Sunday, November 30, 2008

BurgerFest-O-Rama #2 - Miller's Bar

It is with some amount of trepidation that I attempt to assess experience #2 of BurgerFest-O-Rama, sponsored by Lipitor (note: BurgerFest-O-Rama not in any way affiliated with Lipitor). For outing #2, our merry burger-eating crew decided to take on the venerable (not vulnerable as I originally wrote) Miller's Bar in Dearborn. The reason for the trepidation is that Miller's Bar is well-known and highly-respected in burger circles; in fact, GQ columnist Alan Richman named it one of "America's 20 Best Burgers" and this list was featured and discussed on an episode of Oprah. Miller's is also the first burger mentioned in The Free Press' list. All of this leads to an intimidating burger experience, where it felt before even trying the burger, that our subjective conclusions would be certain to upset someone, somewhere on either side of the Miller's fence. I have also wanted to try a burger from Miller's for some time, but it has always been hard to convince myself that it was worth the 30 minute drive for a hunk of cow patootie - that is, without the great momentum behind BurgerFest-O-Rama (if you look closely, Steve is editorializing in the photo. I'm like a Highlights Magazine).
Last evening, our group expanded beyond Maureen and myself to include my brother (Steve), parents (Bob and Karen), and next door neighbors Sue, Stan, and Melissa J. At this rate of increasing attendance, we will have 512 people with us by outing #5. I am single-handedly going to save the economy. We got to Miller's close to 7:30pm and were greeted by a seemingly-lengthy line immediately inside of the door. This was one of those situations that you sometimes experience at eateries where you have no idea what it is that you are supposed to do to grab a table and order some grub. There was no name-taker at the door, no written instructions, no easily-accessible person to describe the process. There are other places around like Zingerman's in Ann Arbor that are very difficult for first-time eaters. I generally do not like to eat at places where the restaurant is too confusing for me because it makes me feel bad about myself. The system pretty much turned out to be wait in line and then when you get near the ambiguous "front" someone directs you toward a table. The problem with the line is that it is in a narrow hallway and the waitresses (who were all oddly wearing denim skirts) are running back and forth in the hallway and kept needing me to move my larger-than-average sized body. Here are a bunch of inside shots in a beautiful mosaic (clockwise from upper left, Miller's interior, my dad and Mrs. J, parents' booth, burger station).

Once you get seated, you have the following dining options: hamburger, cheeseburger (Velveeta or Swiss), fries, onion rings, beer (from bottles), soda (from cans), and bottled water. There are no menus, plates, or silverware at Miller's as far as we could tell. You place your order, consume your food, and then walk up to the cash register where you tell them what you ordered and pay only cash. It is an honors system in the most traditional sense, and I wonder how often they get burned for this approach. Now on to the food...My table ordered 1 medium hamburger, 1 medium cheeseburger, 2 medium-well cheeseburgers, three orders of onion rings, one order of fries, and 2 sodas (Steve and I have general objections to ordering non-refillable soda or paying for water). The burgers come with nothing on them but the meat and/or cheese, and they put some raw onion, pickles, ketchup, and mustard on your table as potential additions. Our feast:

Before I go into the food itself, I'd like to say that many people who have eaten here really seem to appreciate the Miller's "experience" and I think that this positively affects their appreciation of the food. They love that their only options are burgers and fried-goods, that there are no plates or modern civilities of any variety, and payment is all on an honor system. You go here because you want a burger, and everyone who goes with you also has no choice but to eat a burger. I get that Miller's does not offer toppings or variety because that is what they do.

Pros: I had no idea I would like Velveeta on a burger this much, simplicity of the product (no tomato, lettuce) really let the purity of burger shine, girls thought the meat was very juicy (boys less so), adults thought the beers were colder than your average beer, American institution, unassuming atmosphere, quick-moving line, tasted like I would expect an exceptional burger off of a home grill would taste

Cons: inconsistent cooking (medium burgers at our table to medium-well, medium-well closer to well resulting in some dryness), some topping options would have been appreciated by some, Maureen and Melissa had some type of floating lard in their soda glasses, some hard chunks of gristle in my burger, not enough "crisp" on onion rings and fries, no free beverage whatsoever

This series of reviews is mostly about the burgers, but also a little bit about the dining experience. With some higher dissenting opinions (my mom thought the burger was going to be her new standard for quality comparison and probably a 3 Hamburglar), I think we decided that the Miller's Bar burger will forever be known as:
Keep in mind, 2 Hamburglars is quite good on my scale. The problem I had is with the inconsistency of the product. If you want to crack into the upper echelons of the scale, you have to bring your "A" game every single time - or at least when you serve my table. Overcooking of a burger, while still quite good, is still overcooking of a burger. Adding in the hard chunks in my burger, the floating lard in the glasses, and the initially confusing seating process pushes Miller's firmly into the 2 category in my mind. I am not a picky eater or picky person (I am happy to eat a cookie I find on the ground or floor), but some things are hard to overlook. I think another way to think of the score is thusly: Even though the meal was delicious, I (and most of my party) would not be inclined to drive the 30 minutes necessary to eat a Miller's burger. This alone probably keeps them from reaching that coveted 3 or 4 Hamburglar status.


John said...

I am really enjoying your burger odyssey but I am frustrated by your rating scale. Rather than an aggregate rating I would prefer you rate the factors you are considering so that when I make my triumphant return to Michigan I can choose appropriately. I am thinking - experience, toppings, meat, consistency, and fries/sides - based on your comments so far. Keep up the good work.

Ken said...

That is not an unreasonable request, but I think there are some good reasons why it will be hard for me to break down all of the components of the burger as you requested. I'll try to devote a post in the very near future to my logic behind the current rating system and we can see what happens from there.