Monday, June 30, 2014

Too many joints ...

... not enough time.
I started this quest too late, and now I ran out of time. I read about those burger joints in November 2013, and now in June 2014 I am moving back to Germany. But at least I managed to visit all those joints in Northern Alabama, and a few in other parts of the state as well. And keep in mind that I still had another quest ongoing at the same time - the Great Northern Alabama BBQ Quest, which clearly took precedence over everything else. But I am truly satisfied with what I have accomplished on the Burger front - I have broadened my horizon, ate some great burgers, met many interesting, friendly, and sweet people, and had a ton of fun doing it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dub's Burgers

Dub’s Burgers

Athens, Limestone County

This joint is on the original list of 22 (plus 35 submitted by the readers) Greasy Spoon Burger Joints in Alabama you have to visit before you die. 

This is a very nice old style restaurant in a somewhat decrepit strip mall near downtown Athens. There are a dozen or so tables, and a counter with a dozen or so low bar stools. I had to wait for my two cheeseburgers all-the-way for about twenty minutes, but only because they were freshly prepared and the process just takes some time. All-the-way at Dub’s means lettuce, onions, tomato, ketchup, mustard, and cole slaw on a slug burger patty between a standard bun. They enhance the standard bun by sliding it briefly through the grease on the griddle, which gives it a very nice crispy bite – and a lot of flavor. The aroma of the burger is definitely on the sour side, which is to be expected because of the mustard and the cole slaw. This is definitely not your standard taste, but it is certainly very delicious. 
And for eight bucks and a quarter, including a sweet tea, that is also a very fair deal. This is one of those places that are hidden gems for outsiders like me, but probably nothing special for the locals – it has been there for over 50 years, and it probably will be still there in another 50 years. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Big Spring Cafe

Big Spring Café

Huntsville, Madison County

This joint is on the original list of 22 (plus 35 submitted by the readers) Greasy Spoon Burger Joints in Alabama you have to visit before you die. 

This place is the epitome of a Southern Burger place, the embodiment of the Greasy Spoon concept, a joint in the pure sense of that meaning.
The building is located in a part of Huntsville that has clearly seen better days – although probably only for a short time. It is reminiscent of a single-wide trailer, with a tiny worn out gravel parking lot in front of it, and a weather beaten sign that lost all its colors except for beige.
On the inside, you are stepping into a world were grease is King and the smell alone would give any serious vegetarian an immediate heart attack. There is a counter with maybe a dozen chrome and red-leather bar stools, and if you don’t get a place right away, you just stand at the wall and patiently wait your turn. Which can easily happen anytime, because the place is usually packed come lunchtime. So I arrived shortly after they open at 10 in the morning and got a good seat in the middle of the counter. From there, I could easily observe how the cook would grab some beef out of a big plastic roll, form it into a burger patty, and place it on the sizzling griddle – all with his bare hands. Latex gloves are for health inspectors and sissys. In between patties, he cleans his hands on a towel that hangs from his pants pocket. Old style, truly old style.
I ordered two cheeseburgers all the way, which is a beef patty with cheese, lettuce, tomato, mustard, and mayonnaise, between a bun that is a bit crumbly, a little bit like a biscuit. The size of the burger resembles that of a slider, not of a Big Mac – but for under six bucks for two cheeseburgers and a bottle of Pepsi, one can easily afford an additional burger or two if so required.
The flavor of the burger is very typical, nothing special, and definitely awesome. The ingredients are all fresh, and there is enough grease involved to give the burger a delicious aroma.
And then there is the staff, which is extremely friendly and helpful. The whole joint is just old fashioned, very southern, and very original. This is were the locals go, and where they don’t mind strangers at all.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Willie Burgers

Willie Burgers

Hartselle, Morgan County
This joint is on the original list of 22 (plus 35 submitted by the readers) Greasy Spoon Burger Joints in Alabama you have to visit before you die. 

It is a matter of principle. There is no debate required, nor would it help to solve any differences in opinion. You either hate them or love them, there is no middle ground. For those who love them, the crisp outside and the mushy inside, the fat dripping from the patty, the special flavor of the beef/bread mix, and the (optional) red pepper seasoning that amplifies the flavor even more are the stuff of legends. For those who hate them, a slug burger is not even a burger, but some diabolical concoction sailing under a false flag.

