Doris and Joe Lindner pose by the USA Today poster at the Char-Grill in Raleigh, N.C. During the past two years, the couple â€" retired doctors living on Hilton Head Island â€" have driven to all but one of America's â€œ51 Great Burger Jointsâ€ (Photo: Submitted photo)
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Joe and Doris Lindner ordered their recent adventure all the way, to go.
During the past two years, this otherwise sane couple -- retired doctors living on Hilton Head Island -- have driven to all but one of America's "51 Great Burger Joints" as identified by USA Today.
The list published Oct. 1, 2010, includes one place for each state, plus the District of Columbia, each recommended by a "local expert."
The Lindners were visiting a daughter in Colorado when the list came out. They loaded up the kids and all went out for Colorado's "Great American Bite" -- Park Burger in Denver.
"It was really good," Joe said.
On their drive home, the Lindners hit three more on the list: The Cozy Inn in Salina, Kan.; Schindler's Tavern in New Hamlet, Mo. (where the burgers came with a slice of bologna and a side of deep-fried asparagus); and the Burger Up in Nashville.
That's when things got out of hand. Joe said, "We've already done four ..."
Doris said they agreed: "OK, it's an adventure. And it has been. It's been fun."
With their newspaper list in tatters, they managed to get to every place on the list except the Village Burger Kamuela on the Big Island in Hawaii. They finished with the Little Nugget Diner in Reno, Nev., on July 10 of this year. Two places were closed when they got there. The one in Montana is only open half the year, and to enjoy the signature 17-ounce "Hubcap" burger at the funky Cotham's Mercantile in Scott, Ark., you have to be there between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays.
They ate on Route 66, and in a town so small, AAA had trouble finding it. That was Bob's Bar & Grill in Martinsburg, Neb., where the burger came out as big as the plate and cost $3.50.
Details of the trip -- including receipts, photos and Joe's commentary -- fill three binders.
They enjoyed the Zip Burger at Zip's Cafè in Cincinnati; a kangaroo burger at the Abbey Burger Bistro in Baltimore; and the Triple XXX Family Restaurant in Lafayette, Ind., "On The Hill, But on The Level" since 1929.
They recall the warm welcome by manager Andrea Williams at JL Beers in Fargo, N.D., and the park where they ate outside the Pick-Quick Drive-In in Fife, Wash.
Doris' favorite burger was at Django, a French brasserie in Des Moines, Iowa.
Joe's favorite was at Ray's Hell Burgers in Arlington, Va.
Their worst experience was in South Carolina -- at Mac's Drive-In in Clemson. It was recommended for the list by Sid Evans, former editor of Garden & Gun magazine. It's a beloved institution in the university town, but not nearly up to standards the Lindners found in family-owned, local businesses all across America.
"A hamburger is much more than a blob of meat," Joe says. "It is seasoning, it is the fat content to make it juicy, it is a size large enough to hold the juices and taste, and it is not mashed down by somebody with a spatula."
The lettuce, tomato and onion are not just add-ons. And half the quality of a hamburger can be measured in the bun, he said. The Lindners ate at a number of places where the buns are made fresh daily, just as the meat is ground fresh each day.
On top of that comes ambiance, cleanliness and friendliness.
"The waiter or waitress can make all the difference," Joe said.
Only one of their trips in the Honda Odyssey -- to Tom Wahl's in Avon, N.Y. -- was strictly for the hamburger. All the others were diversions from trips to visit family or friends.
They met a lot of characters. A waitress had two bluebirds tattooed on her upper chest because her late mother's favorite song was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." A retired Mountie from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police collected license tags until he had one from every year in every state and Canadian province. When he sold his collection, it weighed nine tons.
"We saw so much diversity, and the country itself is beautiful," Doris said.
"We didn't just eat hamburgers," Joe said. "We tasted America. And it was good. It really was."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.