Monday, July 6, 2015

The Smashed Crispy Burgers of Central Illinois

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

- Introducing Illinois' Regional Burger

It's time for the next chapter in my Burger Americana posts. We all know about Schoop's in Northwest Indiana and many of us are familiar with Carl's Drive-in down in St. Louis. Less of us are familiar with Workingman's Friend in Indianapolis. Up until last year I was pretty sure those spots were the main purveyors of the ultra smashed burger. But as it turns out there's an entire region of purveyors located in-between Schoop's and Carl's. What is a smashed crispy burger? Well in laymen terms its exactly that. A smashed ball of beef that turns into a patty with a glistening crust due to an extra hot flattop and a little extra attention to detail when smashing. The edges get so crisp that the good ones produce meat chips, little pieces of crispy beef that fall off the patty when unwrapping.

What it's not is a smashed burger which is a style common in the Midwest and now elsewhere due to places like Smash Burger and Shake Shack, the latter of which was inspired by Steak 'n Shake which was founded in Normal Illinois in 1934. It actually started out as a gas station where they served fried chicken but the founding father knew that chicken shacks were a dime a dozen while good hamburgers weren't nearly as common. Staying on topic of the smashed crispy burger. I believe these places below, which make this style, are inspired by each other and it all goes back to Steak 'n Shake who probably served something similar back when it had just one location. Or was Steak n' Shake inspired by another unknown place in the area? I don't know if anyone has the correct answer as this is the first round-up of it's kind to go online.
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Just Hamburgers

Paxton, IL

This little nondescript spot is found about an hour and 45 minutes south of Chicago off I-57. I'd had them on my list for a long time. I found an article from 2011 in the 'Paxton Dealer' which says they were celebrating their 40th year of biz. So now they're nearing 45 years. Before its birth as a hamburger stand the building was a meat locker. To this day all the meat used in their burgers is cut by hand and ground on site. The product is, in my opinion, one of the best burgers you'll ever eat at the $3 price point they seek for each one. Not having too big of a menu allows for the specialty of the house to shine. They're only open from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4-7 p.m and you should expect a line when you go. However because they're rightfully expecting everyone to order a burger they stay smashing them before your order is placed. They say that most weekend days they serve more customers than minutes they're open. I'd put their product in the top half of the spots featured.

Double Cheeseburger
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Butcher Boy Burgers

Rantoul, IL

Just a short 10 mile ride down from Paxton you'll find Butcher Boy Burgers in the town of Rantoul. According to something I read online they're located in a former Just Hamburgers location. The menu features a few things with the burgers and homemade pie being the popular things to eat. As can be expected some places do the smashed crispy burger better than others. Butcher Boy serves a burger thats better than it has to be but it also isn't as good as it could be. Aside from being greasier than most upon unwrapping I was also somewhat weary of it based on how fast it came out after being ordered. The smash job was average thus all in all it was a bottom halfer as far as rating.

Double Cheeseburger
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Krekel's

Decatur, IL

Krekel's is perhaps the most successful Steak 'n Shake spawn. Bill Krekel opened his first location in Decatur during the summer of 1953. Today they have seven locations with four of them in Decatur. The other outlets are located in Springfield, Pawnee, and Mt. Zion. The eldest location seen here is said to be the best due to the old age of the flattop. I've been to the location in Springfield and judging from my visit along with other pictures and peoples undying love for them I think they're very consistent from spot to spot. Krekel's and most other spots featured on here tend to use raw diced onion as the standard. I'm impartial as to diced or grilled, on this style they're both worthy. Krekel's makes one of the best burgers in the state and because I love this style I'd call it one of my favorites in the States. Cheap eats don't get much better.

Double Cheeseburger
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Green Gables

Hudson, IL

Green gables has a history that traces back to 1929. It was opened as a gas station and later they added a small grocery. When it was purchased in 1952 the new owner turned the gas stations into a bar/restaurant. According to the website this would be the reason Green Gables is what it is today. The old time feel is there waiting in the air.

Sitting at the bar

As you can see the flattop is tiny but it's responsible for large flavors producing one of most popular cheeseburgers in the region. In classic tavern tradition it's made by the bartender. The lady behind it wasn't new to the job but at first it seemed like she might've been, hacking away at the ball of beef with no rhythm whatsoever. Or was chaos her secret weapon? This one would be a beauty by the time it was fully dressed and the addition of grilled onion most certainly didn't hurt. The salty melted cheddar oozing into a crispy beef patty was mouth watering upon arrival and had me in love upon finishing it. A meat treat indeed.

Double Cheeseburger
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Sunrise Cafe

Springfield, IL

AKA Hamburger Dan's I've posted about this place before. It's a pretty lowkey spot that's gotten little press compared to some other restaurants in town but it's not to be missed by those in search of the smashed crispy burger. While the menu boasts most everything you'll find at a breakfast/lunch diner the clue is in the name. After all they don't call it Dan's Biscuits and Gravy. Look at that smash job!

