Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Sportsman Grill and Billiards - Evansville, IN

Reviewed By Greg Hoover - Evansville, Indiana

I had to laugh when Scott introduced me to his burger blog. Scott is one of my all-time best friends, attending high school together, playing in bands, and just generally spending a lot of time with each other in our teenage years. We have always kept in touch, and share one of those rare friendships than anyone is lucky to have. But that’s not why I laughed. I laughed because I truly remember Scott as one of the great burger hounds.

That reputation was set in stone the day that Scott, Jim Bazini and I stopped at a little local burger joint in North Manchester, Indiana, en route home from a pilgrimage to the Guitar Gallery in Huntington. Scott had ordered the “Mr. Dave”—named after the Ray Kroc wannabe who owned the establishment—but without onion, pickle and mayonnaise, as I recall. The owner himself had taken the order, and he proceeded to correct Scott. “That is not a Mr. Dave if it doesn’t have all of the condiments; it is a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato.” “Right,” said Scott. “A Mr. Dave without onion, pickle and mayonnaise.” They argued as if the world were ending: Mr. Dave sticking up for his right to correctly name his own burger; Scott for his as the customer, who is always right. Jim and I could only watch and laugh, loudly.

Right then I knew that Scott was a man who would get his burgers perfect, or not at all.

So it is truly a pleasure to be the first “Guest Reviewer” for my favorite burger maven’s blog. I chose a place I have asked Scott to come visit: The Sportsman Grill and Billiards in Evansville, Indiana.

Stepping into The Sportsman on Evansville’s west side (Franklin Street) is like taking a portal directly back to the 50’s. Six pool tables take up the eastern two-thirds of the bar’s real estate—each under a dusty oblong fluorescent light. Cue stick racks and chalk cones belie the bars real lifeblood. Beer ads and posters adorn the walls, as do neon signs extolling the virtues of Schlitz, Pabst, and that old locally brewed Evansville favorite, Gerst. There are also a couple of the prerequisite deer and moose heads stuffed and mounted in sentinel positions along the wall.

The billiards area is separated from the “dining room” by a non-existent wall that is marked by several floor-to-ceiling support posts. High Ceilings too, maybe twenty feet. Aged and darkened wood paneling adorns the walls up to a height of three and a half feet; it’s the kind that is in narrow little slats maybe two inches wide, and it clearly hasn’t been painted or stained since it was new. The floor is tiled—in that old tan with speckles style that you may remember from your Grandma’s kitchen—and the tables and chairs are of the Formica, padded red vinyl, and stainless steel variety. The lighting is dim, and except for the huge picture windows across the front, the back of the bar could easily pass for the middle of night at high noon. A huge (6 by 20 feet) hand-painted blackboard on the western wall has spaces to list the scores—by inning—of all of the day’s baseball games, sorted by either American or National League…a reminder not only of the greatness of America’s pastime fifty years ago, but that interleague play and 24 hour cable sports networks didn’t exist yet.

To order lunch at The Sportsman, you walk up to the end of the bar where the grill is located. After a moment for the fry cook to notice you, he steps around, leans on the wooden wall that’s about four feet high, and writes your order down himself on an old green receipt pad…then tears it off and hangs it on the grill. You then step to the bar and order your drink, find a table and await your meal amidst the scent of grilled things.

For all of the nostalgia so thick you have to brush it away from your face, this is hamburger heaven, and the burgers are exactly what you would expect if you stepped back into a 1952 diner or bar in rural southern Indiana. They are exquisite. Large unevenly shaped slabs of beefs, fried on a griddle in a little pool of butter until the edges are lacy, crispy, and crunch to perfection—the ideal complement to the thick beefy middle. Get a double with cheese, and watch as all three slices of the cheese melt perfectly into the ground beef. The buns are those old fashioned white ones like your Grandma use to use, probably Sunbeam or Holsum, and are buttered and grilled right alongside their meaty partners. The whole thing is served in that classic little red basket made of plastic, with a sheet of wax paper inside and generous portions of onion, lettuce and tomato alongside. No milk shakes, but longneck beer so cold it’s reminiscent of Lucifer’s heart. I’m telling you—it’s like being ten again and sitting in any one of dozens of Midwestern restaurants in the 50’s or 60’s. Of course, when I was ten, the pleasures of the Busch family were yet beyond my reach.

Ahhh, but as good as these burgers are they are not the star of this show. That place on the billboard is reserved for The Sportsman’s fries, and the experience begins when you order. Because immediately after that fry cook hangs your order on the grill, he turns back to his work counter, places a very large potato inside a cast iron contraption that looks like it should be smashing old soda cans, and slams a long handle down with precise yet unbridled force. After repeating that action a second time with yet another pound and a half spud, there—raw, white and with the skin still on—lie your 3 pounds of French fries. Before they even get a second to start to turn brown they are scooped up and tossed into the oil, where a sizzling and popping ensues to let you know that your potato is en route to Nirvana.

And Nirvana it is. Crispy edges; yet soft enough that they fold in half when you pick them up; and lots of crunchy little end pieces. If you’ve never experienced fresh cut fries, I’m telling you, you aren’t living. Unbelievable potato flavor. They come alongside the burger in the basket, and with two giant potatoes to each order of fries one order is the equivalent of about three extra large boxes of McDonalds fries in volume. Salty, just a bit greasy; French fry perfection. Trust me, you will eat them all. I know fried food is bad for you. I know that potatoes have become the food version of the antichrist in our salad-addled society. But I firmly believe in my heart that when my maker accepts me into Valhalla, and walks me down those streets paved with gold, the first place we will stop en route to my palace will be The Sportsman, and I fully expect Him to giggle in anticipation when his potatoes are slammed into spikes.

