Heinnie’s: Best Burger in Indiana?By Todd • Aug 17th, 2010 • Category: Burger Blog
Elkhart, Indiana knows hardship. Three times within the past century, whatever industry Elkhart has pinned its livelihood on has dried up and blown away, leaving this small town of about 50,000 with little more than a blue-collar work ethic to fall back on. (You may recall that President Obama all but named Elkhart the poster-child-city of the Great Recession, and NBC embedded teams of reporters there for over a year to track the town’s struggle to overcome the greatest economic crisis since the 1920s.) It’s also where I grew up, from the age of 8 until I moved away at 23. In that time, I never once heard or thought of Elkhart, Indiana as a hamburger hotspot.
So when George Motz devoted three pages of his book Hamburger America to a tiny eatery on West Lusher Avenue there, I was dumbfounded. I’d been to Heinnie’s Back Barn several times growing up. I didn’t even know they served a cheeseburger, to be honest… and Motz picked it as the only one to represent the entire state?!? (He highlighted only one Georgia joint, and it just happened to be Ann’s Snack Bar, home of perhaps the best burger I’ve ever had. So the guy does know how to pick ‘em.) During my most recent visit home, my mission was clear.
Heinnie’s definitely has that smalltown everybody-knows-your-name vibe. In my case, that was helped by the fact that my uncle’s shop is literally 100 feet across the parking lot. He’s there every day. He and my mom have lunch there once a week. When I walked in with them on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I heard someone in the kitchen yell, “The food critic is here!” Apparently, my mission had come up in conversation.
Owner Bill DeShone came out promptly to say hi. He’s a down-to-earth guy who’s a little taken aback by the minor fame his neighborhood place has earned because of Motz’s book. He says at least 3 people a month come in (from some pretty faraway places) with a copy of the book to do exactly what I was doing: sample the Heinniecheeseburger.
The Heinniecheeseburger may be the one Motz raved about, but it’s not the biggest on the menu. That would be the Claybaugh. A double Heinniecheeseburger topped with mozzarella, American, Swiss, and cheddar cheeses- plus bacon, mushrooms, and grilled onions… and held together by a steak knife rammed through the center of it- the Claybaugh was named after a local cop who frequents Heinnie’s. Why? According to Bill, they’re both “big and full of shit.” Bill told me he didn’t think that story would be in the book. (As a writer, I can assure you there was no way that Motz WASN’T putting a line like that in the book.) But Officer Claybaugh had a sense of humor about it, and Bill showed me his autograph (complete with badge number) on his personal copy of Hamburger America, which he proudly keeps behind the bar.
My lunch came out of the kitchen looking like a thing of beauty, served up with some thick-cut fries and topped with American cheese and onions.
It was plain, simple, and really f**king tasty. The juicy meat was cooked to perfection by Bill’s best line chef, brought in that day just because I was coming. I’m not sure I was totally buying the “best burger in Indiana” argument, but I was enjoying the hell out of my double Heinniecheeseburger…
Until Tammy the waitress came out of the kitchen with a horrified look and told me that I wasn’t eating a double Heinniecheeseburger. She sheepishly explained that she had mistakenly written up a mere “double cheeseburger.” When asked about the difference, she told me that the Heinniecheeseburger uses third-pound patties instead of wimpy quarter-pounders, there’s an upgraded bun… and that the meat has onions and seasonings mixed into the beef before cooking. And with three bites to go on my double cheeseburger, Tammy told me that my double Heinniecheeseburger was on the way. That’s right, I’d be using a two-third-pound double cheeseburger to chase down a half-pound double-cheeseburger-appetizer.
My tasting notes on the double Heinniecheeseburger are now kind of lost in a fog of sizzling beef and oozing cheese. Was it markedly better than the regular double cheeseburger? Hard to say, as I’d been somewhat beaten into submission by this point in the meal. But suffice it to say that it, too, was awesome. In all, a pound-plus of spectacular beef (from a local butcher who’s been supplying Heinnie’s for three generations) cooked wonderfully, surrounded by my family, served by a waitress who treated us like her own family, hanging out in an uber-friendly neighborhood place where the owner paid for both of my burgers as a way of apologizing for the “trouble.”
Best burger in Indiana? That may be hard to prove. Best burger in Elkhart? That’s probably true. A new tradition for me to look forward to on future visits home? Nothing hard about that call. (But next time, I might just eat light and get the Claybaugh.)