The Slow, Weak Pulse of the Heart Attack Grill

Sexy service and a media blitz won't make up for a terrible burger

The sign outside the Heart Attack Grill beckons, but not like most. "Over 350 Lbs? Eat for Free" the red neon glows, calling out to Dallas' morbidly obese, enticing them to come inside to indulge in the ultimate gluttony.

Ah, but there's a catch. A large scale sits in the center of the retro-diner-style restaurant, to measure those who think they're worthy of a free meal. If someone's game (or hungry) enough to heave himself onto the large pad, an LED begins its numerical dance, teasing spectators before settling on its final readout. Customers who surpass the threshold are awarded cheers from the staff, applause from their fellow customers and a Single Bypass burger from the kitchen. It's a sizable sandwich, sure, but hardly a feast, and a customer wanting more has to return to the scale again and again till he's full. It's like a weight-loss reality show, only the exact opposite and significantly more twisted.

I talked to a nurse about this little game the other day. I was sitting in a booth, sucking on a butter-fat shake. "They're up there clapping and smiling but you can see it in their eyes," she told me. "It's kinda sad."

Alex Fine

Location Info

Map

Heart Attack Grill

1718 N. Market St.
Dallas, TX 75202

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Downtown & Deep Ellum

But Jon Basso, the owner of this little arterial theme park in the West End, claims there's a method to his moroseness. I talked to him over the phone. He was in Las Vegas opening his new store.

"There is a valid social function in what we do," he said, sounding serious. "We provide shock therapy that nowadays everyone is too politically correct or too risk-averse to provide." He likened the experience to the intervention used to help addicts, but it's more like a needle giveaway at a methadone clinic.

The current record, according to Basso, is 11 burgers in one sitting. That's six pounds of ground beef, 22 slices of American cheese, 55 slices of bacon, and 11 rounds of public humiliation.

Basso said his customers rarely return after enduring his side show, the current record holder included — proof, he said, that his burgers-and-shake shock therapy is working. But I have a different theory for why he doesn't see a lot of repeat customers: The food he serves is terrible. The two meals I suffered through there were the worst I've had since eating in Dallas.

I thought it was lard that accounted for the off-tasting burgers, but on a second visit, I sat at the bar and watched a scrubs-clad surgeon cook my meal. The meat was refrigerated, not frozen, and on both of my visits it looked less than fresh. A patchy, dull discoloration indicated significant oxidization. Some patties on the grill were completely gray.

The lard-fried Flatliner fries have potential, since they've soaked in the fryer's best friend: pig fat. That rendered gold, employed properly and at a sufficient temperature, imparts a brilliant, crisp outer crust. But Basso doesn't hand-cut his spuds on-site, as his online marketing videos imply. He uses frozen, pre-packaged steak-cut fries. Inside that beautiful crisp lies one pitiful potato.

The shakes are no better. They come pre-mixed and freeze in the same machines fast-food chains use, and they arrive cement thick in a plastic cup. The burgers arrive lifeless, too, with half-melted cheese and flimsy bacon, but a Single Bypass will set you back $8.

Basso told me that Patterson Food Processors in Fair Park was the source for his ground beef, but I later confirmed that he'd switched to Dallas Dressed, a smaller operation located in Oak Cliff. Larry Gilley, at the original supplier, told me cost was a factor in Basso's decision, although a cook said the problem was shrinkage. Makes sense: A lot of fat means a lot of loss when you cook a burger into flavorless oblivion like these guys do.

Either way, the meat is actually leaner now — 15 percent fat, according to the cook I spoke with. The buns no longer receive a bath in lard before hitting the grill, either. There's no heavy application of Heart Attack sauce unless you add it yourself. And while, yes, there are six slices of smoked pork to a burger, they're so thin they'd get laughed off any upstanding bacon shelf. All that, combined with the Great Fat Cook-Off that happens on that flat-top back there, adds up to a burger that isn't even that bad for you.

Basso's marketing campaign is as shifty as his food. Before opening his first Heart Attack Grill in Arizona, he ran a number of weight-loss and fitness centers. He claims he was unhappy with their results, and that the only way Americans could achieve real change was through an act so extreme it shocked them into modifying their behavior.

But when state governments began to look at nutritional regulations, he suddenly re-branded himself as a protector of consumer freedoms, citing our right to commit "caloric suicide."

It's an act Basso should be familiar with. Blair River was the face of the Heart Attack Grill. He died this spring, at the age of 29, from pneumonia aggravated by obesity. Basso takes no responsibility for River's death. In an appearance on Fox News, he appeared to tear up slightly when describing his lost friend. On ABC News, he snapped and blurted out, "We're past the point of no return at the Heart Attack Grill; we have blood on our hands at this point."

Basso continues to assume an alter ego to detach himself from his actions and play up his cause. How does Basso intend to change the world? "By being Lex Luther," he told me. "By being the most evil son of a bitch in the world because that will make reporters call me and it will really hammer out a message."

But interventions require the support of friends and family, not the derogatory cheers of strangers. Basso's customers are on their own if they hit his mythical rock bottom. "When that happens you go out and get help," he said. "Where you get help is ultimately up to you."

