Monday, October 25, 2010

Hodge's Cafe And The Cheeseburger Basket

Sometimes all I need is just a little push in the right direction. As someone whose dining dollars aren't unlimited, most of the time when I choose to review a restaurant's food, I try and do a bit of research before going. Unfortunately, even with the information gathering I attempt to do before actually going to the establishment, the resulting experience can still be iffy to bad. So when an actual reader took the time to write to me and recommended that I give a restaurant a try that had already been on my radar, but not necessarily made it to the "To Eat" list yet, I took this as an opportunity to move it to the front of the queue.

The restaurant in question was a Barberton staple for many years, Hodge's Cafe (warning: gratuitous use of Flash), and as soon as I read the reference in the email, a visual map formed in my mind and I knew exactly where it was. Hodge's Cafe was located at 897 Wooster Road West, Barberton, OH 44203 and can be reached at 330-825-6073. There was ample parking both along the side of the building facing 15th Street as well as in a lot just opposite the bar and cafe.

When I pulled into the lot, I immediately recognized the mural on the side of the building as well as the marquee in front of the building:

Exterior Sign for Hodge's Cafe
I had seen this image countless times when driving from Barberton to Wadsworth during my high school years; however, this was the first time that I would be seeing whether the sign lived up to its promise. After walking in the front door, I found a small bar and cafe that looked like it would seat about forty patrons or so when it was full. To the right was a bar replete with counter and stools. A large communal table was situated just inside the door and behind that were a number of smaller tables sitting on a dais.

My server motioned that I could sit anywhere I wanted, so I chose the first table on the dais. There was no need to drop off menus as they were already on the table:

Hodge's Menu Page 1
Hodge's Menu Page 2
In addition to the laminated menu, there was also a dry erase board hanging on the wall indicating what the daily specials were for each day of the week:

Whiteboard with the Daily Specials
Two items of interest to note on this board. First, on Mondays, hamburger and cheeseburger baskets were available all day at a reduced price of either $5.95 or $6.25, respectively. The second item to note was at the bottom of the board. In case it is illegible, gentle reader, let me translate for you: "Krispy Kreme Donut Burger As Seen On TV's Travel Channel Man vs. Food - Ask Us About It." When I asked about it, I was informed that the glazed donut was bisected laterally and the burger was placed on top. When I asked if it was any good, my server got a pained expression on her face and quietly mumbled, "Not particularly." Fair enough, I wasn't here to try this slightly repulsive sounding combination anyway.

What I discovered when I asked about the burger basket combination was that you had your choice of either the hamburger or cheeseburger; other burgers on their regular menu need not apply. Since the only thing I wanted extra on my cheeseburger was bacon, I asked if I could add it for the $0.75 listed on the menu and my server nodded her head in agreement. While I thought about trying to substitute something for the fresh cut fries, my server didn't appear to be in a super friendly mood and I chose not to push my luck. I was a bit disappointed that while the menu states that baskets come with a choice of one other side, I was never given this opportunity (other tables were) and within a few minutes, this appeared at my table:

Side of Coleslaw
As it turns out, I probably would've ordered the coleslaw anyway, but had I wanted applesauce, cottage cheese, or a side salad instead and found out only afterwards that I could've had it instead of coleslaw, I would've been a bit miffed. In any event, I tried the coleslaw and found that it was actually pretty tasty. Creamy and a little sweeter than what I am used to, Hodge's version was nicely balanced, without a single flavor overpowering any other.

In what seemed to be only minutes after my coleslaw arrived at my table, my burger basket came to my table courtesy of one of the other servers:

Cheeseburger Basket
First, I should mention two important items about my burger. I asked for "everything" which means ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. Since I don't care for what raw onions do to my stomach (surely a sign I'm getting old), I asked for "everything minus the onion" and they dutifully complied. When I ordered my cheeseburger basket, I asked if the burgers all came out one temperature (i.e., well done) or if I could order it medium. My server indicated that medium wouldn't be a problem at all.

Here was a close-up shot of my burger today:

Bacon Cheeseburger
This was a good sized burger being neither mammoth nor minuscule. I cut the burger in half with my steak knife to see if it was indeed cooked medium:

Side Shot of Bacon Cheeseburger
Bzzzt! Wrong! This was clearly cooked someplace between medium well and well done, with the emphasis being more towards the well done side. Hodge's Cafe wasn't the first restaurant, and I suspect won't be the last, to cook their burgers past the requested temperature when the server indicates that the kitchen can accommodate such requests. Okay, that issue aside, how did it taste? Actually, quite good. It clearly beat anything that a fast food joint could put out, but compared to other better known Akron and Cleveland based burger joints, it just didn't quite live up to the hype of the tagline of the mural outside the restaurant. Even though the burger meat was a tad dry if eaten by itself, because of the juiciness of the tomato slice and the trio of condiments already on the burger, the experience of taking bite after bite of the burger actually wasn't all that bad. I did enjoy the fact that with all of the toppings on my burger today, no one flavor seemed to overpower the burger meat; you didn't forget that you were eating a hamburger. The bacon, especially, was nicely crisped and not too salty.

