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Is the Le Tub burger in Hollywood still a national treasure?

Whoever said it is lonely at the top has not been to Le Tub in the past 12 years. When GQ Magazine food critic Alan Richman deemed Le Tub’s burger the best in the country in 2005, a sleepy Hollywood dive bar along the Intracoastal became very crowded. Then, Oprah Winfrey spotlighted the burger on her massively popular TV show in 2006 and things really got crazy. Long waits, short tempers and burger sellouts ensued.

Fast-forward to a recent Monday. Le Tub still attracts a crowd. The massive Margaritaville hotel resort, which opened in 2015 across the street, provides a steady stream of tourists. Mathias Kondolf, a longtime cook turned co-owner, casts a stern eye at a new line cook manning the small grill.

“Shaky, shaaaky,” Kondolf yells from his perch along the bar. Kondolf cautions the newbie about the way he turns the burgers and positions them. He warns about the loose knobs that control the flames. “With a grill and work area this small, it really is an art,” Kondolf tells me. He explains some of the basic math. The grill, two by three feet, fits 30 burgers. The sprawling, open-air eatery seats more than 150. When the place is packed, a one-hour wait for a burger is inevitable. Some days, Le Tub makes 1,000 burgers. Some weeks, it uses 3,000 pounds of meat.

“We’re still here,” Kondolf says. “It takes a lot of effort.”

But is the burger still a national treasure?

Miami blogger Sef Gonzalez, known as the Burger Beast, recently released a list of his top 25 burgers in South Florida to mark National Burger Month. Those who bothered to count could see he actually listed 35 burgers. Le Tub’s 13-ounce mountain of char-grilled meat was not among them.

“It was good,” Gonzalez says of the Le Tub burger. “But it was better in the past.”

I’ve been going to Le Tub since I moved to South Florida in 1989 and have always been a fan. It opened in 1975 in a converted gas station. Some people started eating here after it was on Oprah. I stopped, or at least cut back, because of the crowds. Timing is important. Saturdays at sunset in season is torture. But sultry summer nights, with a seat at the bar and a water view through the picture window, are pure bliss. Give me a rumrunner or cold bottle of beer, and I don’t care how long the burger wait is.

When at its best, Le Tub offers simple burger perfection. One inhales a pincushion-shaped blend of sirloin and chuck, which GQ’s Richman called “magnificent — crusty on the outside, juicy on the inside, always perfectly cooked.” It is served on a poppy-seed bun, with lettuce, tomato and a slice of raw onion on the side. It can be topped with American or Swiss cheese. And that’s it. No fancy toppings or artisanal add-ons to clutter things up.

The burger has had its ups and downs. I’ve eaten four in the past 14 months, and the most recent two have been excellent. But I had a jarring experience in March 2016. The burger didn’t seem its usual self, with an interior that resembled pink slime. It wasn’t good. Gonzalez says his most recent visit came about that time, in January 2016.

My next visit, last October, brought a burger with better meat, but one that was pre-cooked to rare and sitting in a foil holding pan, then finished on the grill to my ordered medium-rare. “It’s not supposed to be like that,” Kondolf says. My next two visits brought burgers that I remember from the past, the ones that sustained me when I was a single sportswriter and Le Tub was practically my second home. Back then, they went for $6.

The burger is up to $11.50 now ($12.50 with cheese), but it is still a good value because they easily can be shared. I swear I recall Le Tub’s burger once listed on the menu as all sirloin, but Kondolf tells me this was never the case. He says sirloin was blended with Angus beef or 85-15 chuck to give added fat, flavor and juiciness.

Le Tub has always been a polarizing place. Some people love it. Some hate it. Even before the Oprah waves crashed in, the service could be brusque and rude. This was a hidden locals hangout where cool meant indifference, not being hip or trendy. There was sardonic humor. “Unattended children may be used as fish bait,” one sign warned in the 1990s.

Some things have changed. Le Tub now takes credit cards. The beer selection has gotten respectable. The parking lot that used to be free is now $2. The pool tables are gone. Seafood gumbo is no longer a menu staple, offered only occasionally because of limited prep and kitchen space. The kitchen and bar close earlier these days, done by 1 a.m. on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends.

Some things have stayed the same. The great jukebox remains. The funky commodes and bathtubs that serve as planters are still scattered about. There’s always the risk of palmetto bugs scampering around the wooden booths. And the off-putting attitude is still trying for those used to service with a smile.

Kondolf told me about the time that Guy Fieri came in to scope out Le Tub for a possible segment on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” the popular Food Network show. “He came in on a Sunday, and he wouldn’t drink,” Kondolf says. “Hey, if you’re going to hang out with the Romans, be a Roman. Then, he wanted to know exactly how we did everything, all the proprietary stuff. We told him to get the f--- out.”

I love that about the place. I love how when founder Russ Kohuth died in 2010, he left Le Tub to three longtime employees, his attorney and his ex-girlfriend. Longtime general manager Steven Sidle got 52 percent of the business. Kondolf, 63, who has worked here for more than 30 years, got a 12 percent stake. John Petrie, a longtime bartender and cook who left earlier this decade, also received 12 percent.

I’ll be issuing a list of my top 10 South Florida burgers soon, and Le Tub still makes the cut. I can understand how it’s fallen out of favor in some quarters. I don’t think Le Tub’s burger has fallen over the past decade as much as the burger bar has been raised around it. Everyone does burgers well now, from expanding fast-casual chains to high-end restaurants.

“There’s been a burger revolution the last nine years,” says Gonzalez, who started his Burger Beast blog in 2009. He attributes the burger boom to Shake Shack, a high-quality New York hamburger stand from restaurateur Danny Meyer that has gone global. I say it was the Great Recession, with eateries spurred to offer more affordable comfort food. All these burger newcomers have piled on evermore intricate and sophisticated toppings. Goat cheese and fig jam with organic arugula and candied hormone-free applewood smoked bacon topped with a cage-free egg hatched 12 hours ago, anyone?

Sometimes, a simple, flame-kissed hunk of meat is all you need. I don’t know if anyone can say Le Tub’s burger is the best in the country, or even the best in its area code, but it remains a South Florida classic.

Le Tub is located at 1100 N. Ocean Drive, in Hollywood. Call 954-921-9425 or go to TheLeTub.com. It’s open daily from 11 a.m. until 1 a.m., until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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