I caught a few minutes of Slap Shot on TV the other day including the scene where the Chiefs goalie Denis Lemiuex explains what it is like for a hockey player to spend time in the penalty box (video). His closing words “…and you feel shame” seem applicable to so many things we do in life, including eating burgers. If you’ve spent any time in fast food joints (and I’m guessing if you found your way to this blog you have) you’ve probably ended up in a second or third tier place looking to scratch that burger itch. Depending how far down the chain you have allowed yourself to go, I’m guessing you will at some point end up doing the walk of shame out to your car, or back to the office or worse to your spouse or friends having to explain just how far you’ve fallen.
The chart above is my attempt to plot out my fast food burger experiences. There are places where I have gone, found the food to be amazing and then felt the urge to stand on the mountaintop and proclaim to the world that my taste buds have been sated and my soul has been strengthened by the manna from the g-ds. And then there have been places where I have almost instantly been filled with regret, embarrassed to mention how low I have dipped and yes – felt shame. I am taking a wild guess here by saying that I bet you have had those moments, too. For every story about hitting In-N-Out within 15 minutes of the plane landing in Las Vegas there is a tale that will never be told about a shameful trip to West Philly for a Baconzilla at Checkers.
I am hoping you will join the conversation by leaving a comment. I apologize that the “Leave a comment” button is a bit hard to find in this theme. Take a look on the top left of the text section below the picture and photo info. You’ll find the link there. Chime in. (Update: click here to leave a comment if it is easier)
A few parting thoughts…
I know that Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. are the same company but I really think they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Now it could be the setting (my Carl’s Jr. experiences have obviously been on the West Coast, in California, Utah and Nevada – world’s apart from the Hardees in Harrisburg, PA that I walked out of last week) because the marketing shtick and food are pretty much identical. They really do seem to present the two brands much differently and I wish that wasn’t the case, because those of us on the east coast are getting the short end of the stick on this one.
Check out Hawk Krall’s recent trip to Krystal (here). For those who are quick to dismiss them as a southern knock-off of White Castle remember that WC was born in the midwest, not Gotham City. My earliest Krystal memories are from my time living in Mississippi, taking bonding drives with my dad in our convertible. One of the best lessons he ever taught me was about letting things out of your control slide off your back as we watched a sudden thunderstorm dump gallons of water on our car while the roof was open. He just sat their casually eating his burgers waiting for the storm to quickly pass. Like a scene out of a movie I remember opening the car doors and watching tons of water flow out. We both hopped in, the car started up and off we went. This being Mississippi the car was dried out after a few minutes of driving and he carried on with no sense of panic or concern. It was after all just a car. If something had gone wrong we would have dealt with it, but part of me thinks the time we were spending together inside eating and talking about baseball was more valuable than whatever else could have occurred (plus the electrical system probably would have been completely shorted in the first few minutes, but allow me to wax nostalgic won’t you?).
I placed McDonald’s just above and to the positive side of the middle on this chart because to me they are the control group. Their burger is the taste that I still compare everything to (thanks to Ray Kroc’s model of consistency breeds familiarity breeds happiness/brand loyalty).
What does nostalgia taste like?
For folks in the Philly suburbs, today it tasted like the idealized version of the Gino Giant they have been dreaming of since the regional chain named for one of pro football’s earliest off-field entrepreneurs, Gino Marchetti, ceased to exist in the early ’80s.
For those who braved the opening day crowds it must have truly seemed like “Everybody Goes To Gino’s”. Others, like me, benefited from the benevolence of co-workers who are lucky enough to have offices within Whopper-throwing distance of the new location on Rt 202 in King of Prussia (across from the King of Prussia Mall – either the Court or the Plaza, I can never remember which is which…the one I’m talking about has the Apple Store).
Is it possible that the Gino Giant would still taste the same after all those years? Like Lou Reed crooning in the Velvet Underground classic Sweet Jane “Those were different times” and indeed they were. The fast food landscape in 1982 bears little resemblance to today. Oh sure, many of the same players are at the top of the charts, but what is offered up now on their plastic trays is worlds apart. While the market leaders have continued to hone their successful strategy of peddling highly processed foods “designed” to ensure unwavering consistency of taste (while severely minimizing any possibility of food borne illness and/or human error requiring dumping of the product), upstarts like Five Guys and Elevation Burger have blazed a new trail with hand-formed patties cooked fresh (and with accompanying doneness variations). Where my memory, and this commercial, remind me that Gino’s originally strove to be in the first category, the modern day version aims to compete head-on in the new, more “upscale” genre.
