Friday, January 29, 2010

Pulling For The Little Guy At Powers Hamburgers

It has taken a while for me to write up my review of Powers Hamburgers in Fort Wayne, IN. I think had I sat down right afterward and immediately written up my review, it probably would've read a little differently than what you are about to read instead. What gave me so much pause was that the day after I ate at Powers, having returned to Akron from my Fort Wayne trip, I ate at a Steak and Shake for the very first time. I'm sure, gentle reader, that you are thinking to yourself, "What does ONE have to do with the OTHER?" And that's a valid question that I've had to spend some time thinking about before finally committing my thoughts to keyboard.

Powers Hamburgers is a small little mom and pop joint that gradually expanded itself into new locations, but eventually regressed back into the single location just south of the convention center downtown. It is exactly the kind of local place that I love to find. Serving up breakfast and lunch from a limited menu, they are mostly known for their burgers, technically called sliders since the buns are steamed.

For those that don't know, Steak and Shake is a nationwide chain that focuses primarily on the diner-style eateries from from the 50's and 60's. Shakes, burgers, fries, that sort of thing. You walk into Powers and you are walking into history. You walk into Steak and Shake, and you are walking into someone's vision of history. It occurs to me that what you see at Steak and Shake is decidedly Matrix-esque. Everything about the look and feel has been compiled from data point after data point and its up to the restaurant goer herself to decide which pill, red or blue, she will ultimately swallow.

How is it possible for Powers Hamburgers, having possibly never changed their menu once it was set, almost never running "specials," having never even updated its decor since the original location even opened, can still pack them in? While they are normally open most of the day every day, today when I went for lunch at 11:15, I walked to the small restaurant located at 1402 South Harrison Street, Fort Wayne, IN 46802 to find a building that was closed up and powered down. There is currently no website, but they can be reached at 260-422-6620.

Hanging in the front door was a yellow piece of paper announcing that they wouldn't open until 2 PM today.

Fortunately I was able to switch gears and catch a great lunch at the only Vietnamese restaurant in Fort Wayne. Having an early lunch was probably a good thing since it turned out that I was actually free from 2 - 3 PM that day. Was I hungry? No, not really. But, I figured since I wouldn't get another chance to go again before I left, and since Powers main draw were their sliders and sliders are pretty small, I should at least be able to try them out. At precisely 2:05 PM, I pulled into a dead parking lot.

I walked in and sat at one of the twenty seats available in the entire place. Here was a shot of the wall menu:

I struck up a conversation with the woman working behind the counter; she turned out to be the afternoon shift manager. It seems that the morning crew, the owner and his wife, were dreadfully sick and had decided that even if they could power through the morning shift, they didn't want to get any of their customers sick. Alright, I suppose that was inconvenient for my earlier plans, but at least there was a good reason. Looking around the small building, I didn't notice a fryer. When I asked about sides like French Fries, the shift manager indicated that there really weren't any "sides" with the exception of bagged chips or a bowl of their homemade chili.

I ended up ordering two cheese sliders and a bowl of chili. I suppose my eyes were bigger than my still-partially full stomach as I didn't finish either. But at least I got to try both. Here was a shot of the bowl of chili:

The chili was decent, although a bit soupy for my taste. Being already salty enough, I opted not to use the extra oyster crackers that were supplied with my bowl. The chili had its own unique taste, although from the hints of spice I kept tasting I could see a kinship between Cincinnati style chili and this version.

As I dug into my chili, I started watching the gentleman working behind the counter whose sole job was to run the grill. As orders came in, he would reach into the cooler to the left of the extraordinarily tiny grill and place pre-portioned ground beef balls on top of the grill.

What really surprised me was how he cooked the sliders. First, he literally flattened and then re-flattened each ball until it yielded completely underneath his spatula. Once completely mashed down, raw onions were added on top and another pressing from the spatula was administered. After what seemed to only be 45 seconds or so, both the onions and burger were flipped over so that the onions were now face down. If you requested cheese, it was at this point that a slice of American cheese was placed on the meat. The heel of the slider bun went on top of the cheese and the crown went on top of that to start the steaming process. Another minute later and the grillmaster, in a swift and dexterous move, flipped the burger right side up and deftly deposited the crown on top of the tiny burger.

Here was a picture of my cheese sliders:

Here was where disillusionment started to rear its ugly head. I noticed that at no point during the grilling process was any seasoning involved. That's alright, I thought to myself, perhaps the balls were seasoned prior to the ground beef being shaped into individual servings. Sadly, no. While I wanted to love Powers Hamburgers, I mean, REALLY wanted to love them so much that I could unequivocally say, "Hah! Listen to me all you nationwide burger chains, with your mass-produced food and pandering to the lowest common denominator, look here at what this little burger place in the middle of nowhere can do that you can't!" That's what I wanted to say.

Sadly, what I did say was, "Where the hell is the salt?" Even more sad was that the burger I ate the following day at Steak and Shake, while not an exceptional burger, was actually more tasty because it was properly seasoned. Sigh.

Now clearly, citizens of Fort Wayne have come to love this grossly underseasoned patty because by the time I left at 2:35 PM, there was a line out the door and the grill was completely full from the orders that had been placed. I continued to watch the grillmaster to see if maybe the lack of seasoning on my burger was just a fluke. Unfortunately, it wasn't a mistake. I really did enjoy the uniqueness of the building; it spoke quietly about its history without losing its authenticity. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Steak and Shake just felt like another marketing driven cross between a Denny's and a Friendly's. But, in the end, the only criteria I could rely on was the taste.

I suppose the owners of Powers Hamburgers are reluctant to change anything that has been done the same way for decades. And by not seasoning the burger patties at all, you completely avoid the problem of over salting it and having to re-fire the burger if its too salty for the customer. But by not even trying to make the best burger you can, I think you are turning off people like myself who didn't grow up eating this local version and don't have the halcyon days of my youth to bolster my confidence in recommending it. I have three words of advice for Powers Hamburgers: Salt your meat.

Powers Hamburger Shop on Urbanspoon


Bob Sisler said...

If you ever make it back to Fort Wayne, another restaurant I would recommend is Baan Thai. They have excellent Penang Curry, and unlike most Thai Restaurants, they will make your dish to the spice level you request. So if you ask for a Thai 10, watch out.

Tino said...

@Bob Sisler: Thanks for the suggestion. I'm not anticipating a return to Fort Wayne anytime soon, but I'll definitely put Baan Thai on my list of places to try next time I'm in town.

Heahter said...

As a native Fort Wayner (?), I can say I truly miss Powers and think it's perfect just the way it is. I will say, however, I think Powers is an acquired taste. Now proudly living in Cleveland, the most underrated city for food ever, I could eat someplace new and interesting every night of the week, but there are times I just want a couple of oniony grease balls in my belly!

Tino said...

@Heahter (I'm guessing it's supposed to be Heather): I completely agree with you about sometimes wanting a couple of oniony greasy balls in my belly. That being said, I'd like them to taste properly seasoned on the way down, too.

Basically, Powers is relying on the salt inherent in the slice of American cheese and the bun to fully season both the ground beef patty and the onions. To my taste, it just wasn't enough. There is at least one similar place right here in Akron that does exactly the same thing and has a similar product and the moment I tasted their burger, the first thing that came to mind was, "Wow! That's bland."

I suppose I can't argue with their longevity or the fact that there was a line out the door by the time I left. Clearly they have a product that their customers love. For me, the lack of that one thing, salt, was just disappointing.

That being said, I appreciate your viewpoint and thank you for contributing.

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