Category: Burger (Page 2 of 4)

The Carhops Still Sprint At Swensons Drive In

I’ve been waiting 20 years for a Galley Boy.

This past weekend, I made a pilgramige to the Swensons Drive-In located in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

I come from a family full of Buckeyes. In The Ohio State style, they’re incredibaly enthusiastic about being Buckeyes. My parents grew up in the Akron-Cuyahoga Falls area, but my grandparents hail from Minneapolis. When Firestone Tire recruited my Grandpa Roger to be an engineer, he and his wife moved to Ohio where they raised three kids and ate a lot of Swensons.

No visit to my grandparents house was complete without at least one meal from Swensons. On Swensons night. we eagerly around my grandparents’ dinner table to wait for whoever was assigned to pick up our family’s take-out order. Soon ehough, the big paper bags would arrive and then the greasy wax paper flew. We passed around everyone’s Galley Boy cheeseburgers and pouches of fried zucchini sticks, mushrooms, and onion rings. This time it was my turn to drive.

Swensons Drive-In is truly a drive-in and the carhops still run.

swensons wtermark outside

The moment you pull into a parking spot, a carhop will sprint to your car to greet you and take your order before sprinting back inside.

*After I had received my food and paid my bill, I parked in the back of the lot where least two other carhops sprinted to over to take my order. I reassured them that I was OK, but was really impressed at their committment to provide fast service. 

Although your carhop will ask if your order is “for here or to-go”, there is no dining room. “For here” simply means eating your meal from a tray the carhop attaches to your window. I saw a lot of people enjoying their meal in their cars.

The woman in the car next to me said hello. We compared stories and I learned she was also on a similar food quest. It had been years since she returned to her hometown and she, too, was back for a burger. Her face filled with emotion. I gave her a knowing smile and we both turned away before we were two strangers crying over burgers.

Swenson Meal Watermarked

On this day it was my birthday and it really felt like my birthday unwrapping my meal. Swensons’ onion rings are still coated in crispy, rough crumbs and Galley Boys are still garnished with a big, green olives.  I’ve never encountered a double cheeseburger decked out with this specific combination of sauces; one tastes like BBQ sauce and the other like tartar. The meat also has an ever so slightly-sweet flavor.

In 1997 my Grandpa died. A taxi cab picked us up from the airport and I remember my folks talking about Swensons with our driver. He had tried to replicate the burgers at home and theorized that Swensons adds brown sugar to their ground beef. For some reason, I never forgot this.

There’s ice cream, too.

Swensons Shake awatermarked

The malts and shakes are extra thick. . . or maybe it’s the tiny, little straws. I am mystified by the straw.

My grandparents and mother have passed on from this life to whatever comes next, and Swensons lives on. Their car hops still sprint and the Galley Boys are still adorned with green olives. While I can’t enjoy a burger with them, I can still enjoy their favorite burger just the way they alway did and that still counts for something.

In fact, it counts for a lot.


If you find yourself in the Akron area, spend a moment in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It’s heart-achingly beautiful. You’ll never think of Ohio in the same way.

Everything I’ve Ever Wanted To Say About Burgers

Disclaimer: Sorry Mom and Dad.

If you really want to bother me, overcook my burger.

The prelude to disappointment is when a restaurant asks you how you want your burger cooked and then it arrives well done, anyway. I always ask for medium rare and just hope it arrives a little south of hockey puck.

Growing-up, we ate burgers weekly and I avoided burgers into my mid-20’s because I assumed I hated them. I remember helping my mom divide one pound of beef into four balls and packing them into disks. We seasoned them with salt and pepper and placed them on the grill until they were charred on the outside and well done on the inside. It’s not that they tasted horrible; I just didn’t understand why anyone would go out of their way to eat a hamburger.

My perfect burger is simply a burger that isn’t messed up. There are burgers for every mood and occasion, but when I’m really craving a burger, I want a classic one. O’Connell’s Pub delivered our perfect burger this weekend. It was like my mom grilled us a burger on our deck and didn’t mess it up. Now, I’m left with intense burger feelings.

Use delicious beef! But not too lean.

Don’t overcook it.

Keep it loosely packed.

Season the beef, but cook it however you like.

Grill it or griddle it, I really don’t care as long as it’s medium rare and you do all of the things I just mentioned.

Take the time to toast the bun because, let’s be real, it only takes a second and makes a huge difference.

Hold the foccacia or ramen noodle or Texas toast bun and keep your wacky sauces for another time. 

Simple garnishes like raw onion and tomato are just fine and there’s no shame in the ketchup game. Crisp iceberg lettuce is OK, too. A good burger’s like good pizza. Too many toppings can be overkill. More guacamole, peanut butter, and chicken fried bacon burgers for everyone else!

Good burgers don’t have to be expensive. If your burger costs at least $12 and then I have to pay extra to upgrade the potato chips to french fries, I’m gonna get cranky. Especially if it’s overcooked. And double especially if it has canned mushrooms.

