The Sweet Burger Smells of Home – What I learned from a revisit to Tony’s

30 Dec

A few years ago, I wrote about an affinity I have for a small mom/pop burger place south of Birmingham – Tony’s. It’s homey, with a line stretching nearly out the door most days. The food is good, better than good. But even then, I wasn’t really sure why I liked it so much, until recently, it all came together.

I still really like the place, and I like that it seems to have a following of everyday, regular people – business people, parents, grandparents, etc. Tony was there slinging burgers and dogs that day.

But the why … let me set the way-back machine for the late 1970s or even early 1980s.

Wayback

Tony’s takes me back … to how I remember homemade burgers tasting as a kid. Cooked on a stovetop, in a skillet, smashed down to brown, with the ever-present smell of seared meat and fat wafting around … then the patty was topped with garlic salt, maybe pepper and seasoned salt. The smell is unique. And it’s the way I remember a burger when my mom (and on a rare occasion, dad) and my grandmother cooked them.

  • We didn’t just dash off to fire up an outdoor grill.
  • No premade patties
  • God help you, no broiler…
  • You can try and remove some of the grease with a paper towel, but it’s kind of like trying to keep toddlers clean at the table

A trip to Tony’s reminds me of those times. It’s not just homey, but the smells, the spices and flavors remind me of home, family.

I realized as I ate my burger – it’s served on a giant sesame seed bun, with lots of mayo to give it that rich flavor that mixes so well with seared meat – that over the time I’ve been reviewing burgers, I’ve probably had several that are better made, better all around. Tony’s fries are good, always crispy. But they are from a bag …

No, what I like most about eating a burger at Tony’s – and what is most difficult to explain to people when they ask why I like this or that burger – is that eating a burger at a place like Tony’s make you FEEL GOOD. It makes me feel good:

  • It reminds me of being a kid and home
  • It tastes good
  • You know it’s not good for you (and that’s part of the allure, for sure).
  • It’s also stripped of pretention. It isn’t trying to be a burger place; it isn’t trying to be hip; it isn’t trying to have a burger that could be served at a five-star place … it’s just a place that makes burgers and dogs. It’s an honest burger, from an honest place.

So, enjoy your burger, wherever it may come. Enjoy it cause you paid too much from it; enjoy it because it’s one of the best; enjoy it because it reminds you/comforts you … but most of all Enjoy It, and the slice of the good life that it is.

Chili’s in Trussville (or anywhere): “Be careful, son. The dullness rubs off.”

16 Dec

Desperate times call for trips to places that you didn’t intend to go. Hence, I recently found myself at Chili’s in Trussville. While the name might cause you to think that the place is spicy and fun, well, you probably want to think again.

In fact, as I’ve considered this review, I was reminded of a post-game clip of then-Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Dennis Green …

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWmQbk5h86w

And let me just tell you, that meltdown rivals in explosiveness the potty meltdown that occurred scant few minutes after consuming my Oldtimer with Cheese at Chili’s.

All this knowing that Chili’s was what I thought it would be … B.O.R.I.N.G.

Oh, it’s not for lack of trying. Why that place is nigh unto rocket-sciencey. It’s outfitted with a spiffy appearance. Gone is the darkness and loud colors. Replaced with light and metal and hipster tomfoolery. Hell, it’s not even hipster tomfoolery; it’s suburban urban outfitters gobbledegookery.

And the pay by yourself kiosk on the table to let you control your own destiny… No, I don’t like them because it’s one more replacement of actual people doing actual work in a business. But it could have redeemed itself consider if it offered some pre-emptive relief: “Yes, I’d like to top this meal off with a Metamucil brownie, since I know where I’m headed in a minute.”

I will give the wait staff credit; they were energetic and helpful enough … though I probably should have been given a quick primer about the tablet/kiosk. And for what it was, the food was adequately prepared. It’s just …

There is nothing memorable about this burger … or any burger at Chili’s. They are over seasoned (God, the sodium!). Over sold. Not bad. Not good. And you can throw in Mr. and Mrs. Fry with it. And we went in with muted hopes anyway.