The Giant is still the Giant, a pre-Big Mac era “Big Mac” (not sure if they beat Wright’s Dairy-Rite to the punch, or the countless other joints that back in the day slapped secret Thousand Island-style sauce on top of twin patties, shredded lettuce and double cheese) and I have to say that despite a 20 minute journey in the car, mine held up well. The meat itself was very tasty (two 1/4 lb beef patties), the sauce perfectly piquant, the shredded lettuce acted as unobtrusive roughage and the American cheese was extra-gooey. The Giant is served up nicely on a sesame seeded squishy roll and wrapped in paper (hallelujah!). Visually, it looks identical to a Five Guys cheeseburger , but I’d give Gino’s a bit of a nod because the burger didn’t come with that side order of meat coma which Five Guys always tends to bring on because of the amped up grease quotient (this isn’t necessarily a knock, because as we all know Vitamin-G is an essential part of every growing boy’s diet). The car ride and the fact that the place was mobbed and required workers to do everything in double-time meant it was less than photogenic by the time it arrived, but taste trumps all in this game. I am eager to sneak over in the near future to test out another and also try their fries and the item besides the Giant that they are most fondly remembered for, their fried chicken.
Welcome back, Gino’s. We honestly couldn’t have expected you not to change, but in this case change might be a good thing.
It bugs the heck out of me that the sandwich is called the “Gino Giant” and not the “Gino’s Giant,” yet the chicken version is called the “Gino’s Chicken Giant.” I am not grammaratarian (should be a word if it isn’t), but man it hurts my brain to type it without the “‘s.”
This 1971 commercial paints a terrifying picture of the effect drinking soda can have on children. The winded kid at the end telling us to hurry up and get to a store before all of the kites are gone seems ripe for Michael Pollan’s picking. Bonus at no additional cost to you – awesome mid-Atlantic region accents on the twins at the :10 second mark (love how they say “to go.”). And for those that might ask, that is not a younger me at the :21 second mark, though I do have those glasses and (before it began to recede) I had that hair.
The Commodore 64 was released in 1982, the year the Gino’s chain was sold to the Marriott Corporation and folded into their Roy Rogers’ business.Gino’s Burgers & Chicken 611 West DeKalb Pike (Route 202) King of Prussia, PA 610.265.5900
(2) “Krust” pastries from Golden Krust (Jamaican meat patties without the meat)
(1) “Baconzilla” from Checkers
1. Flip your “Baconzilla” over and remove bottom bun, replacing it with one of the “Krust” pastries.
2. Flip the burger over again then take the top bun off the “Baconzilla,” replacing it with the remaining “Krust.”
Like a Rastafarian cousin of the legendary Luther Burger (a bacon cheeseburger served on a Krispy Kreme donut) with a bit more heft. Perfectly stratified layers of sweet, salty and savory.
Ensuring that the burger and pastries are warm is key which means that you will need to identify a Golden Krust and Checkers in close proximity to each other. Thankfully in Philadelphia this is not that difficult. The easiest spot to pull this off is in North Philadelphia near the Olney Septa Terminal (pick up your Golden Krust at Broad & Olney and then drive 2 minutes further north to the Checkers at 5600 North Broad Street). You can also grab your GK just up the street from the Tower Theater in Upper Darby and then grab the Baconzilla at the Checkers at Lancaster and W. Girard). Not in Philadelphia? Check out each joint’s webpage for locations – Golden Krust – Checkers/Rally’s.
Although tall in stature, the concoction does press down nicely and despite appearances is not unwieldy to eat except for the flakiness of the “bun.” Eating one is shame-inducing (a la KFC’s Double Down), but you only go around this world once so you may as well give it a try.
The “Krust” alone is a decadent item, with an amped up taste no doubt owing to some shortening, and mouthfeel akin to baklava. As previously noted in this blog, the “Baconzilla” is in my mind, the undisputed heavyweight champion of fast food burgers. A mind-altering melange of turbo charged beef, as much bacon as the preparer either feels like or remembers to put on, an equally random amount of cheddar cheese sauce all topped with ketchup and mayonnaise. Normally served on a perfectly acceptable fancied up burger bun (think Wendy’s larger burgers if you don’t have a Checkers near you), the “Baconzilla” lives up to its monster themed name.
