The “best hamburger” is a subjective thing. Some people like little burgers, like White Castles; some like classic simplicity, such as The Burger Joint at the Parker Meriden NY; others want the most expensive ingredients, such as the $150 burger at The Burger Shoppe, crafted for coke-snorting Wall Street douchebags who think wagyu (aka Kobe) beef is meant to be ground into a burger. And still others like monstrosities. But even the Wall Street Journal sees through the pompous facade of a foie gras topped wagyu burger when simple fresh ground chuck has always been the foundation of a fine hamburger. They declared that the best was not to be had in New York, but on the outskirts of Atlanta, at a tiny unassuming roadstand called Ann’s Snack Bar. I was immediately intrigued. This is not like some college slob saying that the truck near his dorm has the best hamburger, because it’s the nearest slop his pot-addled brain can find when he gets the munchies. This is an esteemed newspaper run by the nasally whining snobs who’ve been the butt of jokes since Animal House and beyond. And if they’ll deign to tiptoe into a working-class joint like this, where Ann reigns like an unpretentious Soup Nazi, I had to check it out.
Business sent me to Atlanta- which may have horrible traffic, but makes up for it with a spate of excellent restaurant finds. Love sushi? Go to MF Sushi, aka Magic Fingers sushi. I had some of the best since my visit to Tokyo there; Osaka-style pressed lobster rolls and ama ebi to die for. Want a raw bar and a great beer selection? Head to Six Feet Under, which has local Sweetwater beer on tap (my fave being the Blue, with blueberries) and buckets of oysters, clams and peel ‘n eat shrimp ready to roll. But for burgers, there’s only one place to go, and that’s Ann’s.
Off a slightly decrepit county highway you’ll find a likely jam-packed parking lot hiding a diner car with a porch extension built onto it. Park properly and politely, and don’t leave a dog in your car. And heaven help you, don’t talk on your cell phone while you’re waiting. You’ll be out on your burger-less ass. Miss Ann runs a tight ship. While I waited, one guy was kicked out for talking loudly on his phone, and another guy had his dog in the back of his truck. When you manage to get in, act like a guest in her house, like she’s invited you over to a backyard party, and you’ll be alright.
She’s most famous for the Ghetto Burger- a slow-cooked 1 pound patty of fresh, never frozen ground beef, topped with chili, cheese and a few slices of thick bacon cooked in the fryer. The meat is liberally seasoned from a container with the label removed, but my guess is Lowry’s or similar, with cayenne. You’d best be patient. It takes a long time, ten or fifteen minutes, once your burger is on the grill- this keeps it juicy, so grab some sweet tea or fruit drink with your order, sit on a stool, and wait. I brought a paperback, to keep me from fiddling with my Blackberry.
Miss Ann may have her peculiar ways, but she makes a great burger that barely fits on the plate, for a mere $7. I cut mine in half and still had trouble wrapping my mouth around it. It is best described as a double bacon chili cheeseburger, and it served as lunch and dinner that day. Without fries. It’s huge, filling, and delicious. I’ve had a 1-pounder burger before at Krug’s Tavern, Down Neck in Newark- theirs isn’t bad, but Ann’s blows it out of the water. Your typical chili cheeseburger with bacon drowns any beef flavor out with a cavalcade of toppings, but Ann’s seasoning lets the beef ring through. It tastes like something your mom made for you, if she catered to your hyperbolic demands. The soft bun, the crispy bacon, the tangy chili and the quick zap of cayenne on the meat before the juicy beef mellows everything out- it’s one hell of a burger.
I think that’s a big part of the appeal of Ann’s; it is down home cooking. While she has her rules and may snap at you if you break them, she was a sweet lady when I came to visit, and blushed when I took her picture. Ann has a good sense of humor, too- calling the place a “snack bar” when all she serves is huge burgers- and there’s no hipster irony in calling it a “ghetto burger.” She’s obviously proud of the reputation her cooking has built, and after thirty years of slinging burgers on the grill for neighborhood folks, getting folks visiting from all around is a bit of a surprise. The next time you’re in Atlanta, you deserve a Ghetto Burger. Split it with a friend. She also makes other variants with cole slaw, or even a plain jane if you like. A place like the Varsity might be more famous, but a cozy joint like Ann’s Snack Bar is an unforgettable experience.