Tag Archives: Birmingham

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

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Happiness Project: A Mexican Revolution

13 Mar

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:

Beautimous Besto Pesto Burgers — a Beautimous Original

15 Aug

Ever since my trip to Rogue Tavern and the somewhat disappointing experience with the pesto sliders, I’ve been making plans to make my own pesto burgers. Now, I didn’t start this blog – initially – to share the various things that I throw together for meals (though I have been cajoled more than once to write my reci … well, I can’t even call them “recipes,” usually, because mostly it’s cooking by the Force).

I am no professional chef. My experience at cooking is trial and an exceptional comfort-level with error. I’m not a card-carrying foodie, though I appreciate the ideals. But God love ‘em, it’s just not practical every time.

That said, I’m going to share my newest creation – following the Beautimous’ squire naming of it – the Besto Pesto Burger. For the complete meal, obviously, suit yourself, but I’ll share what I prepared. Let’s just agree at the onset that it’s more of a food guideline … because I didn’t use a recipe to make it.

Besto Pesto Burgers

I have a basil plant that is freakin’ out of control. So, as a wildlife management tactic, I dedicated myself to making homemade pesto. I consulted several recipes … and then pretty much like always, I modified. Normal or not, here are the “food guidelines” for my pesto:

Besto Pesto

  • 3-5 cups of fresh basil, cup up
  • 1&1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic (fresh or canned)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 to 1&1/2 cups of shredded Romano cheese (any hard cheese will work).
  • 2 tablespoons parsley
  • 2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • At least 4 tablespoons olive oil (extra virgin or light), probably more
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Note this will make a lot more than you’ll need for the burgers. You can save in the fridge for several days or freeze for a couple months.

  1. Besto Pesto -- Pesto Burger mixPlace all the ingredients, except the vinegar and oil (and s&p) in a blender (or food processor). Pour in the vinegar and 2-3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Blend on lowest speed. You’ll probably need to stop and scrape the side occasionally.
  2. Add more oil, as needed. What you’re trying to achieve is a certain consistency in the mix – chopped, wet, pasty but not liquefied (see the rough, gross photo for an idea … it’s the best I could do, the pesto’s almost gone!).  If you need more than 4 tablespoons, go for it … get it to the consistency that you want.
  3. Taste it … then add salt and pepper as you want (around a tablespoon or less). Voila. You’ve got pesto. What does it yield? I don’t know. A bunch of pesto!

Besto Pesto BurgerBesto Pesto Burger – Grilled
Yields about 6-8 patties

  • 2 lbs of ground beef (80/20 … don’t use lean meat and don’t go for the 73/27 either)
  • Besto Pesto Mix … and yes, you COULD use sto’ bought pesto. I won’t be around to tattle on you.
  • Sliced yellow tomato (or whatever kind)
  • Sliced Purple onion
  • Sliced mozzarella cheese
  • Romaine lettuce leafs
  • Loaf of French Bread
  • Condiments to suit
  1. Fire up the old grill and let it get to a good medium-low heat
  2. Thoroughly mix 2 tablespoons of the pesto into a quarter pound of the meat.
  3. Repeat until you have all burgers ready for the grill.
  4. Cook on low to medium-low heat 5-7 minutes on each side or until done to your liking. WARNING (Other than the ones that you should know about cooking safety … these burgers are oily and likely to have flash flames on the grill. Keep some water handy, don’t flip more than necessary and DON’T PRESS).
  5. Also place the purple onion on the grill. Prep in favorite way to keep it from sticking.
  6. Onion is done when it is has some scorching … this is delicious (caramelized sugars on the onion).
  7. When the meat is cooked, build your burger. Serve on French bread topped with tomato, some grilled onions, a slice of mozzarella cheese, lettuce and whatever condiments are to your liking (suggest mayo and very light mustard).

Besto Pesto Burgers with mashed potatoes and steam squashWe ate these burgers with a strange combo that only could have been demanded by family and what needed to be cooked in the fridge … homemade garlic cheese mashed potatoes and steamed summer squash.

Let me know how this works for you … It was a hit around here.

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

10 Aug

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?

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

777 lbs. of anything is scary

5 Jul

You know, I love a good burger as much as anyone. Heck, I’m not above eating one that isn’t that good. But I guess I never considered that it’s not just quality that the world seeks … it’s quantity.

Community sets World Record with 777 lb. burger

I was — I don’t know — amused. Scared. Confused. Amazed. When I read this article, I was speechless. It’s one of those stories that sounds cool on some level, and then you start to think about it, and I found myself dwelling on the sheer size of this thing.

Pounds of lettuce. More than 1 million calories. And for a more $.99 you could have indulged, too. I just wonder how good it actually was.

Look for my review of Purple Onion and an experience that took me back to my past.

Take two burgers and call me in the morning: Green Valley Drugs in Hoover

4 Jul

Burger Blog I’ll give the owners of Green Valley Drugs (GVD) credit; it’s a bastion of dad-in-twenty-year-old-shorts-and-a-t-shirt-he-got-in-college-unconventionalism. It’s the place’s charm that is the best part of this experience. It’s a lunch counter that’s also homey and folksy. The proprietors might not even care that within a stone’s throw you can hit an Outback Steakhouse, Subway and a newly renovated Publix.

Green Valley is one of those places that typically is mentioned when the best burger in Birmingham (Urban Spoon) is brought up. And clearly, this is a place that has its advocates. If you want, you can saunter up and eat at the counter, or try your luck at getting a table (they have a handful). And if you start making plans, it’s open for lunch six days a week.

Maybe 40 years ago, the idea of having a meal at a drug store counter wouldn’t be quite so novel, but in 2011, there are only a handful of these type of establishments.The walls are decorated with old pistols and rifles, designed at one point to be hip, but which now gives it a “we-don’t-care-about-granite-countertops-or-know-who-Lady-Gaga-is” look. An old ice cream freezer is used as a rest for water and tea pitchers. And imagine, it’s probably one of the few places you can eat a fatty burger and chase it with a Lipitor, all purchased in the same place.

As for the burger, it’s one of the better ones. It’s cooked pretty much as you watch. I had bacon on mine when I visited (a whim) and it was crispy and perfect. On a return visit to get a few photos for the review, I was told the meat comes in daily (about 30 lbs); they buy it from Western Supermarket. It’s fresh, but I have to say, was a bit bland – and I almost accused them of pre-making the patty, because I believe I saw it come out of a plastic bag of patties. But hereto goes the benefit of the doubt …

Fries were frozen and pre-made, but treated with tasty love and not too salty care, and were hot.

Bonus points come into play here. GVD has ice cream, which they are more than willing to shake for you, cone for you or deliver in whatever manner you like. I had a chocolate cone, which was piled to overflowing. Ice cream isn’t a burger joint requirement, but it doesn’t hurt.

I’d go back, but it’s not without its shortcomings. On a day when I want a burger, allergy medication and ice cream, it will be a tempting option.

Points are 1-10 (ten being the best)

Meat – 8 … Fresh but a bit uninspiring, but I’ve tasted a LOT worse.

Bun and fixins’ – 6 … Nothing to see here. Move along.

Sides – 7.5 … Hot and crispy, not too salty.

Presentation and service – 7 … Nice waitress who made suggestions for the kiddos in attendance. The baskets and styrofoam cups seemed appropriate.

Ambiance – 9 … It’s a throwback that’s not attempting to be a throwback. You might not call a lunch counter a burger joint, but it’s gotta get some credit for being iconic in its own way. No shock that nearly everyone there was eating a burger.

Bonus X – +1 Like they say, there’s always room for ice cream.

Green Valley Drugs on Urbanspoon

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