You Ain’t The Devil! Where’s My Waitress?

Many of you know that when I travel I usually have a restaurant in mind as a primary destination. Sometimes it’s to a 4-Star place to be dazzled like at Fleur De Lys in San Fran, sometimes a retail place like City Bakery in NYC, and quite often a local legend greasy spoon joint like my recent jaunt to Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C.

In Jonesboro, Arkansas there ain’t much, let me tell you, but I’ve been in search of a great burger. What makes a great burger, you might ask? Well, a great burger is typically but not always hand formed from ground beef. Angus, choice, prime, sirloin, tenderloin, hormone free, chuck, or Japanese Kobe–doesn’t matter. It’s ground beef, and by law in most places it’s cooked medium-well to well so who cares what cow it came from and what it costs?

To be honest I prefer my burgers medium to medium-well. I think that this is the range in which ground beef has the most flavor. I like steaks bleeding rare, “black & blue” or Pittsburgh-style, but a burger med-well with bacon, thinly sliced grilled (almost caramelized) onions, and freshly grilled raw jalapenos, not the ubiquitous pickled slices that adorn a well made stack of nachos. And for cheese, yellow American please. Who does this really well? Five Guys!

Now at times I do get in the mood for a mushroom and swiss burger with real swiss cheese and properly sauteed mushrooms. The ‘shrooms should be sliced about 3/16″ thick and seared in a “schtinking hot” pan. That’s a European culinary instructor’s description of a pan so hot that you can smell the metal. Don’t forget the salt and black pepper, and keep them medium-rare in the middle.

Or there’s the blue cheese burger with thin slices of red onion sauteed and piled on with blue cheese crumbles. Spend a bunch of money on Roquefort or Stilton if you want, but it all amounts to blue cheese at the end of the day. By the way, if it’s an American or English cheese it is appropriate to write “blue” not “bleu”. The Soda Shop in Davidson, NC does this one splendidly. Alongside they also serve my favorite burger accompaniment, the long forgotten and nearly impossible to find anymore cottage fry–1/4″ thick coins of fried potatoes that almost souffle a little bit when you fry them.

The bun? I don’t care, but it should be soft and warm. If you take the time to grill it so it’s a little crispy around the outer edges that’s nice but not necessary. No fancy kaiser rolls, ciabatta, brioche, or otherwise froo-froo bread. Just a freakin’ bun please. Too small for the burger is better than too big.

Grease? Yes. Not juice…grease. There was a place in Matthews, NC many years ago called Roney’s Grill–a middle-of-nowhere greasy spoon where they rarely scraped the grill and the old dirty bits that stuck to your burger and burned was an important part of the seasoning. I still can recall fondly that taste in my mouth’s memories! They had the right grease.

Chili? Mr. K’s in Charlotte has a decent burger and decent chili…neither are great, but decent. But when combined with the taste of the char grill there…magic!

Condiments? Here’s where I differ from most, sadly. No raw vegetables and no sauces for me. Salad goes in a bowl, and as comedian John Pinette says, “Salad is not food”. Ketchup doesn’t belong on anything, and mustard definitely doesn’t go with it. Sorry.

The Penguin in Charlotte…sublime grease. Perhaps the best. Big Block Burger with onion strings on the side.

The Beacon in Spartanburg, SC…the burger about a 7…the onion rings about a 19…the bacon, about 1/4 pound. The combination…my death bed last meal wish!

Lenny’s Burger in Phoenix makes a rockin’ green chili cheese burger and McDonald’s in southwest Colorado even does a good job when the chilies come in from Hatch, NM each summer. Harvey’s Wineburger in Phoenix hand forms each patty and steams them in wine at the end, but it’s not as amazing as it sounds. Pretty anticlimactic actually.

$500 foie gras and truffle burgers in Vegas? $186 Burger King burger in London? Get the fuck out of here. Who needs that? By the way, I got food poisoning once…at Burger King. Burger King sucks anywhere at any price.

I almost forgot what this article was about. It’s about my quest for a great burger in Arkansas. My boss has been talking about this magical place where they have the most amazing thing that could ever be called a hamburger. A place that childhood culinary fantasies are made of. They have a huge cast iron skillet that has about a half inch of grease in it and that’s where they make the burgers and the fries. I can’t wait. When can we go?

Well, last Saturday night we went. And on the way he decides that the place that has the skillet is in Memphis, and the place we’re going he’s never been to afterall.

So off we go. Nearly 30 minutes and 15 miles north of Jonesboro on State Highway 49, through hill, dale, and Goobertown we arrive at Roy’s First and Last Chance in Paragould, Arkansas.