Here in the Tennessee Valley, we are blessed with several old fashioned joints that serve this special kind of burger. Willie Burgers in Hartselle is one of them. The store is situated in the heart of downtown Hartselle, on Main Street. The outside is rather unassuming, and the inside looks as if the 1950s never left town, complete with several pictures of Marilyn Monroe on the walls. There is a long counter with about a dozen chrome and red leather bar stools opposite the cooking area, and a rather dark room with some tables and booths on the other side. They only have three items on the menu there – Cheeseburgers, Hamburgers, and Hot Dogs. You can have potato chips as a side, and soft drinks come in plastic bottles. It is, plain and simple, as authentic as it gets.

I had a cheeseburger, all the way – which means with ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, chopped onions, and pickles. That was, hands down, the best burger of this kind I had so far. No need to gussy it up with the red pepper seasoning, the flavor was spectacular as it was.
And for just twenty bucks for five burgers, four drinks, and two bags of chips (I had brought my family with me), this is an unbeatable deal.
I read somewhere that Willie Burgers opened originally in 1926. To stay in business that long, with those kind of prices, you need loyal customers and a good product. One that enough people love to come back time and again. Count me in.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Pikeville Store-N-Deli

Pikeville Store-N-Deli

Scottsboro, Jackson County
This joint is on the original list of 22 (plus 35 submitted by the readers) Greasy Spoon Burger Joints in Alabama you have to visit before you die. 

What you find more often than not at a place where two county roads intersect is a Pure gas station. Sometimes it is abandoned, sometimes only the Pure sign is still standing, sometimes it is still operational, and sometimes it has been converted into something else - like the one on CR81 near Ft. Payne that is a church now, or the one at the intersection of CR21, CR420, and CR31 near Scottsboro. That one has become a Deli, but the old gas pumps are still standing in front of the building.

The deli is called Pikeville Store-N-Deli, and as the list of county roads that lead to it might reveal, it is in the middle of nowhere. There might even a Blues song exists that describes this place, maybe with a young aspiring guitar player as the hero, who makes a deal with the devil on that crossroads.
But although this joint is basically on a different planet, it was packed to the rafters when I arrived shortly after noon on this Friday. I barely could get a table to sit on and many of the cars outside were actually parked on the adjacent meadows.
So naturally, I wondered what all the fuzz was about – was there a big hungry underground population that I did not see on my lonely path to the crossroads, or was that the usual Alien invasion from outer space for lunch each Friday, as so many bad 1950s Sci-Fi B-Movies had portrayed? Where did all those people come from all of a sudden? My bewilderment grew when I scanned the inside and could recognize guys in business suits, workers in soiled Carhartt pants, retirees with Bama caps, some middle aged couples, a family with three small children, some chatty teenagers, and a few guys who apparently had been on a fishing trip. A more heterogenic crowd could hardly be imaginable. They all seemed to be in on a dirty little secret, and now here was I, a total outsider who evidently had stumbled into kind of a clandestine society – of Hamburger connoisseurs.
Oh well, now that I was finally there, after much head shaking about the path my usually trustworthy GPS unit had led me on, I decided to dive headlong into this adventure. But immediately I ran into a problem – there was no double cheeseburger on the menu. Bummer, I was extremely hungry, because I hadn’t eaten all day (don’t tell my wife). So I ordered the Cheeseburger basket, with everything on the burger, plus extra bacon. As it is customary in old style diners like this one, you order, the food is brought out, and you pay after you are done. In my case, with a small drink, that came to not even nine bucks.
While I waited for my order, I had time to watch a whole flock of Hummingbirds buzz around a couple of feeders that were placed outside the completely enclosed porch where I had eventually found a free space to sit. The whole atmosphere of this joint is very, well, country. It is a typical small-town American diner, with no frills, practical furniture, and sparse decoration. The store part of it is rather small, but you can get pickles out of a giant glass there, moon pie, root beer, and the like. The staff is very friendly and helpful, and the food is just great.
The Cheeseburger in the basket, which also contained very crisp and tasty crinkly fries, came with a big beef patty, cheese, white onions, lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayonnaise and mustard (that I ordered specifically – usually, they do not put mustard on the Cheeseburger), on a standard bun. Very juicy, very tasty, very flavorful – and very greasy. In short, this is how a Cheeseburger should be. The only disappointment was the small amount of bacon – it barely registered as a taste enhancer, nor as a different kind of texture.
So, then, finally, I had cracked the secret of why this place was so full of people – they all came here for the burgers. No Alien invasion, no hidden underground community, just plain folks that drove more than just a few miles to eat good, original, hand made food. My hats off to you, Pikeville Store-N-Deli, with such a loyal following success will be yours – it is just too bad that this joint is so far away from where I live. Would that be within an hour’s drive, I’d be a regular Alien there too.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Milo's Hamburgers

Milo’s Hamburgers

Gardendale, Jefferson County
This joint is not on the original list of 22 (plus 35 submitted by the readers) Greasy Spoon Burger Joints in Alabama you have to visit before you die. 

