Monday, February 28, 2011

Lula Bell's Old Fashioned Hamburgers

My mother, as I am sure a number of other mothers out there, told me growing up that if I didn't have anything nice to say, then I shouldn't say anything at all. If I heeded this advice, this particular restaurant review would be short indeed! When I walk into a completely unknown restaurant, I try and do so with as open a mind as possible. While first impressions are often crucial, a bad first impression can often be turned around with stellar service or delicious food. In the case of Lula Bell's Old Fashioned Hamburgers and Ice Cream, the warning signs occurred early on and continued right on through the meal.

But before I get ahead of myself, let's get the technical details out of the way first. Lula Bell's was located on State Route 43, just south of Tallmadge Avenue in Kent, Ohio. Specifically they were located at 3958 SR 43, Kent, OH 44240 and can be reached at 330-677-3905. Parking was in the gravel lot in front of the restaurant. At the time of this writing, no website could be found that was directly associated with Lula Bell's. The actual entrance to Lula Bell's was back from the street a bit, so if you are looking for the location, pay attention for the roadside sign on the east side of State Route 43.

Here was a shot of the front entrance:

Front of Lula Bell's Old Fashioned Hamburgers and Ice Cream
And a shot of their hours of operation:

Hours of Operation
Once inside, you can't help but notice the Fifties diner decor. With pictures of all the usual suspects on the walls, the diner stools at the counter and the monochromatic paint throughout the joint, clearly the owners were trying to take you back a few decades. What surprised me first wasn't actually the decorations; it was the fact that besides myself, on a Friday night, there was only one other table with patrons at it. In fact, during the entire hour that I was there, only one other couple came in for food.

Since there were no instructions inside the door telling me to wait, I seated myself at a small two-top table. While there was a paper menu on the table already, after opening it and reading it, I realized that it was a breakfast menu. My server finally approached my table and told me about the daily special, a fish fry with hush puppies and coleslaw. I considered it long enough to perplex her with a question about what kind of fish it was (her original answer was "Ummm ... fish?"), but decided in the end that the promise of an "old fashioned hamburger" was where I wanted to go tonight gastronomically.

Once she retrieved a copy of the menu from the front counter, she left me to look over the quite lengthy menu. Because the pages were so large, I ended up taking a top/bottom photograph of each page:

Lula Bell's Menu Page 1
Lula Bell's Menu Page 2
Lula Bell's Menu Page 3
Lula Bell's Menu Page 4
Lula Bell's Menu Page 5
Lula Bell's Menu Page 6
What surprised me were the sheer number of burger combinations available. When I saw the bacon and egg burger, my mind raced back to the Lola burger I had eaten at Michael Symon's B Spot restaurant months prior and my mouth began to water. When my server finally returned to take my order, I asked her if the burgers were cooked to order. "No," she replied, "They are cooked all the way through." Fair enough, though that seemed like overkill for a 1/3 pound burger patty. The only additional topping for which I asked was a slice of American cheese.

Since all of the burgers are a la carte, I also ordered a side of onion rings. Apparently, they were out of this made in-house and frozen fried side item, so I went with a small order of the French Fries instead. The menu didn't say "fresh cut" and it didn't occur to me to ask if they were given that the onion rings were homemade, too. Bad mistake on my part.

After what seemed to be an inordinately long period of time (considering that the other table had already gotten their food and I was the only other person in the restaurant), the line cook actually ran the food to my table:

Basket with Hamburger and Fries
Here was a close-up of my bacon, egg, and cheese burger:

Bacon and Egg Hamburger
And a shot of the toppings with the crown of the bun removed:

Hamburger with the Crown Removed
Of course, the ketchup I had asked my server to bring with my meal was nowhere to be found, so I asked the line cook for it, which he was happy to get. As you can see from the pictures above, the egg portion of the burger that the menu described wasn't the fried sunnyside up egg that comes on the Lola burger, but essentially a thin, folded over omelet that reminded me of a McDonald's Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit. I guess it didn't occur to me to ask how the egg was cooked. That being said, this wasn't the deal breaker for me.

The first of three deal breakers, however, was the woefully undercooked, flabby bacon:

Flabby Strip of Undercooked Bacon
Oddly enough, the bacon was actually one very long strip and had been cooked and then twirled in concentric circles so that it fit neatly on the burger patty. Unfortunately, because it hadn't been cooked to crispy, nearly every bite of my burger involved me having to bite down on the stretchy bacon and using my fingers to sever the bacon in my mouth from the bacon remaining on my burger. After two bites, I simply removed the remaining bacon and put it in my basket.

The second deal breaker was the burger patty itself. While a nice sized burger patty at 5-6 ounces, the reason my dinner had taken so long to come out of the kitchen was because the line cook had managed to cook the burger meat to beyond well done. I had originally asked for the ketchup for my French Fries, but after seeing how dried out the patty was, I applied the tangy condiment not so much for its flavor, but more as a way to get moisture in my mouth while chewing.

