The story behind one of Dayton’s most iconic burgers

The Hamburger Wagon has been serving up crispy sliders topped with giant pickle slices for more than a century.

Thick and juicy are not adjectives Hamburger Wagon owner Jack Sperry would use to describe his burgers. And he’s proud of it.

And he should be because there is a deep line out front of his Miamisburg food cart at almost any time of the day, any day of the week. Most weekends, there are hundreds of customers who come hungry so they can scarf down as many as six or eight of the little sliders.

The stand is open 11 a.m to 5 p.m. seven days a week right now, and social distancing orders are in effect.

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“It’s probably the most unique burger that you’ll find anywhere,” Sperry said. “It’s so different, but it’s one of those things — and not everyone likes it — but if you like it, it’s one of those things you think about periodically and you crave it.”

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Even with the tiny space it occupies, most of the time parked at 12 E. Central Ave., Hamburger Wagon has been a Miamisburg institution since 1913. As devastating as the Great Flood was to the Miami Valley, the famous, crunchy slider patties might not exist without the great natural disaster.

“As Miamisburg was virtually under water, the Red Cross set up a tent city for the refugees at the top of Mound Hill. Sherman “Cocky” Porter, a Miamisburg resident, volunteered to help provide food for the flood victims and relief workers, according to Wagon’s website. Utilizing a favorite family recipe, Porter began serving up hot, tasty hamburgers to everyone in the camp for many days.

After the storm cleared and life along the Great Miami returned to normal, locals were asking Porter where his burgers went. So for about a nickel a piece, Porter began the Wagon tradition and started selling the sliders on Market Square, where the cart is still parked on Saturdays.

Credit: Sarah Franks

Credit: Sarah Franks

Over a century later, the ingredients, condiments or preparation of the burgers has not changed. The Hamburger Wagon is an indecisive person’s dream come true. All you have to do is choose a single or double patty, $1.25 or $2.50, and the workers inside the steaming, savory wagon take care of the rest.

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The sizzle of the Wagon’s cast iron skillet can be heard at the back of the food line. It’s the very essence of what separates Hamburger Wagon burgers from the rest of the world. Fried in the burgers’ own grease, patties are dropped in the moment the customer places an order. Some employees, Sperry said, have mastered cooking as many as 80 patties at once in the 20-inch skillet. It’s the same method Porter used that got the river town hooked on the burgers, and it’s not changed one bit.

All day long, customers pour in to gobble up the fried patties, the grease builds up and flavor is continuously added to the cast iron skillet. An experienced Wagon employee methodically presses each patty as it sizzles, creating the signature thin, almost crunchy patty. Contrast the savory beef with the fresh-as-could be onion and kick of dill, it makes for a one-of-a-kind bite.

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It’s why Sperry said the Wagon will never use a grill or flat top like almost all other burger joints.

As one employee drops the raw patties into the bubbling pan, the other quickly plops down as many buns as there are patties, prepares them with onions cut moments before, one horizontally sliced dill pickle and then a quick shower of pepper and salt— in that order, every time.

Yes, there’s always a perfectly portioned grease spot on the white paper bag the patties are handed over in, and it wouldn’t be the same without it.

Credit: Sarah Franks

Credit: Sarah Franks

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