Let’s get at least one thing out in the open. Meals at Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger, like all great unhealthy experiences, must be enjoyed in moderation.
This is a place where most items that aren’t grilled are deep-fried. Fulfilling as a burger at Blimpy is, it’s not likely to add years to your life – although, as long-time employee DaVee Askew points out, “We don’t have grease – we have natural juices.”
Askew agrees with the Daily that Blimpy serves up the best burgers in Ann Arbor. “I might be biased, but we do grind our meat fresh daily,” she says. The burger patties at Blimpy aren’t patties at all – certainly not the pre-formed, icy platters your average restaurant hauls out from deep freeze.
The choice Western chuck that goes into the burgers comes from Eastern Market in Detroit, and it isn’t frozen. “Any time you process beef, thaw it or freeze it, you lose a little,” says current owner Rich Magner.
Instead, the cooks throw as many round clumps of fresh beef, a tenth of a pound each, on the grill as you like and hammer them flat. The menu ranges from a two-patty double to the five-patty quint, with the option to add more at the customer’s own peril. The most I’ve ever taken out was a quint with five extra patties, but that’s a mere snack compared to the record of 37 patties.
Blimpy has stood at Division and Packard since 1953 and dates back to an era before corporate chains homogenized much of the restaurant business – and before Ann Arbor morphed into some enclave of mock East Coast yuppiedom. I know people with needlessly refined tastes who think Blimpy Burger, from its wonderfully greasy food to an interior design one might describe as honest, is somehow dubious. They must be too busy reading their New York Times to know what they’re missing.
Blimpy Burger has thrived thanks to its stomach-coating, soul-nourishing fare and its quirks – ranging from the $2 bills and 50-cent pieces given out as change to the “snow bears” Magner sculpts out front of the store come winter. Its identity isn’t shaped by a marketing executive’s focus group, but by its founder, “Krazy Jim” Shafer, by its long-term employees and by its equally dedicated customers.
Paul Hoppin, who has worked at Blimpy since 1988, says employees there either “work six weeks or they work six years – there’s little in between.” The money, he admits, isn’t the greatest. But that weeds out anyone who doesn’t love the burgers and the job. “It makes a big difference in the food,” he said. “Everyone who’s here is really into it.”
I lived in South Quad, practically next door to Blimpy Burger, for two years. Yet I somehow didn’t make it up the steps and past the “Cheaper than Food” sign near the door until I was through with the dorms. Like many before me, I had to scramble to learn the system for ordering a burger at a place whose menu offers 2,147,483,648 possible combinations of patties, rolls and toppings. (There’s a plaque with a mathematical proof of that number on the wall). “We can always tell when there’s a Blimpy virgin in the house,” says Magner.
The learning curve was steep but delicious, and my arteries regret to report that I’ve been back many times since.
Finishing off a burger yesterday afternoon, a customer named Hurvey wholeheartedly agreed that Blimpy grills up the best burgers in Ann Arbor.
“I’ve been eating at Blimpy Burger for 35 years, back when Krazy Jim worked the grill,” he said. “It’s part of the Michigan experience.”