The third, and final deal breaker were the French Fries:

Fresh Cut French Fries
As soon as the line cook set the burger basket down in front of me, my heart (and stomach) sank because I was pretty convinced that these were of the fresh cut variety. When my server stopped in to check on me, I asked her about the provenance of the fries and she cheerfully smiled and replied that they were indeed cut fresh every day. Having been wrong about fresh cut fries in the past, I went ahead and grabbed the end of a single fry. As I suspected, the fry was extra greasy and limp, the other end of the fry easily falling wherever gravity dictated. I took a bite and discovered that at least to Lula Bell's credit, they had been seasoned with salt after being fried. And while I don't think they were undercooked, the interior of the fry definitely wasn't that soft, fluffy texture that I look for in a properly fried potato.

As I sat there, thinking how unsatisfied I had been with my meal, a couple walked into the restaurant and sat at the stools by the front counter. Immediately recognized by my server, greetings and pleasantries were exchanged. As they turned around and stared out the plate glass window at the front of the restaurant, they must have seen someone lingering outside because one of them said in a quiet, sort of sing-song way, "Come on in, the food's great!" I didn't actually say anything, but my inside voice was pretty emphatic: "NO, IT'S NOT!"

I paid my check at the cash register, left a tip for my server, and walked back out into the cool Friday air. I certainly can't condemn Lula Bell for their entire menu since I only tried a single burger and one side item. That being said, at least 50% of the menu space (not to mention the restaurant's banner hanging out front) was dedicated to that very thing. Additionally, if this was what an old-fashioned hamburger was supposed to be, then I'm entirely content with all manner of nouveau burger creations. Between my burger and fries, I was definitely not impressed with my meal tonight. Given the out of the way location of the restaurant, I'm confident that it won't be hard for me to simply forget about it.

9 comments:

Brad said...

Ouch...a well done burger! Why would anyone think that is a good way to cook any piece of meat. I too hate to slam a place after only one visit, but a first impression is so vital to a restaurant. When that first impression is this bad, it really is hard to recommend it, or go back there with your hard earned money. Nice Review!! :)

deanna said...

I've never heard of a restaurant not cooking the burgers to your specs...maybe except McDonald's!

Tino said...

@deanna: I've come across several restaurants that don't offer the patron a level of "doneness" so that they don't have to worry about anyone getting sick because of undercooked meat. Which is why if I don't see the warning about consuming undercooked meats on the menu, I ask about the restaurant's policy. If it only comes "done," I still expect it to be juicy, however.

ihatedisplaynames said...

Ugh, I feel bad about your burger and the egg and the fries. Not a meal that I will be running out to try any time soon. Can't believe that they cook the burgers all the way through...

Birdie said...

Thanks for the review. I pass this place every weekend and we were planning on stopping in when the weather is warmer. When we pass it, we usually can't tell if they're open or not because there aren't usually any cars out front. Guess I see why
:(

Bite Buff said...

Yikes!

J said...

Hmmm, no customers on a Friday night. That speaks volumes! I've got to give you credit for even stopping!

Luke said...

I am sorry did the sign say gourmet burgers cooked to order? Maybe you were confused and thought that steak'n shake was an authentic old style burger. Lula bell's is not fast food, and it is not fine dining. I would agree that everything you wrote is true, but I think you missed the point of going to a place like this. I have been going there for about a year, and this place has a charming earnestness and authenticity that is fully redeeming. I will admit some of the menu items are hit or miss and it depends on the cook's mood that day. I have brought many friends there, and some really connect with the place, while others have the same annoying grips you describe.

Tino said...

@Luke: Where do I begin?

Did the sign say cooked to order? No, it didn't, that's why I asked. And when I was told that they weren't, I simply ordered it as it came.

I also never claimed that Lula Bell's was either fast food or fine dining. That being said, simple food still needs to taste good and be properly cooked. The fact that I was the only customer waiting for food and waited an inordinately long time for a beyond well done burger just doesn't cut it. It isn't even so much the long wait that bothered me as it was the reward for my wait was a dried out burger.

When I'm paying someone else to cook my food, I expect a bit of finesse and expertise. This isn't the neighbor's backyard grill-out where you more or less take what you are given.

"Charming earnestness and authenticity" can only take a restaurant so far. If the food is subpar, as it was during my visit that night and even as you admit during some of your visits, no amount of ambiance is going to save it. Good food, regardless of the price point and decor, can stand on its own. Lula Bell's did not.

Lest you think that I only have high praise for gourmet burgers, this is simply untrue. If writing on this blog has taught me anything, it is that you can find some amazing food at the most unlikely of locations. Had Lula Bell's been a home run burger, I would have been thrilled to tell as many people, as quickly as possible, about my visit.

I will be more than willing to make another stop at Lula Bell's and have another burger, should it improve. Until then, I'll pass.

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