Milo’s sweet tea is a true southern institution since 1946. But Milo Carlton not only made beverages in Birmingham, he also opened his first Milo’s Hamburgers joint there that year. Over the years, this mom and pop operation grew into a small local restaurant franchise, with currently fifteen restaurants in the Birmingham area. Good old Milo concentrated his business idea on the sauce for his hamburgers, and according to legend, involved his customers heavily in the trial and error process to find the right recipe. Well, those folks back then evidently had a rather peculiar taste – the sauce has an odd flavor, at least to me. It tastes like a mixture of Worcestershire sauce, A1 sauce, and three weeks old salami pizza. It is neither sweet, nor sour, nor spicy, nor bitter, nor tart – or maybe all of the above. It is just, well, in-distinctively featureless. The double cheeseburger I had came on a flat bun that was toasted to a bone dry state, with two equally non-succulent thin beef patties, some American cheese, chopped white onions, a few tiny pickle slices, and – drum roll please, because this is touted as the latest and greatest invention by Milo’s – a couple of slices of thick non-crispy leathery bacon. And, of course, it was smothered in this dreadful sauce. Yikes. It gave me a bad case of the burbs, and also some mild heartburn. I had a sweet tea (what else?!) with it, and together that came to a quarter less than nine bucks.
The atmosphere in the restaurant was very sober – numerous tables, no booths, no decoration on the walls, other than a couple of posters with Milo’s advertising. It was more a feeding station than a restaurant. The only good experience there was the sweet tea – but since you get this in every supermarket nowadays, there is really no reason to go to one of the Milo’s burger joints to get your fix. The hamburgers sure ain’t worth going there.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Big Chief Drive-in

Big Chief Drive-In

Glencoe, Calhoun County
This joint is on the list of 22 Greasy Spoon Burger Joints in Alabama you have to visit before you die. 

Petty coats and root beer floats. Grease in the hair, Rock’n’Roll in the air. Little green men from Mars and pink shark-finned cars. Grape milk-shakes and slush puppy lakes. Life was glee and gasoline was free. The air was fresh and everybody paid cash. Oh, the old times were so much better than it is now. Good thing that there are still places where the clocks seemingly have not advanced past 1955, preserving a glimpse into a peculiar life style, and not succumbing to the mainstreaming of the modern corporate world.
The Big Chief Drive-in in Glencoe is such a place. The architecture alone is very, well, special – the building is of triangular shape, and it is adorned with plates in different colors on a light turquoise background, and a big Pepsi sign on the roof. And then there are those two the huge metal arrows in the parking lot, one pointing its tip skywards, the other one pointing to the ground, with the former having a round shield at the top that has an Indian chief’s head painted on it. It doesn’t get more gaudy than this.
The inside looks and feels like a classical 1950s diner – a small one, to be sure. A counter with half a dozen bar stools, facing the kitchen, and another counter on the window side, facing the parking lot. In the summer, some additional wooden benches and tables are put in the parking lot.
The menu has everything on it, plus the kitchen sink. A large variety of burgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches, and a huge assortment of ice cream, shakes, flurries, and sundaes - the menu board stretches across the whole width of the joint, and the specials are written on small boards that are suspended from the ceiling. From this dizzying array of choices, I picked the meanest sounding for lunch – the double Belly Buster.
That is a cheeseburger with two huge beef patties, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, BBQ sauce, and a fried onion ring in a standard burger bun. Short and simple, that was one of the best burgers I ever had. The beef was flavorful and juicy, the fried onion ring provided some crunch, and the BBQ sauce was just delicious. And while I was munching away on it, making a mess out of the spot I sat and also the burger itself, the owner came by a few times and gave me some freebees – a cup of grape ice cream, a just freshly baked donut (from scratch), and a slush puppy. Dutifully, I devoured all this, because all this was very, very good. Unfortunately, after stuffing myself with all those goodies on top of the burger, there was no more space in my belly for the fries that came with it, so they went into the trash can virtually untouched. This was not only one of the best burger meals ever, but for just eight bucks also a total steal. Needless to say that the staff was exceptionally nice, and not only because they gave me all those extra things for free. I was treated like family and felt very much at home there. The only bad thing is that this joint is about a two hour drive from where I live. If it was any closer, I would probably hang out there so much, that I would be considered family eventually. Worse things could happen.