Gut Blast From the Past

Here we have our server, Elizabeth, flanked by, well, you don't need an introduction...
Tom Jenkins

The past? Americans just can't handle the past.

Pop culture informs our understanding of the world. The family values myth, much of that stuff about the founding fathers and Christian faith, our hyped-up vision of the greatest generation--all manufactured by the various brokers of mass consumption. Just think how gullible we are. Sex and the City launched the ubiquitous cosmo. A novel called The Da Vinci Code spurred an interest in European travel. NASCAR burst into the mass consciousness when management decided to ditch its roots and conjure up some young, marketable drivers. To the American mind, everything, every message, every image is Splenda. We place it on tables alongside sugar and consider it equal, perhaps superior, to the real thing.

Case in point: Cheeburger Cheeburger, the Lovers Lane outpost of a Florida-based malt shop chain. The name is derived from a Belushi-Aykroyd-era Saturday Night Live skit set in a dingy Greek diner, which, naturally, served only cheeseburgers, chips and Pepsi. The cast, with doubtful Mediterranean accents, shouted "cheeburger" twice for every order, hence the redundancy. So what would one expect to find inside an homage to 1970s late-night television and greasy spoon diners? Yep, the clean curvilinear lines of 1930s architecture, pink and turquoise colors reminiscent of the '50s (or, alternatively, the brief Miami Vice craze) and cheesy cardboard cutouts of pop icons--Bogie, the Stooges, Betty Boop--representing a cross section of the 20th century. They even top sandwiches with a Dagwood Bumstead-esque olive spear. Cheap replicas of America's past festoon the walls. The tin advertisements, bright black and white Highway 66 signs and such indicate that Cheeburger Cheeburger's pre-fab nostalgia is meant to evoke whatever time period each and every person entering the place wishes it to evoke.

The restaurant is a glittering tribute to our struggle with authenticity.

Cuteness abounds. The menu touts fries spiked with "no-secret seasoning," meaning salt. It also explains something about their inability to fry up plain old burgers, although they will grudgingly prepare cheeseburgers sans cheese. The burgers themselves receive "semi-serious," "serious (the half-pounder)" and other adorable labels, à la the veni, vidi, vici--or whatever--of Starbucks. Adding to the sense of fun, the place posts photos of anyone daring enough to devour an entire 1-pound burger.

Note to local cardiologists: Drop by for a look at some future patients.

Considering the history of America's roadside culinary treasures, Cheeburger Cheeburger has managed to capture one bit of the past with a degree of accuracy: the greasy spoon. Not the look, mind you, but the heavy, bloated, lingering regret after chomping down something at a bad highway joint. This is not a good restaurant. Indeed, after several trips to this location, we've had enough. We've vowed never to eat another burger.

Just a few comments from experience: First, order burgers cooked medium well. At that temperature the patty retains a nice balance of flavor and texture and evidence of quality beef--and we'll give them credit for good ingredients and hand-shaped burgers. Well-done orders shrivel into something gritty, bland and utterly unpleasant. Next, think for the cooks. The restaurant asks patrons to build their own creations from a list of eight cheeses and 23 free toppings, ranging from artichoke hearts to sun-dried tomatoes. Much of the blame, therefore, falls on those who order feta cheese, Grey Poupon and relish, or some other bizarre concoction. Still, sun-dried tomatoes come in Heimlich-inducing chunks. Guacamole was spread so thin as to be a non-factor, and kitchen staff piled horseradish in one spot rather than swirling it across the entire sandwich. The result: nothing, nothing, nothing, WHOA!--a nasal-searing explosion. Finally, double-check before allowing the waiter to wander off to chat with his buddies. Service here is best described as slow, casual, poorly trained and unmotivated. Expect to wait 10 minutes or so for a simple vanilla shake, even on evenings only a few other patrons compete for the crew's attention. One staff member somehow translated "jalapeño" as "tomato" on a burger order. On another visit the waiter brought a dish of crumbled blue cheese when we ordered a salad with blue cheese dressing on the side. Eventually they corrected the mistake but stuck us with a bill for extra cheese.

Oh, one more tip: Despite the variety of toppings, stick with lettuce and tomato. Or sneak a beer into the joint (it's alcohol-free). You'll need something to cut through the weighty sensation of grease. A couple of meals here puts Morgan Spurlock and his month-long ordeal at McDonald's to shame.

Not to impugn the burgers themselves. It's the abundance of oily cheese--this being a cheeseburger place--and the cumulative effect of the fries. On one visit, the hand-cut potatoes sagged like Michael Jackson in a room full of adults. Limp and bleeding grease, they served merely as a sop for Cheeburger Cheeburger's heavy-handed dose of non-secret seasoning. The next time, one of the waiters (ours disappeared several times throughout the evening) brought a basket of potatoes straight from the fryer and, for a moment, we felt the delight of firm, slightly crisp french fries. But after 10 or 15 minutes sitting in a basket, exposed to the elements, they once again drooped into lifeless, inedible pools of stickiness.

Yet another tip: Order a small portion of fries, insist they rush them to the table immediately and reorder as necessary.

Even a chicken sandwich--My Bleu Chicken in pre-fab nostalgia parlance--left an unpleasant gargled-with-Wesson-and-accidentally-swallowed nausea. It's a combination of Swiss and blue cheese drowning a very bland chicken breast, supported by two slices of bread fried to maximum oil-absorption levels.

There are a few pluses, though not enough to blind you to the fact that another burger stop, Chip's, sits a few minutes down the road. The onion rings at Cheeburger Cheeburger are spectacular. Sliced thin, deep-fried with a light, crisp, almost delicate shell, they rank amongst the best in Dallas. It's a kid-friendly spot. A sign at the entrance promises discounts for Little League teams in uniform. And each week they run a "milkshake Monday" promotion. Buy one and your companion slurps for free.

Cheeburger Cheeburger whips up dozens of flavors. Yes, chocolate and vanilla included. We sampled coffee, banana, almond and vanilla, although only the first selection stood out. A great shake requires great ingredients, ice cream in particular. Mediocre versions should at least require a spoon at some point. And these are modest shakes--not worth a 10-minute drive, but tolerable. The banana was thin, with very little mouth feel, almost no residual ice cream, yet replicated true flavors. With no additives to disguise faults in the ice cream, vanilla requires an outstanding base. Cheeburger Cheeburger's version was adequate except for a vague chemical taste. Too much sweetness marred the almond shake. The coffee shake, however, was spoon-worthy thick with a deep whiff of roasted coffee.

That's one out of four. Take the odds, order a basket of rings and then drop by Whataburger for the rest. 5450 W. Lovers Lane, 214-350-8100. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. $

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