J & J Grocery and Deli (Bessemer/McCalla) – Chew on a gas station burger/It’s time for your yearly review

J&J GroceryJust 50 miles or so from Tuscaloosa is a piece of burger tradition, at least it is for people who live in Bessemer/McCalla. If you ask people from the area what the best burger is, you’re likely – sooner or later – to hear about the ramshackle gas station at the corner of Dickey Springs Road and Pocahontas Road — J&J Grocery and Deli.

You might call it a sight for sore eyes; or as some people I know also called it, “an eyesore.” But J & J has enjoyed moments in the burger lamplight of fame…  My friends at Yelp give it four and half stars. Like its university cousin to the west, it’s been honored and recognized … and possibly endorsed in some ranking by people as dead as Ears Whitworth.

The inside of J&J Grocery, near Bessemer.
The inside of J&J Grocery, near Bessemer.

Some people love J&J. It’s a place that impresses … someone. It’s just that I was more taken in by the place than the food. It’s kind of like Alabama … or Cirque de Soleil or REM. It’s transacted on hype and tradition so long you never know truth from the unreasonable exuberance.

So, in the spirit of doing a review, I thought that this review should be a review … like a yearly review.

So J&J, is it okay if I call you that? Thanks. We’re here for your yearly review. Clearly, you’ve done some awesome work over the last year and the folks upstairs are really pleased with what you’ve done, and so am I. 

Well, thanks boss. You know, I’ve been doing this for 15+ years now.  

I know, and that’s one of the amazing things. You’ve gotten quite a following over that time.  

So, I’m getting a raise … 

Well … we have a couple of opportunities – growth areas — we need to discuss. 

Opportunities? Growth areas? What do you mean? 

Well, it’s actually … it’s the food. 

Everyone loves my food! I’m ranked as one of the best. The people who work at my place are nice. They are fun. The place is just down-home, redneck goodness. 

Yes. Yes, if we can stick to our agenda, everyone loves the people. Everyone loves the homey-ness. But we’re here to talk about the food … there are some very good qualities to your food. The meat is fresh (80/20). The bacon, nice and crispy. But … 

Burger at J&J Grocery
You better watch the next words coming out of your mouth … You say anything about Allison … 

We’re not being personal here today, J&J. We’re talking about your performance. Your food. I gotta be honest. Maybe a few years ago it was top notch, but it’s just good … ish. The bun. The fixings with it. And the fries. They may be unique and the may be thick. But I’d never come just for the fries. 

Now, you’re cutting me. You’re just being mean. I’ve worked for this company … I mean, I’ve been slingin burgers there for … 

Now let me finish … I really like the vibe there. You’ve got something. And while it’s junky inside, it’s cool at the same time. It’s a gas station and cracker barrel-lite. I get it. I like it. And I’ve noted that on the review. Extra cool points for locale. 

But you hated the burger.  

I didn’t say hate. I said, in not these words, that it wasn’t exceptional. I could see all the stuff you use to make it in the freezer in front on me. While transparent, it doesn’t obscure that mountain of fake cheese staring at me. Or the gallons of mayo. And then there was the bun … grilled but with grilly goo on it.  

That’s my signature move. People eat that up. 

Well, they kind of are forced to, since that’s what you do to them all. 

Menu at J&J Grocery.Come on, man. I’m an award-winner. I’m bona fide. I even got my menu done up on a white board with different colored markers. 

A nice corporate touch. The HR folks loved it. Screams of irony. Just like the actually active and used cigarette ash trays lying around. 

But people think that’s cool, counterculture. Giving it to the man. 

Give it to the man, then. Just don’t give it to me. 

I bet you didn’t like the fries, either. 

Let’s try and keep the rest of this discussion productive. Okay. As I said, I think you have some opportunities this coming year. 

I’ll show you opportunities! 

You’re still getting your normal raise. 

No more free ketchup packets for you. And no more taking my forks, either! 

And you’re still authorized to charge $7-$9 for a burger, just like places that have an equal or better burger. We still think you’re an important part of this team and we want to help you. 

I still get to be country-cool? I still get to dedicate 14 percent of the gas station to odds and ends and the rest to being a grill? 

If you want. You’re still an important part of the team. You’re still a winner … just like the all those NASCAR glasses on top of the air duct. Thanks again for your service and remember that what we discuss here is strictly confidential. 

Unless you put it in a blog …  

Overall – I see why people really like it; I just didn’t love it that much. Nice people. Friendly. Fun neighborly place. Definitely good, but not the best. But if you’re in the neighborhood, give it a whirl.

 

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Jack Brown’s Lakeview (Birmingham) — You can take the boy to a burger place, but you can’t stop him from writing a glowing review.

The family went to Jack Brown’s Burger and Beer Joint in Lakeview (Birmingham) recently, and my oldest son, begggggggged to do a review. So, here it is…

Bouncy (i’ma use a codename because it’s cool) — Professional Undertale Music Listener, Competitive-in-training Gamer

First, let me say, it is an honor to be able to publish a blog post on this wonderful blog. My dad has decided that it was okay for me to write a blog post on a burger I had tonight.

Right of the bat, I knew I was gonna have a good burger, since the place itself was a burger joint, Jack Brown’s Burger and Beer Joint.

Being a minor, of course, I had no beer, save for a bottled root beer. But the atmosphere had a more adult-humor vibe, being partially a beer place, and all. There was a chandelier over the bar that my dad pointed out, which was covered in *cough*…bras…*cough.* There was a headless mannequin stuck to the ceiling, clothed of course, and across the place, there was a mannequin with her entire lower body missing and only wearing a hat.

As for the burger, it was FANTASTIC. I chose “the Elvis,” which had Peanut Butter, Applewood smoked bacon (how they turn Apple devices into a fuel for a grill is a mystery to me), and had a blend of cheeses. Now, even though my school is one of the best, I must say, if i was to even set foot in the lunchroom with anything that had graced the side of a jar of peanut butter, the lunch ladies, sounding the *unclean alarm,* would attack me — like a moth to an electric light — snatching up my sandwich in a sterile plastic bag and stuffing me in a human-sized hamster ball.

(If any of my lunch ladies read this blog, it’s a joke. Please do not ban me from the lunchroom … or do anything, unnatural to me …)

Anyway, here it was, in all it’s bacon-y, peanut butter-y tantelizingness. The moment I bit into it, I knew right away that the peanut butter was gonna drip down on my hand, which is my favorite part about a lot of burgers, because when you feel that drop of sauce on your hand, it just gives you a moment to appreciate the time and love that a lot of local places put into their burgers. If there are two things in this world that I can’t live without, it’s cheese and peanut butter. And because this burger has both, it’s the best of both worlds!

Plus, melty cheese plus peanut butter sauce is, like, #perfectlysalty.

The fries were fantastic, and all orders of fries come with a special secret sauce. I have no idea what’s in it. All I know is, it’s good, and it’s perfect for their fries.

The service is nice, the workers are polite, and there’s even a patio out back.

In short:

  • The food — ‘Nuf said.
  • Atmosphere — Just ‘cause i’m posting to an adult burger blog and i’m a teen doesn’t mean I have to necessarily get and enjoy those kind of jokes.It was ok, though.
  • Service — They were really polite and always came around when we needed a refill. No bored eye-rolling, which is a very good sign.

The place is fantastic. No putting otherwise.

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

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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