The grilled cheese sandwich leftover in the “Baconzilla” bun is a worthwhile meal in itself. The remaining cheese mixes perfectly with the leftover ketchup and mayo to create an oozy, cheese whiz-esque neon orange sauce.
Question For The Comments Section:
Aside from the ubiquitous KFC/Taco Bell combination, which two fast food joints would you like to see team up? What magical creations would they create? (FYI, the comments link has moved to the top left of the post, in the section next to the post title.)
Flushing, NY 11354-5429
The three sweetest words in the English language may just be “Free Bacon Upgrade” and that is exactly what I encountered at Joe’s BestBurger in bustling Flushing (Queens), NY last week. Until the end of April (hurry!) they are offering free bacon with your double cheeseburger combo and the perfectly cooked pork planks gild the lily on what has to be one of the best fast-food style burgers you can grab on the East Coast.
I am going to consciously try to avoid the name of the West Coast place that has the same “keep it simple” style and coy “secret” menu because I think at the end of the day it is a frustrating and fruitless comparison. Let’s face it, as much as those of us on the right side of the continent can opine about…oh heck, I’ll just use their initials…INO, we just can’t get it. Every so often some of us can hop on planes and head westward to get our fix, but the majority of the time we have to search out reasonable facsimiles and Joe’s completely nails it for me.
I have a satellite office just a few yards from Joe’s (just passed the guy selling lamb on a stick for $1 – well worth it, too – ask for it spicy) and I always make it a point to drop in for a burger when I am in town. Freshness is a mantra at Joe’s which is initially confounding because the place looks like a cookie cutter fast food joint. Our subsconcious has been trained to expect our meals in 30 seconds flat, piping hot from below pink-ish hued heat lamps, when we encounter this much formica and a battalion of uniformed cashiers and cooks. What Joe’s does is take the best parts from the fast food concept (uniform product, consistent branding and competitive pricing to name a few) and then delivers a hell of a product.
Burgers go on the griddle after you order them and baskets of fresh cut fries wait to dip in the bubbling oil pools until you’ve made up your mind between them and the equally worthy onion rings. The made-to-order cooking means it takes about 3-5 minutes to get your food, but that is time well spent loading up on frothy chocolate soda from one of two soda dispensers (a name brand cola dispenser and another one offering a variety of Joe’s own branded soda).
Burger construction isn’t an afterthought at Joe’s. For my bacon double cheeseburger, the cook prepared the cold bottom bun with a thousand-island style burger sauce, then rests a bright red tomato on top which is then flanked with a piece of lettuce. Each wide and thin (1/4 lb-ish patty) is topped with yellow cheese and a slice of bacon, then one is stacked on the other and carefully balanced with the top bun. The gooey meat stack is then lifted off the griddle with a nice supply of glistening grease still hanging on for the trip to meet its cold cousins before being wrapped up in wax paper and placed on the tray. With the aforementioned fries this is a burger worth driving a couple hundred miles for.
I know what you’re saying, “If this place is so good, why aren’t people raving about it 24/7?” I think this place is under-hyped because quite frankly there are thousands of better things to eat in Flushing. No knock on Joe’s, it is top-notch, but the variety of authentic and exotic Asian food available in a relatively small footprint is mind boggling. Choosing to eat a burger, even for a burger lover like me, means wasting a limited opportunity to eat something else amazing. That said, I encourage you to try Joe’s (or at least engage in some major league gluttony to take in a few of the other offerings in the neighborhood – both above ground and below ground) if only because they aren’t opening an In-N-Out on the east coast anytime soon.
Hungry for more? Read A Hamburger Today’s take on Joe’s from 2005.
Phillies fans take note, Joe’s is maybe a mile away from Citi Field, home of the Mets. Two Sunday day games are scheduled for later in the season (8/15 and 9/12), both 1:10 starts, which means it is perfectly reasonable to sneak up for the day to catch a game and some burgers.
