Blue-collar burgers

Feb 20, 2002 at 12:00 am

When you buy a bar, you have to interview with the police. So when Patrick Riley closed on Jake’s Crossroads at the corner of Dix and Oakwood in 1998, he had a sit-down with the law in Melvindale. They told him that under the previous owner, when they got a report of a B&E or a domestic violence case, if they came by the Crossroads about 1 a.m. they’d usually get their man.

Undaunted, Riley set about to elevate the tone. Jake’s Crossroads is still very much your basic neighborhood blue-collar bar. If you go and you’re not a smoker, wear clothes that don’t have to be dry-cleaned and plan to wash your hair that night. Riley kept the place closed for a year and a half before re-opening and is slowly, he says, turning its reputation around.

So Jake’s now has two pool tables and hockey pictures on the wall, as well as a cover band, Inkline, on Saturday nights. It sponsors eight pool teams, a hockey team and a softball team. But a key part of the turn-around strategy — besides an affable waitstaff — is to serve meals that are way above your barroom average. At prices, I might add, that could attract even those who aren’t barflies.

Chief among these is the Black Angus burger on a French Vienna roll. (I thought Vienna was in Austria, but never mind.) It’s a sesame-seeded bun that Riley gets from a Melvindale bakery and it is real bread, unlike most hamburger buns.

Four people I know have tried this burger. One called it “the best hamburger I ever ate.” Another said, “A good bar burger, not overcooked.” A third thought it was good but not extraordinary. I liked it fine, but it would have to be cooked outside over charcoal to be the best I ever ate. It’s 7 ounces for $3 or, on Mondays, $1 for a quarter-pound version.

The same roll comes into play on the steak sandwich — tasty, enormous and way out of line with the rest of the price structure at $10.

That price structure makes it clear why food is a loss leader in a bar. The Wednesday special is a huge plate of American-style, like-my-mom-used-to-make spaghetti with meat sauce, for a buck. A buck to feed two people, and it comes with that good roll again, buttered and toasted. The fat pasta is al dente, not mushy, a major plus.

On Friday the special is beer-battered cod, also a huge serving, for $6.50. It’s not overbreaded, it’s not greasy — it is just right, especially with some truly excellent $1.50 steak fries. I also liked the smoked turkey sandwich ($4.25), and I’m sure the smoked kielbasa sub ($2.50 on Mondays) is just as good.

The Tuesday special is roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, and Thursday’s is a New York steak dinner for $5. You can also find the usual fried treats: mushrooms, onion rings, wings, cheese sticks, even shrimp.

Remember that the purpose of bar food is to get you in there and drinking. So there’s a premium for carry-out: 25 cents a plate. That perfectly acceptable Wednesday spaghetti will set you back $3 if you take it home.

The Crossroads’ specialty drink is Long Island iced tea, in 12-ounce and 20-ounce portions. Riley says it’s ’70s-style, close to the original recipe: rum, vodka, Triple Sec, Meyers dark rum, tequila, gin, Coke, sweet-and-sour mix and a dash of lime juice. With all that mixing labor, no wonder it costs $10 on a band night.

Domestic longnecks are $1.50 at lunchtime on weekdays or all night on Tuesdays.

Companies have announced the layoffs of 1,054,000 people since Sept. 11. That’s on top of the 1.1 million jobs lost to the recession before that. Jake’s Crossroads stands ready to feed them and to ease their pain.

Eats: 3 stars

Experience: 3 stars

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].