The burger: When our gregarious, running-a-mile-a-minute server at Miller’s Corner Bar & Grill asked if we had any previous experience with the burgers, we said “no,” and that it was our first visit.
“Then you’re in for a treat,” she said.
This was not an exaggeration.
Sometimes, don’t you just crave a straight-up, no-frills, well-made bar burger? That’s exactly what’s on tap at this modest neighborhood hangout in Columbia Heights. Owner Jackie Miller believes that the place dates to 1960 or 1961.
“It has been a burger joint for many years, and a 3.2 bar,” she said. It’s one that has accumulated plenty of names over the years, including the Park Inn. Miller first became acquainted with it during its Dick’s Bar era.
“For a short time, it was the Alligator Bar,” said Miller. And yes, alligator burgers were on the menu. (Note to self: How did I miss that one?)
Miller signed on in 2010, and quickly dropped the alligator theme. “It became too expensive,” she said. “Besides, I thought that this bar has survived all those years on good old-fashioned burgers on a flattop grill, so why not go back to that?”
Wisely, that's exactly what she did. She also changed the name to Miller's, and traded in the 3.2 license for strong beer and wine.
For someone with no previous experience in the restaurant industry, Miller certainly knows her way around a burger. There’s a daily ritual surrounding the forming of notably hefty 1/3-pound patties, and they’re cooked to just-beyond medium on the small, been-there-forever flattop grill that’s tucked behind the bar.
“It’s like cooking on Grandma’s stove, that’s how old – and how seasoned – it is,” said Miller.
On the subject of seasoning, the word “basic” applies: just salt and pepper (my burger would have benefitted from a more muscular application of both, but it’s a minor complaint), and a big, relatively juicy beef flavor, underlined by a lightly crusty char. Nothing wrong with any of that.
As for cheese, there’s a choice: American, Cheddar or pepper Jack, and there are various excursions into sauces, bacon, fried eggs and other burger accoutrement. I chose to stay old school and was not disappointed.
The one commonality, garnish-wise, is onions, raw or cooked. Choose the latter. They’re chopped and then warmed on the grill to the point where they’re barely browned and just releasing their sugars, but still maintaining a slight (and welcome) crunch, and they’re generously layered on the bottom bun before it meets the sizzling patty.
“For years, this place was known for its fried onions,” said Miller. “I wanted to keep with that. Because of those onions, a lot of flavor comes off that grill.”
As for the bun, it’s perfect. It hails from Saint Agnes Baking Co., and Miller has her reasons for using it.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s a foamy bread, like Wonder Bread,” she said. “It’s fluffy, but it holds up, and it toasts well.”
Indeed it does. Both flat sides get a generous swipe of butter. A short stint on the grill converts portions of that soft bread – picture a browned ring on the bun’s outer edges -- into delicately crisped-up toast. Perfect.
Price: $6.25. I can’t remember the last time I encountered such a memorable value. Add cheese for an extra 50 cents. Make it California style (lettuce, tomato) for an additional 50 cents.
Fries: Included, and tasty. Miller used to offer hand-cut fries, but keeping up with all the cutting and blanching got to be too much for her stretched-to-the-limits staff. Now she serves a pre-packaged pub fry, one with a crispy outer coating. Truly, a person cannot eat just one.
The woman at the grill: “I used to come in here when it was Dick’s, and I’d sit and think, ‘It would be fun to have a little place like this,’” said Miller. “It seemed manageable, and the opportunity came up and so I thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ It sounds crazy, I know. But I love it. I’ve meet a lot of really cool people every day, and I love having so many regulars. It’s nice being a neighborhood place.”
No breakfast: “There’s a good breakfast joint about a block and a half from here,” said Miller. “It’s called Johnson’s, and they’ve been there forever. I didn’t want to step on any toes, so we do lunch and dinner, and they do breakfast and lunch.”
Best night to visit: “You’ll have to come on a Saturday night,” said Miller. “That’s when we have live music. It’s really fun. We have a meat raffle first, and then the music. Bingo is on Thursdays.”
Bonus points: Miller proudly maintains Miller’s as a dive bar (and for those looking for proof, she features Heggies heat-and-serve frozen pizzas, and patrons can buy pull tabs and bags of ice) but she also impresses by keeping 1919 Draft Root Beer on tap, serving the pride of New Ulm, Minn., in a heavy glass mug. Nice touch.
Address book: 547 40th Av. NE., Columbia Heights, 763-788-5789, millerscornerbar.com. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday (occasionally open later Friday and Saturday evenings, with live music).
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.