Margaret and Dick   


January '07: The perfect hamburger

Margaret and I recently made our first pilgrimage to Ann’s Burger Shack, a venerated institution that has is legendary among certain circles in the Atlanta area.  We finally found an excuse – and room in the calorie budget – shortly after New Years’.  It was a foodie delight as well as a cultural experience.

As you approach Ann’s on busy Memorial Drive, look carefully or you’ll miss it.  The shop is tiny and a bit run-down.  When you see the sign advertising her famous Ghetto Burger, you’ll know you’ve arrived.    

The parking lot has room for only six cars, which works fine since there are only eight stools at the counter.  When the stools are full, Ann either will send you outside to wait on the porch or will tell you flatly, “You need to come back.”  This is her place, a one-woman show, and any diner who expects service will follow instructions promptly.  “You move over there so they can sit together.”  “Move your stool over there when you’re done.” 

Ann’s rules – at least some of them – are posted above the counter:  No loud talking.  No babies on the counter.  No cell phones.  A man walked in to join his wife, cell phone at his ear.  “Phone outside.”  He snapped to attention and scooted out the door.  You would not ordinarily guess that this diminuitive 64-year old black woman, missing a couple of teeth in front, would hold the power.  Signed photos of black political leaders line the walls and speak volumes.  These are flanked by family graduation and military photos.  I made a point to follow the Southern tradition of saying “Yes, ma’am” or, better, “Yes, please, ma’am,” and even Margaret got with the program after a few nudges.

Ann’s is not the place to go for a quick meal.  All burgers are cooked to order.  There is not quite enough room on the grill to serve the eight people seated on the stools, and each set of burgers on the grill takes a full half-hour to prepare.  We arrived at

The masterpiece begins with about a half-pound of meat hand-formed right onto the grill.  A generous slice of onion is patted into the top of the burger; the onion flavors the meat and browns when the burger is flipped.  A sprinkle of chili-salt provides the flavoring.  The grill is not very hot, so the burgers cook slowly and stay moist.  While burgers are cooking, Ann tosses potatoes into the fry basket, and salivating diners are served fries piping hot to keep them through the last ten minutes of waiting for the burgers.  Aromas fill the room.  Buns are sliced and placed on the grill to warm.  The crisped buns get a layer of mayo, mustard and ketchup, a hand-sliced tomato and lettuce, and any other chosen toppings are precisely plated up with the steaming burger.  She meticulously wipes any drips from the plate before serving, and the grill will be scrubbed down before the next batch.  Lunch is served! 

A single burger is enormous and hangs over the edges of the large bun.  Margaret ordered the famous Ghetto Burger and gasped when she realized what was coming:  two enormous burgers stacked on the bun – a full pound of ground beef – each burger topped with a slice of American cheese, then some chili on top of that, all crowned by several slices of bacon.  We didn’t see anybody splitting a burger and were frankly reluctant to ask, but Ann is happy to pack up half your meal to take home.  Lucky for me, since Margaret wouldn’t share.  We split the second half of the Ghetto Burger for dinner the next night – delicious again, right out of the microwave, and ample for two. 

This is a burger as God intended it.  Crisp on the outside, moist and juicy on the inside, with caramelized onions, well spiced.  It’s far better than anything else in town and costs half the price.  A Ghetto Burger is almost a religious experience.  Saint Ann of the Church of the Perfect Burger, I thought, but kept it to myself. 

As we staggered toward the door, we got the bill:  $12.65.  “Ma’am, you know, you don’t charge nearly enough for your burgers,” we said quietly.  “That’s what people always say.  But I’ve got a lot of poor people coming in here, and I can’t  to disappoint them.”  We left a fat tip in the jar and encourage you to do the same.      

Better go soon.  The sooner you start going, the more ghetto burgers will grace your life.  Ann is planning to retire at the end of next year.  “Just when George Bush retires,” she says with a broad smile.  And we know who will be more greatly missed.

PS -- Ann's Burger Shack was named "Best Burger in America" by the Wall Street Journal shortly after we wrote this story.  If it was difficult to get a burger before, it's nigh on impossible now.  Sigh.  Congratulations to Miss Ann for the well-deserved recognition!

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