Unlike at the DMV, where you wait in boredom for your turn with bureaucratic tedium, a line at a restaurant is an exercise in anticipation. At the back, all you can see are patrons’ heads, all bobbing and buzzing like excited electrons. Closer up, maybe you hear the clang of a spatula scraping against the grill, or the sweet smell of frying onions. You finally get to the front, and all those anxious minutes of obsessing over the minutiae of your meal — Fries or onion rings? Mustard AND mayo? Do I dare? — come to the ultimate conclusion.
If I sound a little hyperbolic, it’s because waiting in line can make even the most cynical, food-is-fuel person start waxing poetic about how many pickle slices they want on their burger. In our era of online ordering and pre-made everything, having to wait is a shock to the system.
If you’ve spent any time in Ann Arbor, you probably know where I’m going with this. Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger, founded in 1953 and recently reopened in its new location on South Ashley, is a local institution. Its attitude towards food is best summed up in the mantra written on the wall: “We have a fat free item on the menu … It’s called water!” Every travel and food show has done a segment there. It’s pretty much every student’s favorite burger joint.
It’s also the ultimate wait-for-your-food kind of place. You wait, and wait and even when you have some of your food you wait some more. I’ll put it plainly: Blimpy Burger is a pain in the ass. But that’s why I love it.
The idea for this column came to me when I was in line at Blimpy on a rainy afternoon the other day. It had taken about ten minutes for the line to allow me to even enter the restaurant, and another twenty to allow me to even see the cooking area. Having skipped breakfast in preparation, I was already peckish when I arrived, but after a half hour of waiting I began to eye the flock of plump tourists in front of me like a hungry wolf. Doing some quick math in my head, I calculated that we still had about twenty more minutes to go.
“Is this really worth it?” I thought.
It’s an honest question. The process of getting your food at Blimpy can be exasperating, because the line moves with the food. When you reach the far end of the cooking area, you grab a tray and the guy manning the fryer asks you if you want anything dunked in the hot vat. You can get fries, onion rings or mixed vegetables, which are both delicious and humorous, as if Krazy Jim himself once said “You want vegetables? I’ll give ya vegetables.”
By the time these junkified veggies are on your tray, the indefatigable grill guy is ready for you. There’s a specific way of ordering; you tell the grillmaster how many patties you want, what kind of bun and if you want any grilled items, like onions or bacon. If you mention cheese or condiments, you’ll get a terse “Those come later!” In fact, if you ask anything, you might get a “Calm down, I know how to cook.”
By the time your burger gets those condiments and you’ve paid and sat down, at least 45 minutes have elapsed. And then you take a bite.
It’s good. The patties have a nice, old-fashioned beefiness. The onion roll is more interesting than any supermarket one. The onions and mushrooms have that umami-charged flavor that can only come from being cooked on the same surface as burgers, bacon and bleu cheese. In a vacuum, it’s a really nice burger. Not life-changing, just solidly good.
But therein lies the point. You don’t eat Blimpy in a vacuum. I doubt that if you sent someone to pick up a burger and bring it back for you to eat in bed, it would taste as good. It’s a pain in the ass, but that’s what makes it taste good.
There’s more to it than the whole “abstinence makes the stomach growl louder” spiel that I gave in the beginning, although that’s certainly a factor in the appeal of Blimpy. The system they have, with the trays and the moving along the stations of the kitchen, is unique. I’ve never seen it done anywhere else. So already, Blimpy sets itself apart from other burger joints — it’s identifiable as “that place.”
Then there’s the effort factor. Not the effort of waiting in line, but the effort that goes into cooking the food. The three people behind the counter take on a seemingly endless line of customers, each with their own complicated order, and nothing gets written down. As a customer you are forced to watch everything — the splattering grease, the bending and reaching into lowboys and shelves — that goes into making your meal. I hate to sound hokey, but having seen this strenuous, confusing work, it’s hard to not appreciate your food a bit more than usual.
I am glad that the new Blimpy Burger now accepts credit cards. But I’m happier that the new Blimpy is just as much of a pain in the ass as the old one.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.