house and cafe Amp replacing Jubilee, one of just a few burger joints in the South Sound that was still serving the oblong Smitty. As a burger community service project, I wanted to make sure readers knew that Don’s Drive-In in Puyallup and Marcia’s Silver Spoon on South Tacoma Way still serve their versions of the Smitty.

I asked and readers bit with their own recommendations of where to still find a Smitty, whether or not it’s still called that. What follows is a touch more to the history of the Smitty burger, as told by Tacoma native and second-generation restaurateur Larry Zarelli, as well as burger recommendations from readers.

A tale of two Smitty burgers

A bit of Smitty lore from the News Tribune’s archives – there are at least two Smitty burgers around here, but with ties to one local named Houston Odom Smith.

One Smitty was served every year at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup and was a round burger piled with griddled onions, credited to H.O.  Smith, whose son-in-law Don Baldwin ran the Smitty burger stand at the fair (he sold it five years ago, fair officials told me). The oblong Smitty served at Don’s and Marcia’s can be traced to a style of burger served at restaurants owned by Werner Schmid, who bought his restaurants from H.O. Smith.

Tacoman Larry Zarelli added to that story yesterday about the deeper roots of the Smitty. Here’s what he told me.

His father Ernie Zarelli was the owner of Zarelli’s, which was off Union and Center where the Arco station is now. His family is entrenched in local restaurants – his uncle Jim Zarelli was the guy behind the Poodle Dog.

As Larry told the story, his dad created a burger called the Jumbo, a big oblong patty studded with onions (right in the patty), griddled and served on the signature French roll that’s a hallmark of a Smitty. One afternoon, Houston Odum Smith popped by his dad’s burger joint and gave the Jumbo a try.

Smith, who was married to Zarelli’s aunt (who now lives in Orting), took a liking to the Jumbo and used that burger as inspiration for the Smitty. Zarelli said 50 years ago it was common for restaurateurs to “borrow” the restaurant specialties of competitors, which is why the Smitty wound up at so many restaurants.

Said Zarelli by phone, “It was oblong and served on the French bread. We’d cut one – an 18-inch or 20-inch French bread – and cut it into threes and would serve it on that bread … People used to come in there every day for it. We used to serve a lot of the city light people and the Nalley Valley people. We did real good on the Jumbo Burgers.”

Zarelli’s operated from 1948 to the 1980s – it was an entirely family-run operation.

Thanks to Larry for sharing that slice of his Smitty story.

Readers also chimed in with their own advice on where to find a Smitty – even if it’s no longer called a Smitty.

A side view of the famous Smitty at Don's Drive-In in Puyallup.
A side view of the famous Smitty at Don’s Drive-In in Puyallup.

Get your Smitty here

The Goofy Goose: This recommendation was made via reader Jeff Jones, who grew up near Point Defiance and ate his first Smitty burgers at King’s Drive-In.

Wrote Jones in an email, “They have been closed for maybe 25 years and I had to find a new place to get my fix. Jubilee became my go-to and their Smittys were the best. They will be missed. So now I live near Sixth and Alder and have found that Goofy Goose has a Smitty Burger. It is called a Goofy burger but coming from a Smitty expert, it is a true Smitty burger. It’s very good and very affordable. I get one about once a month.”

Reader Robert Diamond also suggested Goofy Goose’s version. I bit into the burger this week ($5.25) and found a burger just as delicious as one will find at Don’s in Puyallup. Find Goofy Goose at 3702 Sixth Ave.

Mountain Pub and Grub: Reader Bill Sorsdahl said he first ate Smitty burgers at the old King’s Drive-In across from where Spud’s Pizza operates. Today, he heads to a longtime Tacoma restaurant for a burger he said reminds him of a Smitty. Wrote Sorsdahl, “The Mountain Pub & Grub … on 56th and Pacific Avenue still has their Mountain Burger which is based on the original Smitty with oblong patty and roll.” Bartender and server Suzette said the Mountain Burger was modeled after the Smitty. It was added to the menu 30 years ago after the crew decided they needed to update the menu. He suggested a Smitty shaped burger and it’s been on the menu ever since. Today, it’s priced around $6. Find the Mountain Pub at 5520 Pacific Ave.

Fat Smitty’s: Reader Steve Stratton wanted to make sure I knew about a different (and unrelated) kind of Smitty burger: the Fat Smitty at a restaurant of the same name, a regional destination in Discovery Bay. Wrote Stratton, “Give it a try. Tip of the day — don’t wear your nicest clothes.”

The Don's Smitty.
The Don’s Smitty.

Also find the Smitty here: Don’s Drive-In, the downtown Puyallup burger restaurant with a long list of homemade pie and soup, serves lots of Smitty burgers (925 S. Meridian; 253-845-1790). Get a single or double ($3.99-$4.99) with special sauce, onions, pickles, lettuce and tomatoes. Also, find the Smitty at Marcia’s Silver Spoon, a good-as-they-come diner in Tacoma (2601 South Tacoma Way; 253-472-0157) serving a Smitty that’s a half-pound, hand-pressed patty on a toasted oblong sourdough baguette with Thousand Island, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and pickle ($9.49). At both, you’ll find the burger listed as The Smitty.

Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.

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