At Joystick Gamebar, 427 Edgewood Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA 30303 (map); 404-525-3002; facebook.com/illegalfood
Cooking Method: Flat-top
Short Order: Outstanding burgers, fries, and bar food with a cheffy twist in an arcade bar
Want Fries with That? Okonomiyaki-style fries are a must
Price: The Hank (double), $13.50; okonomiyaki-style fries, $9.50
The first thing to know about Illegal Food is that it's not a "real" place. Yet. I'll go ahead and do the spoiler alert thing here in the first paragraph by telling you that Illegal Food is turning out some of my absolute favorite eats in the city right now—including a burger that, after one bite, rocketed well into my personal Top 10—despite the fact that they don't even have their own unique address.
What started out as a one-time pop-up for a husband-and-wife cooking team has turned into a permanent residency in a tiny bar kitchen in the Old Fourth Ward. But with that has come some heavy-duty word-of-mouth raving about their killer cuisine, as well as the tasty possibility of Illegal Food soon becoming its own brick-and-mortar entity.
Joystick Gamebar, with its lineup of old-school arcade classics, certainly appeals to my inner 14-year-old, who hears that familiar wockawockawocka and instinctively reaches toward my pocket for a quarter. But it's the comfy lounge next door that calls me over when I know I'm gonna sit a spell and chow down (and then possibly take a nap on one of the worn leather sofas). This half of the Joystick space is like hanging at your grandma's house, complete with bad wallpaper, tacky lamps, doilies on the coffee tables, and a rotary phone atop the console TV.
This is where Steven Lingenfelter and Laurie Dominguez were invited to first try out Illegal Food as a one-weekend pop-up, slinging late night bar food to the Joystick clientele. (Joystick's owners had been bitten by the "incubator" bug after watching a few notable pop-ups around town go big-time. They wanted to give a similar shot to a small business by letting them run their kitchen.) It went well, leading to a two-week follow-up stint. Then it really took off. Joystick asked Illegal Food to stick around. The Lingenfelter/Dominguez duo found an investor who wrote a business plan and then stuck around as a full-fledged partner.
The menu seems basic—just six burgers—but it's always complemented by an impressively cheffy daily special or five. One recent visit saw a "Pig 3 Ways" plate featuring Benton's 18-month cured ham, pork cheek guanciale, and smoked tasso rillette, all done in-house. Or how about "$15 Dollar Fries" topped with truffle honey, truffle salt, and edible 24-karat gold? Mindless pub grub, this is not.
But it's the burgers that have staked Illegal Food's rep as a legit player in the city's food scene. The most popular is The Hank ($10 for the single, $13.50 as a double). Described by Dominguez as "a nod to the In-N-Out Burgers and Big Macs" they ate as kids, The Hank is a cousin of the burgers the couple grilled in their backyard for friends. (Note to self: get invited to the Lingenfelter/Dominguez house this summer.)
Garnished with American cheese (for maximum meltage), iceberg lettuce and sweet onion that aren't cut until you order, their from-scratch special sauce (nothing from a jar, can, or packet), and housemade pickles, the whole thing is shoved between a sublime buttered-and-toasted pain de mie bun from H&F Bread Co.
Illegal Food gets their beef from Brasstown Beef and forms it into a proprietary blend of brisket, shoulder, and other fatty cuts. They break the cuts down themselves a couple times each week, and they always do a taste test before performing a single grind since the fat ratio will vary depending on the cut received, requiring a new custom blend each time. The beef is hand formed into a patty and hit with salt and pepper before its high-heat ride on the flat top for a textbook Maillard crust.
Sure, you can go the single-patty route. Seven and a half ounces is plenty of beef for most folks. But anyone who knows me knows I crave excess, so I always opt for the double. What that gets you is a burger that's a full five inches tall. (Go ahead and measure that out; I'll wait.) It's physically impossible to smash it down into a true mouth-sized meal, so plan on attacking Hank from different angles and get ready for the ensuing jailbreak.
One bite inevitably sends the lubed patties one way and the veggies another, with that squishy bun trying desperately to fend for itself under the onslaught. But this is one of those burgers you can't put down, for two reasons. One, you know you'll never get a decent handle on it again if you try to reposition it. Two, it's that outrageously spectacular. Intensely beefy and literally dripping with cheese, it's the only burger I've ever had that actually makes those squelchy crunch noises that fast-food places dub into their commercials. Chalk it up to the crazy-juicy beef and the couldn't-be-any-fresher roughage.
I'm unabashedly in love with Hank, but there are other superb burgers from Illegal Food to be tried. The F&H is their tongue-in-cheek jab at Holeman & Finch's "famous and overhyped" (their words, not mine, although I totally agree) late night burger. The Nasty Nate brings heat from a liberal rub of heirloom chiles. The Banh Mi is a big double-pork-patty version of the Vietnamese staple. They've even experimented with a raspberry-filled-doughnut burger called the Notorious P.I.G. You can't go wrong with any of them, nor anything else I've tried from Illegal Food.
Whatever you order, add on the okonomiyaki-style fries ($9.50). Hand-cut, soaked, and then double fried, the spuds themselves will rock your world, even ordered plain. But don't do that. The okonomiyaki fries have developed their own cult following in the year that Illegal Food's been around, and deservedly so. Steven and Laurie took the Japanese dish's traditional components—shredded cabbage, green onion, seaweed, bonito flakes, okonomi sauce, Japanese mayo, fermented chili sauce, sesame seeds, and red pickled ginger—and used them as toppings.
I personally don't like using the word "addictive" to describe food, but I defy you to restrain yourself from picking at these things long past the point where you decide you're full. The taters are super-crisp on the outside, still fluffy inside. The serving size is gargantuan. And the toppings are beyond plentiful, with lots of stray seeds and shreds and puddles of sauce to mop up using the naked fries from deep inside the pile. There's so much going on here that every bite is a different experience. It's crazy good and alone well worth the trip to Joystick Gamebar, even if all you're after is a wee-hours nosh to soak up some of that local liquid revelry.
Laurie tells me that the ultimate goal is for Illegal Food to be its own restaurant, perhaps even in its current neighborhood. The O4W is quickly becoming a true foodie destination anyway. As far as I'm concerned, the minute that Steven and Laurie hang an official Illegal Food shingle, it (and a burger named Hank) will automatically rank among the district's superstars.