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