Trip completed. Check. Plants survived. Check. Didn’t kill each other. Check. Tried the local beer immediately upon arrival. You betcha.
The trek across the country from Appalachians to Rockies is over. For those of you scoring at home, the numbers look like this:
- Miles traveled – 2,676
- Days traveled – 10
- Days arrived in advance of our furniture – 4 (and counting)
- Hotels slept in – 5
- Tents slept in – 1
- New beers tasted – 21
- New burgers tried – 5
- Breweries visited – 7
- States entered and/or exited – 9
- States crossed without stopping – 1
- Different state license plates seen and recorded – 48
- Most number of states visited in one day – 4
- Times crossed the continental divide – 5
- Former grad school colleagues visited – 2
- Former grad school colleagues not visited who commented on my posts – 2
- Former grad school colleagues not visited who did not comment on my posts – 17.4285 (rounded up)
- Times visited the gym – 0
- Weight gained – 8.17
So, yes, the pants are a little tighter than when we began this little odyssey. But that didn’t stop us from waddling down the street to the neighborhood restaurant the first night in town.
There the waitron took our drink orders – the Hopzone IPA from Bozeman Brewing Co. for my hop-headed little friend and the Cold Smoke Scotch Ale by Kettle House Brewing Co. out of Missoula for me. She then
proceeded to inform us that the evening’s special was a basket of 20 spicy buffalo wings (aside: calling chicken wings buffalo wings is dumb because everyone knows buffalos can’t fly) and a pitcher of beer.
“But that won’t work for you,” she said, “since you two are drinking from different pages.”
Ah, yes, drinking from different pages. Ranks right up there on the list of mixed metaphors I’ve actually heard individuals utter in my presence, along with such classics as:
- “I’ve got something right up your ballpark”
- “We’re just scratching the iceberg”
- “This isn’t rocket surgery”
and the all-time winner:
- “The ink is in the pudding.”
The best thing is, our waitron was exactly correct. We’ve been drinking from different pages for 15 years now, and expect to until one of us drops dead. As I’ve said numerous times, we’re like left hand / right hand. Each one works well independently, but both work better together.
Why should we expect our beer drinking, and burger eating, to be any different? I like malty and sweet, she likes hoppy and bitter. I like ground beef medium rare, she likes chicken sandwiches marinated in teriyaki.
Yet somehow it works, and is probably how we survived 10 days in constant company with one another trapped in a Mini Cooper and surrounded by plants.
I did get a break from IPA-lapping traveling companion the two times I went to baseball games. Or, a more accurate way to say it, she got a break from me.
But we all made it to Bozeman, Montana in one piece – people, plants, and Mini included. Not sure I’ll be able to say the same for the furniture, which is, according to the moving company, still in Virginia.
Upon arrival, we did try a few new beers. She has sampled two IPAs, the Deschutes Pinedrops and the Horse Thief from Sheriff Harry Plummer’s Outlaw Brewing. I, on the other hand, have enjoyed the Madison River Oatmeal Stout and Outlaw’s Pugilist Chocolate Porter.
At the same time, we’re taking in the dry air and cool nights, along with the 360-degree view of mountains. And even though we know we’re in for a long, cold winter, there’s something comforting knowing that a town of just under 40,000 residents has four local breweries, and perhaps up to three more on the way.
Perfect fodder for plenty of posts by the entire staff at Beer-and-Burgers.com. You can definitely count on more to come. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them all, no matter which page you are drinking from.
— Eric Van Steenburg
Few burgers have challenged the supremacy of The Idiot Burger in Lexington, KY, since the start of this cross-country odyssey began more than a week ago. But now, we have a new contender for the coveted Beer-and-Burgers.com “Best in Burger” award.
Say hello to the Nacho-Cheese Burger at the Library Sports Grille & Brewery in Laramie, Wyoming.
The Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) is a family friendly sports bar in the downtown area, just a mile from the University of Wyoming campus. But hey, it’s Laramie. Everything is within a mile of campus.
The Nacho-Cheese Burger is just like the Cowboy Burger, of course, which means it’s the traditional burger with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. Except that the Library Gille (don’t forget the “e”) throws jalapenos, bacon, and cheddar cheese on top. Delicioso.
