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