Parked on the side of Highway 64 in the little North Carolina town of Siler City, a small brick building with huge front windows houses a family owned restaurant known as Johnson’s. It has been a mainstay in the area since 1946, when the road in front of the eatery was still unpaved. To this day it attracts a crowd most anytime the doors are open for business. Their menu is limited, but nobody seems to care. It is a good reminder that sometimes simple things are the best. Most customers come for the cheeseburgers, and in fact some drive miles just to see what all the fuss is about.
Johnson’s makes my short list in the search for cheeseburger excellence, and here is why. For starters, it was one of the local hotspots for lunch during my adolescent years. You can probably recall a favorite watering hole or two that was or is special to you. Whether it is a restaurant, a bar, a gym, a park – or even Main Street after dark as it often was in our small town – these were places where we gathered with our peeps (not the marshmallow Easter kind). We had no real agenda but to enjoy the moment and made lasting memories nonetheless. Johnson’s has been and is one of those places for many people in the region.
Be warned: you may want to plan the timing of your arrival. Johnson’s has only a few booths and maybe a dozen barstools for seating. The place begins to fill shortly after it opens at 10 a.m. so if you arrive after 11:30, there is a good chance you’ll stand in line waiting for a space to open. That is all well and good, except that nobody ever seems to be in a hurry to leave! If you have friends already sitting down, you may want to try and stuff one more body in a booth built for four average-sized adults. If your time is limited, just make your order to go. Times eating with friends created good memories in my youth, but that isn’t why Johnson’s makes my list.
Many moons ago before college and all the rest, I took a 3rd shift job at a convenience store located on the lot next to the restaurant. A member of their family often dropped by late at night (or very early in the morning, depending on your point of view) for a cup of coffee. These frequent visits led to conversations that grew and deepened in time. After all, who wouldn’t want to be on good terms with the area’s premier burgermeister, right? At some point and for reasons I don’t remember, I was invited to come over to the restaurant at the end of my shift (usually around 7:00 -7:30 a.m.). The front door was still locked. The business was closed. I was advised to enter through a side door. Once inside I would take a seat at the counter. It felt like a privilege to be allowed into the inner sanctuary of this burger shrine prior to its opening. Like a backstage concert pass or a VIP credential at a conference, it felt special to go behind the scenes.
At that early hour, the family was involved in food prep for the day’s expected rush. They would pour a cup of sweet iced tea (which, by the way, in North Carolina can substitute for syrup in a pinch), and I would watch them work. Fresh tea was made. Condiments for the day were prepared. But the most fascinating part was their work with burgers. The family inspected and purchased fresh sides of beef and ground it into their own hamburger. Ground beef just doesn’t get any fresher than that! By the time I arrived they were taking handfuls of the meat and forming uniform-sized balls which they would place in plastic tubs. As they shaped the balls and added them to the collection, we talked. About what? I have absolutely no recollection. But any day that I worked and had the opportunity, Johnson’s was my first stop after the night shift.
Those tubs of ground beef supplied the meat for that day’s business. It was ready to be grabbed and slapped onto the grill, pressed out into a near-perfect round disk as the orders came in. I can still hear the sound of meat sizzling over the heat. My memory even recreates the smell that rose from that grill. I have no idea how many balls they prepare for each day, but regular customers know that once that supply is exhausted, there are no more burgers that day. Johnson’s typically is closing by 2 p.m. (So if you’re coming from a long distance, don’t ever plan to go there for dinner!) In a frenetic world where “one more sale” is the default mode of operation, there is something refreshing when someone recognizes there is such a thing as “enough,” decides what it is they need to succeed, and then STOPS at that point rather than continue running on the treadmill in the hope to get just a little more. Of course, while I think it is refreshing, you may feel differently if you arrive at the restaurant just after the last burger has been sold.
Those days when the Johnsons allowed me to enjoy those private morning visits to the inner sanctuary, whenever the burger balls were all apportioned, one of the two Johnson men would slap a couple of burgers on the grill for me and we’d continue to talk while they cooked. If this seems like a strange breakfast, it was, only for my 3rd shift schedule it was more like dinner. Here are the key ingredients in those memorable cheeseburgers:
Fresh meat. Really, the fate of any good burger begins here. Start with poor quality meat and you may as well lower your expectations. I remember a friend involved with purchasing food for an elementary school express his shock at receiving a box of meat labeled with a number and the words “fit for human consumption.” He promptly changed the school’s order for future purchases! Even in our supermarkets, not all hamburgers are created equal. Frozen patties give a different taste than fresh ones. Too much fat content and the flavor suffers. That is also true if the hamburger is too lean. Just know that when it comes to food, quality matters on multiple levels!
