Galley and Garden: Afterthought burger possibly?

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

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Happiness Project: A Mexican Revolution

There are a couple of rules that I believe are wise to live by:

  1. Don’t go out of genre when you eat somewhere
  2. If you make a promise, you need to keep it.
  3. I cannot and should not be held responsible for anything said or done under the influence of tequila.

That last one is harder and faster than the first one. Most of my head-slapping-est experiences of the past 40 or so years – at some point along the way – included either, “let’s just do one more shot” or “can you bring me another margarita.”

But when it comes to Mexican food – or what we like to call Mexican food round these parts – margaritas and lard aren’t the only things that make them a happy place.

Some people catalogue their lives – Facebook Timeline style – by the songs they remember along the way. I can catalogue my life by the Mexican restaurants that I’ve had a relationship with over the years.

Until I was in college, Alabama was really a Mexican food wasteland. Now, you’ll find some diehards who will argue that places like El Palacio’s or El Gringos (in the various locales they were in) were exceptional. They were exceptional in the way that a crank telephone was hi-tech at the turn of the century … but I don’t see many people today hauling one of those babies around in their back pocket cause it fits better than an iPhone.

The other George Wallace

When I was in grad school at Alabama, I had a friend name George Wallace Law, III. He was in a strange, have-to-see-it-for-yourself way, a combination of Governor George Wallace and George Wallace, the comedienne. About 250 lbs., white as a sheet and with a voice that was twangy and a bit high-pitched for someone his size. George ate at La Fiesta in Tuscaloosa every day … the same food at each meal … Chicken Nachos and a sweet tea … and if he had his way, it would be served by “fast-as-Hell Ricardo.”

I tried to get him to go to other places – Pepitos on the Strip – but he was comfortable at La Fiesta. And if Mexican food has become anything in this state in the last 20 years, it is pseudo-ethnic comfort food … with an order of cheese dip.

After Emma was born, we had a Mexican restaurant of choice, Guadalajara in Hoover (closed). She would eat plain tortillas, and we always made the mistake of going on mariachi band night, which led to the rather awkward experience of having the band come over and croon the Barney theme at her (with the look of “I have your cojones, amigo, and will be expecting a tip for our fine playing”).

George Wallace …

Damn dinosaur! Damn mariachi!

A move to East Birmingham … and more Mexican food relationships developed … Sol Azteca, another Guadalajara, Habaneros, and a lot more. There was a time, as a young man, that I looked over the checkbook and saw my small discretionary money being funneled consistently toward this taco turnpike.

And with more moves and places coming and going, the list goes on … Pablos, San Antonio Grill, Habaneros, Las Pinatas, Sabor Latino, Los Amigos, El Cazador, El Palacio …

Some of the best family and friend memories I have of the past 30 or so years come from being with others and enjoying these cheap but plentifully available meals:

  • Watching the green enchiladas do their work, to get labor started so Emma could join us in this world. Then, years later, turning to green salsa to encourage Ben to leave that wonderful place, that warm, safe place …
  • Finding a place that served white salsa in Williamsburg, Va. Never had it anywhere else … and the hombre wouldn’t fork over the recipe, either. It’s closed now … gone.
  • The, to quote Emma, “freak-ass clown” — and it was a real clown — who came to ChiChi’s in Eastwood, and made balloon animals … and probably LSD back in the kitchen.
  • Eating at El Cazador in Eastwood with the Archibalds and the Yarbroughs … and Emma breaking some large piece of pottery that was next to a fake fireplace … it was a one-time Western Sizzlin’
  • At the El Palacio’s in Irondale, when Emma and John Yarbrough were mostly engaged with trying to stuff the most gumballs possible in their mouth … They used at least $5 on those gum balls … that’s the price of a margarita, for God’s sake!
  • I went to Maine, and was denied any decent Mexican food (and by the way, I nearly cried when we ate at Cracker Barrell in Poughkeepsie, NY). The only place near Freeport — an unholy union called Pedro O’Haras! When I woke up on our way home, leaving from Hagerstown, Maryland, I planned the whole trip home around getting back in time to eat the Fajita Chicken Nachos at Pablos that night, before they closed.
  • Realizing that not all margaritas are created equal. Two of the strongest in Bham — Chuy’s and Cocina Superior. Thus, I have fuzzy memories (of which I cannot be held responsible) of being there with works friends — Valerie Ramsbacher, John Hill, Steve Welch, and others. I also remember a post-divorce trip, instigated by two other single work friends, Linda Childs and Sonya Smith, and discovering that mojitos have just as much kick. I also, at least vaguely, remember several fun dating memories in recent times … way too many margaritas at CS with Dawn Hammack, and at Chuys, enjoying the sunset on the porch with Cherie Cornelius and getting there right as happy hour started with Heidi Rowe and watching the staff fight with the door … oh, and getting the free food.
  • Then there is Betsy. She’s been eating salsa, probably in her bottle. By at least 18 months. Not so much eating the chip as using it to shovel the salsa in her mouth. We starts ’em early!

