The burger blues and the Purple Onion

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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