Salt. I never saw the Johnsons use any other seasoning on their burgers but salt. No meat tenderizers. No flavored mixes to alter the taste. In my own experience of grilling and smoking meats, I have to say that little else is needed with good quality meat unless you’re trying to create a particular flavor profile. Salting the meat is really a matter of bringing its true flavor out. It worked wonders on Johnson’s cheeseburgers!
Cheese. At Johnson’s, there is only one choice! Years ago they settled on a cheese that melts easily and runs over the burger. In addition to creating the balls of fresh meat each morning, one of the preparation rituals was pulling out a block of Velveeta cheese and placing it within reach of the grill. As I understand it, originally Velveeta was real cheese. These days, it is called cheese product. I won’t pretend this is a healthy choice, but it is still scrumptious in a bold sort of way when it melts over the burger. At Johnson’s, they cut a healthy slice from the block. When the time is right, it is laid on the nearly-cooked burger. The top half of the bun is then placed on top of the cheese while the meat finishes it final seconds of cooking.
Eat it while it is hot. Some foods are just better immediately after they come off the heat. These cheeseburgers are one of those foods. In fact, I’ve known the Johnsons to remake a customer’s burger if they thought it cooled before the customer had a chance to eat it.
Other fixings include lettuce, tomato, slaw, chili, onions. People will argue until their burgers are cold as to what makes the best combination. Many of us from that area are partial to having our burgers (and hot dogs for that matter) served “all the way.” I have no idea “all the way” to where, but we all know what it means! Order it that way and you’ll get something like mustard, slaw, chili, and onions. Here, I must give a caution to readers. In Indiana where I now live, I find it almost impossible to convince people to eat slaw on a sandwich. One restaurant cook refused to put slaw on my cheeseburger, saying she just couldn’t bring herself to do that to a burger. She served my slaw on the side with a spoon so I could add it myself. Our server stood by to watch me do it, her mouth gaping in disbelief. When Judi and I hosted a cookout celebrating the completion of my doctorate, we put up instructions on how to prepare hamburgers and hotdogs with slaw. Most everyone still treated slaw as a side dish requiring a fork! It is hard to teach an old Hoosier new tricks! The good news is that if you start with good meat, a little salt, and a slab of Velveeta melted on top, you can vary the rest and still have a burger that will melt in your mouth.
Over time, at Johnson’s, my favorite order became a cheeseburger with mustard, tomato, and a bun-sized slab of onion. All three ingredients add their own twang to the bite. I have found that eating that much onion encourages social distancing for the next several hours, so you might consider adding that to your burger, at least for the next few months! Just sayin’ . . . you’ve got to take precautions where you can!
Remembering Johnson’s cheeseburgers makes my mouth water. That is true for a lot of people. I am probably not the only one for whom the taste of that good, simple burger is enhanced by the side of nostalgia that comes with recalling those visits. It provided a chance to hang out with friends over food, which is a great source for creating lasting memories. After those long 3rd shift nights, Johnson’s offered a respite to relax and take a load off of my feet. It reminds me that sometimes, good things come to those who wait. Waiting, resting, talking, laughing, and ultimately feasting – all are simple ingredients that create deep, lasting memories that make you want to come back for more.
Funny thing about nostalgia. It is also a bit like onions. It lingers and stays with you for a while. It comforts. It entertains. It may make you sad at times. Memories like those even help keep you company during stay-at-home orders and social distancing. It is always a blessing when the things you recall warm your heart and put a smile on your face. That is not always the case with nostalgia, and some of us face bigger challenges in this regard than others for all manner of reasons. So, wherever possible, make an effort to use quality ingredients in the stuff that fills your life. It increases the odds that if you enjoyed it the first time, chances are you will like recalling it later.
I’m off to fire up the grill. I just hope there’s some Velveeta in our fridge!