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Burger Friday: Johnny Rockets

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: July 18, 2014 - 4:39 PM

The burger: Because the place invariably makes me a little bit nuts, I view visits to the Mall of America as a chore rather than a treat. There, I said it. Still, I found myself there earlier this week, taking a seat at the highly animated counter at Johnny Rockets.

I can’t recall the last time I’d visited the sole Minnesota outlet of this California-based company, but the word “decade” probably applies. The nostalgia-dipped chain dates to 1986 in Los Angeles; its MoA outpost debuted when the mall opened in 1992. Today, the company (its name is a mash-up of two Americana bedrocks: Johnny Appleseed, and the classic Oldsmobile Rocket 88) operates more than 300 locations, which fry up a collective 17 million burgers each year.

I stuck with the basics and ordered “the Original.” As fast-food burgers go (it arrived in six minutes), it’s not bad. Not bad at all. It reminded me of the countless drive-in burgers that I inhaled as a kid, only slightly larger, a move befitting our supersized culture. The third-pound, thicker-than-Burger King’s beef patty was clearly fresh rather than frozen, a good start. Although it left the flattop grill both under-seasoned and well into medium-well, the patty still managed to muster some meaty sizzle, if not a lot of juice.

It's more team player than attention-grabber, and somewhat overshadowed by the burger's remaining elements, all classics. The soft, gently yeasty bun gets a just-right toasting. A spread of tangy, semi-crunchy dill pickle chips acts as a barrier between lower bun and patty (not that the toasted bread had to worry about being soaked by running juices, as there weren't any), and it’s topped with a dash of raw chopped white onions, a generous handful of shredded iceberg lettuce, a standard-issue tomato slice, a squirt of yellow mustard and a thick swipe of mayonnaise.

No surprises, certainly, but It all adds up to an agreeably sloppy mess (I think I went through six paper napkins, which is always an encouraging sign), and the whole shebang is thoughtfully held together by an easy-to-handle wax paper wrapper. I repeat: Not bad.

Price: $5.39. Going the cheeseburger route is an extra $1.29, a somewhat outrageous mark-up for a humdrum slice of American.

Fries: Not included. There’s a $2.79 upcharge (the smiley-face plate of ketchup is presumably folded in the tab), and I can’t say that the thick-cut, pale, limp, under-salted effort is worth the extra dough.

On the soda fountain front: My chocolate malt ($4.49) was the honest-to-goodness real thing, not some tragic food-court soft-serve nightmare. The upside is that it sported the right thick-ish consistency, and the overflow arrived in a frost-covered stainless steel malt can, just as it should be. The downside? There was little more than the barest, faintest trace of chocolate flavor. And while complaining about authenticity is more than a little ridiculous in this highly artificial environment, but would it kill the corporate powers that be to ix-nay the tacky plastic soda fountain glasses?

Blast from the past: Don’t forget a few nickels fpr the juke box, which reminded me that I'd not heard the “American Graffiti” and “The Big Chill” soundtracks in forever. My budget allowed one selection on the tableside Seeburg Wall-O-Matic, a spin through the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” and it was easily my week’s best-spent five cents.  

Take a seat: There are two ways to experience Johnny Rockets: Wait in line for takeout then schlep over to a smattering of nearby tables, or take a seat at the counter and place yourself in the capable hands of the serving staff. I highly recommend the latter because a large percentage of the red vinyl swivel chairs provide ringside seats to the action at the stove. It’s quite a show, a frenetic, highly choreographed production that made this diner appreciate, once again, the sweat required to keep even a basic burger joint up and running.

It’s also one of the few places at The Nation’s Largest Shopping Center where people are likely to rub elbows with complete strangers. The young girls seated next to me were clearly reveling in every aspect of their Johnny Rockets experience: reacting to the constant roar echoing across the Nickelodeon Universe amusement park, gazing in amazement at the fleet-footed crew as they went through their paces, ooh-ing and aah-ing over their burgers and malts. Living vicariously through their delight was a happy eye-opener for this not-so-occasionally jaded diner.

Real deal: And now for the True Confessions portion of today’s Burger Friday. My original intention for this megamall excursion was to partake in the (extraordinary) burger-and-beer deal at FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar. Here's the deal: choose from one of four iterations (turkey, bison, walleye or a white Cheddar cheeseburger, all paired with fries) and any one of the bar’s tap beers (including brews from Fulton, Summit, Surly, Schell’s, Big Wood and other locals), and fork over a shocking $10.

Yeah, ten dollars. The offer is available in the bar only, although being relegated to that handsome refuge of a space can hardly be labeled a hardship. There’s just one hitch. This Deal of Deals is a midday-only special, available 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. My convoluted brain had somehow twisted it into a happy hour offer, which is why my 6 p.m. appetite ended up at Johnny Rockets. Next time I’ve got an MoA lunch on the calendar, I’m definitely heading to the Radisson Blu. It's easy: the hotel is accessible from the mall through the second floor of South Avenue; the restaurant is on the same level.

Address book: Johnny Rockets, 370 South Avenue (on the edge of the food court), Mall of America, Bloomington, 952-858-8158. Open 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, second floor, Radisson Blu hotel, 2100 Killebrew Dr., Bloomington, 952-851-4040. Burger and beer special served 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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