Much of a burger’s goodness is about the person who cooks it. Last month, I enjoyed a good burger at the Hilton Garden Inn by the Lambert airport. The chef cooked it to a perfect medium rare and served it with crispy, house-cut french fries. I’ve received far less burgers for a higher price and at fancier restaurants.

A simple burger cooked well is a beautiful thing.

In Transit: From Fargo to Mason City, Iowa

I have to remind myself to take one day at a time, lest I go mad.

Last week, we packed our luggage and headed to Mason City, IA to explore our new hometown and begin the search for a house. Our drive south on I-35 triggered a lot of memories from my college years when I drove between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Waverly, IA countless times. The funny thing is that I never had the urge to pull off the freeway and explore back then. Now, that’s all I can think about as we pass quirky billboards and roadside attractions like the Spam Museum and tiny, country churches.

Although I hated the three and a half hour commute between Fargo and our hometown, Minneapolis-St. Paul, I enjoyed exploring the small towns along I-94. My husband’s usually in a hurry to go straight to our destination but agreed to stop for dinner.

I chose Freeport, MN, the small town with a smiling water tower. It’s also home to Charlie’s Cafe, a popular breakfast joint with a strong billboard presence. When I dined at Charlie’s last year, I felt drawn to the charming main street and wanted to return to Ackie’s Pioneer Inn, the interesting building next door. We hungrily eyed a supper club menu posted on the door, hoping for a meal.

The interior surprised us. For one thing, it was empty except for a small group of friends perched at the bar. It also smelled strongly of alcohol and not at all like food. The friendly locals told us they only served meals on certain evenings. As they directed us to their restrooms, a young man yelled something about falling spiders. I thought he was messing with us. My husband, who is typically even-keeled, emerged from the restroom unnerved because a spider had, indeed, fallen on his head.

The rowdy locals directed us to the Corner Pub down the street for burgers. The same young man who had warned us about spiders hollered an endorsement for their chicken.

The corner bar was also quiet except for a handful of locals and the menu was simple, consisting of fried appetizers and sandwiches. Jake chose a German burger with American swiss and sauerkraut while I went after a sloppy burger with sauteed veggies, bacon, and mayo, both with sides of crispy, crinkle cut fries. A friendly server took our orders and prepared our meals. She left a bottle of Thousand Island at our table and I put it on everything.

Weary travelers should never underestimate the power of a burger basket from a humble, small town bar. The patties were cooked all of the way through and nondescript, but the people watching was memorable. A couple of women celebrating a birthday were glued to the television mounted above the bar, closely following The Biggest Loser. A contestant fell off his bike and they laughed. Later, another man sat at the bar and turned around often to stare. He was located near the bathroom, so I chanced my bladder and held it all the way to St. Paul.

We now find ourselves in limbo as we live in hotels during the workweek and return to the Twin Cities to live with our parents on the weekends until we can buy our first home. Then, we’ll arrange for movers to bring the rest of our belongings down from our apartment in Fargo.

It’s stressful and it’s tiring. We’re always in transit and there’s no definitive end in sight. Fortunately, everyone we’ve met in Mason City has gone out of their way to offer warm welcomes and extend their assistance.

Getting acquainted with our new downtown

As my college acquaintance who lives here said, “It’s the Mason City way.” We’re grateful for this.

Waiting For AAA & Eating A California Burger In Hankinson, ND

I drove south because I wanted to.

Not only did I drive south because I wanted to, but because I’ve never driven south from Fargo. I’ve driven west on I-94 to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, east to the Twin Cities, and north on I-29 to Mayville, but never south.

Consistent with Murphy’s Law, my day off started out with some literal and figurative gray clouds. I stopped at the dealership to get my oil changed. The mechanics recommended another $500-600 of recommended maintenance. I picked three of the five which still cost me over $200. Then, I drove south through the rain.

The storms disappeared an hour into the drive, so I pulled off the highway to explore Hankinson, ND, located minutes from the exit off I-29. I noticed a small drive-in restaurant along the main street and parked for a lunch break. At the Dakota Drive-In, one orders from those old fashioned windows with the sliding glass doors where the menu is posted. It offers a selection of ice cream treats, sandwiches, and every type of fried doodad imaginable. Customers can then choose from one of many picnic table nestled under an open-air roof, perfect for watching the sidewalk traffic pass.

I ordered the daily special featuring a California burger with a side of fried, crinkle-cut potato coins for $4.75. While I waited for my order, I used the restroom and returned to find I couldn’t locate my car keys. I rummaged through my purse a few times, just to be sure, and when I saw them sitting in the passenger seat of my locked car, I tried not to panic.