A.J. at Montana Eats is on a mission to eat every cheeseburger in Helena, Montana. 5 spots down and many more to go, all wrapped up and scored so you’ll know where to go in case your travels ever take you to Big Sky Country. Take some time to look around the site, too. Besides burgers these folks are cooking up some amazing dishes and taking some of the nicest pics I’ve seen on any food blog.
Sixth Guy is a new blog following one man as he endeavors to visit every Five Guys Burgers & Fries in existence. With Five Guys history and word from the frontier states of a local variant “fry sauce,” I’m interested to follow his trek and eager to meet up with him when he visits the Philadelphia area.
Aussie Darren Atkins just launched a NY-centric burger site called “DManburger” which features a Burger TV section of hamburger related YouTube videos.
Spiedie’s Bistro in Phoenixville is now closed…I wrote about them a few months back and am sad to see they didn’t make it.
You’ve seen books from the Images of America series thousands of times at your local bookstore, airport, historic landmark gift shop, etc. (there are over 5,000 titles in the series already). They are paperback books chock-full of black and white pictures of historic towns, neighborhoods and fraternal organizations. The Burger Chef book is the first one dedicated to a fast food outlet and for sheer historical and pop culture value, the chain is a great choice for this treatment.
First time author Scott R. Sanders uses images he has gathered from Burger Chef co-founder Frank P. Thomas Jr. (who sadly passed on before the book was published*), several collectors and perhaps the largest collection of Burger Chef memorabilia, Schroeder’s Drive-In in Danville, Illinois, to move along the pretty compelling story of the chain. Running almost parallel to McDonalds (in philosophy, McD’s set up shop in the big towns and Burger Chef ruled small town America), the chain was a trailblazer in fast food technology and marketing and at one point laid claim to the title of fastest growing fast food chain in the country (and second-largest chain overall behind McDonalds).
As much as I wanted Stacy Perman’s In-N-Out Burger book from earlier this year to be some sort of cosmic event – offering up the secrets to success and worldwide burger adulation with a side order of history, Sanders builds a story here that I think is much more compelling. In less space and really only with pictures, he illustrates Burger Chef’s impact on the industry and in reshaping small town America (now whether that is a good thing is debatable, but with chains that have disappeared we can cut them some slack). The incredibly personal and candid photos used throughout stamp a real time and place aspect on the story, which ratchets up the nostalgia factor while easing you through the history.
Broken up into 6 sections, the book takes you from the birth of the franchise (like McDonalds, Burger Chef was born out of the technology that was used in the restaurant – in this case the Sani-Shake and Sani-Broiler designed by chain founders under the General Equipment Company flag), through its growth and ultimate demise, with stops along the way to gawk at store merchandising, promotional items and advertisements.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is about an ill-fated side venture from Burger Chef, the Pied Piper mobile food van. As shown below, the entire operation was run out of an early 60′s Volkswagen Van.
One innovation from Burger Chef that did stick was the “Fun Meal” which was introduced in 1973 and served as the template for similar offerings at other chains and continues on today as “Happy Meals” or “Kids Meals.”
I had the chance to speak with Scott about some topics not covered in the book.
The last Burger Chef closed in 1996, is there chain today making burgers similar to BC?
The hamburgers at Carl’s Jr. are flame-broiled and taste the closest to what I used to eat at Burger Chef. Burger King used to taste similar, but the flavor of their hamburgers has changed.
Asked if writing a book about burgers caused him to eat more of them…
I don’t think I ate hamburgers more frequently while writing the book, but I was often reminded of how much I missed eating hamburgers at Burger Chef.
Scott is an elementary school teacher in Alvin, Texas and I asked him how his pupils have reacted to the book…
Actually, I did a presentation about Burger Chef and my book for my school last spring, and the reaction of the students was amazing. They were fascinated by the story of the chain and they all wanted to go out and eat at one of the restaurants.
If you are in Texas, Scott has a few recommendations for burger joints to check out including:Bellaire Broiler Burger 5216 Bellaire Blvd
Bellaire, TX 77401-3902 The Spot 3204 Seawall Blvd
Galveston, TX 77550-7656 Whataburger
I (Scott) generally consider Whataburger to be the best hamburger chain in the area. Mooyah I (Scott) have started eating at a new chain called Mooyah that just opened here. To order, you fill out a card indicating your choice of hamburger and the toppings you would like.
