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Burger Quest: We had an elusive, amazing burger at Honest John's 

Anybody who's lived in or near Cass Corridor for more than a few minutes probably knows all about Honest John's — or thinks they do. Long before swanky small plates were being served around the corner at Selden Standard, back when all but a few had written off the area, owner John Thompson staked his claim there, endowing the neighborhood with a kitchen that stayed open until 2 a.m.

The story goes back even further, of course: Thompson's bar only moved there a little more than a decade ago; Honest John's used to be on Field Street near the bridge to Belle Isle, where Thompson's local fame was established as the guy who ran the little bar that raised lots of money for charities through such unusual fundraisers as a mid-December plunge into the icy Detroit River.

So much for the history. The establishment is a roomy, renovated structure (it used to be one of the Corridor's seediest bars, Elmer's), with a long bar and cozy booths and tables in the dining area. It is decorated with neon signs spelling out unusual slogans such as "men lie" and "sobriety sucks" — as well as about a gazillion articles about Thompson.

The kitchen has a reputation for doing things in a big way. The BLT is jammed with 10 strips of cooked-to-perfection bacon, for instance. And the burgers are half-pound beauties with all the trimmings, although there is an element of chance (more on that later).

We went on a weeknight with some friends and asked the waitress about the burgers. She emphatically told us they were the best damn burgers in town, with great charisma. We ordered a medium with everything and a basket of fries, and they came about 15 minutes later, worth the wait. It was a hand-formed beauty, a little on the ugly side, bumpy and juicy-looking. It came with red onion, a tomato slice, and a leaf or two of lettuce pasted onto a toasted bun with mayo. There were also a few of the crinkle-cut pickle slices that seem to come with everything at Honest John's. We did a final assembly and bit in.

Unfortunately, at that very moment, our party was suddenly joined by somebody who required our absolute attention. It was like trying to enjoy a toe-curling orgasm in a business meeting. Or like that story about Coleridge writing the most beautiful poem in the English language when an insurance salesman comes knocking at the door. It was awful. Here was one of the juiciest, most perfect burgers we've had, and we couldn't focus on it. We remember it vaguely, as if a beautiful, opium-induced dream. Combined with that basket of shoestring fries, perfect for squeezing ketchup all over and eating three at a time, it was about as near a five-star burger experience as we remember — though we recall it dimly.

So we came back on a Sunday afternoon to repeat the test. This time, we brought another burger aficionado to share the experience. We ordered a medium hamburger and a basket of fries, our co-diner a medium cheeseburger. They arrived after about 10 minutes. And they were ... different.

First off, they were cooked well, not medium, as our companion pointed out. The meat seemed more finely ground, crumblier, and perhaps packed too tight. The shape wasn't the ugly, bumpy mass that smacks of a squirting good time, but was more a perfect patty shape. Clearly, the burger genius who had given us such delight on a weeknight was nowhere to be found on a Sunday afternoon. The fries were, as always, perfect, at least.

Of course, these were perfectly good burgers, better than the usual. Yes, a definite let down after that gorgeous hunk of meat we crushed before, but just off-target enough to be disappointing.

But that doesn't mean we'll be swearing off Honest John's. In fact, it means we'll be back, trying to pinpoint that magical hour when that burger sorcerer is working the grill. That burger was really something. — mt

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April 1, 2020


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