The chips and salsa are on the table, and I’m ready to order … So, enjoy, amigos … cause with me, happiness comes with order of beans and rice.

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

Bob Syke’s Barbeque: Our Hamburgian Cousin

Now, I know that this is a burger blog. But if you want to get people arguing in the South, and you don’t have a desire to discuss college football, just bring up who has the best barbecue. In the Birmingham area, one place usually mentioned on “best” lists is Bob Sykes Barbecue in Bessemer. For good reason …

Bob Sykes is still a family owned and run business. Van Syke’s is involved in the Bessemer community and has from time to time ventured out from the one location – to Tannehill State Park and to the now-anemic Watermark Place. But the mother-pig on Bessemer Superhighway still churns out deliciousness six days a week.* Just look for the massive pig sign out front.

* I don’t take issue with a place wanting to be closed on Sunday for religious reasons. My grandfather wouldn’t let people fish in his pond of Sunday. But it never fails, that my taste-buds yearn for forbidden fruit when it’s withheld … [Bob Sykes, Chik-fil-A].

Allow me, for a second, to chase a pig here … In general, if you are in a bind and just want a decent burger, you can find one at a GOOD barbecue place. They typically – again the good ones – take meat and the preparation of it seriously. Since they tend to get deliveries of meat to smoke daily, they have fresh stuff all the way around and make them to order.

Which brings me to the burger at Bob Sykes … First, please check any conviction that you should only get barbecue at the door, because this place has an absolutely delicious burger. And it’s not your typical one either!

The burger has a healthy dose of the smoky sauce that the place is known for. It also has a pickle on it. In a way, it’s a barbecue sandwich, but with the pork replaced by a burger patty. Oh, almost forgot to mention, that if you get it like they prep it, it will likely arrive with some chow chow (Note: I’ve been challenged about this … it could have been uppity onions, too … who knows)  hidden here and there. Same buns as the barbecue cousin gets, too.

And if you want, you can get your shot of burger deliciousness in a Booth (just not a John Wilkes one).

Look, the only real problem I have with Bob Sykes … He’s a “homer.” He supports our locally grown and more historic Buffalo Rock soda distributor. Which means, if you’re looking for a Co-Cola with your meal, you’re gonna hear, “Will a Pepsi be okay?” As a consolation, they have sweet tea … and Dr. Pepper.

Another fun point of Bob Sykes, unrelated to burgers but to atmosphere: It’s one of few remaining bbq places where you can watch the fun. Walk in, and the pork is being cooked and smoked in front of your eyes. Sure, you’ll need to explain to your seven-year old son that it’s not like home, and dad just can’t go get one, and that no matter how much he asks, you’re not going to let him use the garden hose on your grill.

Bottom line: the barbecue is first rate and so is the burger!

Points are 1-10 (ten being the best)

Meat – 9.25 … Clearly hand made and hand patted. It is was done perfectly – juicy and scorched in a couple places. Not over-seasoned. It doesn’t need it.

