Northgate Soda Shop
918 N. Main St., Greenville, SC 29609 (Map); 864-235-6770
Cooking Method: Flat-top
Short Order: Old-time soda shop hits all the right notes with their famous pimento cheeseburger
Want Fries with That? Only if paired with onion rings in the half-and-half offering
Price: Pimento Cheeseburger, $4.05
Like many of you, I'm sure, my first order of business when I plan an out-of-town excursion is to consult Google Maps to determine my route. My second is to consult George Motz. Yes, my copy of Hamburger America—the burger bible first published in 2008 and whose second edition came out this month—is immediately cross-checked against my travel itinerary, just in case I'll be within striking distance of one of the great burger joints highlighted among its dog-eared pages. (From now on, I'd also consult the Motz's iPhone app based on his book, Burger GPS, which came out last week.) When a recent adventure took me from Atlanta through South Carolina, I quickly realized that I'd be just seven miles away from the Palmetto State's only entry in the book's first edition—at lunchtime, no less. I took a short drive off the interstate and a serious step back in time to reach the Northgate Soda Shop in Greenville. In return, I got a pimento cheeseburger that was well worth the trip.
Not even Motz's spot-on description (the chapter was featured on AHT) prepared me for the Back to the Future moment I experienced upon entering the Northgate. This place is a perfectly-preserved slice of 1950s-era small town Americana, with a long lunch counter, well-worn bar stools, and an astonishing collection of...stuff. Bottles, cans, cigar boxes, framed black-and-white photos, tin signs, Tiffany lamps, vintage kitchen gadgets, and miscellaneous trinkets cover every nook and cranny of the 1947 establishment, the second-oldest restaurant in Greenville, I learned. It's like your grandparents' favorite spot, where they always took you even though you were probably too young to be there, where everything was old and dusty and supremely fascinating—and it hasn't changed a lick since then.
Although there are eight burgers on the menu, the bestseller has always been the pimento cheeseburger. Made every morning with mayo, cheddar, and diced pimentos at the Northgate, pimento (sometimes spelled "pimiento") cheese is a uniquely Southern delicacy, and the pimento cheeseburger is a uniquely South Carolinian obsession. Northgate Soda Shop claims to have been the first in Greenville to offer it, although just about everyone in town does now. (My server Allison laughed about how even the local Red Robin stole it for themselves, so the Northgate swiped their fried-egg-topped burg in retaliation and named it after a favorite customer.) Splendidly swirly in two-tone orange and white and studded with bits of the namesake pepper, it positively oozed off my burger, where it could be mopped up off my Styrofoam plate with overeager fingertips.
The beef comes from a grocer down the street and is hand-pattied in-house. It's smashed in an antique burger press behind the counter and griddled on a flat-top that, although it's scraped clean every day, definitely has some stories to tell. Fresh lettuce and tomato are added, and it's all bookended by a sesame seed bun that also gets a flattening in the burger press. The result is a thin diner burger that, while as simple as simple gets, is elevated to something special when you factor in the heavenly pimento cheese and the authentic old-time vibe.
My crinkle-cut fries were uninspiring, but made for a perfect pimento-shrapnel pickup tool. Better were the onion rings, with a fine, tight crispness to the coating that made them the standout of the half-and-half side order I got.
Also worth mentioning are the sodas. True to their history, Northgate Soda Shop offers nostalgic elixirs like cherry smash (homemade cherry syrup plus soda water), handmade lemonade and orangeade, and the Pink Lady (cherry plus lemonade) as well as milkshakes and malts.
It's a cliche to say that Northgate Soda Shop is the kind of place that encourages you sit back and stay a while, but I'll be damned if my "quick lunch pit-stop" didn't turn into a hour-plus visit, as I listened intently to stories about the owners (who were on hand and stopped by the table to say hi) and the long list of regulars who have frequented the place. The most loyal have been memorialized with brass nameplates fastened to the tables they occupied, with one at the bar for Elvis. (He's the only "living" person so honored, the story goes.)
I'm not sure the pimento cheeseburger I had that day goes down as one of the all-time great burgers in my book, but the Northgate Soda Shop definitely ranks as a truly memorable chapter in my cheeseburger chronicles. Sometimes, it's about more than just the burger. And heck, if it's good enough for George Motz and The King of Rock 'n' Roll, it's good enough for me.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and recently penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.