Blair River didn't have a program that worked for him. Neither does his replacement, a spokesman fittingly (or not-so) named Ernie Heart. He was actually the original face of the Heart Attack Grill, until open-heart surgery forced him to the sidelines. With River in Basso's waste bin for only a week, Heart resumed his death march.

The Heart Attack Grill may be headed for the morgue itself. The original store, in Arizona, closed this May. Basso claims he's simply relocating it to Vegas, where repeat business isn't as crucial to survival. With any luck the Dallas location may tumble into the grave soon enough, too. When I showed up at 6 p.m. on a Saturday, the restaurant was almost empty. I returned a bit later and even at prime time, the obesity parodies on TV and ironic posters on the walls played to a mostly empty house. Despite his sexy-nurse servers and his ridiculous hospital gowns, Basso will ultimately fail, cutting off any chance of achieving his real goal, the one that comes most naturally to him.

"I've never tried to make myself out as a do-gooder," he told me, in a brief moment of honest reflection. "I'm here to make a buck."

Here's hoping he doesn't do it in Dallas.

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11 comments
Mike
Mike

Seriously? You are here like a month and you waste our time and yours with this?

Food Obsessed Anna
Food Obsessed Anna

I agree that this place is utterly disgusting. We came in the second week and the bacon didn't seem thin, more like pure fat. And I would have to say, rather than my worst meal in Dallas, it was my worst meal EVER. I've never felt that bad after my first bite of a cheeseburger. I honestly don't know how you made it back more than once..

Cliffhanger
Cliffhanger

I office near them. The funk coming off of their dumpster is toxic and enough to keep me from even trying the place. Al Queda should be making bombs out of HAG's leftovers.

Cody
Cody

Sounds like a depressing place and Basso seems like a dirt bag. Why would people go back there anyways? Being laughed at and made fun of doesn't seem that great. I think something might be wrong with a person who would do that for free food.

Titus Groan
Titus Groan

Never had any interest in trying this place. What a weird anti-restaurant gimmicky concept.

Rangers100
Rangers100

The concept isn't cool or funny or ironic or shocking or creative or whatever Basso is shooting for. It's just crass and pathetic. The faster it goes out of business the better.

JennK
JennK

I couldn't agree more with this article. I went to Heart Attack Grill out of curiosity, but after the initial laughs over the ridiculousness of the concept wore off, all that was left was some really bad food and a waitress whose posterior regions I had a clear view of because the nurse uniforms they wore were WAY too tight and short which made the slit in the back of the skirt expose things I'd rather not see EVER, especially when I''m eating!!!

Far worse than the peek-a-boo buns and other unmentionables, the food LITERALLY tasted like it came straight out of the freezer section at Sam's Club. Which consisted of a cheese burger, a double cheese burger, triple cheese burger, and a quadruple cheese burger, bacon to add to the burger, fries, lucky strike cigarettes, pabst blue ribbon beer and coke. Seriously, that was the ENTIRE menu! The crappy food was served on a plastic plates with no silverware or napkins. We asked for napkins, but did not get them so we resorted to using the "mandatory" scrubs they insisted everyone must wear to wipe our hands from the greasy mess.

If they had put 1/2 the thought and effort into the food they were going to serve or perhaps creating a decent menu, maybe a little fried chicken, nachos, pizza or anything besides nasty pre-fab food as they put into designing the cheesy bad restaurant concept, complete with a blood pressure machine, a vending machine that sells tee-shirts themed to the restaurant that no one wants to claim they have eaten at, the stupid heart attack themed artwork and movie poster parodies, they might have been able to come up with a place people might want to actually eat at (an original concept for a restaurant) and possibly if the food was decent, people would want to come back to eat there again, sadly that is NOT the case.

I'd personally rather eat a tofu burger (ewwww - NOT) or be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than eat there again.

Storm_71
Storm_71

Good story Scott thanks for your work.

Sittin_here
Sittin_here

The problem is the menu yea the meat is bland but there are no foods for kids at all no pickles lettuce or mayo 3 drinks from a bottle (so no refills) water beer and coke. you have to wear a blouse they provide and the same songs play over and over and they will NOT show a game of any kind on the 10 tvs.

There are too many places where you can get a greasy spoon type burger that are great and have so much to go with it Jakes has about 20 kinds of beer not including soda Kellers and Twisted Root all have too much more to offer. Griffs, Wingfeild's, the list is just too long.

Its sad that a novel idea is overshadowed by the bemoanings of a inflexible old man that is out of his element in Texas. Yes, football is that important and really sports in general especially when the teams are winning championships. Businesses want to be apart of that here. You can't be where you are in location and separate yourself from the city.

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

Thoughtful comment. Though I'd be really afraid to see what this guy would do to fried chicken

Food Obsessed Anna
Food Obsessed Anna

Honestly, in my hunger for good food, I could deal with a lot of inflexibilities if the food was great. Then again, I'm one of those weird people who's actually turned off by sports on the tv. I actually thought the atmosphere was nice. Just not the food. Or the butter milkshakes.. it makes me gag a little.

 
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