These days, it seems, you can Southernize any dish with a scoop of pimento cheese. Cooks plop it atop steaks at white-tablecloth bistros and slather it on fried green tomatoes at corner cafés. Burgers are where the real action is. Restaurants kick out towering $12 affairs that layer pimento cheese onto fresh-ground sirloin, slide the whole thing on a brioche bun, and top it with chunky housemade ketchup.
That’s the new-school pimento burger. Down in Columbia, South Carolina, they’ve been putting the golden-yellow spread on hamburgers for more than half a century, and they do it a little differently.
As best as culinary historians can tell, the pimento burger was created there by Jacob “J. C.” Reynolds, who, around 1954, opened the Dairy Bar on South Main Street in the shadow of the state capitol. Reynolds introduced his signature burger sometime in the 1960s, and it quickly became a favorite of harried bureaucrats and hungover college kids. Reynolds spread homemade pimento cheese directly on the bun before adding a thin beef patty and a layer of chili. Other Columbia lunch spots followed his lead and created their own versions, and for decades the pimento burger ruled as an unheralded but much loved local specialty.
For those who spent their formative eating years in Columbia, trying to track down an old-school pimento burger can be a wistful exercise, for so many of the original sources have long since closed their doors. Shealy’s Sandwich Shop just off Huger Street, Eddie’s on Assembly, the Palmetto Sandwich Shop on Sumter Street: all had splendid pimento burgers, and all are now fading memories.
Their pimento burgers were nothing like today’s trendy incarnations. The buns on the new-fangled versions are thick and untoasted, and the warmth of the patty alone is insufficient to melt a cold glob of pimento cheese. You’re left with a six-inch tall monstrosity with a clump of cool cheese that’s a challenge to work your jaws around.
A proper pimento burger is an exercise in balance and proportion, wider than it is tall, with a thin bun that, at a minimum, has been well-toasted or, better yet, given a sandwich-press squeeze just before serving. The key is to melt the pimento cheese, transforming it into a molten goo that seeps into the beef and the bun, a blissful, unified whole.
If you look hard enough, you can still find a few proper pimento burgers. You can even get change back from a ten-dollar bill when you order one. Here’s the short list:
936 Axtell Dr., Cayce, SC
Just across the Blossom Street Bridge from downtown Columbia, the Kingsman has been serving pimento burgers for over three decades alongside what they bill as “the best tasting and most affordable rib-eye” in town. Their Famous Pimento Burger ($7.99) is served hot from the grill, which melts that pimento cheese into a gooey delight fit for a king.
Mathias Sandwich Shop
7235 St. Andrews Rd., Irmo, SC
David “Jack” Mathias founded this modest sandwich shop back in 1946, and amid fried chicken dinners and barbecue sandwiches you can still find a respectable pimento burger ($4.29). It has a moderately thick patty, a broad sesame-seed bun, and more than enough pimento cheese to make a serious mess.
804 Meeting St., West Columbia, SC
Despite its name, this West Columbia burger joint is not affiliated with the 700-unit Texas-based national chain. And that means that for just a few bucks you can get a Pimento What-a-Burger ($4.30). What a deal.
Rosewood Dairy Bar
3003 Rosewood Dr., Columbia, SC
This Rosewood Drive institution changed hands a few years back, but its old-school pimento burger ($4.54) is still a menu staple. Served in a paper tray lined with red-and-white checked paper, it’s flat, hot, and classically delicious.
Rockaway Athletic Club
2719 Rosewood Dr., Columbia SC
The Rockaway Athletic Club occupies an anonymous-looking brick building off Rosewood Drive. There’s no sign, and they don’t advertise, but insiders know how to find them. Old-timers claim the Rockaway burger ($5.75) doesn’t taste quite as good as it did back when it was served in the dark, oddly-angled rooms of the original building, which burned to the ground a decade ago. But it still comes sliced in half on a soft bun with tomato slices, sautéed onions, and oozing with pimento cheese, plus a couple of dill pickle slices on the side.