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 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


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

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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