Burger 88 Day 82: Sun Mountain Fun Center, Bacon Cheese Burger

Take a few turns down some dark side streets, past a lonely DEAD END sign, and approach the small “Welcome” with an arrow marking the entrance to Sun Mountain Fun Center. Bowling, arcade, skeeball, bumper cars, go karts, pizza, ice cream, beer. All the staples of wholesome family fun. Which makes it a little weird that it’s open until midnight and that many of the lanes are occupied by townies actively cursing that Coors Light can’t be purchased by the pitcher. But then why limit your demographic. Everybody loves Fun.

It’s a great place for people watching even in the low lights of a Cosmic Bowling night. Over there is a girl that must still be in high school, yet is sporting a quite impressive (and incredibly nerdy) chest tattoo of the Hyrulian Wingcrest. The other way is a heavy set gentleman in his mid 20’s with unkempt neck beard throwing some wicked curved shots and nailing strikes almost every time, yet the half finished cigarette behind his ear barely moves as he launches the ball. Children everywhere, and assuredly some of these other people parents, but rarely do you see the two interacting.

There’s no alcohol allowed in the arcade area. I’m not sure whether this is to protect the children or the games, but not being able to play air hockey with a beer in one hand is a bit unnatural. My greatest wins have come while leaning heavy against the air hockey table to keep the room from spinning. It’s just how you play the game. It’s also how pucks end up through windows, though no study has conclusively demonstrated causation.

The burger was slow to deliver. Probably because they were busy making sure that the frozen patty had cooked long enough on a low temp griddle to bring the texture and consistency down to that of shoe leather. Somebody had the genius to sprinkle some liquid smoke on the patty to at least imitate a grilled experience. The bun was the best part, almost like they’d blown the budget on buns and hit up Goodwill for the rest.

My friend brave enough to attend this trip had ordered a personal pizza. We were essentially the only people ordering food, but somehow they forgot the pizza. So they personally made it again. Her expectations were so painfully low at this point that she found the pizza actually exceeded them. She even admitted to craving that SMFC pizza again the next day, though not enough to actually grab one.

To wash down the burger leather we ordered some soft serve ice cream. Empirically, a twist cone has a 99.5% chance of being awesome. And they were. The high school kid who came over to fix the busted air hockey table pointed out how it tasted like Lucky Charms cereal. And it did. Which was almost the highlight of the night.

The true highlight was that, for a mere 20 tickets (or about $32 of skeeball), you can get a gummy burger. This burger exceed their real burger by a factor of about 4x.

Score: 1.75 of 5
Price: $10.25 with curly fries
Beer: 10 Barrel Apocalypse
Bonus: Gummy Burger



Burger 87 Day 81: Kayo's Dinner House, Buffalo Burger

Kayo’s Dinner House. The place has a burger happy hour that is legendary. Mythical, even. I’ve been told by countless people that their $2.50 Monday Madness burger special has to be the best deal in town. Almost unbelievable. It can’t be missed. The bar menu proudly boasts it and even offers an upgrade to the Buffalo Burger for just an extra dollar.  There’s just one problem.

Kayo’s is closed on Mondays.

I had been so excited for this Monday happy hour burger that I had shown up on a Monday and stood mistified at the unlit OPEN sign and the hours that clearly did not list Monday. I left confused, thinking it was a temporary glitch. But more people kept recommending the Monday burger special, so I tried again. Same dumb look on my face. I triple checked that I was at the right Kayo’s, wondered why their website hours differed from the physical reality. Was this some inside joke? A conspiracy to shame the thrifty burger hunter?

When I finally did make it in during a non-Monday happy hour, I asked the bartender what was up.

“Say, are you closed on Mondays?”

“Yeap, closed Mondays.”

“So this Monday Madness happy hour,” I pointed emphatically at the menu, “that’s like some sort of misnomer or something?” (I’m still not sure why I said ‘misnomer’ but I still can’t think of any better word for this deceit).

“Yeah, guess so,” the bartender elaborated.

I was having trouble comprehending the situation. No matter how open minded any of us might proclaim to be, we’re still human beings. We have deep rooted systems and ideals that, for better or worse, we hold sacred. Decreed from on-high and without ability for compromise. Reason and logic don’t play into it. It’s pure feeling. Faith. For some it’s religion. For others, maybe family. For me, it’s happy hour specials.

