Had an amazing bacon, caramelized onion, and boursin pizza at a local gastropub. And the above burger. I’ll tell you all about it in The Big Eat for Devil Gourmet.
Amber Unmasked – that east coast avenger who champions the down and the dirty and the nerdy, was gracious enough to interview me about all things geekalicious- books, movies, comics, the business of writing, and charitable work with PROTECT and to help victims of superstorm Sandy.
I had a blast- and a Hellhound on my Ale brew by Dogfish Head- and if you want to enjoy a virtual beer with me, drop on by … it’s always
She didn’t need the lasso of truth to get me talking…
That thar’s the Drunken 10n Burger from Nicole’s Ten, an upscale gastropub in Randolph, New Jersey. They have 150 craft beers available; I sampled the excellent County Line IPA from Neshaminy Creek brewing, hoppy to an almost syrupy extreme, and the Muddy Creek Lager from Defiant Brewing, which had a nice chocolaty flavor, but needed to be a bit more defiant.
But let’s get to the burger. This one is a real fancy pants deal- black Wagyu beef and wild boar cooked in “cranberried old vine Zinfandel” and topped with Havarti cheese, maple pepper bacon, and a peach bourbon BBQ sauce. It was voted one of the top 10 burgers in New Jersey at the NJ Wine & Food Festival, and it belongs there. The beef, bacon and peach flavors work well together, though I couldn’t taste the herbs de provence or the “old vine Zinfandel.” The cheese coats the burger in a thin layer of creaminess. For me, a burger is all about the meat, and the “Kobe” black Wagyu cut with wild boar made for a firm yet tender and flavorful burger, even if it seemed a bit more medium than rare.
The sweet potato fries were creamy inside and crisp on the outside, probably the best I’ve had. Everyone else’s meals were well received- we shared a lobster mac ‘n cheese with whole claws and chunks, tasty crab wontons, and the fish in the grouper taco was perfect. Crisp, not overcooked, lots of flavor. The seafood pot pie looked insanely good, and Firecracker’s “Going Coastal” pasta was a delicious take on frutti di mare. Even the kids menu mac ‘n cheese was delicious.
The desserts were as crazy as you’d expect from such a place, the type of decadent, over the top food meant to make you forget that the world uses your face for toilet paper, and damn it, you deserve a devil’s food cake on top of a cheesecake covered in frosting, because hard drugs are so gauche.
Anyway, good place for a burger and a beer if you have forty bucks to drop on them with tax & tip.
Wayne D. Dundee is the author of the Joe Hannibal P.I. novels, a number of westerns, and founded Hardboiled Magazine. He wrote the original western “Adeline” for the Protectors anthology, a horror novel called Night Spoor, a Cash Laramie novella for Beat to a Pulp, a novella in the Fight Card series, and most recently released a collection of Joe Hannibal short stories for Kindle. That was my introduction to Wayne; we both appeared in David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled collection, and his story blew me away. He imbued a tired hit man with real humanity. Not a character you’d want to meet, but a human being nonetheless, not the stock heartless killer we often get. I’ve read a lot of Wayne’s stories since, and that’s what stands out- once you settle into his comfortable storytelling manner, he introduces you to characters heart and soul, whether they be the good guys or the bad guys. A villain might be a no-good SOB, but you’ll understand him as you cheer for his demise.
WD: My serious beer-drinking days are behind me. Back in the day, I paid for A LOT of the hay that went into the feed bunks of those Budweiser Clydesdales … These days, most mornings start with a couple mega-cups of Folger’s Black Silk coffee blend; then, through the balance of the day, it’s copious amounts of an ice tea/lemonade mixture, sometimes a Diet Coke in the afternoon if I need a caffeine boost … For a special occasion such as this visit to the Belly Up to the Bar, however, I’ll have an ice cold bottle of Miller Chill or maybe a vodka gimlet.
TP: You have the voice of a natural storyteller. I was writing flash fiction when we first met, and reading your stories showed me it was okay to relax and let the voice do the talking. You also have a knack for choosing stunning locales, as in Reckoning at Rainrock. The land is its own character. Does that come from living in your part of the west?