Most importantly, the chefs at Library Grille (don’t forget the “e”) know how to cook a burger. When you ask for it medium rare, you get it medium rare.
It has been amazingly difficult on this trip to get a burger cooked with enough pink in the middle that there’s still some moisture and flavor left in the meat. One restaurant we tried had an extensive list of tantalizing burger options. But when I ordered the Samba Burger and asked for it medium rare, the barkeep informed me that “all our burgers are cooked well done.” Oh good. I like my burgers burnt and tasteless. Yum. Looks like a turkey sandwich for me.
But the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) made it right. And the chefs were also generous with the amount of jalapenos. Nothing worse than asking for the “jalapeno burger” and getting something with only one or two slices of that pesky pepper.
If the burger wasn’t enough, the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e”) is also a brewery, and had several of their locally made options on tap. I enjoyed the Steamboat Oats and Cream Stout, which was full of body and creaminess, as its name implies. It also had a touch of chocolate and roasted hazelnuts in the taste. Nicely done.
Finally, the cool thing for the students who attend the University of Wyoming is that when they go to the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) they can tell their folks they spent the evening at the library, and they won’t be lying.
I’m not lying when I say the Nacho-Cheese Burger is giving The Idiot Burger a challenge for Best in Burger. And with just a few more days until we reach Bozeman, Montana, it may boil down to a two-burger race.
In sum, if you find yourself in Laramie, Wyoming, I recommend a burger and beer at the Library Grill. Oh crap, I forgot the “e”
— Eric Van Steenburg
Two days in Denver, and haven’t even scratched the surface of trying all the craft beer available within walking distance of our hotel. So here’s a day-by-day rundown of our efforts to sample them all.
- Arrive in town late in the day and in desperate need of something to erase the endless hours of travel across Nebraska. So we headed to Wynkoop Brewery for a beer (or two) and a burger.Wynkoop is one of the first breweries to open in Denver, so they’ve had lots of practice making quality craft beer.
In fact, the Barrel-o-Meter sign on the wall says they’ve made almost 1,700 barrels of beer, and a bartender named Al said that sign what in desperate need of updating. I started with the Cowtown Milk Stout, a nitro-infused traditional stout with a thick head and a semi-sweet taste. My IPA swilling road pal sipped on a Belgorado Belgian-IPA, a combination of Colorado-grown malt and lots of Belgian yeast. But at only 48 IBUs, it didn’t quit hit her bitter spot. Mine, on the other hand, was quite easy to drink, and I was therefore encouraged to try another local malty brew — the Real Big Stout. This Imperial effort, made in conjunction with Ska Brewing Co., was chocolaty with lots of caramel flavor. And at 10% ABV, they weren’t foolin’ around. It was quite tasty. So was the burger I had, though I wish it was more pink in the middle. Seems to be a challenge to get a real medium-rare burger in these parts.
- Met some relatives for lunch and headed to the Mellow Mushroom, a touristy pizza joint but with good beer options, as most restaurants in Denver seem to have. There our beer-loving waitron, Kate, had fun letting us try numerous options from the bar. Ultimately, I enjoyed the New Belgium Portage Porter, which I’ve tasted from the bottle before, but not from the tap. It was, as are most New Belgium products, nicely done. This porter has a malty feel but isn’t overly sweetened. I convinced one of the fam to try the Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide Brewing Co., which has an outpost just a few blocks away. He liked it, and who wouldn’t. This multi-award winning brew is coffee meets toffee. As he was sipping his 9.5% ABV beverage, I ordered the Boulder Shake. Again, I’ve had this previously. But this was a nitro version, and it went down smooth as … well … something that goes down smooth. Meanwhile, my hop-loving friend was at the other end of the table sampling numerousIPAs, thanks to Kate. No clue what she ended up drinking.
- In the afternoon, it was off to another ballpark. This time, Coors Field. Fortunately, Coors is not the only beer available in the stadium. I was able to enjoy a 90 Shilling Ale from Odell Brewing Co., another Colorado-based craft brewery. There were several other options for the crafty beer drinker, but none that really hit my malty sweet spot. So the 90 Shilling, with its combination of Scotch ale malt and Amber ale ruddiness, was perfect for a warm summer day at the ballpark.