On the flipside of the bar menu it listed the burgers, each with a corresponding happy hour price that was valid any day, and a price that was still worth a visit. $6 for a bacon and blue cheese burger is a hell of a deal in this town. Except now I was suspicious and paranoid of this place and their shenanigans. The menu lists the burger as such:

Buffalo Burger with bacon, blue cheese, and Buffalo hot sauce.
$9, HH $6. Add bacon, $1. Add blue cheese $1.

I stared at this with the same blank incomprehension I had for their locked Monday front doors. The untrusting would read this as the happy hour burger requiring a few extra bucks to get back to the typical buffalo burger. But maybe it was just options for doubling up, though I will fearfully respect the man wanting to double the blue cheese on anything.

“I’m gonna get the buffalo burger,” I tell the bartender, “but quick question on the menu here. It lists bacon and blue cheese right below it. Do those cost extra?”

“It comes with them,” the bartender gruffly replies, already half turned as he walks away.

“Welp, just got your happy hour burger spat on,” my burger compatriote for the evening observes.

Anyway, let’s move away from that still stinging bitterness. Such idle bickering should be reserved for Yelp. Let’s get back to Kayo’s.

There are two ways to get to the bar.

First, you can come through the front door. There you will be surrounded by white table cloths and sparkling crystal glassware and greeted by bubbly hostesses amidst tasteful warm lighting. This route will have you doubting you’re in the right place to find cheap drinks and a legendary happy hour menu. But the cheerful hostess will direct you to the back, past the bathrooms, down a long sloping ramp that feels like an airport jetway. That’s the somewhat startling way to enter the bar, mixed with too many rapid shifts of environment.

It’s a bit easier on the nerves to enter via the second route. This involves walking through the motel parking lot, past their small and unattended pool, and through a door that looks like it might be part of the pumphouse for said pool.

Both avenues arrive in the same packed bar, darkly lit and a mix of shades of black and purple and maroon. Pictures of Marilyn Monroe cover the walls. Low circular tables surrounded by office chairs in one corner look ripe for high stakes poker games. The other side of the room is filled with high cocktail tables ready for intense discussion. The bar itself is wrapped in old vinyl padding patched here and there with red duct tape. It’s a busy place that attracts the same clientele as Pine Tavern (old people), though angling more for the Nevada mobster vibe than defunct country club.

And I have to say that the burger is exceptional for $6. One of the best happy hour burgers in town, by far. And it’s an even better deal on Monday. If you can make it in.

Score: 3.25 of 5
Price: $6 with fries
Beer: Boneyard RPM


Burger 86 Day 81: Black Bear Diner, California Burger

Everybody’s opinion on different restaurants in this town can be boiled down to one of three positions: love it, hate it, or never heard of it. Black Bear Diner fit none of those. People have certainly heard of it and most have been there. But nobody really cared to say if they loved or hated it. They simply didn’t care enough about it to have an opinion. It is so strikingly unmemorable that people simply leave having formed no thoughts on the experience. The most definitive answer I could get out of people was, “meh, I wouldn’t go there again, I guess.”

Had I not been taking notes I probably would have experienced the same selective amnesia. It’s like a Cracker Barrel with the excessive theme and decorations and gift shop. And, like a Cracker Barrel, you can’t place when or where it was when you were last in one. But you know it happened.

Bears cover every surface. Carved wooden bears, stuffed bears, stained metal murals of bears, paintings of bears, bear paw prints on the concrete, on the plates, etc, etc. Just… bears.

At the opposite end of the diner counter was a man with an expressionless face, drained of any emotion or effort of awareness. He stared absently ahead into the void. His shirt was neatly tucked into clean khaki cargo pants above pristine hiking shoes, a man of such consistent habit that it likely bordered on some manner of autistic coping further leveled out by meds. I bring this up only because, in the seat beside him, the restaurant had set a life sized stuffed toy bear, propped up to the counter like it was yet another patron. The thought that a shift manager had placed the bear there as a cute display of light hearted spontaneity for the jovial customers, which was now being dutifully ignore by their actual demographic, brushed me with a touch of melancholy.