WD: Yes, very much so. Out here—in west central Nebraska and bordering states to the west—people are very aware of the land. They recognize they are OF the land, whereas to the east and in most urban areas it’s more a case of people thinking of themselves as simply being ON the land … In my writing, I’ve always used “the elements”, if you will, to help anchor my story, set my moods. For my Joe Hannibal stories when he was still operating out of Rockford, Illinois, I used weather, etc. But even then, for rural settings, I took extra time to paint the scene. I was raised on a series of farms (changing jobs and moving was my old man’s hobby) so deep down I’m just a big ol’ plodding farmboy who’s always felt more comfortable in rural/small town settings. Hence, when I write about them I do so from a more comfortable and self-assured standpoint … And for my Westerns, like RECKONING AT RAINROCK, an appreciation for the land is essential … If you respect the land and write about it from the heart, it DOES become a character.
TP: I already mentioned how strong your characters are, but you’re pretty strong yourself. I seem to recall you telling how you wrestled a bear, back in the day. I won’t ask you to tell the whole story, but what made you get in the ring with a five hundred pound killing machine?
WD: Classic case of open mouth, insert foot … I wasn’t yet 30, had just made 2nd Shift foreman at the factory where I worked. I was 6’1″, about 265, in pretty good “big guy” shape and had a reputation of sorts around the shop for the strength I displayed during the course of doing my production work before going into management. At a large nearby shopping mall they were featuring, as an advertising gimmick for some event, Tuffy Truesdale and Victor “the wrestling bear”, who had been featured as part of AWA pro wrestling shows around the Midwest. Tuffy and Victor were at the mall over a three-day weekend putting on three shows a day, part of which included challenging guys to come out of the audience and wrestle Victor. One night at work, I made the comment that it might be fun to go accept that challenge for the sake of having something to tell the grandkids — BOOM! just like that I was locked into following through …
So on a Sunday afternoon a week or so later, there I was in front of about 500 people mixing it up with Victor in the center court of the Cherryvale Mall. I had a plan going in, having gone and watched him the day before. But considering that Victor (who was advertised as standing 7 feet tall and weighing more like 700 pounds, by the way) had wrestled about a gazillion other guys in his career, he’d seen about everything anybody could think of and my plan didn’t amount to spit. We danced around a little, tugged and pushed on each other a little, he knocked me on my ass two or three times, and finally I was too out of gas to get back up. I lasted a little under two minutes, it felt more like two hours. He ended up laying on top of me, licking the sweat off my face. I think he liked me — Luckily not in a romantic way, because I don’t know if I could have found a second wind to fight him off.
TP: Tell us about Joe Hannibal. You have a new novel coming out, and you just released a collection of his short stories. What were his beginnings, where is he now, and what makes you return to him as a character?
WD: Joe Hannibal made his debut in the Fall 1982 issue of Spiderweb Magazine, making this his 30th year in print and marking the Hannibal stories and books as one of the longest-running, still-active PI series on the scene. We’ve always enjoyed good reviews (when we got any at all) but sales have never been strong. We’ve been nominated for an Edgar, an Anthony, and six Shamus Awards; never won diddly but, like they say, it’s an honor to be in the running … I wrote the first Hannibal story (“The Fancy Case”, reprinted for the first time in the just-released short story collection BODY COUNT: The Joe Hannibal Case Files, Volume I) while I was recovering from kidney stone surgery. That was back in the pre-lithotrypsy days when they cut you damn near in half to get at the pesky damn pebbles. It was the first story I was ever satisfied enough with to submit and I had the unique experience of having it accepted first time out of the chute … I always knew I wanted to write a hardboiled “tough guy” series in the fashion of my personal Holy Trinity of fiction: Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer), John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee), and Donald Hamilton (Matt Helm). During the years I tinkered with creating my own character, Joe had many different names and many different backgrounds. I finally settled on Joe (good old basic American name) Hannibal (powerful like the Carthagean general who invaded Rome, and at the same time American folksy like Mark Twain’s hometown on the Mississippi River). And he’d be a private eye, albeit with the distinction of operating out of my own small city of Rockford, Illinois … In the beginning, other than the setting, Joe was pretty much just another sock-and-shoot Mike Hammer wanna-be. It didn’t take long, though, before I started putting my own stamp on him.
