Archive | July, 2011

Chez Fonfon – Where is the Chez Fun?

30 Jul

Chez fonfonLet’s cut to the chase about the burger at Chez Fonfon. It’s good, maybe great. It’s made with care, handmade from local, organic beef. The bun is terrific and baked at another restaurant owned by Frank Stitt. On the day I went recently, I even ate the grilled onion – scored by marks from the grill – and for me, that’s something, because I profess a respect for the onion but no enduring love. And the pickles are like eating … tiny, delicious pickles.

The winner of the 2011 Birmingham News Best Burger, the burger at CF is top notch. I would add for the sake of honesty that I felt the meat was a bit over-seasoned, even approaching a bit briny. It was enough so that I noticed how salty the burger ended up being, seeing what appeared to be seasoned meat and salt/pepper on some of the lettuce. But this is a quibble. It’s delicious.

And the fries… The foodies of the world may cheer for the burger there, but I could eat my weight in the pommes frites (fries, for the un-Frenchy-fied). They are sliced small, fried and served warm, but not greasy. Not an easy task … or at least, I’ve not seen it accomplished too many times.chez fonfon

So, if you want an exceptional burger and fries … that comes with some baggage, then Chez Fonfon is the place to go.

Baggage? Absolutely.

All that fuss comes at a price. For one, a $12 price. Maybe it’s worth it, and maybe no hamburger – BY ITS NATURE – should be $12.

The restaurant, on its own website, calls itself a “cozy, casual French bistro that transfers you to Paris, Lyons or Nice.” That’s all well and good, just as is the grilled fish with ratatouille and aioli, the chicken provencal, or the veal paillard.

The problem is that the humble hamburger would have been part of the proletariat masses that would have stormed the place during the revolution and executed the pate-eating crowd. It’s not that the burger couldn’t be suited to the place (which it is), but that in many ways, the place is not completely suited to a burger.

I suspect that if Frank Stitt got it into his head that he wanted to jump on the back end of the burger craze, he could open one hell of a burger joint. But as it stands, one of the best hamburgers in the city is offered in a most unburger-like setting.

I’ve been recently and I’ve been in years past … and the thing that I leave with is confirmation that the meal was tasty, but wishing that I’d gotten to eat it somewhere else. A place that was less “transferring” and more homey. That wanted to commune with me, instead of educating and impressing. Less pretentious and more focused on making the experience fit the dish.

This feeling has nothing to do with the staff, either, who always have been professional. It’s about a burger experience. It’s about American familiarity, pride at humble beginnings. Where is the waitress who’s been working there all her life? The kids? Regulars who are known and greeted by name? Evidence that the place is loved more than respected? Where is the Chez Fun in Chez Fonfon?

When I think of a hamburger, I see a metaphor: a symbol of something American, something that can transcend the many things that pull us apart: a food – in it verisimilitude of varieties from veggie to Kobe — that we can share. So, in a way, the burger at Chez un-Funfun is a special envoy, a missionary spreading the gospel of the beauty of common food in a field populated with both ham and cheese and turkey sandwiches and steak tartare and escargot. And you know, in quiet times, in spite of what it’s accomplished and how terrific it may be (or how amazing the food and respectable the locale), that this lonely, displaced burger yearns to breathe the free air, go out for a night on the town with old bacon (not pancetta) buddies, flirt with other spicy mustards and maybe come home with a kiss from some fancy ketchup.

Meat – 8.75 … Ground meat is a tough thing when it comes to seasoning, even if you use steak and basically make your own. But I thought the meat was a bit too salty and hid some of the natural flavor. Kudos for delivering the patty cooked as I asked, however.

Bun and fixins’ – 9 … On the burger side this might be the best part. The bun is delicious, a bit crunchy. The sides are served on the side and I loved how they were not just thrown in.

Sides – 9.25 …Approaching fry perfection. I miss them already. Hand-made. Fried. Crispy. Hot/warm. They didn’t last long.

