Friday, March 22, 2013

Minute Man: Smoke on the Burger.

This is one in a series on historical restaurants in the state of Arkansas. For a look at the Arkansas restaurant timeline, click here.

At the end of 56th Street, the cut-through to University Avenue, there was a Minute Man restaurant. It was on the south side of the intersection, across from Zimmerman’s gas station, and from time to time if we could afford it I could have a nice, mean and hot burger on a toasted bun. And if I was really good, I got ice cream.

There was also a Minute Man on Broadway, and it was there through my high school years. I recall going in as a little girl with my mom. They had just introduced their first kids meal called the Magic Meal (this is the late 70s) and my first one had come with a little green army man. The second one, my mom pulled out the burger and I took a bite and started to cry. There was a piece of gristle inside, or maybe some hard cheese or something – and I thought they’d put the little green army man on the burger and it had melted.

My memories of Minute Man come from childhood. Today they’re all gone, save for one lone holdout in El Dorado – too far for me to grab a #2 on my lunch break. You remember the #2, right? The smoke burger? Char-grilled and dolloped with a liquid smoke goo, never equaled by Sonic (funny, I don’t think they offer a smoke burger any more, either). I can still recall that exact slightly woody flavor.

UALR Center for Arkansas
History and Culture
Vernon Rodgers and Wes Hall.
(UALR Center for Arkansas
History and Culture)
The original location at 407 South Broadway in Little Rock was a low-slung building sitting out back of a parking lot. Raymond Merritt remembers it was originally the Lido Minute Man, but I was born significantly later and only remember it as Wes Hall’s Minute Man. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas says Hall opened the place on May 26th of 1948 as a 24-hour coffee shop with three partners that he
Courtesy Raymond Merritt
eventually bought out before franchising the operation.

It grew, first to Hayes Street (named University Avenue by my time) and then onwards and outwards, eventually spreading to seven states with 57 different restaurants. And the ideas it seeded out spread through the fast food industry. That Magic Meal? It came along before McDonald’s Happy Meal. The #12, known as the “Big M,” was a great double-pattied burger that came along

The #12, or Big M. UALR Center for
Arkansas History and Culture)
before the Big Mac. And about half the burgers if you ordered them as they came (which really was the deal before Burger King started telling people to “have it your way” in the 80s), came with a smattering of “relish sauce” on the bun instead of mustard or mayo – relish sauce being very close to the Thousand Island-type sauce slathered on the Big Mac today. Oh, and if you wanted the lettuce and tomato on a burger like they’re all about served today, you had to order the #6 – the salad burger.

Minute Man was also one of the three restaurants to receive Raytheon’s experimental Radar Ranges. We’re talking a microwave oven – in 1948. While McDonald’s chain restaurants had their fried pies back then (IMHO superior to the baked pies offered today), Minute Man had the Radar Deep Dish Pie – a pot pie that if you were smart you ordered when you got your food so it had enough time to cool on the inside as to not burn your mouth. I only ever remember apple being offered, though the menu Merritt has on his website also shows peach, cherry and strawberry – “Served with Real Butter CREAM 5 cents Extra.”’

Courtesy Raymond Merritt
My mom and I moved to Little Rock in the mid-70s, and I grew up half a mile away from one of the University Avenue locations. It was absolutely as far as I dared to walk from the house, being on the other side of Geyer Springs Elementary by about three blocks. One of those most poignant childhood “fails” I recall was when the place started serving hard-scoop ice cream out the window. I was thrilled to get an ice cream cone with two scoops, side by side in what I believe was called a Sweetheart Cone. I remember going up to the window and waiting while my mom sat in the car. I paid for the treat (I think it was a dollar), turned around and promptly faceplanted on the concrete. Saved most of the cone – except for the very bottom. There was a rush to finish the ice cream before it melted out onto my lap, I remember.

Courtesy Raymond Merritt
By the time I was driving, the Minute Man still open in Little Rock was a block up from the original at 311 South Broadway. The building, if I recall correctly, was painted a pungent green. The interior was dark, and it was often quiet… unless you went at the lunch hour, when generations of traditionalists and Boomers squeezed in for a pick-up order or to quickly manage to consume a burger and fries. It closed for good in June of 2002 to make way for the new Federal Courthouse expansion. By that point, most of the other franchised restaurants had also met their demise – with the exception of that lone El Dorado holdout. Wes Hall didn’t live to see the end of that dream – he passed away a month beforehand.

The El Dorado Minute Man location. (Roadfood.com)
Will the Minute Man ever come back again? According to a posting on Roadfood.com’s forums, the El Dorado restaurant is still serving the same recipes up (I know it also serves cheese dip and burritos, which I don’t recall from the original) – and there was as of December 2012 someone considering opening a new Minute Man in Little Rock. I’m sure if the recipes are followed, that old smoke sauce is brought back and the prices are reasonable, the crowds will follow.

One more note. There's a man who's claimed to have raised me... that'd be the newscaster known as Craig O'Neill. One of these days I'll tell you why. For now, here's a link to the report he did for THV 11 (my old station) about Minute Man and its place in Arkansas history.

Minute Man on Urbanspoon

6 comments:

  1. Your posts are always nice. I feel like I am watching a TV food travel show when I read your writings. Makes me want to visit the locations.

    www.tiedyedshop.com

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  2. This brought back so many memories. One of the MMs I remember most was on College in Fayetteville. It was one of the only places open on Sunday nights when all the cafeterias, etc were closed. I can still taste that radar. Deep dish strawberry pie!

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  3. Radar pies were not "pocket pies." They were served in a paper container about 4 inches in diameter. The fruit filling was on the bottom and a disc of crust was placed on the top, along with a pat of butter. These were already in their cooler, ready to pop into the "RadarRange" (microwave). This was before anyone had one of these at home. Very unique in the 60s to have a hot pie in one minute!

    I might drive to El Dorado for a #12.

    Mark

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  4. Mark, you're absolutely right. I shouldn't try to write these in the middle of the night... can't get the right words out. But I recall they were napalm if you didn't wait for them to cool!

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  5. What a great piece on the MM. I, just like Mr. Rex Nelson, had some my most fondest teenage memories centered around the MM and attached pool hall in Arkadelphia. I sat snuggly up against the south end of Oauchita's Tiger football stadium. It didn't matter because there was equal number of AHS, OBU and HSU..or then known as HSTC, students crowded into the MM. We use to have Sunday dinner with our families, then by 2p, meet at the MM...grab a #2...then head out and play tackle football all afternoon. If it was too wet or cold, we stayed inside and played pool. Minute Man...now thats worth a trip to El Dorado.

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  6. I remember the Minute Man in Arkadelphia very well ,and the Campus Drive-In across Hwy 67/7 too. There's absolutely no trace of either building now! I remember how sad it was to see the MM sitting vacant before they tore it down.

    I remember going in there when I was little and seeing all the kids shooting pool. I would say I was 10 years old or younger when it closed so I never got to hang out there. I've heard it was quite the scene though.

    I have GOT to go to the MM in El Dorado sometime.

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