In fact, I stumbled upon an article from the “Eat this, Not that!” folks https://www.yahoo.com/health/15-insanely-awful-foods-got-083033307.html  that stated: “From burgers to baby back ribs, Chili’s serves up some of the country’s saltiest, fattiest fare. And even the menu items that don’t look all that bad for you can do some real damage to your waistline.”

Or to your colon…

It boils down to one thing … A great burger has local flair, not corporate flair. A look over the menu reminds you that decisions are probably made based on some analytics done in Texas … and by someone with a deathwish for chefs/kitchen staff, with a menu that is longer than the first draft of War and Peace. And it’s a cryin shame that the thing that sticks out the most about the burger is the ridiculously over-seasoned garlic dill PICKLE — the burger’s hairy mole — and that in the end, this fully-unmemorable experience feels as if you have been placed in a lab experiment.

My real concern is that Chili’s mediocreness will rub off, as I fear it already has to the other restaurants in the neighborhood (I’m looking at you Red Robin). FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JIM ‘N NICK’S, YOU GOTTA HOLD OUT!

It’s as one of my heroes, Capt. Benjamin Franklin Pierce from M*A*S*H* said. He recalls a dream in which he sees Frank Burns as a beached-whale and asks his mom if he can touch it, and Hawkeye, speaking for his mom, says, “Be careful, son. The dullness rubs off.”

Chili's Grill & Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Yelp Reviews

Galley and Garden: Afterthought burger possibly?

3 Dec

History is littered with many great and forgotten afterthoughts – Ed Muskie, the theory of relativity, the Roebuck part of Sears. But a burger being an afterthought is, in the case of Galley and Garden in Birmingham, unnecessary.

Relatively new to the Birmingham fine-dining scene, G&G is in the old Veranda location on Highland Ave. It opened approximately one year ago and is run by Chef James Boyce, who has a menu of established, excellent restaurants – including Cotton Row in Huntsville.

The menu is varied – with emphasis on local ingredients and seafood. Reviews have generally been very positive. Service – both from reviews and in my experience – was anywhere from excellent to adequate. No issues. It’s upscale. It’s creative. And the pedigree/past helps it.

Why then was the burger I received from G&G such a disappointment? And I ask that question knowing WHY I was disappointed… but the bigger question… well, let’s save it.

Several new/old friends joined me at this lunch. The appetizers were excellent – duck confeit fries and fried oysters. Both delicious. Both presented very appealingly. I could have licked the platter of fries …

Then the entrées came. Two orders of shrimp and grits and two burgers ordered exactly alike – the G&G Burger. Nothing but generally positive reactions to the shrimp and grits. But the burger … from both of us … mmehh.

IMG_2904Underwhelming. The G&G burger (available on the lunch menu for $13) is described as: “grass-fed beef, pimento cheese, bacon, gratitude farms bibb lettuce, tomato.”

Some thoughts:

  1. The presentation of the burger was attractive (see pic). While “elegant” and “burger” don’t often share descriptive space, this one was both.
  1. Some of this may be seasonality, but the overall flavor of the burger was a bit too understated, flat. Nothing really stood out (except it was heavy on the salty side with the cheese and bacon). I’ve experienced this before with burgers wearing eau de pimento cheese … It should work. It looks like it would work (cheddar cheese and meat, with pimentos). But it just never brings its.
  1. I specifically asked – as I always do when given the opportunity – for the burger to be cooked medium. I know … it’s not the rules; some places cook all their burger to MW or above. Mine was cooked MW, as was the other burger in our party (we both requested M). But if you were going to cook it to MW, why ask? And if it was simply a mistake, it’s fairly laughable for a place that likely serves the most expensive pimento cheeseburger in town … it ain’t eatin’ at Western Sizzlin’.
  1. I don’t have confirmation – so consider this a question. But the bun on my burger looked, felt and tasted distinctly like a bun that you could get off the shelf next door at the Western Supermarket. It’s possible it was some artisan bun/brioche/roll, but it looked like a hamburger bun, felt like a bun and tasted like a bun … hence I remember it as a bun (or maybe duck confeit bun).

Overall, the burger was okay – but truly nothing spectacular. It’s neither the best nor the worst in Bham, and you can get a pimento cheeseburger several places (Jackson’s, Blackwell’s to name two).