Service & Presentation – 7 … The waiter was attentive but also not particularly interested in me being there (alone also). The presentation at lunch is a bit showy — you know that “presentation” thing … when you’re kind of compelled to tell someone that the plate that has a burger on it is “lovely.” Let’s just say I would have been equally happy if it was wrapped in paper.

Ambiance – 5 …”Would you like some snails to start today? No? Oh I see, you want to get it to go and eat sitting at the fountain.”

Bonus X – (-1) … Call it insult to injury … I know, we are spoiled in Bham, but you know what? We don’t pay to park and parking in Southside is a pain in the butt. Add to it the $12 you’ll pay for your burger …

Chez Fonfon on Urbanspoon

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Mugshots – Burger ‘High Noon’ needs a different seasoning

26 Jul

The name “Mugshots” reminds people of a challenge that this eatery offers: finish a monstrous three-patty burger and all the trimmings in 12 minutes and you get it for free, get your name and photo on the wall of honor and are provided letters of apology to your physician and family (okay, maybe not the last one …). Like a showdown at high noon, that challenge is something that the wise try to avoid and the young approach with gusto and indiscretion: “I’ll make you famous!”

Mugshots, in Vestavia Commons (the original opened in Hattiesburg, Miss. in 2004), is a fairly new casual dining sportish-bar, a new-ish location of a new-ish chain. They believe in burgers at this place. They tout the fact that all are half a pound of ground round and each grilled to a nice, safe medium well. But as I ate there, I kept hearing the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in my head.

I found my burger – and the experience in general – maddening. Flashes of brilliance mixed with pedestrian over-exuberance.  The fact that many people have suggested that I go and that it’s on several lists of best burgers makes this review … complicated.

So, I’m taking the easy way out and turning over the review. Yep, delegating. To Slim, the cowboy philosopher and burger aficionado …Mugshots

Let me pull out mah notes, here … ‘scuse me, while I whip this out

Me and beautilicious (my hamburger trail buddy), we ordered two different burgers offa that thar menu. I had the “McDonald,” which they called, “By far the best burger on the menu … it’ll knock your clothes off.”

Well, it didn’t, and it didn’t knock one buckskin or hoop skirt off of no one, but iffin that’s the best burger there, than that’s sadder than the cow-poke what said, “I’m putting my money on the Clanton boys; they ain’t never been beat at Corral.”

But, lookey here, you see, the bun on that-thar burger was as tasty as a shot of whiskey after being on the dusty trail all day. Sweet. Soft. Purdiest and tastiest thang in that meal.

But boy howdy, that bun was busy. Why, they’d put nigh onta’ ever livin’ thang you could image on it. Cheese, pickles, lettuce, tomater, ranch dressing, barbecue sauce, and ungyuns. Saltier than salt lick I got out on the back forty … And that meat, I know, I’m justa galoot; I tells ‘em to only cook it til it stops mooing. Pardna’, they cooked that thang til it wuz pert near dunner ‘n my boot.

And them thangs they called beer-battered fries … You might can fool an old cowboy once, but I looked them hornswagglers in the eyes and said, “Haven’t I seen you before round these parts? Maybe at Cap’n D’s or some other place?” And you know what, those yellow-livered slivers did? Nothing. Sat there looking guiltier than one of them veg-e-terrians at a cattle rustlin’ convention.

And that sweet thing, beautilicious, you know they brought her a hamburger sandwich with nuthin’ to go on it ‘cept peanut butter? Darn tootin’! Meat, bun and crunchy butter. And you know what? It twernt half bad. Hell, I might even get me one some day.

You know where they get their meat? Naw, not New York City. Houston. Yep. Probably couple million head of cattle on the trail tween here and Houston. None of them good enough?

Oh, it twernt bad, fer the most part. It’s just a bit trigger-happy. Green. A hot shot kid, full of piss and vinegar. It’ll mellow. Age. Learn the ropes of life like, “Sometimes, you eat the bar. Sometimes, it eats you.”

But til then, keep it simple, abide. Less is more, sometimes. Happy burger trails!

Meat – 7 … I think I’ve said enough about this topic. If it had any juiciness left when it got to me, I couldn’t find it.