The story goes that Roy’s started out as a one room party shack in the middle of nowhere and as the news spread the place grew. One room was added over here and another over there, but the ground was (and still is) unlevel so each room is on a different plane–very aggravating if you’re drunk. Funny too when everyone else is but you.

Jonesboro is a dry county so Roy’s was a treat. Not only can you watch perfectly good rednecks drink more than they should, but you can sit at your table and smoke while you do it. The room is dark (cuts down on the cleaning). The walls and ceilings are made of chipboard and covered with magic marker graffiti from everyone that’s ever been in the place.

The tables are wooden picnic tables that are bolted to the floor with attached benches. There is a bar and in front of that bar is a row of barstools. The stools probably used to belong to a diner and stood in front of the standard counter height counter. Now they are bolted onto a 6×6 that is bolted to the floor in front of the bar to raise them to bar height. The floor is covered by what appears to be roofing paper tacked down with roofing nails.

A modest amount of unrelated memorabilia adorns the walls, one piece being the menu. As I later found out it is actually “A” menu, not “THE” menu. I’ll come back to that.

The kitchen is about the size and shape of a bug and vermin filled closet and most people wouldn’t eat anything that came from the place, but I don’t care.

I suspect there was music playing but I don’t remember what. I was fixated on the fact that the hostess that greeted us was also the bartender, the waitress, and the cook. There were no other visible employees in the place until about 45 minutes later when her husband showed up, had a beer, and made his way to the closet to start grilling burgers and frying cheese balls as fast as he could, which wasn’t very fast.

Customers went behind the bar and helped themselves to beer shuffling through the stack of tabs on the bar and marking their purchases. Seemed like business as usual. There was a cocky looking, gum smacking Burt Reynolds type leaning on the backside of the bar. We wondered if he might be Roy, but if he was he certainly didn’t seem phased that we and two other tables had been there for nearly an hour and had not been invited to order.

Robo-Waitress did furnish us with several beers and my canned Coke. Said she’d come back shortly to take our order but she didn’t.

About 8:45 or so, an hour after we arrived, she approached our table and asked what we wanted. I began asking questions and ordering off of the menu on the wall. When I asked if they had bacon for my burger I was told they didn’t. “Why not?”, I asked. “Because this is Roy’s”, was the answer–nothing more.

Then I ordered Spicy Fries off of the menu on the wall and she said that that menu is old and that they don’t have most of what’s on it, including the prices. I had barely mustered a look of bewilderment when a friend of hers came to our table and handed her a cell phone, call in progress.

She took the phone and started talking, telling the caller that she was in the middle of taking an order and asked if he or she could hold on a second. He or she apparently couldn’t hold on so the conversation proceeded. It was unevident whether she was asking us to hold on or asking her friend if they wanted mayonnaise.

We finally got the order in and about 30 minutes later we actually got 3 burgers and 3 orders of fries. Good timing too. I was about to eat the corner off of our picnic table.

This was a half-pound burger, hand-formed, well-done, and cold, but the fries were hot and not bad. Decent grease. The jalapenos on my burger were the pickled ones and the cheese, cold and unmelted white American. It’s called Swiss American but I don’t know why.

About the time we got done eating the band showed up. As they were setting up, one of the guys stepped into our barroom with the announcement, “Does anyone here have a roll of duct tape in your truck? I’ll buy you a beer if you do”. The only thing funnier than the fact that someone did was the fact that everyone there except me drove a truck. In fact there’s only 6 of us in the county that drive cars, and 4 of us are from out of state.

I have no idea how much the bill was and we never spoke to Robo-Waitress again. She stood at the bar for most of the next half hour or so with a Parliment Light 100 hanging out of her mouth, perusing the bar tabs. I threw ten bucks on the table and we left, never to return most likely.

Back to skillets…

FYI, the World’s Largest Functional Frying Pan lives in Rose Hill, North Carolina…my home state. They use it every year for a big chicken festival, and apparently in between festivals it reeks with the putrid stench of old fried chicken. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve been to Roy’s. My advice–go see the pan.

Oh, and one more thing. If a burger weighs more than 6 ounces (before cooking) it needs to be split into 2 thinner burgers and called a “double”. Just my opinion. Hands down the best double meat burger in the country…consistent, affordable, and yummy, is the Double, Double at In and Out Burger in Southern California. You get a double burger the way it’s supposed to be, two beef patties and two slices of cheese. Get it with grilled onions and hand-cut fries for about the same price as Mickey D’s and 101 times better. For the burger monster in you ask for a 4×4 (not on the menu). That’s 4 meat patties and 4 slices of cheese. Yum!