I mellowed him somewhat, grounded him with a blue collar farm kid background, and made use of the smaller city setting as far as plot lines and characters (very few stereotypical thugs and gangsters, for instance). This especially evolved when I started doing novel-length work … I also began (subconsciously at first) to invest a lot of myself into Hannibal. His tastes in food, personal biases, his actions based on the way I think *I* would act if caught in some of his situations, etc. Of course Joe gets shot at a lot and conked over the head now and then (neither of which I have experience in, and don’t necessarily want any) but he also runs across lots of hot dames (which I would be willing to endure, although at my creaky old age they’d probably kill me). In more recent years, the similarities between Joe and me have been more purposeful on my part. My draft number never came up, so I never served in the Army (Vietnam era). Therefore I never made that part of Joe’s background either, even though this was practically a prerequisite for protagonists of his ilk. Since I write Hannibal in the first person, I couldn’t bring myself to try and convey any associated feelings since I had never experienced anything close. Another example, since I suffer from bum knees as a result of age and abuse in my younger days, is inflicting Joe with a bum hip as a result of getting caught on the periphery of an explosion — much more dramatic circumstances on his part, but nevertheless in keeping with my desire to keep his capabilities somewhat close to mine … Perhaps the biggest move to keep us linked, was to bring Hannibal out here to Nebraska with me. And that brings us up to date. Joe ostensibly runs a private secure patrol serving homes and businesses around popular Lake McConaughy. He carries a Nebraska PI license mostly out of habit and to add credibility to his business, yet he doesn’t actively solicit investigative work any longer. Still, being who he is, trouble seems to seek him out and can’t resist getting involved … As far as why I keep returning to Hannibal as a character? Hell, that’s simple: I like the guy. A partnership like ours wouldn’t have lasted 30 if otherwise. From a more practical standpoint, you might say I’ve got too much invested in Joe to back out now. We’ve got more work to do, and I’m the guy who always says “persevere”, remember? … A writer pal who has his own series character once asked me if I ever had trouble coming up with stories in which to use Hannibal. My answer? “No, I have trouble coming up with stories that *don’t* have Hannibal in them.”
TP: What inspired you to found Hardboiled Magazine? I was just a teen back then, but I remember noir and hardboiled being kind of forgotten in the culture, and spoofed at the time. Now it’s back with a vengeance, and you had no small part in its resurgence.
WD: After selling that first story on the first try, I proceeded to run into a wall and started getting stories rejected so fast the envelopes came back with skid marks on them. Spiderweb, where “The Fancy Case” appeared, had ceased publication. The rest of the market was pretty limited and what was out there didn’t seem to be interested in my stuff. Generally speaking, they weren’t interested in harder-edged stories—the kind I liked to write—at all. In talking with some other, more established writers I had gotten to know, I learned that even they were having trouble placing harder, tougher stories. I’d had some exposure to small press publications on various subject matter. Many of these were little more than typed, photocopied, stapled pages (all of this was before the internet or blogs or e-zines, remember) yet some of them drew quite a respectable following. It occurred to me: Why not a small press publication offering a showcase to the kind of fiction (also some reviews and other features) that there was limited outlet for? After contacting some of those same peers who shared my lament for lack of same and getting their verbal agreement that they would support such an undertaking with both subscriptions and stories, I decided I would start my own publication.
Hardboiled was born in the summer of 1985. We paid a penny a word on publication. Todd Moore, a local high school teacher I had gotten to know who was an “outlaw poet” and also a writer of Jim Thompson-style prose, agreed to assist me. He did story editing, wrote features and reviews, helped with collating; I shared in editing chores, did the layout and typing (yes *typing*, not PC or word processor, and even a MANUAL TYPEWRITER at first – I didn’t upgrade to an electric typewriter until the third or fourth issue). I even did most of the illustrations for the early issues … I was totally up front right from the get-go: Hardboiled was a paying market for all writers and it was also a showcase for my own material and a way to get my name out in front of people … We did twelve issues before handing HB over to Gary Lovisi, who continues to put out the magazine yet today. We featured well-known and also new writers, many of whom went on to bigger things, and whose names you would easily recognize. I’m proud of every issue we put out. Hardboiled did everything it was meant to do — except make money. And, really, that was never a big part of the goal anyway.
