Jimmy Buffett Taught Me The Magic Of Heinz 57 Sauce

Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise" has more to offer than rollicking beats and a burger recipe.

My first meaningful experience with Jimmy Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise" had nothing to do with the actual song and everything to do with Twitter. In September, legendary TV writer and fellow burger appreciator Bill Oakley posted a picture of a burger he made in honor of Jimmy Buffett's recent passing. It was the cheeseburger described in the song, which, beyond some commonplace toppings like onion, lettuce, and tomato, also featured a condiment I had never tried before: Heinz 57 Sauce.

The sauce, just like the 1978 single, struck me as a throwback—but it turns out Heinz 57 is far more retro, dating all the way back to 1911. It's technically a steak sauce, not typically paired with burgers, but who am I to argue with the guy who turned a song about a sandwich into a restaurant chain that would eventually place him on Forbes' billionaires list? I had to taste this combo for myself.

How to achieve a homemade Cheeseburger in Paradise

If you want to replicate the Cheeseburger in Paradise, you first have to immerse yourself in the discourse surrounding the second chorus of the song, also known as the Mustard vs. Muenster Debate. On the original printed lyrics to the song, and even on Spotify, the line reads:

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Cheeseburger in paradiseMedium rare with mustard be niceHeaven on earth with an onion sliceI'm just a cheeseburger in paradise

However, writer Ken Hoffman, who interviewed Buffett, has clarified Buffett is in fact singing "Muenster'd" and not "mustard" (aka, Muenster cheese would be nice). Buffett himself never knew the album had misquoted him until Hoffman brought it up. Muenster makes more sense, of course, since it's the only mention of cheese in a song about a cheeseburger. So, no mustard, but a slice of Muenster, along with lettuce, tomato, raw onion, a pickle spear on the side, and a pairing of cold beer. That does sound nice.

With the blueprints for my Cheeseburger in Paradise in place, I sought out a frequent burger collaborator: Chef Evan LeRoy of LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue in Austin. Evan is a burger aficionado as much as he is an accomplished chef turned barbecue pitmaster, and it turns out he is a Parrothead to boot. Our vision for this burger interpreted "huge hunk of meat" (verse 2) as local Wagyu beef, and since the song didn't specify a seasoning, we went with LeRoy's brisket rub.

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We made three versions of Cheeseburger in Paradise, each of which varied our approach to the burger patty. The first was a 1/3 lb. burger patty, seasoned with brisket rub and seared on a flattop. The second 1/3-lb. patty was smoked and then seared. Finally, we made a crispy smash burger, because smashed patties are the hottest thing in burgers right now.

Each burger was topped with Muenster cheese, a dab of Heinz 57 Sauce, shredded lettuce, a slice of tomato, and a ring of raw onion. By design, this burger and its many toppings form a hearty meal, which meant the thin smashed burger patties felt out of balance. The thicker patties seemed to hone in on what Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise" is really about: an epic, beachy dive bar burger. It's a stick-to-your-ribs sandwich that helps quell a serious beer buzz.

Of the two thicker burgers, the smoked-then-seared patty had a burger mojo that lived up to a song that would hit the Billboard Hot 100. The peppery crust on the beef, the smoke from the barbecue pits, and the tang from the 57 Sauce made so much sense together. And that's when it hit me: Heinz 57 isn't a steak sauce, it's a barbecue sauce. The revelation meant my work with the sauce had only begun.

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Playing around with Heinz 57 Sauce

I knew whatever I wanted to do next with the stuff would involve barbecue, most likely in the form of a sandwich. Once again, the internet would become my source of culinary inspiration: Midway through my brainstorming, it was announced that the McRib was headed back to McDonald's.

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I've toyed around with improving the McRib in the past. After dragging it through half the ingredients at my favorite Carnicería back in 2020, I had come to the conclusion that the sandwich is delicious in theory, but not in reality. I have also encountered a McRib done right: with an actual rack of ribs that are deboned before being nestled in a sandwich bun. Delicious as it might be, though, that version takes the deft hand of a skilled pitmaster, and I needed something more approachable. I needed a McRib I could make in my own Paradise: my backyard.

Eventually, I landed on smoking a pork steak glazed in Heinz 57 and seasoned with my favorite barbecue rib rub. I smoked the pork steak in my pellet grill until it was sliceable, about two hours. To complete the sandwich, I added another dash of 57 Sauce to the meat, then placed it on the bun with pickle and onion, in keeping with a true McDonald's McRib.

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It was a break from tradition, but I created something even more satisfying than it had been in my imagination—just like Buffett would have wanted. If "Cheeseburger in Paradise" has a spiritual sequel, it's certainly "McRib on Patio." The legend of Jimmy Buffett lives on in many different places: his restaurants, resorts, and fans. For me, the legend lives on in my fridge, in the form of a half empty bottle of Heinz 57.

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