Bun and fixins’ 9 – I guess a better bun might deliver a better product, but this one is pretty darned good. I love the sauce and chow. I also loved the pickle.

Sides – 8.0 … This could be a bit confusing, because you could get any side that typically comes with the barbecue (baked beans, coleslaw, corn …). And while I think the sides at Bob Syke’s are good, they aren’t my favorite. The fries are decent, but – no way to explain this – get cold every time I visit. And this variety of fries doesn’t hold up well when they are lukewarm.

Service & Presentation – 7 … Adequate.

Ambiance – 8.5 … It looks like a barbecue place, a family one. I like the pit in the front. It’s fun to watch.

Bonus X – +1 … There are lots of other reasons to try Bob Sykes, if you’ve never done it before. Good desserts. Great barbecue.

Rating – AA

Bob Sykes Barbeque on Urbanspoon
http://www.facebook.com/BobSykesBBQ  

Tony’s (Pelham) — A burger from the A-Team

I can’t completely explain why I love the burgers at Tony’s. When I was a kid, I had a similar experience, not with food, but with television. The 80’s were the peak of pointless, scripted programming. While these shows can’t hold a candle in the mind-numbing qualities of Jersey Shore, the Bachelorette or Toddlers and Tiaras, etc, I was mesmerized by the likes of Riptide, Manimal, Dukes of Hazzard* and … the A-Team.

* Though I should note that the Dukes of Hazzard did reach an unwatchable level when the brain boxes at CBS replaced the leads in the show with other redneck cousins. Maybe we can start a movement that when a show makes a stupid move like replacing its lead characters (Bo and Luke Duke in this case) we can say that the show has now “Coy and Vanced.” **

** Similar to how “jumping the shark” is used when a show, like the Fonz in Happy Days, makes a creative waterskiing jump from novelty to stupidity.

Tony's BurgersTony’s (located near the intersection of Valleydale Road and Hwy 31 in the Publix Shopping Center) is like the A-Team for me. I can’t completely tell you why I like it. The show made about as much sense as having Mr. T lead a Girl Scout Troop. Ex-special forces guys going around doing good deeds, shooting massive amounts of ammo and no one ever getting shot. Four guys living in a van. Plots as predictable as every episode of CSI or American Idol.

But I would still watch. Every week. The only difference between Tony’s and the A-Team? Tony’s is a lot more satisfying.

What I can tell you are things that really draw me to Tony’s. First, it is a true family restaurant – family in execution and ownership. On any given day (they’re open M-Sat, breakfast and lunch), you find the owner and his wife working the grill.

Tony’s has a burger/grill pedigree, it’s just not the one most people assume. Joe, of the Pelham Tony’s, has connections to Sneaky Pete’s owners, but he’s not related to the Tony of the now-closed Tony’s Terrific Hot Dogs in downtown Birmingham.

After a few visits, you’ll notice that the clientele at Tony’s consists of many regulars. There is no “Welcome to Moe’s.” But you might hear, “How’s your momma?” or catch Joe’s wife trying to make someone’s kid laugh.

Does Tony’s use only heirloom tomatoes? Only local cattle, hand-fed grass clipping from a velvet glove? Inspect every potato?

In a word, no. But when you eat a burger there, you won’t care, either. It is just – hands down – one of the best you’ll find in the area. The whole experience is one of the best. I’m also throwing a shameless plug for a good dog here. That aside, man I love me some Tony’s Jumbo Cheeseburger.

Tony's CheeseburgerAt Tony’s, you can watch them put your massive burger together. The meat is fresh, thrown on a grill, seasoned appropriately. The Jumbo Cheeseburger is straightforward – lettuce, pickles, tomato, onions on a sesame seed bun. He goes heavier on the mayo.

And the first taste is just divine. It’s a guilty pleasure of life. It’s one of those places where the burger is so good, so deliciously decadent in its simplicity that I look past possible shortcomings of the place.

And that’s where I understand it also. The burger is terrific. I’d put Tony’s burger up against Chez Fonfon, Stadium Grill and Green Valley Drugs. But I go back because eating there and being a part of the life of the owners and the people you meet there is like going home.