Burger Chef is available at area bookstores, independent retailers, and on-line retailers, or through Arcadia Publishing at (888)-313-2665 or www.arcadiapublishing.com.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book at my request. I receive no compensation for your purchase and I am not related to Scott R. Sanders, but it is good to know there are other folks named Sanders who appreciate a good story and a burger.
50 E Wynnewood Rd
Wynnewood, PA 19096-2013
I first posted about Elevation Burger way back in February so needless to say the anticipation has been building for a while on this one…and I am happy to report that Elevation Burger did not disappoint.
With a mantra of “Ingredients Matter,” what many have dubbed the “healthy Five Guys” opened their first store here on the outskirts of Philly over the 4th of July weekend. It took me a whole 2 days to get down there thanks to holiday festivities but lunchtime Monday was destined to be all about Elevation Burger.
Four of us from work headed over and I was not surprised to run into another burger-loving friend already waiting in the short queue ahead of us. Word seems to have spread fast as they had a decent lunchtime crowd already for their first work-day service.
I opted for the Cheeseburger, as opposed to the Elevation Burger (1 patty vs 2 patties) and was presented with one of the best upsell attempts I have ever heard…”We find men are more satisfied with the Elevation burger (double) as opposed to just the single.” Ah-hem. Innuendo aside, I still stuck with the single burger (a rare show of restraint) in order to justify getting a side of fries and a soda.
As you can see from the picture, the burger itself is aesthetically pleasing. It is clear that they spend a lot of time training their staff to present the product well and I appreciate when a burger joint does that (ex: Shake Shack or In-N-Out) as opposed to just slapping together ingredients. I ordered my burger with lettuce, tomato and “Elevation Sauce” which I was told was a creamy, light tomato sauce. Either an homage to INO or even Big Mac sauce, I found that the sauce really didn’t add too much flavor to the package. It didn’t distract or ruin the taste, just didn’t add that much. To be honest, that is my only complaint. The burgers at Elevation are 100% organic, grass-fed and free range and you definitely can tell that something is different about the patties. Well seasoned and served on a squishy bun with a nice hunk of cheddar cheese (non-processed!) my cheeseburger was a winner. The best part may have been the complete lack of that icky, weighed down feeling (strangely enough this was a negative factor for my co-workers). The absence of greasiness meant no strong desire for an afternoon nap which could help productivity back at the ranch.
As good as the burger was, I have to say the fries are even better. Fresh cut shoestring style and crisped up perfectly in 100% olive oil (no trans or saturated fats), these were probably the best fries I’ve had in a long time and everyone in the group agreed they were the highlight of the meal. A side order was enough for 2 of us to split, though in the future I’d easily order one side just for me because they were that good (perfectly salted, each one tasted like that idealized vision of a McDonald’s fry we conjure up but have only ever experienced maybe once or twice in our lives).
Bonus points for Pibb Xtra as a fountain selection. Having spent time growing up in the south, seeing Pibb Xtra, which is the “new” name for “Mr. Pibb,” triggered lots of nostalgic memories. And despite Mitch Hedberg famously maligning Pibb’s lack of advanced education (“Mr. Pibb is a poor imitation of Dr. Pepper. Dude didn’t even get his degree.”) I’d choose it every time over the much fizzier Pepper.
The menu also features fresh-scooped ice cream milk shakes made with Blue Bunny ice cream. I didn’t have one, but they were hand-dipping a lot of them and I am sure I’ll get around to that at some point (maybe Jess @ Fries With That Shake will beat me to it).
Located half-way between my work and home I am going to have to try hard to avoid filling up one of their “7 Club” cards each week. Congrats to the team that has been working so hard on getting this location open and good luck to them keeping the steady stream of people coming. Keep delivering a good product and they will (and the demos of this area seem ideal with a Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in short driving distance the health-concious bent should play well).
Every so often the Internet kicks out something that triggers a tidal wave of memories and sets you off on a silly (and probably completely useless) quest to find a nugget of info or the answer to that long ago forgotten question. A few weeks back I saw an “I’m Not Herb” shirt listed on eBay and off I went…to YouTube to watch the commercials, to Wikipedia to read about the campaign, to Google to read critics panning the campaign and ultimately imdb to learn about the career of the actor who played Herb in the iconic Burger King campaign of the mid-1980s.
