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[Photographs: Todd Brock]

Engine 11 Firehouse Tavern

30 North Avenue, Atlanta GA 30308 (map); 404-873-FIRE; engine11atl.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Neighborhood tavern has everything a classic old firehouse should—except great chow
Want Fries with That? Don't bother with the bland and boring "bootstring" fries
Price: Chief's Burger, starting at $8.99, cheese & toppings extra; Hot Mess, $11.99

I'd driven by it a thousand times, always meaning to go in. Once home to Atlanta's Fire Station No. 11, the grand old building in Midtown has maintained its blue-collar firehouse heritage for as long as I can remember (The Spotted Dog, et al.), but these days, it's home to Engine 11 Firehouse Tavern. When I finally stopped in, they just happened to be on the fourth night of a brand-new menu. I wish I could say my burger was one to get fired up about. While it sported a few nice bells and whistles, it was ultimately a bit of a false alarm.

The new menu does not feature a huge array of choices, but is loaded with the kind of stick-to-your-ribs pub grub you'd serve to a battalion of smoke-eaters. And befitting the genuine décor (lamps fashioned from antique brass fire extinguishers, the old fireman's pole as the bar's footrail), the food's nomenclature here builds on the theme. The Chief's Burger is a build-your-own endeavor, but I went with The Hot Mess: a half-pound of beef topped with broiled pimento cheese, bacon, mayo, and jalapeno "bottle caps," all served on a brioche bun.

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I was not asked how I wanted it cooked; all burgers here are cooked to medium well. Uh-oh, I thought. But to my surprise, the interior of the nicely charred patty actually showed a faint hint of pink—more than I've found at many a place promising "medium" or better. Unfortunately, it wasn't very juicy. Turns out the regional Brasstown beef is trucked in by a major distributor already pattied.

Odd that Engine 11 seems to take the easy way out with their beef, because they do go the extra mile with their other ingredients. The pimento cheese is the locally-produced-but-universally-addictive Wicked Pimina and has a good deal of peppery kick. The bacon is pecan-smoked meat candy, something I was told the owners spend "a small fortune" on; it's well worth every penny. The brioche buns (which get a lovely moment of grill time all their own) come from local bakery Engleman's and do a yeoman's job of containing the Mess.

Is it hot, though, as advertised? Indeed it is, with the jalapeño "bottle caps" (deep-fried pepper slices) providing a slightly deceptive burn on the back end that I rather enjoyed—both during my dinner and for several hours after.

In all, it was just a pretty good burger, but I'd love to see that same turnout gear on beef that was ground fresh and hand-formed on-site.

The other dishes I tried didn't fare much better. The "bootstring" fries were a shade too crisp for me and badly in need of salt and pepper, although management claims to season them thusly in the kitchen. Their meatloaf sandwich was—as much as I hate to rag on anybody's mom's recipe—a letdown, quite frankly. Yes, I know a meatloaf sandwich isn't a burger, but I was looking for something—anything—that I could rave about.

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I wanted to love Engine 11. I did, in fact, love the drop-dead gorgeous building (ask to see the bunkhouse upstairs, where there's another bar and a private party space and glass manhole covers over the floor chutes where the fireman's poles used to be), and I thoroughly enjoyed the friendly service (ask to hear about the resident ghost, who may or may not have taken a fatal fall down one of those floor chutes). From a full bar to live music to an outdoor streetside patio to rich wood-paneled walls filled with local firefighting history, there is a lot to love about Engine 11 Firehouse Tavern. I'm just not as fired up about the chow as I'd hoped to be.

About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. He'll crawl out of his cave for a few hours on February 25, 2012 for International Serious Eats Day. He's normally very antisocial... but he'll make a special exception in order to meet you. Stop by Ormsby's (you can RSVP here) for a cocktail, a nosh, some lively conversation, and maybe a game of bocce.

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