Thursday, July 14, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Herman's Ribhouse.

    The Deluxe Large Cheeseburger at Herman's Ribhouse.
How often do you get cracked up by a restaurant? I mean, seriously laughing hard for a good reason or two? I have to say, I was more amused by Herman’s Ribhouse in Fayetteville than I have been by any restaurant in a long time. The fact they put out a damn good burger just enhances the restaurant’s esteem with me.

It was another case of following my nose. Traveling down Highway 71B, my dining companion and I had pretty much decided to wait until getting down to I-40 before stopping for a bite to eat. But there was this scent in the air that made me hit the brakes and turn into the parking lot.

The exterior was interesting — I didn’t think to get a photo (I was hungry, the place was there, it’s right on the highway, yeah, whatever) but it’s on the menu as well. We asked for a seat with good lighting and got it, and a couple of wait folks started hovering over us. One brought us iced tea.

Another brought us two bowls — one with salsa, the other with saltine crackers. This is a particularly Arkansas thing I have never seen outside our state, and it’s usually in the oldest of our restaurants. There was a time in my life when I lived on not much more than that (we were all poor college folks at one point or another, right?) but it was good to see. The salsa was fresh and had a nice late bite of jalapeno to it.

Our waitress (we had both a waiter and a waitress, it was kinda cool) came over and asked us our names. That never happens. Her name was Erin. She gave us menus and we looked through them. Our waiter (dang, why can’t I remember his name?) kept coming by and picking up the used saltine wrappers off the table. Downright vigilant, I kid you not.

I have to be honest, the menu was pretty darn pork heavy. The appetizers were ribs (babyback), ribs (half rack), a single rib (for $2.50) and Nick’s Shrimp Remoulade ($9.50). A few on the menu came with “gear,” a term for sliced tomato, green pepper, onion and ham — including a salad and a couple of different burger patties. There were some mighty large steaks on the menu — a 32 ounce Beef T-Bone went for $40 and the Herman’s Cut Bone-In Rib-Eye was 40-42 ounces for $49.50. That’s a hell of a lot of meat.

We were hot… I mean, we’d been out all day shooting and covering stories in the 100 degree heat. I was not up to a lot of food. We decided to split a burger… which was still going to be a good amount of food. We chose the Deluxe Large Hamburger ($10.50), a half pound burger served up with hash browns. Ordered it medium rare, too.

Now, maybe it was my dining companion’s huge camera, or maybe it’s because we admitted we’d never been there before, but the staff seemed to think we needed to try stuff. Right after my companion returned to the table from shooting across the bar into the kitchen, Erin brought us finger bowls with hot water and lemon chunks to wash our fingers — along with a small bowl containing four boiled shrimp and some remoulade sauce. This was a sample of that Nick’s Shrimp Remoulade, and it was important we try it. I was game.

The shrimp were large and expertly cooked. The remoulade sauce… well now. It was nice and mellow without that tart smack you get so often these days. It had good spice in it, and just enough heat. I think when I go back I’m going to order that shrimp.

If that wasn’t enough, Erin then brought us a couple of ribs to try… which of course I couldn’t touch. Dangit. My dining companion tried one of each. The regular rib had a nice thick traditional spice to it… but the baby back rib, spiced up heavy with a paprika dry rub — was the tastier choice — and it came right off the bone when picked up. Just like that there. Holy pig.

Now, I have to tell you, our fellow diners were getting a big kick out of watching us take photos of our food. I would get up and hold my handheld light up for my photographer — and he’d take a few pictures and I’d sit down again. He was digging into those ribs when out came the burger.
And it’s a different sort of burger. We’d paid the extra buck to get cheese with it, and that American cheese came on the bottom of the patty. Still, the juice from the burger had already soaked down into that bottom bun. It was fragrant and it looked incredible.

Took our photos with just the burger, then added the “garnish” — lettuce, tomato, white onion ringlets that came on the side. Erin came back with a three part condiment tray that contained mustard, mayo and horseradish in little pots for us to add to the burger. The ketchup (along with both the regular and spicy barbecue sauce) was already on the table.
All the time, I kept trying to keep from stealing the hash browns off the plate. They smelled incredible. And they tasted great. The cubed up fried potatoes had a decent spice to them, good seasoning that rendered the need for ketchup moot.

That burger, though. I had to take a photo of the cut shot just to show how perfectly cooked it was. Not cold like rare, not hot like medium, just a perfect uniform pink all the way through. The burger had a lovely crust to it, a good sear from the griddle. The white American cheese was just glue on the bottom, a nice cheesy glue that would keep that bottom bun on despite the light soak of juice and grease.

The patty itself… was only lightly seasoned with salt and perhaps onion. It was all about the beef, fresh and never frozen ground chuck with a great flavor to it. Nicely done.

So, when we were taking photos of this, I told my dining companion I was done holding the light — and if there were pie involved he’d be holding that damn light while I shot photos. Guess what — there was no pie. What was brought out to the table was a massive basket of Tootsie Roll Pops. No joke. That’s dessert at Herman’s, and it’s complimentary. Hell, I didn’t even know they made pomegranate flavored Tootsie Roll Pops… where have I been?

We were still chuckling when we left. The wait staff had been so attentive and helpful, the ambiance amusing and the food excellent. And of course, it all came down to following my nose again.
Still debating that burger. It’s gotta be in the top 10 of burgers I have tried in the state. One of these days I’ll do the official tally. One of these days.

You’ll find Herman’s Ribhouse on Highway 71B in Fayetteville, at 2901 N. College Avenue. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday. Lunch is 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m., dinner is 5-9:15 p.m. and the deck is open until 10 p.m. (479) 442-9671 or check out the website.

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