The Red Eyed Mule
1405 Church Street Extension, Marietta GA 30060 (map); 678-809-4546; theredeyedmule.com
Cooking Method: Flat-top
Short Order: Tiny diner serves up memorable burgers and first-name-basis customer service
Want Fries with That? Despite coming from the freezer, they're always hot and crisp and can be salted enough to mimic McDonald's
Price: Jake Burger, $3.95+; Jake's L'il Daddy, $4.87+
Notes: Limited hours: Mon. to Fri., 6 a.m. - 2 p.m.; Sat., 7 a.m. - 2 p.m.; closed Sun.; cash only
"One of those places." That phrase shows up right on the website for The Red Eyed Mule. It was also used verbatim in a conversation I had with Joe Wood, one of the owners of this blink-and-you'll-miss-it diner in Marietta. When Joe and partner Sabra Wessel first hung the shingle out front in early 2010, their goal was to be "one of those places" that people remember, from the hospitality to the people to the overall feel, and to, of course, the food. After my first visit to the biscuit-and-burger shack, I can safely say that The Red Eyed Mule is absolutely "one of those places" that I'll not only remember, but one that I'll also recommend and revisit frequently, with a burger that hits all the right notes.
A meal at the Mule requires a bit of planning. First, the hours: They're open for breakfast and lunch only, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the work week, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, and not at all on Sundays. Second, leave your credit cards at home; according to the menu, they'll only accept cash, gold...or gently-used Harley parts.
Finally, there's the small matter of finding the place. The building is tiny, having been built in 1950 as a storage shed in the middle of a sprawling parking lot near a local feed-and-seed store. Joe and Sabra gutted it, created a rear porch on the other side of a garage door, and built a working kitchen inside. When local zoning regulations prohibited them from erecting a proper sign streetside, they bought a 1971 Chevy C10 pickup, had it painted flaming red, and slapped a sign on it. Now, when it's not hauling their cardboard to the recycling center as a rolling billboard, it just happens to be the most eye-catching thing on the block when parked out front. Suck it, City Hall.
The Red Eyed Mule does a brisk breakfast business (meat-topped biscuits and various egg sammies) with locals on their morning commute, but they're quickly gaining fame for their lunch burgers. The 81/19 Black Angus chuck hits the flattop in quarter-pound patties and is seasoned with a blend of kosher salt, cracked black pepper, and granulated garlic before doing time under a heavy hand press. (Don't ask. It'll be well done, like most thin diner burgers.) All of the burgs are served on grilled Texas toast (Sunbeam brand) with fries or rings on the side.
Lunching light? The Jake Burger is a simple patty on toast, nothing more. Add cheese for a half-dollar. Call it a Deluxe and they'll give it "a run through the garden" to include lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, mustard, ketchup, and pickles.
Jake's L'il Daddy is where things start to really get interesting, as the kitchen adds a layer of something they call "Sloppy Jimmy." It's Joe and Sabra's own recipe: a mixture of Angus chuck, chorizo, and the obligatory "secret spice blend." Bubbling away in a cast-iron Dutch oven, the staff goes through five gallons of it a day. It's hearty and slightly spicy and a more-than-worthy add-on. My L'il Daddy was a stick-to-your-ribs, but not a sink-like-a-brick-in-your-gut affair, with that homestyle taste shining through. (I maintain that any burger served on toast and cut in half automatically reminds you of Mom.)
For bigger appetites, turn the L'il Daddy into a Big Daddy with a fried egg or a Sloppy Slaw Burger by adding homemade coleslaw (this is the burger Marietta's own Alton Brown raved about on The Best Thing I Ever Ate). Should you feel the need, you can double the meat on any of the burgers—but you should plan on a nap afterward.
The lightly-seasoned Yukon Gold fries (McDonald's-sized) and flour-coated onion rings are served hot and crisp, and taste as good as can be expected from the freezer (a byproduct of the kitchen's subcompact footprint), with an array of condiments and shakers at your disposal to help dress them up.
But my favorite part of my Red Eyed Mule experience was that memorable hospitality that Joe and Sabra set out to establish. The tight confines practically force you to make nice with the folks at the next table (or stool), and an awful lot of lunch-goers in fact knew each other pretty well. Joe and Sabra, though, who personally check and run every food order, seemed to know everyone, always with a gentle hand on the back and an occasional "darlin'" as they ask how everything tastes. By the time I left The Red Eyed Mule, I felt like I had not only been treated to a damn fine lunch, but like I had also just made some new friends, and like I already can't wait to go back. Yeah, it's one of those places.