Bun and fixins’ – 7.5 … Accentuate the positive: the bun is awesome. Alone, the big, fat yeast roll would get a 9.5. But throwing everything on what is supposed to be your place’s best isn’t impressive; it’s overkill. And the lettuce had a distinct twinge of soapiness.

Sides – 7 … I’ve seen your face somewhere before Mr. Fry … Don’t tell me. Okay, tell me. It’s killing me. BTW –I saw another table with fried dill pickles. I still want them!

Service & Presentation – 7 … Beautilicious got a large plastic cup to-go. She was pleased and wanted to make sure that it was noted. Gene was pleasant and attentive.

Ambiance – 8.5 … While I haven’t mentioned much about this, the atmosphere is fun and inviting. It can get loud and the beer is cold. The patio is a great locale for people watching and waiting for a movie at the Rave. Kid friendly, friend-friendly, date-friendly.

Bonus X – No points, but from appearances the other food there looked good. Have heard that the Veggie Black Bean burger is good. Asked the staff if it was cooked on the same grill as the beef. It is cooked separately (on a flat-top used for veggies).

Mugshots Grill on Urbanspoon

Great Southern Cafe (Seaside, FL): It better be good if it can hold up the world and come with a side of Gouda grits

23 Jul

Great Southern Café in Seaside, Florida is one of several restaurants owned in part or in whole by Jim Shirley. Shirley is a bit of local icon – in North Florida and elsewhere – having started several noteworthy establishments in the area and writing a column that has appeared in the Pensacola News Journal.

So, I was just wondering: what does a Southern cheeseburger taste like? Is it fried? Does that mean something that I just don’t know? Cause I grew up in the country, and the only difference that I can think of is one or two times in my youth that I’d eyed the source of my burger, being from the country.

I would be the first to say that the burger on the menu probably isn’t the top reason to go to Great Southern, not because the burger isn’t good (it is). It’s because the place has so many good things and encompasses so many various cuisines – from great gouda grits, to fried okra, to oysters and shrimp.

The interior of GSC is a new place designed to look a lot like an old place – distressed floors, salvaged wood, etc. It’s clearly a favorite hangout in a tourist mecca, and from speaking with friends and family who holiday along 30A, it’s a place that has a staunch following … likely from a strong combination of delicious, creative, but familiar foods, a relatively relaxed atmosphere (being at the beach probably helps), and convenience.

The burger at Great Southern – for reason that I don’t know immediately, it’s named “Atlas Burger” — is equal to the place. It is made from round and strip steak, ground daily, and claims to be antibiotic and from hormone-free cattle. The meat was done to order, though it emerged a bit bland and unseasoned at the table. Maybe the burger relies on the so-called “Zippy” sauce, which you can get on other items on the menu as well.

Served on a Kaiser roll, the burger is accompanied by a choice of sides … and in a break from tradition, I’d say that there are better sides available there than the fries. You know by now that I like hand-made fries, but I looked with lust in heart at the grits … several times. Yeah, I know … who eats a burger and grits … well, I would, next time!

The fixings on my burger were, predictably, first-rate. The tomato, in particular, was juicy, red and ripe. It reminded me that we were approaching prime tomato season.

Obviously, GSC is no burger joint, in the strictest sense. It’s a great restaurant run by a chef who is focused on local, sustainable foods and providing a great, ultimately Southern dining experience. It’s upscale (more so) at night and less fussy at breakfast and lunch.

But tucked inside a place that wants to be Southern and charming and hip and folksy all at the same time is a really good burger offered at a place that has lots of other better foods on its menu. If you’re dying for a burger, you won’t go wrong with this one. But if you aren’t dying for a burger, you’d not be making a mistake to try something else at this first-rate restaurant.

Points (1 to 10)

Meat – 8.5 … Sometimes, in a world in which I’ve enjoyed my fair share of antibiotics and hormones from my bovine friends, I’d like to do a taste-test and see if I could actually tell the difference. I say this, because in ways, the meat was good here, but not more so than other places I’ve been.

