The second the seal on the brown paper wrapper is broken and Uncle Herky reveals himself, you know the next few moments of your existence are going to require focus and perseverance. Cheese clings to the paper, and bacon, if you've added it (which of course you did), protrudes from the bun, reaching well past two beef patties that are cooked through but still juicy. The burger is compact and round, a weathered softball of a sandwich, and your first bite causes onions to bulge from the back of the beast, while the second causes a few to fall to your tray. There is mustard with personality, and grease drips and clings to your fingertips. If ever there were a burger worthy of personification, it is this one.
But if you want to know who Uncle Herky is, you'll have to go back, way back, in your imagination to the suburbs of 1970s Chicago, when Brian Luscher was only 3 or 4 years old. Before Uncle Herky was a burger, he was uncle John, who owned and ran a burger joint and who, to one young, aspiring chef, was bigger than Hercules himself. Three syllables can be too much for any blossoming grease aficionado, so Hercules and uncle John conveniently intersected at Uncle Herky, a name Dallasites are now coming to associate with a double-patty monster boasting a mudslide of American cheese and grilled onions on a soft, pillowy bun.
Uncle Herky the uncle flipped burgers, sometimes with young Luscher on his hip. Dallasites owe a debt of gratitude to him, because Luscher says those moments solidified his desire to one day become a chef himself. There, suspended above a sizzling grill, wielding an oversized spatula like a giant walrus flipper, young Luscher planted the seeds that would become the Grape burger, one of the best in Texas at one of the best bistros in Dallas, and eventually a restaurant dedicated to the genesis of it all.
That restaurant, Luscher's Red Hots, serves the Uncle Herky, but it's not a burger restaurant. It's a culinary time capsule devoted to the great blue-collar foods that make Chicagoans such a round and happy people. Luscher's isn't a formulaic tribute to Chi-town, though. Rather, it's an ode to these storied dishes, viewed through the owner's lens. Luscher pays respect to the greats before he gently refines them.
Italian beef sandwiches have become more readily available here in Dallas, but none of them have giardiniera like the one served here. The vegetables have a lively crunch -- they're more like a salad dressed in a briny vinaigrette -- and they offset tender slices of beef that eat like grandma's pot roast. The bun is sturdy enough to hold things together when you first pick the sandwich up, but a heavy ladle of pan drippings from the roast makes for a deliciously soggy, slop of a roll by the time you're halfway through.
Luscher's hot dog gets even more of an upgrade, especially if you're used to eating the wares of America's bologna-making empire. That smooth, homogenous meat-paste the color of a spray-on tan has been replaced with a more coarsely ground forcemeat of beef and pork that's so aggressively seasoned you'd enjoy it with eggs for breakfast. On Mondays, you can have one dipped in cornmeal batter and fried-up State Fair-style, but you're better off devouring the Post Oak Red Hot as it was originally intended, on a soft, poppy seed bun with relish, mustard, white onions, tomatoes, pickles and sport peppers. Don't even think about ruining this paragon of tube meats with ketchup.
There are traditional sausages like bratwurst and kielbasa, plus sausages that skew a bit more avant-garde, like the Meat Fight, named for Observer columnist Alice Laussade's annual barbecue throwdown, which is packed with cheese and smoked till it eats like a massive, juicy Slim Jim. Topped with the same onions that adorn Uncle Herky, barbecue sauce and a Napa cabbage slaw with fresh and sweet peppers, the combo is delicious, but in the fight between meat and bun, the bun wins. The larger gauge sausages are paired with a massive Italian roll that makes for easy holding, but the result is a somewhat bready sandwich.
Chicagoans may frown on ketchup as a condiment for sausages, but the two massive pumps past the soda fountain are pretty useful for fried things. I couldn't resist three to four paper cup's worth of the stuff for every order of onion rings I ripped through on each one of my visits. They're covered in a thick, craggy batter with a subtle sweetness, maintain a respectable crunch long after they've come from the oil, and they are superior to the fries in every way, except on Tuesdays, when the spuds are fried in beef tallow for an extra-crisp exterior.
Imagine it: fries that are extra delicious, but only on Tuesdays. Luscher says Tallow Fries Tuesdays had a nice ring to it, but admits that the costs associated with animal fat and the necessity of dedicated fry vats keep him from giving everything an animal fat-fried casing of gold. But other days are special, too. Come Wednesdays for Francheezies! The cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped hot dog meets grilled cheese love child. Come Thursdays for a pork chop sandwich complete with a protruding bone. Fried smelt Friday? It's all part of the quirk that makes this place fun.
The walls are just as nuts. There's Luscher himself, wrapped in a pink silk robe and wielding sausages-turned-nunchucks, ready to brain you if you ask for ketchup on a tube steak. In the back, a cartoon likeness of a well-bearded Luscher charms a coil of kielbasa with a tiny bamboo flute. But the nicest touch may be the massive booths that line the back of the dining room, a massive steak knife hanging above them, polished to a mirror shine. No less than four Uncle Herkys could sit on each side, their meat beaters wrapped around gravy-soaked Italian beef sandwiches, elbows extended to the side to prevent drips. That's a lot of Uncle Herkys, and a lot of Italian beef sandwiches, but Luscher's is a place of soulful eating and excess.
You can join them, and you should. You may not have an Uncle Herky of your own, but Luscher and his restaurant will readily play the role for you. He may not hold you on his hip, and he may not even take you back into the kitchen, but his food will nonetheless inspire you. The humble hot dog will never be the same.
Luscher's Red Hots 2653 Commerce St., 214-434-1006, luschers.com, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, $$
Uncle Herky $9 Italian beef $8 Bratwurst $7.25 Meat fight $8.50 Onion rings $2.85
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