And G&G has another burger on its bar menu – the Birmingham Burger, which is more straightforward and on a brioche bun.

So, let’s circle back to the hanging question: this G&G burger is neither primary to the menu nor a shining example of the establishment’s or chef’s abilities. Thus, why is it on the menu? Otherwise, the menu is chocked full of exceptional dishes, accompanied by a burger that really is not bad but also not especially noteworthy.

An afterthought… like this line … something that a good editor would likely have deleted.

"Galley

Yelp Review

Buck Mulligans: Ulysses and an Ironically Fine Burger

24 Nov IMG_2895

Call it a little Irish irony that the latest visit for the beautimousburger blog was to an Irish pub — typically places of simple pleasures and pursuits — named after a character in an almost unreadbable, unapproachable novel. The location of Buck Mulligan’s — in the former Black Market space on Highland Avenue — has a lot of personal memories associated with it:

  • I may or may not have introduced a best friend to a mind eraser at this location on or near his wedding eve … In fact, I may have introduced him to several
  • I may or may not have gone to my first burlesque show in this building
  • I may or may not have made out with some woman there … and can’t recall the woman’s name or even the name of the bar at the time (and if we’re Facebook friends and you recall this, I absolutely remember now; it was life changing … thank you so much).

The name “Buck Mulligan” comes from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Buck’s a nice lad, liking his food and drink. And he may be one of the few amiable characters in an otherwise depressing and wretched book. And there is a delicious, somewhat ironic parallel between the book and the food at this relatively new addition to the Southside of Bham..

Burgers and burger experiences are not all equal. There is a beauty to the simple presentation of a burger at a hole-in-the-wall burger joint. It’s Americana; it’s homey-ness. It’s bluegrass or shaped-note singing. It’s accessible and shared. It might be delivered in paper, or on something disposable. Simplicity, however, doesn’t guarantee goodness. And at the same time, complexity and creativity aren’t necessarily counter to a good burger experience.

As impatient creatures, we don’t always appreciate slow, or something requiring more than a quick glance to consume/understand… which is where the book and the burger meet on the same page …

Reading Ulysses was part of one of the first grad classes I took, and is one of those books that you’re supposed to read. But I think the world might be a better place if we could get an actual, legitimate account of people who have finished it — every page, and give them some long suffering reader award. Modern readers, accustomed to 140 characters, probably won’t even make it out of chapter 1 (which features Buck Mulligan). It comes from that strain of creativity that emerged in the early 20th century that embraced complexity and the shattering of old tropes (and that revelled in ironic self-reference) for it’s own sake — think Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner, Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, etc.

IMG_2895And the book is beautiful on multiple levels; the complexity and irony in it adds to its depth and its art. The burger at Buck Mulligans — with its Guinness sauce, spinach leaves and garlic aioli on a sweet/brioche-type bun — could make similar claims in the world of burgers.

Buck’s opened in the summer of 2015, and the food — what I’ve experienced — is well conceived and well executed. I sampled the corned beef and have been told the fish and chips are excellent. But for all its claims to Irish pub-ness (which it can legitimately claim for most of the food), it’s also not a burger joint, by any stretch. Might there be a winking, self-referential, ironic nod in a place that transacts on the homey feel of an Irish pub (with thoughts of green beer, songs and lots of beer/whiskey) and also features shaved brussel sprouts and kale on a salad? Is the idea of a night of Jameson shots and a salad liver cleanse a cocktail you’d fix for yourself?

And none of this takes away anything from Buck Mulligan’s fun ambiance and tasty food. It’s actually an admission that a place that raises the bar on pub food in Birmingham is doing it with a good natured, post-modern nudge in the ribs. So yes, an Irish pub has a really good burger that is topped with “aioli”  — a burger that I would recommend (and likely enjoy again) — a complex and delicious burger. It was cooked as I asked (not MW, I live on the edge for medium). And the combo of fried onions and the Guinness sauce were a sweet and salty mix that works. With other fun touches — hints of garlic, spinach and grill scores on the bun, it’s good, better than good. It’s a very artistic presentation that is equal to the taste.