- Breckenridge beckoned, so we complied and went to Breckenridge Colorado Craft, a taproom one block from the stadium featuring, as one would expect, mostly Breckenridge Brewing Co. beers, and a few others as well. But why wander off the trail? So I enjoyed their Oatmeal Stout while the hop-head had the Fresh Hop Pale Ale followed by the Breck IPA. And, of course, I had to have the NVP — Nitro Vanilla Porter. The non-nitro bottle version of this beer has been a staple in my fridge for years. Having it on tap, in Denver, infused with nitro, made for a perfect ending to a beer-filled day.
- Next stop, Fort Collins. The only question is whether to stop at the New Belgium brewery, or the Odell brewery. Or both?
— Eric Van Steenburg
I believe it was Aristotle who first said “When in Kentucky, do as the Kentuckians.” Or is it Kentuckionians? Kentuckites? Oh well, who am I to argue with the inventor of the riding lawn mower.
So when we arrived in the metropolis known as Lexington, we knew we needed to fin it. That meant dining at a local establishment and sipping some of the finest Kentucky brews.
To start, we were presented with numerous opportunities. Patty’s son, who lives in Lexington, was kind enough to offer his two favorite burger places. I’d also seen a “top 5 burger joints in Lexington” post online that increased our options to seven. Then, as we drove downtown, past the legendary Rupp Arena where the University of Kentucky’s professional basketball team plays, people were hanging out of every restaurant and parking spaces were suddenly at a premium. This was clearly the place to be.
To be more precise, the intersection of Broadway and Market was loaded with restaurants. Too many options.
But then there it stood, like a shining light acting as a beacon in a sea of darkness … The Village Idiot.
I was home.
I’d read about the place online. The beer selection and burger choices sounded tempting. And, like all of the best “burger joints,” it had more options on the menu than just burgers. That’s a necessity for my IPA chugging traveling companion, who prefers a chicken sandwich of some kind over the beauty of the burger.
We went inside and saw all the draft beers listed on a giant chalkboard. But the bar, where we usually prefer to sit, was packed. Fortunately the hotron (that’s the gender-neutral way to say host/hostess) informed us there was an upstairs bar. And so to second floor we ascended.
There we found a seat at the bar, and the most attentive and informative bartender. Sam made several beer suggestions, and was happy to accommodate our wishes, including getting the Korean Chicken Sandwich without the sandwich.
I was thrilled with Sam’s recommendation of the 35K milk stout from Against the Grain brewery out of Louisville. For the IPAer, he suggested the West Sixth IPA or the Heller Heaven Double IPA, both from West Sixth Brewing. After sampling each (she’s big into samples), she chose the former because of its stronger hop bite. My 35K, by the way, was a perfect blend of dry and creamy. Not much of a head, but easy to drink with very subtle hints of cocoa and coffee.
Burger time. While she ordered the previously mentioned bun-less sandwich, which was chicken topped with a spicy gochujang sauce, I got the signature burger – the Idiot.
This delicious mound of meat featured an almost pink burger topped with cheddar and a huge onion ring, in which the chef chose to put pulled pork. All of this is on a pretzel bun, which I could have done without. Still, the burger was wonderful, and one I would highly recommend.
As for my IPA slurping road buddy, while the West Sixth IPA was fine, Sam then poured her the Stone Enjoy By IPA, which right now is the 07.04.15. This one really hit her sweet spot. Bitter hops in the nose and the back end. An excellent balance of bitter at malt, which for her means more bitter and less malt. And hey, we know it’s fresh.
So maybe the Stone beer wasn’t Kentucky. But everything else was. And for one night, we were Kentuckiers. Aristotle would be proud.
Three thumbs up to The Village Idiot.
— Eric Van Steenburg
Just got finished grading 19 projects, 19 presentations, and the semester-long participation efforts of 79 students. You would think I’d be sick of grading. But no. Because now I get to grade what I really want … the world’s greatest burger joint.