The staff acted excessively busy for what looked like a slow lunch crowd and did their best to ignore me when they could. The burger was haphazard, sloppy, and somewhat marginal. I sampled the sauces that related spiciness to the bears of the Goldilocks story (“Papa” is the hottest). I stared into the blackness of the lukewarm coffee served in a mug with a bear on it.

“Meh,” I thought.

Score: 2.75 of 5
Price: $10.99 with fries


Burger 85 Day 80: Hong Kong Restaurant, Cheeseburger

I should have known Hong Kong Restaurant had a burger. Their sign clearly states “Chinese Food & American & Thai Cuisine.” A burger would surely fall under that “American” classification. But it wasn’t until a colleague, who had recently taken his wife there on their anniversary, told me that he’d seen a burger on the menu that I thought to stop by.

I’m at the stretch of this journey where it’s hard to find companions willing to venture out and test the burgers in these boundary waters. Friends jump at the idea of grabbing a burger at pub on a Saturday afternoon. Nobody wants to check out Hong Kong Restaurant’s ground beef on a Wednesday night.

So on these solo nights I aim for a seat at the bar, where little attention is typically given to the random drifter ordering a burger. Hong Kong’s bar is set back in an isolated room from the rest of the restaurant, complete with its own side entrance and poorly lite sign declaring itself as the “Bamboo Room.” The outside door is covered with handwritten signs declaring no backpacks and other scrambled warnings. Those slight indications that this is a bar with some history. A touch of flavor. A risk of adventure, better or worse.

I can’t really pin the demographic that half filled the booths and stools of The Bamboo Room. This was the halfway house for bar regulars who were currently without a bar, having run up too high a tab or made one too many commotions at their usual haunt. None spoke good english, though it was certainly their first language. Some mixture of booze slur and a life lived too hard. Friendly, calm, easy going people, but seemingly within a few drinks from releasing all those closet skeletons and inner demons.

The bar menu was a single unorganized page of options and combos, Chinese and American and Thai intermingled just like the sign promised. There was one item listed multiple times: what I correctly assumed were crab rangoons but were listed as “carb puffs,” misspelled each of the four times on the short menu. I obviously had to get those, also assuming they would be the side to the otherwise undescriptive “Cheeseburger” that had no mention of toppings or sides. There’s always some slight tension ordering a burger off an international menu, so my plan was to use the carb puffs to break the ice before ordering the cheeseburger. The transaction between the bartender and me went something like:

Me: “Yeah, I’ll grab the, ahem, ‘carb’ puffs.”

Bartender: “Got it. Anything else?”

Me: “Also a cheeseburger.”

Bartender: “Nope.”

Me: “…what, like you don’t have any?”

Bartender: “No, we’ve got them. You just don’t want to do that.”

Me: “Why not?”

Bartender: “Just don’t do it. Pick something else. Trust me.”

Me: “Is it like an issue of it actually being beef, or the quality, or what? Did something happen?”

Bartender: “Listen, I like burgers. Love em. Which is why I just can’t let you order this one. It just isn’t right. Order something else.”

Me: “Okay, you’re going to have to elaborate. I need to hear the story, and I need to order the burger. You see, I’m on this kick where I’m eating 100 burgers in 100 days….”

And I explain the situation. He’s unimpressed. To him this cheeseburger is a crime against burgers. They apparently pre-cook a bunch, freeze them, and then microwave as needed. It’s a travesty, he claims. This only fuels my intrigue, and eventually he agrees to let me order one just to see it, on the grounds that I promise I won’t force myself to eat it. He puts in the order.

I don’t like to bring up the 100 Burgers thing, but now that I’d mentioned it word was spreading around the bar. Patrons approached to give their advice on the best around, everywhere from Tucson to Tumalo. Histories of burger experiences, friends made, loved ones lost, dreams fulfilled and faltered. Cholesterol and health and the death of the American Ideal. This was a crowd with a savage interest in burgers, based on a past filled with the things, but all their roads leading to here and now, a burgerless existence at the Bamboo Room bar. This was purgatory, a glimpse of my future killing time in a foster home bar after the high life of the excess of burgers and beer.

I put some money on a few rounds of Keno and watched the clock count down the seconds between games, watching again as a few numbers matched up, winning me back $2 of the $6 I’d invested. The burger arrived.

