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."
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.