Double Cheeseburger
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Dewey's Drive-In

Farmer City, IL

I think you need to be from around the area or visiting someone in it to know about this place. Reason being the summertime only operation is located away from the well traveled highways. I took a 45 minute detour on the way back from St. Louis to stop here. According to an article online it's a mimic of an old time favorite. Opened in 2011 it's an homage to an old town favorite that had a 51 year run before closing its doors. The remake seems so well done and thats because it sits in the same building the original one did, originally a Swirly Top Dairy Bar. The recipes are said to be handed down and aside from the hand pressed burger the lemon ice cream is also a big seller.

Signature Lemon Ice Cream in a Cheery Dipped Cone

While it's possible this one stands out most due to the fact it's the most recent place of all these I ate at, the picture makes me think otherwise. It was a dandy and at just a little over $4 one of the more expensive ones if you can even call it that. The smash job was second to none with meat chips flying off upon opening. On this day it would be well worth the detour.

Double Cheeseburger
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The Shack

Clinton, IL

I cant seem to find much online about this popular burger stand but the sign outside said they've been around since 1920. I snapped some pics of a pic of the old building but I cant seem to pinpoint around what year it was when they started serving burgers. If it was in 1920 then its quite possible this place started the trend. The smash job was that of a skilled grillman and the burger was a dandy. They had tenderloins, horseshoes, and other regional favorites listed on the menu too. Anyone know anything interesting about Clinton's oldest restaurant? Lemme know.

Double Cheeseburger
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Gross' Burgers

Danville, IL

Another longtime spot on my list. When I was informed by the bosses that I'd making the rounds in and out of Vermilion County the first thing to reach my mind was the fact I'd finally be able to try Gross'. They've been at it since 1982 when they opened with the name Grunts. The current owner has a US Marines background and thus the inside is decked out in pictures and memorabilia. Don't let the name fool you. You know the drill by now. The beef is ground fresh on-site and formed into little balls that are smashed crispy on the flattop. I thought this burger was a little bit bigger than the rest, though the price didn't reflect that much. The bun was thicker too but the burger was on point. I've seen others pics of the product here where the burger looks more smashed than mine but I wasn't dissatisfied at all with what I got. I happily gobbled it down.

Double Cheeseburger
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Mike's Grill

Tilton, IL

Mike's was a spot where I could feel the nostalgia as I drove by. It wasn't on my radar but I spotted it while riding into Danville and wondered what all the craziness was about. Turn's out that then Governor nominee Bruce Rauner was making a stop on the campaign trail. So I ended up waiting for his entourage to leave this classic old school drive-in that's been in business since 1958. It would be here that I learned a couple things about this style of a burger. Everything at Mike's means the whole shebang. Lettuce, tomato etc. Both of which have no business on a crispy smashed burger. Its all about the mustard, onion, and pickles. Put ketchup on if you must.

Cheeseburger, everything

The other lesson learned is that it's always best to go double. The meat to bun ration is perfect when there's two smashed patties involved. Mike's Grill didn't seem to smash with as much skill as some of the other spots and the wetness from the veggies seemed to take away some of the crispness.

The insides
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Burger King

Mattoon, IL

If unfamiliar with the this spot please read this thread as you may be a little bit confused right now and thats ok. Before there was Burger King, there was Burger King. The behemoth tried to take this little guy to court and got served. Long story short no franchised BK's can open within town limits. You can read the original thread to get an idea although I did find this recently. The original family that opened it sold the business although the new owners plan on keeping it the same. This means one of the best burgers under $3 you will find should remain that way into the foreseeable future.

Double Cheeseburger
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Just Hamburgers
214 E Ottawa St
Paxton, IL 60957
(217) 379-4222

Butcher Boy Burgers
422 S Garrard St
Rantoul, IL 61866
(217) 215-0201

Krekel's
801 E Wood St
Decatur, IL 62521
(217) 429-1122

Green Gables
17485 E 2500 Rd N
Hudson, IL 61748
(309) 747-2496

Sunrise Cafe
1201 S 2nd St
Springfield, IL 62704
(217) 753-1311

Dewey's Drive-In
620 E Richardson St
Farmer City, IL 61842
(309) 928-3663

The Shack
506 S Grant St
Clinton, IL 61727
(217) 935-4646

Gross' Burgers
25 Henderson St
Danville, IL 61832
(217) 442-8848

Mike's Grill
2006 Georgetown Rd,
Tilton, IL 61833
(217) 446-6605

Burger King
1508 Charleston Avenue
Mattoon, IL 61938
(217) 234-8122

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

hit Krekels in Decatur on Saturday, REALLY good. Thanks for the rec.

Anonymous said...

Have eaten at several of these and agree they are worth the trip, especially Krekels. Another spot I found is Burger Board in Jacksonville. Located in an old Steak n Shake but more like these places. Great burger, fries and shakes at a low price.

Anonymous said...

You should try The White Steamer in Washington, Indiana.

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