The following blog was written by my good friend Ron Newlin
Our mutual friend Greg Hoover emailed me early this week to tell me he was going to be in Indianapolis on business on Friday, and to see if I was free for lunch. I was. On Friday morning when we texted our confirmation messages, I had a mid-text inspiration: “As a tribute to Hoosier Burger Boy, I know where we should go.”
Like Hoosier Burger Boy, I grew up in small towns and the Indiana countryside (we went to high school together), but today I’m 30 years into being a heart-of-the-city urban dweller. Nine times out of ten, when I’m entertaining guests from out of town, I take them to one of my favorite trendy neighborhoods, either MassAve (Massachusetts Avenue) or SoBro (South Broad Ripple) – both places full of locally-owned bistros with diverse menus and clientele and lots of sidewalk dining for the sixty days each year when the Indiana weather will allow it.
But ever since I started following this blog, I’ve known that if Scott ever visits, I have to take him to The Workingman’s Friend. So this week, I decided a visit from Hoov and a guest-blog on Hoosier Burger Boy would be the next best thing.
The Workingman’s Friend is a 92-year-old, continuously-family-owned bar on the near west side of Indianapolis, on Belmont Avenue just north of US 40, the National Road. It’s a simple cinder-block building that got its last makeover sometime around 1940, I’m guessing, when the owners must have got a great deal on glass blocks. Combined with an art moderne backbar in blonde ash that runs across the entire south wall of the building, a sea of formica tables and red vinyl chairs, and some vintage cigarette machines around the perimeter, the place is a time capsule.
Near-west Indy is and always has been a working-class neighborhood, although it’s close enough to downtown that the The Workingman’s Friend’s clientele is always a mix of blue and white collars. It’s the kind of place where you can order a braunschwieger sandwich, although not very many people do. According to our vivacious waitress (and an article in a book called Hamburger America that she was pleased to showed us), “99%” of their business is the double cheeseburger.
That’s what we both ordered, of course, along with homemade onion rings. The rings are crispy, not too batter-y and not too greasy, and just small enough to not leave you feeling like you wish you had eaten two fewer. Considering the small portion size, the $2.95 price tag is a little on the high side, but they’re so much more satisfying than French fries that I can’t resist.
The burgers, at $4.95, are both a steal, and (to my taste), fifteen bites of perfection. I love a burger that has some juiciness in the middle but is smashed down and fried to a crispy lace around the edges, and that’s how they make them at The Workingman’s Friend. The double comes on a simple soft white bun, no seeds, with a separate layer of bun between the two patties. The cheese is American and is content to not compete with the beef for flavor. To my way of thinking, the glory of this kind of burger is as much about the texture as the taste. I love to try new combinations on a big thick burger, but at Workingman’s Friend I don’t want anything more than the little extra tartness of yellow mustard and dill slices. Hoov goes with the works. We both agree that it’s a five-spatula experiencae.
ABOVE: Hoov with the "vivacious waitress".
I tell Hoov that a burger is one of my earliest food memories. Sometime before I started first grade, sometime between the ages of 2 and 5, my family lived in Dubois County in southern Indiana, and my favorite baby sitter was an older German immigrant that I knew only as Mrs. Seitz. Mrs. Seitz would pan-fry me a hamburger for dinner when my parents were out with friends, and my parents could never understand why I preferred her austere, crunchy little patties to the thick juicy ones that they were proud to make for us all.
I’m going from 50-year-old memories now, but it seems that we understood that Mrs. Seitz had come to the US only since the end of the War. That would be World War II, which at that time was less remote in our memories than Desert Storm is to us today. If that’s the case, this was a woman who spent much of her life in Germany during World War I, the Weimar Republic, the Great Depression, and World War II. For much of her life, I speculate, a pound of hamburger probably was expected to feed twenty people. “For a week,” Hoov adds.
I wonder how many other Eastern Europeans who made up the original clientele and staff for The Workingman’s Friend had a similar approach. I’ve never thought of a hamburger as soul food, but this particular affinity for the crunchy edge may just come from that kind of approach … from the effort to get an extra burger out of each pound, by making the burger fill a bun by smashing the edges out flat … and from the deep appreciation that its still beef, and its still a treat.
These burgers aren’t crunchy all the way through; the middles are rich and satisfying. I just think of the crisp edge as a tribute.
And oh yeah, The Workingman’s Friend is a bar. Hoov quickly spied the big vintage 32-ounce fishbowl beer glasses behind the bar and ordered one, filled with one of the two beers on tap – Bud Light (the other option was Bud). I’m no beer snob, I’m perfectly happy with a Miller High Life; which I ordered by the bottle. Our waitress offered some curious commentary on the relative merits of the two containers that we didn’t quite understand but really enjoyed …
The existence of the Hamburger America book causes me to feel both validated and vaguely disappointed. I’m glad to know that this favorite place of mine is recognized by others for the quality of the food, and that I’m not just projecting my attraction to the ambience and the good company that I always share it with, on to the burger itself. I only regret a little bit that I might not be the first person to tell readers of this blog about it!
But if you’re ever in the urban capital city of Hoosier Burger Boy’s agrarian home state, this is the place to go.