Bun and fixins’ – 8 …Ahh, the glories of a fresh tomato … You spend you entire winter tolerating the unripe ones from grocery stores to emerge in summer to a fresh, ripe one. It was nice to see you crawling around on Atlas.

Sides – 7 …I admittedly went several weeks ago, and the sides I had have completely left me. I say this not to mean that I can’t remember; I say it because they left no lasting impression. Other people I went with had better sides … So, I guess this is a bit of upstaging. And if I was part of the fry union at GSC, I think I’d go on strike. They aren’t even the top listed potato side (Scallion Mashed Potatoes get top billing).

Presentation and service – 8 … Noting out of the ordinary here. Very friendly people and staff, with an international flair that your probably aren’t expecting when you walk in the door.

Ambiance – 8.5 … It’s a bit odd. It’s a weird combination of casual and chic; upscale but with a chalkboard in the dining area with the specials listed and sides; paper and crayons and wine by the glass. A clearly newish place that’s trying hard to look oldish. But overall, very relaxed (which is good for the locale). I’m not sure how, but it works.

Bonus X – I can’t give GSC credit for this, but if you are at Seaside, go to the music store — Central Square Record. It’s around the theater area, back toward the beach on the second floor. It has a great selection of eclectic music (and on vinyl, if that’s the way you roll) — and a staff that will take the time to make suggestions on things that you might like. Maybe you prefer the Genius on iTunes … or maybe it’s cool to talk to a real person on occasion.

The Great Southern Cafe on Urbanspoon

Rotier’s (Nashville) — the folks up North in the South have more than great music

21 Jul

A quick note: I’m kind of taking a vacation … over the next couple of days, I’ll be reviewing some locations that are day trips away from our fair city of Birmingham. Enjoy! Beautimous …

RotierIf you picked up Rotier’s and moved it to Birmingham, it would immediately become one of the best burger joints in the city. But you’d need to bring along the building … Oh yeah, and all the decorations in it … and the connections they have to get fresh, ground meat. And the veggies. And probably two-dozen regulars who’ve grown up eating their burgers and fried okra.

The point of this being, Rotier’s is a great burger joint – one that finds its way to many best burger in Nashville lists. It would be GOOD burger joint in Birmingham, not because the quality is so vastly different between geographies, but because the bacon on this proverbial burger is that it’s classic Nashville, in a non-tourist, home-town way.

This place doesn’t NEED pics of Tom T. Hall, Tom and Jerry, or Thom Yorke to make it a great burger place. What it has is a connection to the area and history.

Around for some nearly 40 years, it’s a classic Southern diner, in that it features, probably as it did 40 years ago, traditional Southern cuisine with things like a great burger thrown. On the day I went, my colleague eschewed the burger (a decision she swears she will not do again) and had the all-Southern meal of fried okra, fresh tomato slices and cottage cheese. She could have had black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, and probably mac and cheese.

But the place has a reputation, deservedly so, for its burger. According to the staff, the meat is brought in fresh daily, hand patted and sourced locally.

Now, most of the time – let’s call it in the “modern burger” era – when you take a first bite of a burger, what do you taste? Bun? Special sauce? Regret?

I’ll tell you what you DON’T often taste … the meat. Between overloading it with other stuff, the namesake of the sandwich ends up with second billing to greasy, salty, condiment-y, everything-else-but-the-meat taste.

Rotier's burgerNot at Rotier’s. They offer a couple burger varieties, but their calling card burger is one that’s served on French bread. And the first bite becomes a moment of appreciation for the difference that fresh meat, freshly cooked, makes on a burger of any type. The meat was flat-out delicious, by burger standards and pretty much any standards.

And like its hometown, it was a burger with a unique character. I asked specifically about onions – by now, you know about the love/hate relationship I have with the onion – to asked for them to be left off, only to find that the Rotier’s burger, in its natural state, is a onion-free zone.

Given that, I asked for it to be brought however they made them normally. It came with almost no condiments (surprise), not even on the side. It did have a tiny bit of mustard.