And yes, I had a lovely discussion with co-owner Michael Gordon about fries (both he and the other owner Danny Winter were present when I visited). And Buck’s hand-cuts their fries. They are shoestring size, crispy and a nice compliment.

  • Burger — complex tastes mix well together  … 8.75
  • Fixins — not a complete surprise, and it works … 8.5
  • Presentation and ambiance — it’s a pub with good Irish-themed pub food … 7
  • Fries — you had me at hand-cut … 8
  • Costs — moderate

I’ll go back to Buck’s. I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed a place that has a good vibe, with food more intricate than you might at first expect. But just don’t ask me to re-read Ulysses …

Buck Mulligan's Public House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

http://www.yelp.com/biz/buck-mulligans-public-house-birmingham?hrid=fcKFlGs8BaJS1lINvpjBSQ

Hamburger Heaven, Irondale — Is that the person you knew in high school?

14 Nov

Facebook has changed so many things. If you’re younger than around 30, you might not be as familiar with the idea that upon leaving [insert place here … high school, old job, bar you used to hang out too much] that you could generally walk in one direction for a week or two and NEVER SEE THOSE PEOPLE AGAIN. Now that person who you vaguely, fondly remember from high school or the old job or bar is always sharing the specifics of the morning’s run or meme about Pres. Obama being a closet Lutheran.

Which brings me to Hamburger Heaven — the original on Crestwood Boulevard in Birmingham/Irondale.

Let’s get some things clear. I recognize that saying anything — positive or negative — about the original Hamburger Heaven will likely unlock some fierce feelings. It’s been around since 1982, flipping essentially the same food (it was sold some years later). I’ve known people that have had memorable experiences there … but in all honesty, few of them actually involve the food.

The good things about this place is it’s less of a fast food chain (though if you were defining things, it would be a fast food joint). It owes a lot more to its nearby barbecue brethren than to the Golden Arches. The place looks like a local joint — with homages to college football players and similar photos adorning the walls. So, in the decor department, I’m down with it. And as basically a local place, as we say around our parts, “Moo Moo Yea!”

In fact, for the most part, I’m down with the place as a whole. But — honesty box time — it’s a high quality, fast food joint. And this is the basic rub … in the parlance of today, the place is what it is. It’s better than almost any fast food burger you’ll find. The meat is hand-done and purports to be “fresh” and daily delivered. The burgers are typically juicy, made-to-order only when you’ve ordered — though you may have a patty that is just being finished.

It’s an decent burger. It could rival some of the sit-down small chains — Mooyah’s, Five Guys, etc — it could, but doesn’t consistently.

Hamburger Heaven primary transacts now on nostalgia. It draws based on its reputation and name — visit http://hamburgerheavenrestaurant.com and see how they promote their past accomplishments. Years ago, they were the proverbial nice-sized fish in the small hamburger pond. They were the small town jock who wowed in high school but didn’t have quite the ability for the next level. Without the legacy and the nostalgia of people who visited there, Hamburger Heaven might have drifted off a long time ago to be one of those places that you only recall … because of Facebook or, in Hamburger Heaven’s case, because they’ve been able in later years to franchise the business (but believe me, they are not all the original, and I’m not sure they have added to the place’s legacy).

Today, burger competition is fierce. Now, Hamburger Heaven’s competition is more varied than it was 25 years ago when the closest burger competitors were likely Jacks, Krystal and other chains. Those haven’t changed, but the burger world exploded in the last 10-15 years, and now, for a similar price point (+ a buck or two), you can travel a few miles and get a competitive burger.

And here’s the deal: the burger is probably a seven out of 10. The extra points are that the joint has a good shake and for initiates, they know about getting the hamburger steak … with onions. But … I do not dig the fries. They are too pre-fab for my tastes and aren’t bad, or good, or memorable or anything that would cause you to go just for fries.

And my basic reaction to the place isn’t a burning desire to go because I’ve heard from someone else recently how great they think it is; it’s personal nostalgia. It’s remembering that I’ve liked it in the past. It’s a person I knew in a past life and going back doesn’t remind you how exceptional it was. Instead, it reminds you, when you go, of exactly what type of place it is and where it exists today.

