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TLO Restaurant Review: Hamburger King

Whenever most people wistfully think back about their grandmothers and in particular, her cooking, as the angelic harps of memory play and the silvery clouds of memory part, they are usually left with beautiful culinary remembrances such as “Man alive, my grandmother made the best fried chicken in the world!” or “You know what I miss? My grandmother’s tamales! No one made them like her!”

And while I’ve never met anyone who’d admit it, there’s just got to be someone out there who, when they think back, immediately makes a disgusted sneer and bellows “Ugh, my grandmother’s food was the absolute worst! Her potato salad once gave me intestinal worms! I’m pretty sure she got most of her recipe ideas from the back of Wacky Packages!”

In other words, not all grandmothers are great cooks.

The same goes for small-town diners. Maybe it’s because we’re inundated with so much chemically-castrated, corporate-designed, mass-produced foodstuffs in our everyday lives that anything with the absolute slightest tinge of checkerboard-patterned small-town home-cooking paints a very false sense of home-grown nostalgic yearnings for a time we were never honestly around for.

Not always, but sometimes.

Case in point, Hamburger King, 322 E. Main in Shawnee. Having been around since 1927, when the modern hamburger as we know it was practically invented the year before, you’d think they’d not only  have their burgers and fries on point, but just about everything else on the old-school greasy spoon menu. You’d think that nearly a hundred years would be ample time to perfect the very things that have sustained this business while so many others have been lost to the passage of gastric time.

You’d think.

Hamburger King’s distinctly classic Main Street image woefully clashes with the desperately exhausted energy of the actual act of eating there; the joint is mostly empty around lunchtime, with most of Shawnee’s professionals selecting the Subway up the street, leaving the place to the old-timers and new tweakers. I was barely noticed when I walked in and barely noticed when I took a seat at the booth. The grey-skies outside and the burn-out inside slightly depressed me.

With the chilled atmosphere working its way through the state on this day, nothing sounded better to me than a bowl of stew served with cornbread ($4.99), so I deservedly placed an order for that over their aged telephone system before even looking at the hamburgers, of which, cordoned off as a specialty on their menu, I requested a single-patty burger nicknamed “The Kicker” with potato wedges ($6.73).

Even though the food was served promptly, there was a slight bit of errant roughness to it, like I somehow offended the waitress by being there. I simply smiled and said thank you as a small bit of stew splashed on my hoodie, the glazed plates and bowls loudly clanking against the table is rapid succession.

With a watery tomato base that was more like a chunky vegetable soup than a rich hearty stew, the whole affair was rather mediocre, right down to the crumbly corn bread that lacked so much flavor that even calling it bland would be a compliment. It was a moderate disappointment but, hey, I was still attempting to be in good spirits—better than those around me, at least—because, boy howdy, I’ve got a big juicy homemade hamburger coming up.

“The Kicker” was apparently the King’s special baby, boxed off on the menu apart from the other burgers to let you know it was something meant to be just a little bit more…that a little bit more thought was put into its creation. Besides the decently grilled beef patty and a way-too-dense fresh-baked (?) bun, it was heavily topped with bacon, pepperjack cheese, grilled jalapenos, grilled onions and all the other necessitous accoutrement you’d expect.

Yet, like the stew, somehow it was just as mediocre. There was no juicy explosion of greasy flavor, no prescribed heat to the proceedings, no flavorful surprise that made you stop and take notice and say “Well hot damn, I see why they call themselves Hamburger King…all hail the King , baby!”

Half-eaten burger and barely-touched potato wedges pushed aside, in a last ditch effort to feel something, anything, I noticed on their signage up front that they bragged about making their own pies fresh daily, with the local favorite being their banana crème ($2.99). That being one of my favorites, I ordered up a slice and took a deep, meaningful bite. A rush of sweet cream and even sweeter bananas filled up my senses like a night in a forest full of bananas or the banana-covered mountains in springtime.

There’s absolutely no denying that Hamburger King is a Shawnee institution and rightfully deserves its place on whatever throne it needs to rest its long dominating loins on. But from an outsiders’ standpoint, it’s merely a figurehead position that has more than likely seen better days. But, they do make a damn good pie, so that’s something, right? Cómpralo ya!


Follow Louis on Twitter at @LouisFowler and Instagram at @louisfowler78.

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