But Wow! And for those of us who care (and I do!), this great burger costs less than $7.

So, in a way, I’m jealous of our honky-tonking friends to the North in the South that they have this place. But it’s also kind of refreshing that you can leave downtown Nashville and all the goofiness, and tourist trappings, and chain restaurants and go toward Belmont (near Centennial Park, 2413 Elliston Place) and find a joint, hole-in-the-wall that has a great rep and a great burger.

Rotiers - MargaretPoints are 1-10 (ten being the best)

Meat – 9.25 … I’d give it more, but I’m afraid that might mean that the world would tilt off its axis or what it might mean for my future to give out such easy grades? … It didn’t provide me with a winning lottery number. See, always room for improvement.

Bun and fixins’ – 8 … The French bread is a great twist. A bit crunchy and doesn’t overshadow the meat. I also like the minimalist approach to the burger’s sauciness. I’d prefer to get my sauciness elsewhere, thank you.

Sides – 7 … “I’m sorry. Were you speaking to me? I was so busy chatting up the burger. Here, just write your address on this greasy cocktail napkin, and I’ll friend you on Facebook.”

Presentation and service – 8 … The food was out quickly and with a smile. The waitress and cook also were happy to chat about their food and where it came from. Nice people and homey atmosphere. Warning! I’ve heard it can be difficult to get a seat some days.

Ambiance – 8.5 … It looks like a burger joint. Feels like one, too. Beer signs. Local pics. Plus, Margaret (above) is so darned cute behind the counter.

Bonus X – Well, I probably should have had a piece of pie. It gives me something to strive for in the future.

Rotier's on Urbanspoon

Stadium Grill: A Green Knight of the burger quest

17 Jul

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight challenges Arthur’s knights to swap a blow with him. After Gawain cuts his head off, the green bad boy picks it up and leaves, one of the lessons being — in that quest as it is in mine — that not everything is always as it seems. Appearances can deceive. In the end, patience, dedication and humility pay off. Yes, it is humility — to acknowledge that beauty, truth and joy can come from unexpected places.

stadiun grillStadium Grill in Bessemer is the kind of place that my parents would have never gone. It looks on the outside like a class-A shack. It sits directly across 4th Ave. from the tongue-twisting, Snitz Snider Stadium, the home of the Jess Lanier Purple Tigers  (until they high-tailed it to the Bessemer burbs and the new stadium near Academy Dr.). The parking lot is gravel-ish and paved-ish … depending on where you park. This ain’t the Summit … heck, it’s not even Wal-Mart.

But when you walk in … it’s homespun beautiful, a burger dive in Bessemer. The inside of Stadium Grill (if you can, here’s a link to their FB page)is about as burger jointy as you’ll find. You can get beer. You can get a soft drink in a can. You can get what is supposedly a great rib-eye sandwich. But bring cash. And bring a picture of yourself. And get ready for a great burger.

stadium grill in bessemerThe walls and the booths at this small place are adorned with photos of people who have patronized this Bessemer icon. You can see from the pictures that the place has been around several days. The tables are worn. The walls are dark. Which makes the flat screen tvs on the walls at once predictable and completely out of place at the same time.

They also boast of a great burger. And to be honest, it doesn’t disappoint. While I was there, I saw them bring in their meat; they’d bought it from a local grocery store. I ordered a regular cheeseburger and taking the waitress’ suggestion, opted for the hand-cut fries.

The burger was first-rate, terrific even. The patty was knobby and clearly had been hand patted and was not overcooked. I asked for medium, and it came that way — juicy and eventually overwhelming the bun. The meat was fresh, cooked perfectly and seasoned just enough to be interesting. The fixings with it were what you’d expect also.

I liked the place the moment I opened the door and saw the pay phone still inside, the familiarity and warmth of the owners, patrons and employees. I considered professing courtly love to it when I saw the pictures on the walls and my burger. But they had me – 100 percent – when I got the fries. Hand cut. Fried and hot and greasy, but not soggy. With enough of skin left on them to make them interesting and with earthy flavor.