It was pretty bad. As luck would have it I’d already experienced one microwaved hamburger today and was actually prepared for this. The patty had attempted mutiny during one of its cookings, curling up into a sphere that hid in the center of the old bun. The iceburg lettuce and tomato were the only “fresh” components. I considered how old that ketchup might be, wondering what people could possibly order that might require it.  The carb puffs did little to save the experience, each so salty that the bowl of sweet-and-sour syrup was mandatory to prevent some glucose/chloride imbalance.

I managed to clean the plates, swap a few more stories and burger suggestions, and escaped. But I will remember this place, the Bamboo Room of the Hong Kong Restaurant, for that rainy day when I’ve burned one too many bridges in the small town of Bend and need a place to lay low. To escape in a red room of video gambling and nameless barflys.

Score: 1.25 of 5
Price: $6.50 with fries
Bonus: The Bamboo Room is the closest I’ve ever come to living the red room scenes of Twin Peaks.

Image result for twin peaks room


Burger 84 Day 80: Back of a semi truck, Fast Bites Cheese-Burger

I was passing through our shipping department when a few of the logistics guys ran up excitedly. They were proud of a recent acquisition, an assortment of small prizes, holding them aloft with glee like small trophies. They handed me part of their bounty, a small cardboard box that appeared to contain a packaged hamburger. In fact, that’s exactly what it was. One of the truckers picking up a shipment of beer recently had a pallet of these frozen cheese-product-on-a-bun burgers tip over. The retailer didn’t want them. The truck driver didn’t even want them. But our shipping department was not about to let the opportunity go by. And naturally, they felt it their duty to offer me one.

It’s expected that most packaging will take some creative liberties with representing the contents. But even with stretching the limits of truthful advertising, the photograph on this box struggled to represent a burger. It looked more like some type of gristle and glue construct. A sloppy joe, perhaps. The poppy seeds seemed magnified, but really only in comparison to the diminutive size of the frozen burger within.

I was hesitant to count this as a burger on my quest, but it’s not often that a burger of such mysterious and unknown origin finds its way to you.  Who was I to deny this burger on its own journey. Where did it come from? Where was it headed? How many lonely nights had it spent in truck stop parking lots before ending up here, in my hands? These are questions for which there are no answers.

But an answer I do have is that any bread sturdy enough to withstand the brutality of a microwave must be made with neoprene rubber. The bun had the lofty gooeyness of a wetsuit. The patty was thin and only slightly flavored like meat, coming remarkably close to resembling a McDonald’s breakfast patty. The “cheese product” was just that: a product describable as cheese.

The greatest benefit to the experience is I now have a reference for the lowest burger. The worst. The single star. No matter what adventures had befallen this burger, all other burgers can only herald above this low of lows.

Score: 1 of 5
Price: Free…
Bonus: Sexy unwrapping photos of a frozen burger in a box:


Burger 83 Day 79: 10 Below, 10below Burger

Ever been to Reno? It holds a special place in my heart. Struggling so hard towards an obvious ideal and image. Falling so short. My aunt refers to Reno as a town of “honest desperation,” but in a good way. Well, as good as that description could ever mean.

Stepping off the elevator into the basement of the Oxford and thus into the 10 Below Restaurant and Lounge and I was swept up with nostalgia for Reno. The hyper decorated vibe and over-ventilated attempt at a Vegas hotel bar with the stuck-in-a-parking-garage and general emptiness of a Reno upscale establishment. I thought I was the only person there, with not a hostess nor waitress nor bartender in sight, but as I turned into the dedicated lounge section I was given a nod and slight wave by an older asian gentlemen with sharp goatee wearing a light gray suit and bowtie, a sort of kung fu Pee Wee Herman, seated in one of the booths. I nodded back and took a seat at the bar, listening to the Chris Isaak cover album quietly playing in the background until the bartender came out from the back. I ordered a beer and noticed my Pee Wee compatriot was gone, having slipped silently away and leaving me alone in this basement of attempted classiness.

The dedicated lounge menu has a burger, which made it seem special and referential to the barfly crowd. But the normal menu has it too, dispelling such mysticism. The listed burger has no reference to cheese, bacon, avocado, fries, or any other such accessories. These options very well exist, but you must rely on your server to ask your preference. Bacon, cheddar, and fries was mine.

