“The Mighty Mo tasted like no other burger you’d ever had,” reminisced my eldest brother, Nick Miles, wistfully. “At the time it was so innovative. It was double-decker, like a club sandwich, with a bun layer in between two thin hamburgers, and it had this great sauce.”
Boomers who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area get particularly nostalgic about the Mighty Mo, one of the signature offerings at Hot Shoppes, a local chain of casual family restaurants that began in 1927 as a single A&W root beer stand by J. Willard Marriott, Senior, whose name is much more familiar to Americans today as the founder of the global hotel giant, Marriott International. The Hot Shoppes we knew were places where you could either eat inside, in booths, or outside, at the drive-in, but the last one closed in 1999.
There was a Hot Shoppes restaurant halfway between our house and Nick’s high school and frequent refueling stops on the way home only solidified his devotion to the Mighty Mo. Did you happen to notice that my brother’s description of it sounds a lot like MacDonald’s Big Mac? Chronologically, Nick was eating Mighty Mos way before the Big Mac was even introduced in 1968, and plenty of rumors have been flying around for years that the Big Mac was inspired by the Mighty Mo. The similarities are close enough to make it difficult not to believe it.
At a used bookstore last year, I discovered a copy of the Marriott Hot Shoppes Cookbook, which included the recipe for the Mighty Mo Sauce, and bought it immediately. That’s when I faced the hard choice: Give it to my brother as a gift, or his son’s girlfriend, who works for Marriott International? Youth won out over nostalgia; the Mighty Mo Sauce was worthy of a new audience.
But we needn’t rely on a cookbook to spread a new cult following for the Mighty Mo. According to a report in Washingtonian Magazine, Marriott International is going to bring back a Hot Shoppes in the new Walter E.Washington Convention Center in 2014. Until then, here’s how to make the all-important sauce:
Stir together ½ cup ketchup (one blogger insists Hunt’s is the only brand to use), ¼ cup Heinz Chili Sauce, 1 ½ teaspoons A.1. Steak Sauce, ½ teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce, 2 drops of Tabasco, ½ cup sweet pickle relish, and 1 ¼ cups mayonnaise. Don’t just save it for burgers, though; it makes a great dip for chips or veggies.
The Mighty Mo used a sesame burger bun, cut into thirds. That’s practically impossible to find these days— sesame burger buns are sold split in half—but Nick is convinced the thinner slices of the bun were crucial to the enjoyment of the burger, because there was less bread, so the ratio of meat to bun was ideal.
To make your own Mighty Mo, use 1½ buns, trimming the thickness of the two bottom halves of the buns, and 2 (2-ounce) ground chuck patties, each flattened to thin 4-inch rounds. Have some shredded iceberg lettuce and a slice of American cheese ready. Cook the burgers in a hot skillet filmed with oil, turning the burgers over once, but topping only one of them, after turning, with the slice of cheese. Toast the cut side of the 3 bun pieces under a broiler and butter them (Hot Shoppes used margarine), then spread the two bottoms with 2 teaspoons each of the sauce, or more to taste. Top the sauce on 1 bottom with a small handful of the lettuce, cover it with the plain burger, then follow it with the other toasted bun bottom, and the cheeseburger. Put 2 dill pickle slices on the cheeseburger, then finish it with the top bun. Now you’re ready for a taste of Washington, D.C. in the 1950s and ’60s.
For lots more about burgers, check out our latest issue of Gourmet Live, The World’s Best Burgers.