As an aside, if you were to veer away from your burger quest, you would find the most perfect specimen of the famed Indiana breaded pork tenderloin at The Sportsman as well. Huge—more than twice as big as the bun that attempts to hold it—and perfectly fried in the same oil as the fries. Thick, meaty, and crunchy. Order it with fresh sliced onion and American cheese. Fold it in half to more closely frame it under the bun.

At the risk of sounding just a bit trite and old fashioned, you have one last thing to do before leaving The Sportsman. When you’re finished, take in all of your surroundings and try to convince yourself that the last fifty years have really improved our society. For my part, at least in this setting, I find it hard to do.

The Sportsman Grill and Billiards
2315 West Franklin Street
Evansville, IN

Burger 4.0
Fries 5.0
Ambiance - Priceless

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Buck's of Woodside, Woodside, CA

Buck’s Restaurant in Woodside is a whacky place where big deals get done. It is run by an eccentric soul who loves to espouse opinions. They are printed right on the back of the menu. (e.g. Why human-caused global warming is bunk.) There are all kinds of fun memorabilia in the store, like a pair of Shaq’s shoes, a painting of Roy Rogers on Trigger and, outside in the parking lot, a giant salmon carved from wood. Legend has it that many a famous start-up has been birthed over a burger or breakfast at Buck’s.

The place was packed at lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon. I met Jonathon there to discuss a dentistry mission trip to Juarez. We decided to talk teeth and service to others over a burger. We both ordered the Cheeseburger ($10.25) – mine with Swiss and his with cheddar. I got onion strings and he got fries.

Each burger came with a generous portion of lettuce, onion and tomato on the side. The burger was cooked nicely to medium and served on a sesame bun with no condiments. I added ketchup. My first bite revealed a serviceable burger. While not especially juicy or flavorful, it was adequate for the purpose.

The onion strings were much better. Thin and twisted into knots, they were breaded lightly with flour and pepper. Although only luke warm when served, they were still tasty. The fries were medium thick with skins on. Warmer than the strings, they made a reasonable accompaniment to the burger.

Our meal finished, we waived goodbye to the miniature Statue of Liberty and headed back down the hill, in search of better burgers to be found. Jonathon suggested Cable Car Joe’s in San Francisco. The search continues.

Burger 3 spatulas out of 5
Fries 3 spatulas
Onion Strings 4 spatulas

Buck’s of Woodside
3062 Woodside Road
Woodside CA 94062

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Nation's Giant Hamburgers - Fremont, CA

Nations is an institution in the East Bay. I remember my brother-in-law John telling me about them years ago. He has always been a regular at the Fremont location. It was appropriate he joined me for the review. A somewhat seedy and dilapidated building, it nevertheless has an inviting charm. At a Friday lunch, there were bikers, skinheads, 49er fans, workers and families all happily sharing their slabs of meat.

This one has a local feel as one steps to the counter to order. The cheeseburger is $4.30, fries $1.50 and shakes in two sizes are $2.20 or $3.10. If I had not been on a burger mission, I would have been very tempted to take a crack at the tempting “grand” breakfast menu. Instead I grabbed my receipt and number and took a seat.

It wasn’t long before my number was called and I retrieved my sustenance. The griddle-fried burger comes piled high with fresh onions, tomato, lettuce and mayo-based dressing. The bun is griddle-crisp. All of it is a nice blending of all flavors in the classic style. The burger is only a small piece of the overall package claimed to be “3/4 pound or more with everything”.

The fries are medium thick, hot, lightly salted and unadorned perfection. This is how I like fries best - no skins, no coating, no pepper - just potato, salt and grease served piping hot.

The shake was also very good. It was creamy and cold with not too much syrup, flowing thick and smooth up the straw.

I have been to newer Nations locations that feel more chain-like, this one is one really makes one feel at home.

Burger 3.5 spatulas out of 5
Fries 5 spatulas
Shake 4 spatulas

Nations Giant Hamburgers
39180 Fremont Blvd.
Fremont, CA

24 locations in the SF Bay Area

Bix Restaurant- San Francisco, CA

Bix Restaurant in San Francisco has been my favorite dinner spot for a long time. It is an elegant place with a great bar, Jazz trio playing at dinner and great food. I have always gone for dinner, but - being a daytime burger guy - had not tried the burger.

My wife Pat and I were joined by our friends Juan and Carla. The dinner entrees were too good to pass up, so Juan and I decided to split the Truffled Pecorino Cheese Burger with fries ($26.75) as an appetizer. Our waiter was a bit surprised, but gladly accommodated us, bringing the burger out split in half and perfectly served on two plates along with fries covered with parmesan cheese.

Having the burger split in half, showed off how it was prepared with a truffle mix stuffed in the center and served on a buttered rye bun. The meat was cooked perfectly, just south of medium. It was a near perfect burger experience. Juan was equally impressed with his half.

The fries were miraculously crisp, covered as they were in baked parmesan cheese. Dipping them in the homemade ketchup was a tasty counterpoint to our Etude Pinot Noir wine.

Bix is a fantastic spot for a relaxing evening with friends in a great environment of music, attentive service and an elegant crowd. The burger turned out to be a great beginning to a great evening.

Burger 5 spatulas out of 5
Fries 5 spatulas out of 5

Bix Restaurant
56 Gold St.
San Francisco, CA 94133