The burger arrived rapidly, mostly because the kitchen was a bit “bored” according to the bartender. It was good stuff, a grilled patty and thick bacon and soft but hefty bun. The fries were mostly the small nubs you’d expect at the end of a rush of orders, which was confusing seeing as I was all alone there.

The burger was big, taking some time to finish off. It gave me time to focus on the decorations, like the porcelain deer antler chandeliers and the 50 inch LCD TV broadcasting a loop video of a fireplace, except at an awkwardly high position on the wall and at a pixelated quality that didn’t fill the screen. The overall color theme seemed to focus on shades of gray and muted avocado green. Stainless steel accents helped distract from the matte black painted drainage piping hanging from the ceiling half hidden behind laminate planks. Dead branch accents line the walls. I was a little glad I’d lost my glasses at Cheerleaders Grill.

By the time I was leaving a trio had taken perch in a far corner of the lounge, breaking some of the silence. The added company seemed almost a greater relief to the bartender than to myself, giving her a distraction between rolling silverware in napkins in preparation for whatever crowds may someday descend.

Score: 3.75 of 5
Price: $14 with fries ($11 happy hour burger, $1 for cheese, $2 for bacon)

Burger 82 Day 78: Stihl Whiskey Bar, Still Bourbon Burger

I like Stihl. It’s a bar that’s not a beer bar or dive bar. They’ve got high quality booze and food. They’re friendly and visited mostly by locals despite their downtown spot. The raspy southern rock matches the leather and metal ambiance.

But their burger is a definition of trying too hard. All the ingredients so intense that they overwhelm the core burger essence. Candied bacon and blue cheese? Bourbon infused beef? Every corner is seasoned to such extent the individual qualities are lost, and thereby the burger as a whole lost in the flavorful chaos.

If you order the burger, treat it as a sampler platter. Keep it deconstructed and eat each part as an isolated corner of an appetizer tray, each wonderful on their own. But never to be combined.

Score: 3.25 of 5
Price: $16 with candied bacon and blue cheese and a side of fries

Burger 81 Day 77: Eagleville Fire Department, Hamburger

I could not find a burger at Burning Man. I’m sure they existed, somewhere at sometime down some back alley of dusty tents and yurts and RVs. But trying to dictate terms in that festival of anarchy is a fool’s errand, and I left without burger.

The drive back took me through small towns tucked at the back edges of Nevada, California, and Oregon. Places with no gas station, barely a general store, just a few houses and a few buildings, some boarded up, others lovingly cared for. Small forgotten agricultural towns like many others that dot the country. But I had not expected their enterprising push to grab at the few extra cars a day of traffic that Burning Man produces. Spraypainted signs propped on folding chairs in the middle of the road. The Burning Man logo and large arrows and promise of coffee, warm food, car washes, and bathrooms.

Eagleville was one of the first towns I passed through and immediately stopped after the poster board sign proclaiming “BURGERS.” The fire department had the grill going out front and was selling the standard picnic fare to passing burners as a fundraiser. The tables in back had a smattering of dusty and tired revelers scarfing down burgers and coffee.

The burger was nothing spectacular. But the scene was rare and strange enough to remember. These small town firefighters at the grill, several generations worth working at the same station, their wives taking money and serving, with a line of thin and worn down acid freaks in fuzzy vests climbing out from colorful painted old school busses to order a burger and fries.

Score: 2.75 of 5
Price: $11 with fries

Burger 80 Day 73: Green Mountain Bakery, Bacon Double Cheeseburger


Those are the three choices according to the sticker on the front door of the Green Mountain Bakery. And rightly so. This is Lakeview, the “Tallest Town in Oregon,” whose checkered past includes army encampments, sawmills, uranium mines, devastating town fires, the seat of county governance, and quite a few hamburger joints. Recommending a fourth consideration like “LET IT BE” would be exactly the hippy nonsense to get you run out of town.

I had stopped at the Shell gas station on the north end of town, popular for offering ethanol-free gasoline. When I asked the cashier who had the best burger in town, the stock boy quickled jumped in:

“Green Mountain. Totally. Best in town. You’ll get a burger and fries for $6.”

“Yeah, yeah, Green Mountain does a good burger,” nodded the cashier. “But I gotta go with Deeter’s Dinner Bell. Well it’s just Dinner Bell, but Deeter owns it, you see. Makes everything right there in the restaurant. The burgers are okay, but why I go is because they’re so big. Those burgers are so big my wife can only eat half of one. So then I get to eat one and a half burgers. So I try and get us there as much as I can.”