And that’s part of the allure of a burger to me. It’s not completely about going out and finding the greatest pieces and assembling the Yankees of the burger world (the best team you could buy). Sometimes, instead of a white table cloth and a polite waiter, I want an owner who comes over to my table to see how my kids are doing and pulls out a photo of her baby to show. It more than welcoming; it’s feeling like you are a part of the place.

You see, we can’t always put into words why some place makes us feel at home, but we know that comfort when we feel it. And that, my fellow burger lovers, is as organic an experience as you’ll likely ever have.

Meat – 9.25 … Hand-made patties, cooked on a grill to just the right amount of greasy goodness. The meat has a good, garlic/onion-salt flavor. I don’t know how they do it so consistently, but the mix of the burger, the seasonings on it and just a touch of mayo is burger magic. This place gets the Samuel L. Jackson “Tasty Burger” seal of approval.

Bun and fixins’ 8.5 – Nothing fancy here, but if you do it right, it doesn’t need to be fancy. They also serve a tasty bacon cheeseburger here.

Sides – 7.5 … Huh??? When I was a kid, sometimes when I had to mow the grass before my favorite shows came on, I’d run out and literally run behind the push mower to get through quickly (which leaves a really bad mowing job). I usually eat my crinkle fries first, here … for similar reasons.

Service & Presentation – 8.5 … You might think that they wouldn’t get a lot of points for presentation, but to me, if you run a short-order grill and you serve things on throw-away plates and paper, that’s fine. And the people are the nicest.

Ambiance – 9 … Did you just read the review?

Bonus X – +1 … “Bless me, father … I confess that some of my children visit Tony’s and don’t eat a burger. They eat the hot dog. But I can’t make myself order a burger and dog at the same time for myself – though I REALLY WANT TO — it seems too sinful.”

Rating — AA-

Tony's Hot Dog's on Urbanspoon

The Beautimous Grading System; or More S&P Vagaries for your Food Pleasure

If Satchel Paige had been a restaurant reviewer, he probably would have said “Don’t look back, because something might look different as you get farther away.” Or maybe Yogi Berra would have said it. For me, as I look back on the burger joints that I’ve visited since starting the Beautimousburger blog, it might be helpful for the intrepid readers to have a short-hand for my reviews. Sometimes, I might love a place and have a problem with the food, or vice versa. But what’s the bottom line?

Since a blog of this type offers one of the purest opportunities available to refer to oneself in the third person, beautimous will take the opportunity to be annoying as only someone writing in the third-person can be. For those who know and appreciate beautimous, you know it’s more likely than not that he holds disparate opinions of the same place at the same time: the “I love you and loathe you” in the same breath.

So, what beautimous has done is shake it all together and assigned a letter grade, kind of like the fairly random grades assigned by Harold Weber
in my grad school classes or by S&P. And since S&P and credit ratings seem all the rage these days, beautimous thought, “Why not me?  The grades are loosely based on the credit ratings assigned by S&P, Moodys and Fitch. And trust me, they are just as confusing …

For reference AAA is the highest rating – it’s the pinnacle, unchallenged and no chance of a bad experience at all. With ratings AA+, AA, AA-, they
represent the top experiences; Single digit “A’s” give way to BBB, the BB+ and so on. BB+ and lower and you’re in sketchy territory; a C (or lower) would be short for “caution” cause you’re in for something unpleasant …

For a brief overview of these ratings … consult the online encyclopedia

Without further adieu, here are the grades (in order that the review was completed):

Rogue Tavern – A+

Chez Fonfon – A+

Mugshots – BBB+

Great Southern Café – A+

Rotiers – AA

Stadium Grill – AA-

Hamburger Heaven (280) – BB-

Purple Onion (Southside) –CCC

Green Valley Drugs — A

Chez Fonfon – Where is the Chez Fun?

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

Mugshots – Burger ‘High Noon’ needs a different seasoning

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

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

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

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

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