OK, the Katy Trail Ice House might not be the best burger joint in the world. But it’s pretty darn good. And I was fortunate enough to be there two days before Thanksgiving, sitting outside on their huge backyard space, eating a delicious burger, drinking a delicious beer, basking in 68-degree sunshine, and watching the beautiful people of Dallas getting their mid-day exercise on the Katy Trail.
I have to admit feeling a twinge of nostalgic remorse as I sat there enjoying myself and watching the world go by. Two reasons for this: 1) I helped build the Katy Trail when I was its executive director from 2002-2009; and 2) restaurants with backyards adjacent to the Trail was an idea I’d pushed on every developer during my tenure, but none would ever support my vision.
Now the Katy Trail Ice House is so popular, the City of Dallas features it several times in its official promo video (look for it around 2:02 and 2:27). It’s location along the incredibly successful Katy Trail is part of the reason. The other is that the place has great beer and great burgers. How great? Let’s find out by putting my How to Rate a Burger Joint grading scale to work. Here we go:
- Can you get it cooked to order? – My preference is medium rare. I want quite a bit of pink in the middle of that slab of meat. Most places are either afraid to serve it that way, or have cooks who don’t know how to do anything but burn it to a crisp. The Katy Trail Ice House delivers. Perfectly. Score: 10.
- Can you get it made to order? – I will never want mustard on my burger, so we’ll always need to 86 that. And if I order the jalapeno burger, it had better not come with sour cream. What Mexican do you know who eats anything with sour cream? Again, the Ice House met my demands. Score: 10.
- Appearance – You can’t just slap down a burger on a plate and expect people to eat it. Presentation does count for something, even at a burger joint. Katy Trail Ice House puts your food on a small tray covered in aluminum foil, chips on the side. It’s probably not what they teach at Le Cordon Bleu, but it works. Score: 7.
- Bun quality – Outstanding bun-to-burger ratio here. Not much else to consider in this bun, however. It’s more or less there to keep you from looking like an animal if you were to simply hold charred beef between your fingers. Score: 7.
- Does it taste good? – Yes, my taste buds were in heaven. It always helps when the burger is cooked to order. But the combination of goodies on top made the whole thing a mouth-watering delight. Score: 10.
- Are there other items on the menu? – My lunch companion often prefers a chicken something to a burger. The Ice House has a grilled chicken Swiss sandwich, a chicken salad sandwich, and a chicken salad salad. A few other options sprinkle the menu, but this place caters to the burger lover. Score: 7.
- How’s the beer list? – In a word, excellent. There are about 50 taps with a range of craft and mass-produced beers. Most are Texas beers or others in the region. I was able to get the 512 Pecan Porter, and my IPA-chugging friend got the Lakewood Hopp Trapp. Would love to see the list expanded to great beer-making states like Colorado, Oregon, and Virginia. Score: 9.
- Is there outside seating? – Holy crap, yes. And the Ice House did it the way I’d recommended to many a developer – throw some gravel on the ground, put out some picnic tables, and serve coffee, water, and beer. In addition to glorious outdoor seating, the Ice House has garage doors that can be opened or closed based on the weather, and lead to the inside seating with a dozen or so TVs filled with every game being played that day. The place even keeps water jugs next to the Trail for the exerciser in need of refreshment. Score: 10.
- What side dishes are available? – Katy Trail Ice House has a few options for chips and dips. We started with the jalapeno bottle caps, which are simply jalapeno slices dipped in batter and deep-fried. Yes, I had jalapenos as an appetizer and the jalapeno burger. I believe it was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who first said “You can never have enough jalapenos.” Grade: 7
- Ambiance – Well, the music is mostly country, which is a demerit in my book. But at least it was classic country and not the pop-country-crap that Nashville has been pushing on us for the last 20 years. The servers are usually quite nice. And the whole thing reeks of casual chic. Excellent place to hang out for a while. Score: 10.
Now we add simply it up. And the Katy Trail Ice House burger joint score is … 87.
That’s pretty good. But hey, I’m a tough grader. Just ask 79 students.
— Eric Van Steenburg
My mom is a burger Luddite. Well, sort of. That doesn’t mean she prefers to eat burgers by candlelight. That would make her burger Amish.
No, she’s more Luddite. You know, that leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age. At least that’s what their manifesto says they are.
