What do you think of when you hear “sauceburger”? If you’re under the age of 35, the word sauceburger probably just sounds like some drunken EpicMealTime escapade. But if you remember the legend that was The Burger House in East Ridge, the sauceburger is synonymous with a beautifully simple, but simply delicious hamburger in a plain white wrapper.
For a pre-teen boy in the early 1970s, a trip to The Burger House was like a visit to Willy Wonka’s burger factory. Shiny metal machines with slow-moving conveyor belts periodically pumped out wondrous delights. Steam rose from vats of bubbling brews and wondrous smells teased my cravings like Augustus Gloop at the Chocolate River. A man in a white paper hat would drop burgers onto one conveyor belt of the Insta-Broiler machine and the buns onto another. Time would stand still while I waited for the burgers to emerge from the other side and take a ride down their own little super slide into a pan of that legendary secret sauce. The sauce-covered patties were then slipped between the toasted buns and tucked into their own individual white sacks before being slid across the top of the broiler and bagged up to go. Once inside my parent’s wood-paneled Caprice station wagon, I would ceremoniously slide the burger out of its wrapper and take in the moment like I had just unhooked my first bra. The memories of those trips to The Burger House are special for me, my family and countless others who visited this legendary burger joint over the decades.
The Burger House was one of the original Burger King franchises opened in the late 1950s on Ringgold Road that changed its name to The Burger House in the early ’70s due to a split with the growing fast food giant. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the restaurant went through a few ownership changes before closing its doors for the final time. The building is still there, but it’s now a Dominos Pizza outlet. The french-fry eating squirrels that patrolled the parking lot are gone, as are the hair-netted ladies, both giving way to ambivalent teenagers making cheap pizza. But the saga of the sauceburger’s long, strange trip is definitely not over. This is clearly evident when you look at the “Bring Back the Burger House” Facebook group, where more than 1,200 Burger House sauce-freaks are still jonesing for the sauceburger monkey still on their tongues.
Their consistent, clarion call to bring back the sauceburger has been answered, but in a most unexpected way. David Spivey, the somewhat eccentric son of original Burger House owner Jack Spivey, teamed up with Matt Kerley to serve up sauceburgers for a mere $1 each at SkyZoo bar. If you‘re unfamiliar with SkyZoo, it’s the nightclub/tramp-stamp magnet on Brainerd Road in the old Red Lobster restaurant, an unholy marriage of the one-time king of middle-class dining and biker bar. It’s not the first place you would expect to find a classic like the sauceburger, but if you like your sauceburger with a shot of Jaeger and a game of pool, the kitchen is clean and the sauceburgers are pretty close to what I remember.
But when any beloved classic attempts a comeback, there are detractors. Some have said that the SkyZoo sauceburgers aren’t the same as the originals, and unfortunately I would have to agree; they are not exactly the same. But they are really close and they are really good and I will eat them every chance I get. The sauce itself had a familiar yet unique taste. A balanced hybrid of ketchup and barbecue sauce, it was tangy and sweet with a hint of smokiness that played well off the charbroiled burgers. Think sloppy joe sauce with an added kick.
The problem is that no one can ever reproduce the sauceburger exactly as it was at the Burger House. It’s like trying to make the cornbread like your granny used to make. Even if you use the same brand of buttermilk and the same cast-iron skillet, it never seems to be as good as you remember—there’s always something that is missing.
After all of the interviews and the sackfuls of sauceburger reproductions I’ve eaten over the past couple of weeks, I’m still ultimately dissatisfied and disappointed. Trying to recapture those tastes from the past is like trying to recapture a past love or a past success—futile and frustrating. The memories I have of The Burger House are not just memories of that taste, they are memories of being young and full of wonder, holding my parents’ hands while we ordered—it’s was the joy of doing something that was special to us. Removed from that context it’s just a burger with sloppy joe sauce. But to me and the thousands who grew up making The Burger House a regular part of our lives, it will always be something more. It will always be the sauce, the myth, the legend—the Sauceburger.
Mike McJunkin cooks better than you and eats quite a bit of very strange food. Visit his Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits) for updates and recipes.