Fortunately, I had my purse and called AAA as inconspicuously as possible. My phone reception was terrible and the AAA representative had trouble finding my location. Eventually, she confirmed that help was on the way and would arrive in an hour. Had there not been a cheeseburger in my hand and the day not been so beautiful, I would have been so much more upset. I perched on the edge of a picnic table bench, ate my lunch, and waited. The smell of fried onions from other people’s orders drove me crazy and I wished I had chosen whatever they were having.

I noticed how the Dakota Drive-In functioned as a popular watering hole for the community. People came and went, from first-timers like myself, truck drivers, to families, alike. Most everyone seemed to recognize and warmly greet at least one other party and no one made me feel weird.

The burger and cottage fries, by the way, were fine.

The contracted AAA employee arrived as a group of children ran around my table, hurling precocious insults at each other involving bodily functions and body parts. Within minutes, he unlocked my car and I jumped inside. I was in such a hurry to leave that I neglected to take any photos of my meal. I did, however, take a few photos of interesting buildings on the way to the freeway. Then, I kept driving south until the landscape changed and I reached the rolling hills near Sisseton, SD. I poked around until the weather started to scare me and then I went home.

St. Philip’s Catholic Church, Hankinson, ND




Roberts County Courthouse, Sisseton, SD

Solo Road Trip: Harvest Thyme Bistro, Wadena, MN

I don’t know a darn thing about cars and it stinks.

My car tires were going on 80,000 miles. This has been no season to prolong purchasing new tires with the slippery roads. I called car shops and received quotes ranging by hundreds of dollars and varying in brands. Of course, each shop claimed their tire recommendation was the best. A family friend who owns a car shop was kind enough to provide his personal recommendation, which is why I ended up at Discount Tire in Baxter, MN.

When I reminded the staff member which tire I wanted, he offered to find a “deal” for a higher quality tire at a lower price. I explained that, although it may sound weird, I wasn’t interested in any specials. I just wanted that certain tire. “But I think I can find you a higher quality tire for less money. . .” he replied.

But, tire guy. I drove all this way for these tires. Tire guy. Stahp

I didn’t actually say that. And in all seriousness, the service was friendly and efficient. Within ten minutes, I was on my way back to Fargo.

The journey to and from Baxter was pleasant, thought it wasn’t as scenic as I expected. Still, the drive provided an opportunity to daydream and sing along to Katy Perry songs. At least it was more interesting than the drive to Minneapolis-St. Paul. As I slowed down to pass through small towns, I curiously eyed signs pointing towards dinner clubs, bars, and church camps. Lots of church camps.

A solo road trip isn’t complete without stopping for a meal or snack in a new town. Once, a friend had mentioned enjoying a meal at Harvest Thyme Bistro in Wadena, MN, situated about halfway between Fargo and Brainerd. Author Brett Laidlaw was also kind enough to suggest Harvest Thyme via Twitter, mentioning the food wasn’t necessarily earth shattering, but made from scratch with local ingredients.

On some solo road trips, I’m in a more adventurers mood than others. Sometimes I feel plucky enough to walk into a divey establishment, alone, with a c’est la vie outlook. Or, I may wait until Jake can join me. Generally, solo dining adventures are pleasant. At worst, the service may not be the warmest or it may be tinged with apathy. I can deal with this. Every once in a while, these experiences are flat-out uncomfortable.

Today, I was just not in the mood. I wanted people to be nice to me. I wanted to feel comfortable and I did not want to be stared at or hit on. Fortunately, Harvest Thyme Bistro was just this place.

The bistro is located along the Wadena’s main street. To reach the cafe, one must walk to the back of a beautiful, independent bookstore. It’s spacious and decorated with colorful sculptures of hanging birds. I couldn’t help but hope heaven would also be a bistro within an independent bookstore.

Harvest Thyme serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The lunch menu was concise, consisting of a few chalkboard specials, soup, salad, and sandwiches. I chose the wild rice burger with a cup of soup (sandwiches come with soup, salad, or chips), $8, and hot green tea, $2. I practiced self control by only admiring the ramekins of creme brulee in the dessert case. Then, I chose a seat between ladies who lunched and an older couple celebrating a birthday. A server brought over a large mug of hot tea and came back to deliver a teapot filled with more hot water.

I took advantage of the wireless Internet service provided to patrons of downtown businesses. A short wait later, the server brought my burger and soup.

I wasn’t so crazy about the potato soup, though it was far from inedible and served hot. It’s texture was a little pasty and the flavor was bland, save for red dots of smokey, hot sauce.

On the other hand, the wild rice burger was wonderful. The patty was clearly homemade. I really liked its crispy and chewy texture. It was sandwiched by a toasted bun and topped with caramelized onions and mushrooms. The bottom half was spread with a tangy barbecue sauce that tasted much better than those overly sweet, bottled versions. A umami bomb.

I dare say this wild rice burger was every bit as good as the HoDo Lounge’s. Totally craveable.

Harvest Thyme Bistro made me happy. From the general atmosphere and hospitable service to its affordable, hot food.

One visit was enough to add it to my short list of happy places.

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