Yes, mom wants her burgers plain and simple. Basically, meat and bun. I’m not even sure if she goes for the L-TOP, my shorthand for lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle. Though the last time we had a burger together – which is, of course, the most special of mother-son bonding moments – I think she went LT-O, as in lettuce, tomato only. And definitely no cheese. Cheese is right out.
What to put on your burger might be one of the only things my mom and I don’t just naturally agree on. After all, great minds do think alike.
But when it comes to enjoying a burger, I’ve learned to trust the chef, no matter what they plan to put between the buns. (Pause here as some might want to enjoy a “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” flashback to “Those aren’t pillows!”)
Case in point: I’ve corrupted my partner in crime so much that she craves a good burger about once a month. Comparatively, my burger requirements are typically one every two weeks, so she’s not quite at my level … yet. In terms of being a burger aficionado, let’s say she’s a burger yellow belt.
So when we went to Jack Brown’s – a burger joint in Harrisonburg that is well-known up and down Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley – she told the watron that she wanted the day’s special, The Greg Brady burger, which comes with mac ‘n’ cheese and potato chips on top. But, she wanted (gasp!) the chips on the side. Being a burger black belt, I, of course, knew to trust the burger chef and ordered mine with the chips on top.
Two minutes after the burgers arrived, she tasted mine and realized the error of her ways. I immediately gave her a field promotion. She’s now a burger brown belt.
Now, some restaurants try to put too many things on top of their burgers. These are simply efforts to try to “trick up” the burger, and are usually just a ploy by a chain restaurant to make a tasteless burger taste better. A real burger joint – not a chain restaurant – doesn’t need to trick up its burgers. They’re simply making delicious burger concoctions.
To put it another way, efforts to trick up a burger are akin to what today’s college football teams are doing to their uniforms. Just because you “candie up” your uniform – to quote my friend Gaylon as he channels his inner Darryl Royal, the legendary Texas football coach – doesn’t make you a better team, nor a better university. You can’t buy class.
So the chain restaurants found in Generica with their “Double Wheezy Fresh and Cheesy” burger don’t cut it. You’ve got to go to a real burger joint, order a real burger, and eat it however it’s prepared. I’ll say it again – always trust a burger chef.
Here’s another example. Both Jack Brown’s and Local Chop & Grill House – the excellent restaurant and bar that is literally (and unlike most people under the age of 20 I’m using that word correctly) 210 feet from our front door – have burgers dedicated to those who like their mouth lit up like an Aggie bonfire. (For those of you who don’t know, the Aggie bonfire is a pile of logs about 12 stories high that would be torched the week Texas A&M played Texas in football.) In other words, the burgers are a bit on the spicy hot side. But both have drastically different ingredients.
Local Chop has the Inferno Burger, for which you get to choose ground chuck or bison that will be topped with habanero pickle relish, cheddar cheese, cayenne bacon, and chipotle remoulade. Cayenne bacon? I don’t know whether to say “yikes!” or “yum!”
Jack Brown’s has the Shocker, ground beef topped with fresh jalapenos, fresh habaneros, pepper jack cheese, and shocker sauce, a closely held secret in-house creation that is guaranteed to set your mouth (and later your pants) on fire.
I’ve had them both. Each is outstanding. And even though the toppings are different, the results are the same – an enjoyable, delicious burger that makes you appreciate that God had a sense of humor when she gave us edible things like habaneros. These burgers were so spicy, this transplanted Texan loses 5 pounds in sweat each time I have one. Each is so hot that my friend Melanie, who drinks the hottest sauces in the world like the rest of us drink water, might even release a bead of sweat. But they’re also so delicious, it’s worth it. And hey, it’s better than going to the gym, right?
Most importantly, they taste great because the burger chef knew what he was doing. He picked the ingredients that he knew would taste great together, and cooked the burger with that in mind.
And my point is, that’s what we all need to keep in mind. Whether you’re a purist or an adventurer, always trust the burger chef.
— Eric Van Steenburg
CODA: My hot sauce slurping friend Melanie has a great blog on wine. If you’re into that sort of thing, check her out at DallasWineChick.com.
CODA CODA: Thanks to Lisa at Jack Brown’s for the burger photos.