A cheeseburger recommendation really shouldn’t change somebody’s life, but one changed mine. It happened 10 years ago, when I was chirping my praises of the Anchor Bar one day at work and my boss asked “Have you ever been to Gronk’s?” That shouldn’t have been a big deal; and, had Gronk’s not been flipping the best cheeseburgers in the whole world, I suppose it wouldn’t have been.
We’re not in that world, though. We’re in a world where the ground beef of the Gods comes to you on an upside-down bun, with an oily log jam of fries, and ham posing as bacon. It comes with a deep-fried slab of cheese, or chili, or the slather of beer cheese that makes your humble author’s heart melt. It comes bearing names like “Bacon Cheesy Cheese,” “Extreme Mushroom Swiss,” “Barnyard,” and “Kegger.”
Gronk’s is beyond compare and beyond grading. It’s the first place I stop when I visit home, and the last place I stop before I leave again. There is no contest. There is only Mother. Fucking. Gronk’s.
The Basics: Gronk’s bright orange sign shouts at you on Highway 53, about 10 minutes south of Superior. The website is right here and the menu has a top tab therein. I would have a summer wardrobe worth of their clothing, but the caveman is just too much for me. Replace the T-shirt logo with the dinosaur on the back door and start taking my money, already. On Wednesday’s, select Gronk’s cheeseburgers are buy-one-get-one-free – and yes, I do plan my trips up north around this.
Gronk’s has the area’s largest burger challenge, and here’s a story about a woman eating it IN LESS THAN EIGHT MINUTES.
From the back door, I could probably find my way to a table with my eyes closed. I’d figure five normal-sized steps past the “entertainment only” slot machines and the wooden beam on my left, where my cousin and I would loiter for pool games. One step too many, I might fall into that table and warp it even worse.
I’d turn left and go 12-15 steps along the bar – past the six-person tables to the right, where I’d hold Promethean meetings – to the glass case with the merchandise. I’d probably bust a kneecap or two in the dining room, but I’d find my seat.
I’d open my eyes to an idyllic Wisconsin bar, walls peppered with outdoorsy knickknacks and Packers paraphernalia, a fishing boat fixed into the ceiling. The dining room was added within the last few years, and looks nothing like the bar. The “old half” is smoky, dark, and dominated by rough wood; the “new half” is clean, luminous, and festooned with smooth, uniform planks. A stone gateway separates them.
(I just pictured the dining room designed like the bar with dark wood, bar lighting – maybe with lit lanterns – with the same decor it’s got now. It’s probably for the better they didn’t do it that way; I’d probably chain myself to that.)
I see this every time I’m in the Northland, usually before I land wherever I’m staying. I call my father when I get near, and he knows the plan. We grab a table, I talk about my job, he talks about his back, I make sure Grandma is still threatening to beat up people, he makes sure my wife’s family is well. I order a Leinie’s and he gets a pop.
The service at Gronk’s had taken a nosedive in previous years, but the sweetheart who served us on my last trip restored my faith in the team. It had been edging toward Anchor Bar bad before she saved the day. As you know, Anchor Bar bad only works at the Anchor Bar.
I’ve taken my turn with favorites over the years. In my uncouth college years, I’d slob on the open-faced chili cheeseburger. This isn’t the sacrilegious canned chili, either. This is chili that would win a tailgate cook-off, on a cheeseburger.
During my “I’m awkward and insecure anyway, let’s see how fat I can get!” phase, it would be two Mammoth Burgers in one night. The Mammoths are one patty, so big the restaurant has custom buns for them. The Mammoths are easier to eat than the Anchor’s Galley Busters; I’d be hungry sometimes after two. I’d occasionally order the patty melt if I was trying to look proper for somebody, or if (this never happens at Gronk’s) I wasn’t that hungry (nor this) for reasons I cannot right now recall.
Nowadays, the Bacon Beer Cheese Burger has my heart. They don’t ask if you want your burger well-done or medium-rare or yada-yada; you get it how you get it and it’s delicious. The outside is gently charred, and it holds itself together well. The beer cheese is a revelation. Imagine how much you love cream cheese (A LOT!), but add a tangy tongue-twist and a little more thickness. And, of course, the hammy bacon.
There’s nothing fancy about the bun. It doesn’t get in the way of what matters, and it doesn’t get stuck on your fingers. If an exquisite bun is what you’re after, go to a bakery.
I’ve never held one long enough to point at one.
I take my first bite and my muscles just give. The taste of Gronk’s has long surpassed the fireworks and foodie puppy love. There’s just this little moment of attainment, the relaxation of a long-stewing hunger, the fulfillment of a long journey home. There are about a dozen more bites, and it’s gone.
“Yep,” I think to myself. “Still the best.” Everybody in the Twin Cities makes a good cheeseburger now, but nobody down here makes this.
It’ll sit in my stomach for a bit, then make its way back to my dreams.
Editor’s note: This post was updated September 14, 2016, to fix a photo issue.