Downriver doesn't get any respect. In metro Detroit, the mere mention of the fragmented patchwork of fading blue-collar communities south of Michigan Avenue often evokes jokes and giggles about obese hillbillies and that fabled woman who lives on Champaign and Dix. And when it comes to food, the area is almost completely overlooked, its venerable taverns and restaurants spurned in favor of the hip new dining trends sweeping over the Woodward Corridor.
And that's a shame, because Downriver eateries offer classic fare, often in an unusual setting that's perfect for tracing the class contours of the region. While Downriver is different — being a struggling bastion of metro Detroit's working class — its tastes vary widely from the caricature drawn in Oakland County's fevered imagination.
That's what we think after a visit to Three Nicks (try saying that with a stuffed nose) on Van Born Road in Allen Park. A reader urged us to try their burger, so we took the Pelham Road exit off I-94 on a Saturday afternoon to follow their lead. The building, an old cinderblock box dressed up with trim, has more cars in the parking lot than pickup trucks. Inside, it's one of those great old bars, with a U-shaped lowered ceiling matching the bar, with high-tops scattered on either side. The light is a bit unusual, with natural light filtering in through glass blocks, muted internal light, and black light over the bar. Black light? It's there to highlight the bikinis the bar girls wear, including our server, a pleasant young lady wearing a green bikini with purple polka dots. If it sounds sleazy, the demeanor of the guests is definitely not, and most eyes are glued to the game, not the girls.
We order the bar's half-pound burger, medium, loaded, and fries, along with a Miller High Life and watch the game. It's East Carolina against Virginia Tech. VT is taking a pounding from Carolina's supple offense, but Carolina can't catch a kick, and several players fall all over it like a bunch of stoned teenagers.
The burger comes quickly, set into a plastic basket with wax paper, along with squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard, as well as salt and pepper shakers. The patty is kind of a big, ugly thing, with the kinds of bulges and seams that practically scream "hand-formed." At first glance, in the dim bar, it appears almost to be a little steak. It looks juicy, and the lower bun has sopped up a bit of that, as have some of the fries. The loaded version comes with a sesame-free bun, toasted, a thin slice of white onion, three pickle slices, a rather thick slice of pale, firm tomato, and one piece of iceberg lettuce pasted onto the top bun with a generous amount of mayo. (Those averse to generous mayo may want to get it on the side.) We assemble the thing and take a run at it.
The oversized patty gives us one bite that's all meat. It's incredible. It's not just juicy — it's ... buttery? There's a richness here that suggests beef cooked in clarified butter, and it's wonderful. It's not too juicy, to the point where the lower bun is soaked through, but just enough. By the time we're on bite four, in the middle of this creation, the juicy, seedy heart of the tomato slice spills onto the tongue and mixes with the buttery beef and rich mayo to create an extraordinary sensation. The fries were limp, but when a burger is this good, who cares?
All in all, it's an excellent half-pound, two-hander, four-napkin burger. If you can handle a little George Strait on the jukebox and a working-class vibe, you can watch a little sports (and maybe a bikini-clad bartender or two), and enjoy this all-beef wonder.— mt