Oh, they also brought me some of their “special sauce” to dip my fries in!

I will be going back – with more cash. And this time, I’m not sharing the fries. And I’m taking my picture, too.

Points are 1-10 (ten being the best)

Meat – 8.5 … No question this was fresh. No question it was made with love. Juicy but not runny. Flavorful (almost), but still room to achieve something more.

Bun and fixins’ – 7.5 … Points for good, solid extras that don’t break down and turn to burger mush.

Sides – 9 … Like I said before, “A sucka’ for homemade fries …” Sauce was a nice surprise.

Presentation and service – 7.5 … Fun waitress who knew when we walked in that we were Stadium Grill virgins. Thank God, she was gentle.

Ambiance – 9 … A picture of this place should be placed next to definition of burger dive/joint in the dictionary. It’s the type of place that you need to check your preconceptions at the door and just enjoy the experience.

Bonus X – Not this time.

Stadium Grill on Urbanspoon

Hamburger Heaven (280) — What should you expect of a Puritan Patty?

14 Jul

There are certain things that always get me into trouble. Getting into silly arguments. Telling me I can’t do something. An all-you-can-eat bacon buffet. But topping the list has to be the “expectation” thing.

You see, we can’t go through life and not have expectations. They come naturally and can be a pain in the patootie. We expect this thing from a job, or that from someone else. We expect our children will clean their room … or that people just get us.  Expectations move us toward an assumption of what will be; a quandary I now face as I review a recent trip to Hamburger Heaven.

Hamburger Heaven (HH) is an iconic Birmingham burger place, both a local favorite and a place I’ve eaten at probably 20 times over the years.  It started some 25 years ago as one, lone burger stand between Irondale and Roebuck. Today, the original still stands, and there are additional locations in Homewood, on 280, in Gardendale and Tarrant.

Hamburger Heaven is a place that states, in its name, that it is a divine realm of hamburgery. It was a winner of the best burger award – 2008. It is, rightly so, proud to serve a good hamburger. And my memory of eating there has been good – good family times, good food and always a surprise, like their shakes.

But following my quest trip (which was to the HH on 280), I left feeling … ehhh. I wasn’t in love. I wasn’t even in lust. The meat on my burger was fresh, but way overcooked. The fries are not anything to crow about – bagged and blandish. I ordered banana pudding that should have been called “vanilla wafers and pudding,” because the existence of a “banana” in that dessert would need to have been authenticated by a professional.

Not everyone in attendance with me had the same experiences. Another person’s burger was less overdone. The ice cream was tasty (and I was kicking myself for being a banana pudding sucka!). People swear by other stuff there—the cornballs, the shakes, even the hot dogs are good.

So, in answer to the question — “Was the meal just disappointing or were my expectations too high?” – I have decided to answer, “Yes.”

It was disappointing. I’ve had better meals there in the past. With a quest comes a twinge of good and the bad – and in this one, ya’ get one chance. But my expectations for HH were also unrealistic. While HH looks the part of a hamburger joint, it really isn’t (at least not any more). While it has integrity in terms of freshness and doing things their way, it makes compromises, like the fries.

I realized that my primary issue is that HH is less of a homey, burger haven, and it’s more of a not-so-fast, fast-food, sit-down place. Heat lamps. A drive-thru. Assembly lines. Signs selling their secret sauce (which tastes strangely like Sneaky Pete’s sauce).

So, if you’re looking for a haven from most fast food, a place that is local, a place that is reasonably priced, and you want – included in that list – a typically good burger, with some ice cream or onion rings, then (forgive me, Belinda Carlise) Heaven is a place with six locations around Birmingham. But if you’re looking for the best, then come back to Earth and join the rest us as we continue the quest.

Points are 1-10 (ten being the best)

Meat – 6.5 … It means something that a place touts hand making patties and the freshness of their meat. But mine could have also carried a “cooked so long that no germs be here” seal … it twas a devout Puritan patty – honest and noble in its birth, structured but overworked as an adult, and ultimately, too grim and serious.