Enjoy it for what it was. Enjoy it for what it is. But don’t allow memory to cloud what you’re getting — a decent burger — and shake — from a place that capitalizes on its other best asset — history.

Burger — 7 out of 10

Ambiance — 7 out of 10

Fries — 5 out of 10

Shakes — 8 out of 10

Back in the writing saddle and poetic musings from the lake

10 Nov

I have done something that I never should have done; I have not done this blog as I should have. I have fallen short. I have sinned and failed to be an obedient whatever … etc. But I’m gonna try to do better … and let me explain why for a second.

As sometimes happens, life can remind you when you are off track. I’m the first to admit that funks in life come and go. They are like the poor, laundry and LEGOs. They aren’t just with you always; you are gonna find them and step on them from time to time.

What I haven’t been doing is enough of the things that I love. I haven’t made the time. I have let myself get sidetracked. Life happens.

And one of the things that I’ve let slide for too long is writing … for me, mostly. And also for any of you who might have some interest in my musings … yes, all three of you.

Writing, you see, isn’t about the finished product. A few years ago, I wrote a novel that has turned into one of the best virtual dust collectors I have. I also wrote a series in a project about happiness. What I learned from doing those things is, for me, writing is therapeutic and performance art.

A recent epiphany about me: I am a performer at heart. I grew up singing, played in band and bands, and generally looked for occasions to perform — in school, in whatever. I’m sure that someone can write up my psych profile. It is as “they” proverbially say, what it is.

And what it also is — well, it is also an outlet. It’s therapy for me … and believe me, the cost of a blog is cheaper than professional help.

So, I’m gonna try to use this thing again. And I have some plans that I’ll share in the coming days. But for now, I’ve been on a bit of quest the last few days… to rediscover those things that I’m passionate about and to make a plan and start back on my journey.

So, you are either the beneficiary or the guinea pig…

While I’ve been away, I wanted to find some every day images and marry up some free verse and the images I took. These are all from the lakehouse of a friend (who kindly let me escape a few days). Hope you enjoy the verse and the pics.

Mel

###

Aside the still waters

IMG_2882
Aside the still
Waters … where lapping, the stones, submerged,
Rested, unaware of a remolding embrace.
Breaking down, drop by each loving touch of a drop;
Ancient stone, in compliant dementia to the peaceful siren song.
Enraptured by…
The giver
The taker
The partaker
The drug of life
Dependent are we, caught, addicted to your charms
Unaware that your drops will misconstrue, break us
Reform us
I’m unworthy to be baptized by you
“Then, struggle no longer; Come, kiss my lips.”
###
Fingers outstretched IMG_2885
“What more can I do?”
Nothing.
Reaching down, pulling at answers he will not receive,
Responses, more than he bargains.
“But …”
Fingers outstretched… reaching out,
Grasping for straws
Gasping for air
In the silence, filled with light.
Fingers outstretched — embraced
As he is, where he is.
Enfolded by allusion… or illusion
Of a mother, a father, a lover, a friend
An oasis in joy or despair
and if truth be told, who would really care?
###
The lake at twilight
IMG_2892
Bob is a loud-ass fish, unlike some scaly fisheren.
Slimy, bold and a oh so proud.
Stealthy in his swimmy charms.
Caring not about Kardashians, ineqaulity or bearing arms
They come, and bring their bags.
With bangs and bams and zips and yags
And Bob greets them with the subtle, silent baits …
Water and air
Peace
Remembering …
The trap is set
The prey is unaware
The twilight will claim another victim
For it is not you that comes to Bob…
It is Bob that comes, and finds, a needy you.
###
IMG_2891

Happiness Project: Sing cause it means something …

27 Mar

When I put Ben to bed, he always asks for the same things – more time for video games, a drink, a story, world peace, another story, another drink, to brush his teeth, that I read Betsy a story, etc. … and that I sing him “his songs.” As I sit here humming my personal renditions of “Jesus Loves Me” and “Twinkle, Twinkle” (I prefer a bluesier version), singing to my kids has always made me happy.*

*I really can’t seem to write these without indulging in the frequent aside … With Emma, I sang “Hush Little Baby” and with Betsy, she always calmed down when I sang “Come Unto Me” by Take 6 or “Unforgettable” (just Nat King Cole, please; Natalie … my psychic friend says you’re needed elsewhere … ).

