CJ's Butcher Boy Burgers
2803 N. Arkansas Ave, Russellville AR 72802 (map); 479-968-2300
Cooking Method: Smashed on a flat griddle
Short Order: A limited menu gives CJ's the advantage in a local burger war.
Want Fries with That? Really, you do; they're so fresh they were still whole potatoes when you walked through the door.
Prices: 1/3 pound burger, $5.28; double patty, $6.28; + cheddar, grilled mushrooms, grilled onions, or jalapenos, 20¢ each; + bacon, 79¢; fries, $1.99; drinks, $1.89; shakes $3.19
You can't mention CJ's Butcher Boy Burgers without mentioning its greatest rival, longstanding hometown champion Feltner's Whatta-Burger. CJ's five years in business just doesn't stand up to Feltner's 43, no matter how you slice it. But a simple philosophy and simpler menu gives CJ's the edge in one vitally important area: taste.
The menu board is simple: CJ's only serves burgers, fries, drinks and shakes. But what a burger it is (no offense to Whatta-Burger). Before you arrive, that burger's just a ball of meat in a refrigerated case. Those fries are a whole unskinned potato. Those drinks—well, they're fountain drinks, so there you go. Those shakes are unshaken.
You walk in and order. Your choices are burger or cheeseburger, single or double. You tell them what traditional ingredients you want on your burger. If you get onions, you'll be asked if you want them grilled (and you do for 20 cents more, unless you really like raw onions). You'll be asked, "Mushrooms? Peppers? Bacon?" and when you're done with that they'll ask if you want fries or a drink or a shake. And then the magic begins.
You could at this point just walk down to the register and pay for your meal—or you could watch. As your order is taken, the moment you admit to wanting fries one of the staffers will pick up a freshly washed potato and drop it into the top of a fry cutter. They'll shove down the handle, and presto: freshly cut fries. They'll wash them, throw on a little salt, and drop each potato basket (one basket per pound of potato) into the hot oil.
By the time you've completed making your order, another staffer will have grabbed at least one round ball of fresh ground chuck from the meat case that splits the front counter in twain. Each 1/3-pound ball is seasoned and then smashed on the griddle with a spatula. And then it cooks.
While you're paying for your order, someone's putting your choice of items on the bun. Ketchup goes on the bottom with the pickle. Mayo and/or mustard go on top with the leaf of green lettuce (no iceberg here), then a slice of tomato and a few rounds of onion. If you've chosen a grilled item like the onions or mushrooms, they go on the bottom above the pickle. Bacon goes on the top bun under the vegetation so it can touch the meat.
And this is where you wait. If you've ordered a fountain drink or tea you'll be handed a cup and pointed in the direction of the machine. For a shake, you'll stand by the shake machine and salivate while someone blends your flavor and ice cream. Shakes are almost too thick to suck with a straw, and they only come in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
You may go find a place to sit while you wait, or walk over to the free jukebox full of songs from the '50s through the '80s. Punch in a selection or two while you're there.
Eventually your name will be called, and you'll pick up a black plastic burger basket with a big sheet of white wax paper in it. Inside will be your burger almost covered by your fries. The burger's bun will be untoasted; the fries will be hot and brown, not yellow. You'll want a napkin, and they're right on the table.
You may tell yourself you want ketchup, or find that the moment you bite into one of those hot fresh french fries you don't need it. These come out a little soft, like baked potato-soft, bendable and pliant instead of crispy. But that's okay; you know they're fresh.
The burger meat itself is very savory with that lovely black-pepper-and-whatall spice they sell for $3.59 a shaker at the counter. It's cooked medium-well, a little bit of pink left but not much, just enough to still be juicy. The cheese is cheddar, and it'll be just slightly melted. Chances are by the time you get halfway through you'll want to turn it and eat it with the top bun down because the bottom bun will be wet from ketchup, pickle juice, and burger grease. You'll go through a couple of napkins, and possibly end up with burger juice on your shirt. You might not make it through the fries.
If you're from the area, you might sit back, look around, and think to yourself, "This used to be a Waffle House? Wow, they did a good job of converting the place." If you're not, you might find yourself curious about one of the very recent reviews on the wall. After all, the local newspapers and magazines just found this place a few months ago.
And you'll see a single award along the wall next to the door heading back to the restrooms, proclaiming CJ's Butcher Boy Burgers as Best Hamburger Around Arkansas for 2010, the first time Feltner's Whatta-Burger down the road hasn't taken that award.
You'll leave full, if not from the burger or fries then from the shake, and you'll wonder why you haven't stopped by there before. And you'll find yourself telling people about it when they talk about burgers and roadtrips. Because CJ's is the best sort of road food burger—not just smooshed on a hot griddle, but made from fresh ingredients on display right in front of you—the sort of ingredients you'd have at your backyard barbecue on the Fourth of July.