The other player on the plate that I was so worried about, the fresh cut fries, were actually refreshingly crispy and not the least bit greasy:

Fresh Cut Fries
These were a little thicker cut than shoestring fries, maybe about the same thickness as a McDonald's French Fry. And while the texture was absolutely great, these poor guys had come out of the fryer and onto the plate without a lick of salt added, so they were very bland. A bit of corrective seasoning from the salt shaker on the table and some added ketchup fixed these small shortcomings, but had they been salted properly after leaving the deep fryer, I think they would've really hit the spot and not needed any ketchup at all.

My meal now finished, I requested the check and ponied up the $9, tax and tip included, to settle my debt at Hodge's Cafe today. Having tasted a wide variety of burgers in the northeast Ohio area, I think the burger I had today was just above middle of the road. It wasn't quite as good as Louie's in Akron or Whitey's in Richfield, and definitely fell short of the all-time greats of B Spot in Woodmere and Greenhouse Tavern in downtown Cleveland. That being said, if this restaurant was suggested as a common meeting spot between friends, I wouldn't hesitate to go back and have another burger.

And in an odd twist of fate, that's exactly what I did two weeks later. After posting a personal Facebook status about my original trip to Hodge's Cafe, a number of high school friends began a lengthy discussion about how in their minds, Hodge's had, hands down, THE best burger in all of Northeast Ohio. In fact, they were so adamant about this fact that they insisted that we convene for dinner to back up their theory with hard evidence. I'm always looking to validate my results and even though I had written up the review prior to this paragraph, I decided to go back and have another go to see if my first experience was an accurate one.

This time we met up at the bar around 7 PM. I was concerned that it would be full and we'd have a wait, but fortunately, it was pretty empty when we got there. We sat at the large communal table at the front of the bar and within minutes, our server was delivering drinks and taking our order. There were no specials tonight, so we simply ordered right off the menu. For my burger, I decided to order the exact same one I had last time in order to do a direct comparison of the two experiences. While my other friends simply ordered a burger, no temperature given, when she got to me I again asked if the burgers came out cooked the same way from the kitchen or whether they could be cooked to order. This time I got a slightly different answer: "Oh, they all come cooked medium."

Which, being the temperature for which I would have asked anyway, went ahead and ordered the bacon cheeseburger with everything minus the onion for a second time. When the burgers finally arrived, something seemed amiss as the American cheese had been replaced by Swiss. It didn't immediately send up any red flags because there was definitely bacon on my burger, too. It wasn't until I cut the burger in half and took a look at the side shot that it became evident that there was a problem:

Side Shot of Mushroom Swiss Burger
What had come from the kitchen was a mushroom swiss burger with bacon and all the burger toppings INCLUDING the raw onion. My friend Jodi looked at my burger and said, "Didn't you order a bacon cheeseburger?" Why, yes. Yes I did. By this point I was starving and while I'm not a huge fan of the processed rubbery mushrooms present on my burger, I made the decision to go ahead and eat it anyway. Other than the slight difference in toppings, the experience and flavor this time around was pretty much the same as last time. It was a good burger and I'd go back for another, but this definitely was not a candidate for best burger in Northeast Ohio. Looking at the side shot of the patty, I could tell that the burger was cooked to well done. I asked my two companions how their respective burgers had been cooked. "Medium well" and "Well done" were the responses I received.

Gauging their reactions, my dining companions enjoyed their burgers, but I think I may have sown the seeds in their minds that there is better out there. I named several restaurants (already named above) that I thought had superior burgers and I have a funny feeling that I will be making pilgrimages to one or more of them with my friends soon to prove my point.

Along with our burgers, my other dining companion, Bob, and I split a 50/50 basket of the fresh cut fries and onion rings:

50/50 Basket of Fries and Onion Rings
While I had already tried the fries, I was interested in the trying the onion rings this time. While the fries had been nicely crispy last time, this time around they were a bit more limp and greasy. Not terribly so, but definitely noticeable. The onion rings were decent enough, fried so that they weren't overly greasy, but they were a bit high in the batter to onion ratio. Additionally, a bite into the ring and the onion detached from the crust and slid out in one gentle pull. I suspect that while the fries might be freshly cut, the onion rings are more than likely to be fried from frozen.

So, in the end, how did my second trip at Hodge's Cafe turn out? Much like the first, actually. The burger was good (if incorrect), but not great. The fried items were fairly mediocre this time around, but still palatable. I'm sure given the level of enthusiasm for this Barberton cafe and bar shown by my friends, another trip will undoubtedly be in order. As stated previously, I would be happy to return for another burger and I suggest you give them a try, too.

Hodge's Cafe on Urbanspoon

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