Workingman's Friend Tavern
234 N. Belmont Ave., Indianapolis IN 46222 (map); 317-636-2067; workingmansfriend.us
Cooking Method: Smashed on a griddle
Short Order: Indianapolis legend comes through with some perfectly cooked smashed burgers
Want Fries With That? Not really, but the onion rings are very good
Price:Jalapeno burger, $4.25; double cheeseburger, $4.95; sides are extra
On my recent trip to Indianapolis (read my related pizza review on Slice), I made it a point to get to a local legend with a great name:Workingman's Friend Tavern. With Pete Seeger's rendition of Solidarity Forever playing in my head, I went to the border of the Stringtown and Haughville neighborhoods in Indianapolis' Near West Side.
Workingman's Friend has been in the same family for since it was founded in 1918 as Belmont Lunch by Louie Stamatkin, a 25-year-old immigrant from Macedonia. In addition to selling food to local railroad workers, Louie also made money by making and selling bootleg whiskey. According to family lore, he earned the nickname Workingman's Friend because he let his customers run a tab until they got paid. I suspect they might have been more happy with his homemade whiskey, but I'm happy to buy the family line.
When Louie died in 1946, his sons Carl and Earl took over. A few years later, they built a new building at the same site and changed the name as a tribute to their father. Today, the no-frills place looks much as it did when Carl and Earl built it and Carl's daughter, Becky Stamatkin, now runs it. The original grill is still used and it does a great job putting out some perfectly cooked smashed burgers made out of hand-formed patties made every day from fresh ground chuck.
Up first was a double cheeseburger that featured patties I would guess are a quarter pound each. The perfectly cooked burgers had a bit of oil in them, as is often the case with smashed burgers, but that was a fine price to pay for the crisp exterior and beautiful beef lacing all the way around the edges. Both patties got their own slice of American cheese and there was an extra piece of bun in between them, presumably to help absorb some of the grease.
Pressed to try something different for the second burger and without many choices to pick from the relatively straightforward menu, we opted for the jalapeño burger. As far as we could tell, the only thing that made it a jalapeño burger (and about 50 cents more expensive than the cheeseburger) was the use of pepper jack cheese. While the cheese was a letdown, the mound of grilled onions atop another pristine smashed burger made it a happy eating experience.
The fries were ordinary pre-frozen mass produced reduced flavor potatoes that serve no real function other than acting as a means to eat ketchup. The onion rings, on the other hand, were freshly battered, perfectly browned deep fried beauties that are absolutely worth getting. For a bar of this size (the place has at least 50 seats and there's room for much more than that) there are surprisingly few choices, all of which are big name American brews. But the lack of choices is made up for in serving size—the beers run 32 ounces.
While the place is called Workingman's Friend Tavern, you high rollers out there are more than welcome. I was there on a Saturday afternoon and the crowd ranged from slobs like me to a few folks in business attire. The only people not welcome are kids (it's a bar after all) and those who try to pay with credit cards.