Every so often, a message comes in at Burger Quest headquarters, alerting us to a burger we should try. A few weeks ago, we got the call. It was from a guy named Frank on the east side, and he said we had to see Frank's Eastside Tavern (nope, no relation). He described an old-fashioned speakeasy-style joint with a Tiffany lamp over a beat-up old table, and really good hamburgers made with meat from Stahl's, just a stone's throw from the place. Apparently, the owner, Frank, often sits at the end of the bar with his dog, Suzy.
That's why we brought a hungry co-diner along on a trip out on I-94 to see this place. It is something to behold. It's basically a century-old little farmhouse with a small foyer on the front where a porch should be. Open the door and you can walk directly down into a basement bar that probably looks much like it did in 1932, when Prohibition was the law of the land. If you're tall at all, watch your head; six-footers will have to stoop once inside. Heck, the ceiling is so low that you can sit at one of the low-slung tables and touch the ceiling easily.
That's where we wound up, because, at 2:30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, the rear table by the jukebox was taken and the bar was full. The bartender immediately came around to us, took our order, and brought a tray filled with a bag's worth of ruffled chips and a plastic container of sport peppers, all designed to keep your thirst alive. We had an enjoyable time, listening to the group of older ladies at the rear table singing along with the Christmas songs, eavesdropping on bar conversations, and watching a football game on the joint's flatscreen TVs (which are, hilariously, no larger than legal pads).
Despite the small place, Eastside managed to pack in a lot of attitude and slogans. "You're a stranger here but once," for instance, or the taunt on the menu that goes: "Prepared our way. Want it your way? Go to Burger King!!" The short list of dishes includes a grilled steak sub, a steak-and-cheese quesadilla, a liverwurst sandwich, a BLT, and those famous hamburgers we were told about.
The hamburgers came after a short wait, a cheeseburger for our companion and a hamburger, medium for us. It's a classic: toasted sesame seed bun, a fat tomato slice, a thick slice of white onion, a piece of romaine. We later agreed that the burger would have been better without any of these toppings, maybe just a leaf of lettuce and a few pickle slices. It's a formidable burger, a hand-formed half-pound of 100 percent ground sirloin. A thick slice of tomato will just slip around on your condiments and make your sandwich lumpier and more unwieldy.
As burgers go, this one is soft and bloody, with juice spilling down our wrists on the first bite. It's a two-hander, a seven-napkin delight. And yet ... there was something a little bit lacking. The patty needed a bit of salt, for one thing. And also, it seemed that the exterior could have been seared more intensely. We blamed ourselves, though, because we were probably stopping in too early. Perhaps the grill hadn't had time to heat up enough. In any event, these are small cavils: It was a damn good burger.
That said, even a vegan should go see this place. It's worth it just to have a drink and see an old speakeasy, with pictures on the walls of the police smashing the liquor and beer they found there. Bring a friend and you'll have the pleasure of introducing them to something secret, even if the place is open to the public. (We overheard the barkeep declare that she had lived in Harrison Township a lifetime before she learned the place was there.) Or, as our companion said, while the ladies in the back sang along to "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Anyplace where a bunch of ladies are enjoying a midday drunk like that can't be all bad." — mt