In fact, singing is one of those things that has both made me happy – a lot – and taught me a lot about guarding and protecting something that I do love … to ensure that it keeps making me happy.

When I was 10, my father was the minister of youth at Guntersville First Baptist Church. When I wasn’t playing football outside or trying to sneak into empty classrooms on the third floor, I was in the children’s/youth choir. The first time I can remember singing in front of an audience was the night the director, who was also my band director, asked if I wanted to do a solo – I think it was one of the verses to “Because He Lives.”*

*Which reminds me, this is a happiness blog, but I’d love to do a rant on church hymns that make me want to sneak liquor into the service … anything with blood in it; any that mention how I’d be better off dying and leaving this cruel world; and a host of others that I’ve sung and heard at funerals that make me well-up.

People have WANTED me to sing a lot more than I’ve felt inclined to do it. I love it when I sing because I want to, because I’m getting something out of it. I’m often embarrassed when I’m asked to sing and really don’t feel it … because in the end, I’d rather disappoint me than someone who has asked me. Most of us want to give of ourselves and do it from a sense of goodness, charity or desire to share and make people happy. It ain’t the same when you feel obligated or manipulated.

And just to complicate things, sometimes I’ve agreed to sing, reluctantly, and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. In the balance, it makes me happy. Maybe because I’m giving of myself. Maybe because of the connection with and to other singers and the audience. Maybe because I have seen people moved by the music and words … and I knew I was a part of it.

Which just goes to show, to be happy, follow your passion … but sometimes, try something you don’t want to do. What’s life without mystery and taking some risk?

At this point, I have no idea how many different songs I’ve sung – in choirs, groups or alone. And I’ve pretty much sung all types of stuff:

  • In high school, I sang Lionel Richie’s “Say you, Say me,” because my director at the time, and I believe it was Johnny Brewer, had some unexplainable fixation with that song. It was clearly a Lionel Richie time; we did the same song in band. (and no, go find your own clip of this one … Trust me, I heard it plenty)
  • At the same time, my church choir would travel every month to the nursing home, and we’d sing old Gospel hymns – think I’ll Fly Away, We will Understand it Better, Traveling On and shaped notes.*

*I REALLY detested this music when I was a kid. Instead of going on strike, I would simply steal one hymnal a week, knowing eventually I’d have them all, and chances to sing songs like this would evaporate. I did eventually have to explain the collection of songbooks to my parents.

  • I don’t know if we were that good or just that obnoxious, but Dale Foster, Hugh Thomas, Jon Campbell and a collection of others sang all around campus at Montevallo – in the street, the caf and in the shower at Napier Hall (it had great acoustics). While we could do one helluva version of Seven Bridges Road by the Eagles, I really loved caroling at Christmas. The best parts were singing outside Main Hall, and having people join our little troupe along the way.
  • I love singing The Messiah, and this last Christmas, had a first. Dale, who as a best friend is allowed to call in favors, asked me to sing with his choir and perform the tenor arias that begin the piece. The night of the performance, he also surprised me and ask that I do another solo … a bass one (I’m a tenor). Now, that’s fun (and that’s pressure, folks). Clip of Every Valley Shall Be Exalted (I know it looks like me, but alas … he’s just a pretenda’ but I’ve sung this many times)
  • More recently, I was introduced to karaoke. I admit, I’d never sung karaoke until last year, in all my years of singing. But sometimes now, I’ll go by myself just to get the chance. It’s also a place where I can shine with my soulful side. Don’t be hatin’ but I do kick-ass versions of “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green, “Me and Mrs. Jones,” by Billy Paul, and “Ain’t no Sunshine,” by Bill Withers.

And if you’re a hatah’ … message me, I’ll put my money where my silky, smooth vocals are!

So (Carpenter’s Fans): Sing, sing a song. Sing out loud. Sing out strong. No matter if it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Sing. Sing a song.

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