Little Rock, AR: Dare to Venture into Midtown Billiards
1316 S. Main Street, Little Rock AR 72202 (map); 501-372-9990, midtownar.com
Cooking Method: Griddle fried
Short Order: Brave the sketchy interior for a burger that will make you salivate like Pavlov's dog every time you recall it. Cumin-laden patty on a buttered bun goodness.
Want Fries with That? They don't have fries, but you can have chips.
Price: Burger, $6 (cheese, no extra charge); + bacon, $1
Note: Grill stays open until 4.30 a.m.; 21 and older only
Some people will blanch over a fingerprint on a glass in a fancy restaurant. At the other end of the spectrum are those who'll go to the seediest, most broken-down joint they can find for tasty barbecue. It's the latter group you're likely to find sneaking in after 3 p.m. to what can only be described as Little Rock's oldest burger dive.
Midtown Billiards is the sort of place where you go to escape at 2 a.m., take advantage of a $1 special on PBR, and dangle a cigarette out of the corner of your mouth while lining up a shot on one of the joint's three tables. It's the sort of place where graffiti seems to be encouraged and a soft drink will get you a funny look. It's also a piece of history, dating back to 1940. And it has the distinction of being the town's only all-night bar.
But when it comes to a burger, no matter how seedy or strange Midtown might appear behind its mirrored windows, you're gonna get fed right.
Most of the time the place is smoky, but when the joint opens at 3 p.m. it's quiet and clean.
The star of the menu—the only copy of which is posted directly above the grill—is the hamburger, with or without cheese for six bucks (no sides included). Because I was the first customer of the day (at 3:30 p.m.) the cook-hostess-bartender had to wait for the griddle to warm up. I happened to be peering over in her general direction when I saw her flatten a lump of ground beef on the griddle with a spatula and liberally douse it from a spice can.
12 minutes later, she handed me the burger in a paper boat, a couple of napkins tucked neatly between the two toothpick-speared halves. The third-pound burger was seated on a hot buttered and toasted seedless bun, a layer of mayo, ridgy pickles on the bottom, with a smear of mustard and a squirt of ketchup on the top. Underneath the top bun were romaine lettuce pieces, a couple of decent slices of pinkish tomato, and a healthy spread of white onion ringlets. The cheddar had melted well into the patty and dribbled down a bit into it after it had been cut in half. The meat was barely pink, a respectable medium in my book. The edges were a little crusty and the meat was lightly packed.
It looked decent. It smelled good. It tasted fabulous. The flavorful patty was perfectly spiced with cumin, salt, and pepper, and maybe a hint of sage. It was juicy, but only to the point of making the meat a little moist. There was more moisture from the butter inside of the bun than the meat, but that was fine.
It was the combination of the cumin-laden meat with the salted butter bottom bun that made the burger memorable. The outsides of the bun gave an extra crunchy texture to the crispness of the romaine, the creaminess of the cheese, and the meaty bite of the beef patty.
Mind you, the lone employee barely paid attention to me and gave me an odd look when I ordered a Dr. Pepper instead of a beer—she hollered at women's soccer on the TV in between tending my burger and barely said a word to me my entire visit. But you don't go to Midtown to enjoy a fine dining experience. You go to get a burger and a brew and maybe shoot a few rounds. Or you find yourself there in the middle of the night when there's nothing else open so you can soak up some tunes and some griddle grease. Brave the smoke and the weirdness. Go get this burger.
Note: There's a challenge burger offered at Midtown that's not on the menu. This monster is reportedly four regular burger patties with a SPAM sandwich in the middle. Will I try it? No. But if you do order it and eat it in 30 minutes it's reportedly free. I don't even...
About the author: Kat Robinson is a writer and storyteller out of Little Rock, AR who writes the Arkansas Times' Eat Arkansas blog and who explores Arkansas and the American South looking for great stories, interesting people and the next great meal.