WD: I started writing somewhere around the fourth or fifth grade and never stopped. I liked to draw, too, so at first I blocked out squares on sheets of paper and did comic-book style stories. It didn’t take long, however, before I decided that the story was where my strongest interest lay so I dropped the comic panels and concentrated on just the writing. I never really finished anything because my focus would go off in another direction, but I wrote all the time so I was constantly honing my skill even if there was no “finished product” to show for it. My mom and dad bought me a huge old used black Royal typewriter at an auction when I was in eighth grade, that was their contribution to encouraging my writing goals.
They never really discouraged me, either, but in my blue collar family the concept of actually growing up to do something outside of manual labor just didn’t fit. In high school I couldn’t wait to take a typing class because I knew I would be putting it to use one day. After we were married, my beloved wife Pam was my first really big supporter. We eloped right out of high school and at a point when we were lacking all kinds of furnishings and eating with plastic forks and spoons, the first big item we bought on time payments was a new typewriter for me. That’s how strongly she backed me (actually in pretty much everything, not just my writing). She lived to see me have some modest success, but she died in 2008 and it was only after I retired the following year that my writing output and publications (thanks largely to eBooks and breaking into Westerns) really ramped up. I regret and feel a curious kind of guilt that she’s not here to share that with me … Yet, although I’m not a very religious person, I know that somewhere she is aware and happy for me. So I’ll keep writing, mostly because that’s what I was born to do—but also because I owe it to Pam’s faith in me.
WD: Not to be redundant, but I’m proud to have had a 41-plus year marriage to the greatest gal I could’ve ever hoped for. And proud of the daughter and grandchildren that came along as a result. Since Pam’s passing, my oldest grandson and I live in the basement half of the house Pam and I bought here in Ogallala, my daughter and the rest of her family live upstairs. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass having everybody so close but, with Pam gone, I think I’d feel a greater emptiness without them “around” — and they all know to respect the privacy I need plenty of … Additionally, I am proud of having climbed through the ranks of the company I worked with for nearly forty years. With no education beyond high school, I started as a 3rd Shift furnace operator for Arnold Engineering in Illinois in 1969 and retired in 2009 as the General Manager of the Ogallala facility. I didn’t do it by kissing ass, either. I did it by applying myself to whatever job I was assigned. I had some mentors who gave me chances along the way, and to them I’ll always be grateful. Sadly, there are very few (if any) chances for people to be promoted in that manner any more these days. Management positions are filled from the “outside”, and guys at the production level — along with valuable floor-level input and ideas they could bring with them — stay right there. A manager, once so designated, can be overseeing the production of baby powder one day and move to taking over a napalm plant the next. Knowing the core business is considered incidental, as long as they know how to count the beans and make the margins and the EBITDA … Excuse me, that’s a rant for another time.
WD: If I made a list of my 20 all-time favorite movies, about 15 would be John Wayne flicks. So whenever I talk favorite movies I basically have to make two lists … We’ll get the top John Wayne-ers out of the way first: Red River; The Searchers; Rio Bravo; The Quiet Man … Others: King Kong (the original); Once Upon a Time in the West; True Lies; Gran Torino; The Best Years of Our Lives; Born Losers; Longest Yard (the original); Escape From New York; Lonesome Dove (I know it’s made-for-TV, but it’s too damn good not to include); Rocky; Rocky Balboa; Ride Lonesome; Dr. No; The Thing (the original) … I could go on and on. You get the idea. I love movies.
TP: I’m guessing the original Thing for you is the John Carpenter, because you like Snake Plissken in Escape from New York. We have similar taste in films, King Kong and Mighty Joe Young are favorites of mine as well. I think I feel too much in common with a big ape sometimes!
WD: By the way, my favorite THING movie is the 1951 black and white version. It’s referred to as “The Thing From Another World” these days, I guess, since all the modern remakes. It was produced by Howard Hawks and *allegedly* directed by Christian Nyby (who was Hawks’ production assistant for many years). But Hawks is one of my all-time favorite and it is widely agreed that his persona stamp is all over the movie, meaning he actually had a pretty heavy hand in the direction of it … So there’s more than you probably ever wanted to know about the history of THE THING.