The debate continued for a few seconds between cashier and stock boy, both eventually agreeing that Green Mountain wins on quality, Deeter on volume. With hours or dirt track behind me, and many more hours to come, quality seemed a more important factor than volume. I headed to Green Mountain Bakery.

Green Mountain is tucked back off a side street, an impressive feat for a town that is strictly the intersection of two roads. There’s not really a counter to order at, and not strictly table service, so expect lots of awkward hovering about in the crowd until somebody notices enough to grab your order. And then expect to wait a bit. But your burger will eventually arrive, a classic burger shack presentation of greasy paper in a plastic basket, a touch of flat top char and smashed thin enough to accentuate the cheese and bacon.

Good stuff. And I need to get back to Lakeview. For a town of just a few thousand, I saw quite a few signs announcing burgers. Snack Shack, Tall Town Cafe, Burger Queen, Jerry’s Restaurant, Eagle’s Nest Food and Spirits. The town’s got a definite affinity for burgers.

Score: 3.5 of 5
Price: $6.75 with fries


Burger 79 Day 72: The Homestead, Bacon Cheeseburger

I left Bend at noon worried I might miss the day’s burger. I was heading southeast through the desert to Burning Man on a dual sport motorcycle I’d only ridden a handful of times with untested luggage on roads I’d never seen. I had no telling how far I’d get. Ending up near any small dusty town with a burger anytime near dinner would be pure luck.

I thought to stop in Christmas Valley for a late lunch. But the characters of that town, the endless stream of folks not quite right bantering on about things incomprehensible, had me move on quickly. The plan was to head down Fandango Road, a long rocky trail connecting Christmas Valley to Paisley. I’d heard the road was bad enough to take anywhere from five to seven hours but as quickly as one hour if you were insane enough. I was expecting to camp out on some ridge along that road.  But fueled by hopeful visions of a quaint burger shack in a town I’d never heard of, I made it to Paisley in three.

Once there the gas station attendant, who I think also owned the station, told me that The Homestead, the restaurant next door, had the best burger in town. On reflection, I think it was the only restaurant in town.

Inside, the two women leaning behind the diner counter gave their requisite polite welcomes. I gave my small talk back, “I hear you’ve got the best burgers in town.”

“That damn garage. It was the garage that told you that, wasn’t it?” said the woman that would turn out to be the cook.

The other woman, the one that would turn out to be the entire front-of-house, quickly attempted some damage control,”oh, yes, we’ve got good ones. Have a seat.”

The cook went back to turn on the lights in the kitchen while the hostess/waitress/cashier took my order. I was the only one in the place. I thought. A few people strolled in with the confidence of locals and headed straight to the back. I didn’t even know there was a back. Several more showed up and did the same. Eventually it seemed like half the town had strolled down the hallway past the bathrooms.

I was eating my burger and contemplating this town gathering when the cook yelled out “there’s no fucking such thing as medium well!” Her sudden exclamation seemed to surprise herself as much as me as we suddenly looked at each other with wide eyes. I gave a nervous casual smile. She looked at the other woman and defensively declared “the bar guy’s laughing about it, see.”

I looked away and studied the construction paper cutouts colorfully listing the available flavors of smoothies available. Smoothies seemed an odd addition to a small town diner, a place with inkjet printed menus held in clear plastic report sleeves and an unframed temporary liquor license taped to the wall. Then I saw the NutriBullet Blender under the counter. The craft paper advertising started to make sense, some method to hopefully justify and recover from the seen-on-tv impulse buy.

Waitress woman started looking anxiously out the front window anytime a car drove by. She finally explained the situation. There was a surprise party in the works. She was now the lookout for the guest of honor.

I never saw the surprise. I waited a bit at the counter, then again out front by my motorcycle as I sat on the curb drinking a Gatorade and pretending to know how to inspect a bike.

Is there a moral here? At least some point to this story? Probably. But I found it more interesting to take it at face value, to get a glimpse at the daily lives of a small town. All while I sat by, just a drifter eating a pretty good burger.

Score: 3 of 5
Price: $10.75 with fries
Beer: Deschutes Mirror Pond