If I told you that today, Jon Menick, the actor who portrayed the hapless Herb was out of show business you might not be surprised. If I told you he is out of show business after a long, fruitful career which included feature films, network TV and a slew of national commercials you might not believe me, but thanks to the kickstart offered by this campaign, Jon Menick carved a nice career for himself out in Hollywood (eschewing the seemingly certain perils of typecasting) and has recently ditched the rat race for a more peaceful life working in the Valhalla of the Americas – Asheville, North Carolina.
I had the chance to speak with Jon about life pre- and post-Herb, but for those who may not be 100% familiar with the campaign, perhaps a bit of a refresher is in order (I keep having to remind myself that not everyone who reads this blog is a mid-30′s male weaned on TV and fast food – although I am sure there is some Google Analytics tool that would tell me I have the demo pretty well pegged…thanks for visiting!)
Homogeny From Sea To Shining Sea
In the early 1980′s a war raged across our country, one that would change the landscape (and shape of humans) like no war had before or since. Fast food, which until then had been a regional affair, was in the throes of the last great land grab. Regions of the country that had subsisted on burgers and fries prepared with local flair at hamburger stands and greasy spoons were facing an invasion of golden arches, burger royalty and a freckle faced girl in pigtails. It is hard to even imagine now areas of the country that didn’t have access to these homogeneous fast food empires, but it is true (and it occurred in my lifetime). I can (and I am sure many readers can, too) remember dominant local chains which existed and thrived across the country delivering what may realistically have been just complete knock-offs of McDonald’s, Burger King and to a lesser extent Wendy’s…but many of us did not know better (and/or may have been better off for it). So, back to the war…
By the 1980′s most every part of the country was infiltrated and in order to gain market share, the big chains spent millions battling for mindshare and walletshare by launching some of the most memorable and expensive TV ad campaigns ever seen. Perhaps we’ll explore this a bit further in future posts, but the first major shot fired was by Wendy’s with their famous “Where’s The Beef” campaign featuring the lovable octagenerian Clara Peller. Wendy’s had placed McDonald’s and Burger King on the defensive and each answered in a completely different way. McDonald’s introduced the McDLT, with its unique packaging and value statement (wasn’t it “Keep the hot side hot and the cold side cold?”). Burger King answered with a character of their own to match up against Peller…Herb.
The Original Whopper Virgin
Herb was born in the fertile minds of the creative folks at J Walter Thompson, who at the time were helmed by James Patterson who now enjoys life as basically the most successful fiction writer alive. Though his direct ties to the Herb campaign are tough to confirm, what is known is that Herb almost never happened. In fact, the first time the character-driven concept was presented to their client (Burger King) the idea was shot down. Pitched again months later as the Burger Wars continued to heat up, the idea grew legs and a two-part campaign was crafted.
The first part was “Who’s Herb?” in which the world was asked to ponder what would a guy who has never tasted a Burger King Whopper look like? Concerned friends and relatives appeared in commercials questioning just what type of person could go through life without tasting a Whopper. The implication was that only “Herbs” (a nickname for geeks/nerds/other undesirables) don’t eat at Burger King and if you wanted to avoid the stigma of being a nerd yourself you’d better get one right now. (It is at this point that I must tell any millennials/Gen Yers reading this that there was a time in our humble country when using a computer and showing a modicum of interest in technology was not cool…if you need more information on this wild and backwards-seeming time I encourage you to add the following to your Netflix queue Revenge Of The Nerds, Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise, Revenge Of The Nerds III: The Next Generation and of course Revenge Of The Nerds IV: Nerds In Love).
The second part of the campaign was “Where’s Herb?” and in what may have been the first example of a character jumping off the TV screen into real life, North Americans were challenged to be on the lookout for Herb at their local Burger King and if they were the first to spot him they would win $5,000. Enter into the story, Jon Menick, who at the time was a stage actor living in New York City.
(Wow! You just read almost 1000 words about Herb…want to hear more? Part II will be posted later this week. I will announce the post via twitter @burgatory or if you’d like me to email you when it is posted, send me an email with the subject “I gotta have more Herb!” to email@example.com. You’ll get a one-time email from me – that’s it! No spam, just a heads up when the next part of the story is posted)