WD: My new Joe Hannibal novel, BLADE OF THE TIGER, is due out in December; eBook first, print version to follow in a few weeks … Currently about two-thirds through a new Western titled “Trail Justice”, which is the first entry in a projected series called THE WESTWARD TIDE, about emigrants in the late 1840s/early 1850s on the Oregon Trail. I’m doing it with Mel Odom, who is a writing machine. We’ll write alternating books and put it out under the “house name” byline of Jack Tyree. It’s planned as an episodic series of 25-30,000-word novellas, the journey of a particular wagon train being completed after four or five of these and then issued as a whole in a print version. Hope to have this initial segment done late this month/early December and out before Christmas … After that I plan on doing book #3 in my Bodie Kendrick-Bounty Hunter series. It’s tentatively called DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH and is plotted around a little known episode of the U.S Cavalary when they imported camels and attempted to use them in place of horses in the Arizona desert … In March, I owe a segment to the Western Fictioneers’ WOLF CREEK series … After that I’ll do book #3 in my Lone McGantry series, tentatively called THE FOREVER MOUNTAIN … Next, David Cranmer is interested in letting his popular character come out and play on my keyboard again in another Cash Laramie novella … And somewhere by late summer/early Fall I’m sure I’ll be itching to start the next Joe Hannibal book, tentatively called BAGGAGE.
WD: Got to go with two — Chicago style hot dogs; New York style thin-crust pizza.
Let me expand on that a bit.
A proper Chicago style dog is as follows: You start with a steamed all-beef Vienna red hot; place it gently, lovingly in a poppy-seed bun, also steamed; slather on yellow mustard; add green relish, diced onions, fresh tomato slices; top off with a quarter-slice of crunchy pickle and a couple sport peppers. Place on a sheet of aluminum foil, drop alongside a handful of french fries, and wrap together; let the dog and the fries get to know each other for a couple minutes; unwrap, salt the fries, and start eating. IMPORTANT: It is a felony of the highest order to put ketchup on such a masterpiece and a serious misdemeanor to even have ketchup in the same room while preparing.
Thin-crust pizza: (I’ve never actually had pizza on any of my visits to New York so I can’t say from experience, but am allowing them the thin crust title based on what I’ve heard and read elsewhere.) Start with a thin, faintly crispy crust; tangy sauce; cheese (mozzarella/cheddar blend — and lots of it); add toppings to one’s taste (I like ’em all, depending on the mood I’m in, but easy on the pepperoni); when it comes out of the oven, the cheese should be thick and have little puddles of grease standing in some of the dimples; and when you take that first bite (knowing damn well you’re going to burn your gums or the roof of your mouth or both) the cheese should stretch at least three-quarters the length of your arm as you pull the remainder of that first piece away; now that you’ve sufficiently burned you mouth and formed a layer of numb scar tissue, you can dive into the rest of the pie with abandon … These are the kind of pizzas you could find in mom-and-pop pizzerias all over southern Wisconsin/northern Illinois where I grew up; unfortunately, most of these seem to be fading out as the dreaded franchise chains are overwhelming the market; but it’s worth the search if you can find the right hole-in-wall joint that still makes their pies this way.
For the full story of Wayne vs. the Bear, drop by his blog.
The first craft beer I really enjoyed, and still enjoy, is Ramstein Blonde by High Point Brewing company. My palate has turned toward stronger flavors like double IPA’s and coffee stouts, but I still love a good lager and also wheat beers and Belgian whites. The best-known Belgian white or witbier is Blue Moon, and then perhaps Shock Top. The latter is better, but my favorite is Allagash White, and while Firecracker and I visited the northern corner of the States, we dropped by their brewery for a tour.
Allagash is best known for the White, but their Black is making the rounds of east coast taps. They stick to Belgian styles and modern variations. They made a traditional sour, made with wild yeast in from the air. It’s not very strong for a sour, but has a good flavor and is a good entry into sour beers. They are sour like a tart Jolly Rancher or a green apple, very crisp and refreshing.
They give a scholarly tour and let you sample their beers at the beginning of the tour. If you miss out, you have to wait until the next one. The Lonely Planet New England book has incorrect hours for their tour, so call ahead.
