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In Search Of The Great American Cheeseburger!

"Merica...
"Merica...
David C. Mau

Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

Fourth of July weekend means different thing to different people depending on where you live. Here in the OC it's beach city riots, drunken F-Town hijinks and hopefully we can all stay in town no matter what and stay off the 91. In middle America it's small town parades, tractor shows and cricket spittin' along with the usual fare including what I call the "Midwest Burger".

There is, in fact, such a beast. Much like what I call "beach style" reminds you of being fresh out of the water in HB, grubbing a TK burger high as a kite with sand in your hair and water in your nose, so does the Midwest burger make you feel like it's a steamy small town summer evening a la American Graffiti with all the local kids waiting for something (anything really) to happen, Friday night's big football game is on for later and those tufts blowing off the cottonwood trees are bearing silent witness to the whole spectacle. It's not just the ambience either, the Midwest burger is a reflection of what I call the "cult of under stimulation" out there, where everything is a bit stripped down, simpler and thankfully moves much, much slower. It's basic, with more of a minced patty, cooked on a generally not too hot griddle yet perfectly soaked in it own grease with a slab of American processed cheese product and that straight from the jar burger sauce. Plain, basic bun. Iceberg. Tomato. Onion. Pickle. Original? Maybe not. Delicious and comforting? Hell yes! Hit the Dairy Bar in the tiny hamlet of Altamont IL for a perfect example.

Here's where the magic happens.
Here's where the magic happens.
David C. Mau

I had heard of this place called Moonshine before the media found out about it but never made the time, until recently, to trek across the fields and over the country roads of rural Illinois to track the place down. It's hard to find by any stretch, the commonly shared directions were a bit misleading and the only signage on the way was a small wooden sign with the word "Moonshine" scrawled across it tacked high on a telephone pole over a mile from the joint. Maybe there's a reason for all that mystery.

Located at a crossroads straight out of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow it's a medium-sized general store with an inviting front porch that would probably be a great place to sip a cool glass of lemonade on a hot afternoon. Inside, when the place isn't packed with out of towners waiting for their food, I bet that rustic room is a great spot to drink coffee with the locals and jaw about who got a new combine, what stranger is in town and whether or not the replacement pastor is up to snuff.  But you come here for the cheeseburger, legendary and deservedly so. It's just about all they serve, with a line out the door and a congregation of burger believers that are collectively loyal as an old tick hound. Note-there is no moonshine in Moonshine however, I asked. Apparently the name is from the moon being reflected off a pond in front of the store a century ago.

Yep, middle of nowhere.
Yep, middle of nowhere.
David C. Mau

The joint has been making their burgers for thirty odd years, the structure itself dates from the 1800's and it shows, with the battered siding revealed through patches of peeling paint and a spectacularly oxidized stamped tin ceiling. The crowd ranged from overall clad farmers to erudite tourists from Chicago with a few bikers and senior citizens thrown in. Outside is a communal eating area of picnic benches situated under a few elm trees and there is even an old-timey outhouse.

Oh, and the grill gets shut off promptly at 12:30 in the afternoon come hell or high water.  

The burger itself? They are made in assembly line fashion on a set of griddles, moving from left to right as the cooking process takes place. The patties are hand formed, huge and they are snuggled right up against each other to poach in their own grease. Think of it as a redneck ground beef confit. I ordered the double bacon cheeseburger and it was formidable even by my standards. The pizza burger looked epic and they have some other offerings if your in the mood for a hot dog or chicken sandwich. I dig the condiment bar and I'm thrilled it wouldn't pass muster with the OC health department but it was a nice touch, very reminiscent of a small town church social with various steak sauces, peppers and mustards to choose from.

They also had a great selection of bottled soda pop, lots of off the grid selections from small producers in the Midwest. Prices were fair all things considered and the staff were small town friendly, in fact they don't write guest checks. When the cashier asks what you ordered you are expected to answer honestly, a common courtesy rare in a world all-too devoid of such traditional trappings.

Is it the best burger ever? That's a good question. I will say its a hell of one and it's not trying to be something it's not (which is refreshing). I will say it's strong possibility it the best PLACE I've ever had a burger. All things considered I would have to give it the title of the All-American cheeseburger just based on locale and atmosphere. It reinforced my long held belief that a good vibe is the best ingredient and there is no up-charge on a menu that can supply that. At the very least it's another check off my burger bucket list and I suggest making the trek if you find yourself in the wild environs of Illinois with a morning to kill.

Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check out www.dinnerwithdave.comfor the latest!

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