Billings Park Café is home to the better, bigger burgerSuperior cafe offers hand-formed patties on fresh bakery buns
By Tom Wilkowske
Elaine Hendrickson rolled big rigs down the nation’s highways for 20 years and up to countless short-order joints in 40 states. She’s no longer trucking, so lucky for her that her favorite joint in the whole U.S. — the Billings Park Cafe — is close to home.
The cafe , in the tiny business district of the Superior neighborhood, is also the home of her favorite cheeseburger: The Billings Park Burger.
Hendrickson, who works as a newspaper carrier, isn’t claiming the burger, or the rest of the restaurant, for that matter, is fancy. It’s just down-home good.
“It’s what I like. It’s like my mom used to make," she said.
Hendrickson and I met about 1 p.m. on a Tuesday; there were only two other customers in the place. We placed our orders and Hendrickson talked of how food played a role in relieving the tedium of the road. “I started trying more new foods everywhere I went,” she said, from a seafood buffet in Louisiana with alligator, shark and catfish five ways to her formerly favorite restaurant in Ohio (or was it Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Vermont?)
Hendrickson’s restaurant criteria are home-style quality, friendly service and generous portions. She said restaurants such as Old Country Buffet and Sammy’s Pizza in Cloquet also meet those standards.
When our burgers and fries arrived, Hendrickson did an unusual thing: She took a small metal ruler from her purse. The 1972 State Fair-issued Steelworkers premium did not lie: There were 4 1/4 inches worth of bun, hamburger patties, lettuce, tomato and mayo.
Then Henderickson took a knife and fork to her burger. “I know I have a big mouth but I can’t even open my mouth that big,” she said, explaining her use of utensils.
The burger, up to its usual standards, is good because “they’re well done but they’re still juicy for as big as they are,” she said.
Henderickson likes the fries, even though they’re not as crispy as standard restaurant fries. Their natural flavor makes up for it, she said. “They taste like real potatoes, can you imagine?”
Our burgers looked even taller than their 4-plus inches; I thought they’d topple over on their way from the grill to our table. With two hamburger patties weighing in at nearly a pound, this was the biggest cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten, hands down, and despite a wimpy bun, one of the best.
To get your mouth around it, you pretty much have to squeeze it down, mashing the bun. And what happens when you squeeze it? The juice, mayo, tomato (and mustard, if you, like me, can’t live with out it) squoosh out the sides, making one glorious mess.
The bun itself was tasty in an old-school, bakery-fresh sort of way but not physically up to the task of supporting such a big sandwich. The hamburger was fresh and good-tasting. The patties were done through (no pink) while retaining plenty of juiciness.
So it’s too much hamburger for one person. I know. I still ate the whole thing, along with the fries, which were neither floppy nor crispy but enjoyable and full of their potato heritage.
ABOUT THE DISH, RESTAURANT
The Billings Park Burger was created to satisfy the appetites of hungry Burlington Northern workers who frequented the place when co-owner Isadore Turner bought the restaurant in 1983.
“It’s for guys who can really eat, you know,” said Turner, who counts himself in that group. “I’ve got guys who’ll come in here and eat two of those Billings Burgers.”
If that’s not enough hamburger for you, consider the Izzy Burger. It has three patties.
Turner said the ground beef is bought fresh (not frozen) from Manion Foods in Superior; patties are hand-formed at 7 to 8 ounces each. The buns are made just down the street at the Billings Park Bakery. The fries are hand-cut potatoes, soaked in water and fried in canola oil (no pesky saturated fats or omega-6s to block things up), Turner said.
The Billings Park Cafe is a classic greasy spoon in every sense of the word. Metal-framed, vinyl-cushioned chairs. Worn formica counters. Plastic red and white checked tablecloths. Specials on the chalkboard and particle board peeking out in the entryway.
It’s also an operation on a shoestring budget — there’s no waitress Monday through Wednesday. The cooks and co-owners, Turner and his wife, Lori, wait tables during all but the busiest times of the week. Lori’s mom helps out regularly. "We’re a family operation," Isadore Turner said.
This review was originally published October 20, 2005.
Reach Tom Wilkowske at email@example.com.