Bun and fixins’ 7 – The buns are “lubed” up in some machine that leaves it a bit greasy. I’m personally not a big fan of the special sauce.

Sides – 6.5 … Zzzzzzz. Wake me when a real side shows …

Presentation and service – 7 … It’s an order at a register place. They did mess up our order (some of us, who will remain nameless, insist on a having a burger that’s dressed in a bikini of cheese and condiments only). But fixed it quickly and without any hassle.

Ambiance – 8 … I do like HH, and the décor and the place is not frou frou. It’s burgery – with pics of The Bear and Shug on the wall.

Bonus X – +1 … I’m gonna put the vanilla wafer and pudding thing out of my mind. I like the ice cream. And they do have an AWESOME shake. BTW – all kids meals come with ice cream!

Fresh ground beefP.S.  For those of you concerned that I’ve written off HH due to a bad trip to a lesser location, I may decide to review the Irondale location, given it is the original …
Hamburger Heaven on Urbanspoon

The burger blues and the Purple Onion

7 Jul

I have several rules that are set on stone. Yes, if they were in stone, I’d never change them, but I forget sometimes. I lapse. And so, what seem like great rules to live by – never get on the roof without someone else being at home or always check to see if you’ve left plastic bowls in the oven when you pre-heat – are orphaned little regulations.

One rule I have: stick to the genre. I have been burned by this simplest of rules so many times. Like ordering fried food at a steamed food place. Or buying batteries at a convenience store. Or a recent trip to a Southside in Birmingham icon — The Purple Onion.

But this night, I was desperate. It was late. I needed food, and frankly, I’d been skunked at the Cantina … so, I was searching for late-night food in downtown Birmingham.

For people who went to UAB or who decided that living in Southside would be good for their moral fiber, the existence of the Purple Onion is a kind of late-night oasis. It’s just the type of 24-hour place you’d expect near a big college campus. It’s gives me the hangover shakes just thinking about it (kind of the same as I get with Waffle House or Dennys … or as I contemplate what exactly I was eating in the Ribwich frozen sandwich from the convenience store).

As for genre, it’s Mediterranean-ish – along with a host of traditional late-night fare – sandwiches, gyros and the like.

And in my plight, I went against my better judgment and my rule and broke genre at the Purple Onion. I’d looked lustily at the burgers on the menu for years and this was my night.

I mentioned that this kind of 24-hour place is déjà vu to me: after receiving my burger from them, I had just that type of experience, except it had nothing to do with liquor.

I was transported back to 11th grade. I was standing in the lunch line at my high school, facing a daily choice – the burger and fries or the regular meal (yep, that was a different era). I have a visceral memory of the look, taste and texture of the “meat patty” that adorned the burgers at school. It wasn’t all meat. It wasn’t all plant. It existed in a weirdly-flavored netherworld of plastic aftertaste. It was chewy, and usually cooked to such an extent that it could have been considered a weapon if you chunked it at someone.

One bite into my burger at Purple Onion and I was kicking myself for not ordering Chicken-in-a-sack. Or falafel. Or for not driving back to the Cantina to beg for a fish taco. I will go back to the Purple Onion – for humus and pita, or a Greek salad or taboule – because I’ve been before and that stuff is good and hits the spot, but I’m swearin’ off their burgers.

Points are 1-10 (ten being the best)

Meat – 2 … It’s not often that you’re transported by a meal to another space and time. I don’t plan to take the return trip.

Bun and fixins’ – 4 … I can’t blame the humble lettuce and tomato that they can’t compensate for the meat. I can blame someone for drowning the sandwich.

Sides – 7 … Frozen, crinkled and involved in a long-term relationship with seasoned salt,

Presentation and service – 6 … The woman working that night was funny. Food was delivered to the table.

Ambiance – 7.5 or 3 … As a late night hang-out, it’s got history, and it attracts a strange mix of people. As a burger joint … let’s just say that I’m giving it some charity points.

Bonus X – + 0.5 … Mint tea. They have it, and I like it. But if you really want a late night burger, there are lots of better places.

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