You get a walkthrough, which is exciting if you’ve never been to a brewery. It’s nice to see they run a very clean and professional shop, as you’d expect from a brewery that makes consistently tasty beer. If you haven’t had the White, I’d highly recommend it. It is smooth and tasty and not too heavy, with lingering flavors that cool you on a summer day and refresh the palate all year long. One of America’s best beers.
An amusing sign in their rest room.
Open since 1938, once owned by Raging Bull boxer Jake “The Bronx Bull” LaMotta and still owned by his family, Krug’s Tavern in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood is housed in an unassuming and dilapidated building that could be mistaken for a run of the gin mill bar full of cranky old men drinking piss-yellow beer out of tiny glasses. Inside, it has that kind of feel. A few high top tables, a long mahogany bar with patched red vinyl stools. A poster of LaMotta behind the bar, amidst the bottles of Tullamore Dew.
But if you venture in the flimsy storm door and linger, you’ll find an energetic blue collar crowd stuffing the place at lunch hour, from electrical workers and hard hats in uniform, the boys from the docks in their tracksuits, and cop brass stretching their conservatively cut sport coats. The kind of place where crook and law alike will belly up to the bar. Behind which sits a glass case brimming with meatballs the size of grapefruit, which will soon become a legendary burger for those with king size appetites. Order one and they’ll flatten out that softball of fat speckled chuck on the griddle and sizzle it low and slow so it remains juicy even if you order it well done.
When I was a kid, there was a diner car named Nunzio’s, run by an eponymous, mustachioed fellow who could’ve jumped in a pair of overalls and white gloves to play Super Mario. He served a juicy burger on a Kaiser roll that remains the paragon of burgers to me. He wouldn’t serve me one on Friday during Lent, either. I had to get peppers and eggs on a roll. Krug’s burger hits that nostalgic memory in the bullseye. They serve theirs on a large sesame seed bun that is just barely up to the task. It stays together, but you eat your burger wondering if you’ll have to finish with a knife and fork, especially if you’re generous with the ketchup.
Places that manage a juicy griddle burger are uncommon these days. Ann’s Snack Bar in Atlanta makes an even bigger patty than Krug’s, their infamous Ghetto Burger- a full pound of well-seasoned beef topped with chili and cheese, the size of the paper plate it’s served on- and Jimmy’s in Harlem steams theirs under a steel ice cream cup. Both are worth visiting, but if you’re in New Jersey, only Krug’s will do. Oh, I love the burgers at the Cloverleaf Tavern. If you get them medium rare, those perfect chewy rolls handle any number of toppings, from their Cajun Crunch burger topped with house-made spicy potato chips, to the Fatburger with Monterey Jack cheese sticks and Taylor Ham pork roll. But Krug’s is all about the beef.
I’ve had bacon cheese burgers at Krug’s, and most recently, a Taylor Ham & cheese (pictured above). It is that rare burger that is not overwhelmed by a crisp and smoky slice of bacon, or two slices of fat and spicy pork roll. All you taste is good, juicy, ground beef. What a burger should be. They pack 3/4 of a pound into that bun for $6.50. Bacon or Taylor is a buck extra. Fries and battered onion rings- both excellent, crispy and always fried in fresh, tasteless oil- are extra. And enormous. Their mozzarella sticks are house made, never frozen, fried to bursting, crisp and gooey as they are meant to be. They have a good selection on tap, with Harpoon and Sam Adams available as well as the American trinity of Bud-Miller-Coors. They serve Cokes in the can, and your meal begins with a fresh sour pickle and two hot cherry vinegar peppers arranged in vulgar fashion.
I’ve written about Krug’s before for Serious Eats, and it is always a memorable experience. They are consistent, and I’ve never had a bad burger. Doing it since 1938 must help. The place ain’t pretty, but it’s got character. There’s a biscuit shaped elbow of pipe jutting through the tiles in the men’s room. A ’58 Thunderbird rusts on flat tires in the parking lot. Loud men lunch here, venting out the day’s woes. But it’s an original, and without pretense. My kind of place. Next, I’ll give you the rundown on my favorite seafood joint- not Legal Seafood, despite their excellent food- but a little hole in the wall in Garfield where a bowl of fried clams and a beer won’t set you back more than six bucks.