There’s nothing more American than a good cheeseburger. Sixteen-year-old fry cook Lionel Sternberger, of Pasadena, California, invented the cheeseburger in 1926 when he experimented by putting a slice of American cheese on a sizzling hamburger. The rest is history.
I’ve been a cheeseburger lover for a long time. I’ve traveled around quite a bit and, unfortunately, I’ve discovered that many cheeseburgers are not up to my standards – and my standards are not unreasonably high. If the meat and cheese are good and the lettuce and tomato and pickles fresh, a burger will usually get a good grade from me. Sometimes, the burger tastes good, but it’s too small because of the restaurant owner’s stinginess. But I’ve never met a cheeseburger I didn’t like, at least a little bit.
Along my journeys, there have been a couple cheeseburgers that found their way, not only into my stomach, but into my heart. I actually loved the cheeseburgers I’ve eaten at a few select burger joints around the world.
I ate my favorite cheeseburger of all time at the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico. For more than 60 years, the Owl Cafe has attracted burger lovers to the middle of the desert for a world famous green chile cheeseburger. Believe me, it’s worth the trip. See www.socorro-nm.com/owlbar for more info.
Another great burger I ate was in Ontario, Canada – up north above Kingston somewhere. My girlfriend and I were taking a back road on our way back back to the U.S. and we stopped in a little town for lunch. Like the Owl Cafe, the place was nothing fancy – just a little lunch counter in the middle of nowhere. But the burger and fries were absolutely memorable.
I’m very happy to report that another world-class cheeseburger – in my personal top three – can be found right here in Pocahontas County.
Al’s Upper Inn Club has continued a reputation for consistently good cheeseburgers and good food. The club’s former owner, Lew Cumberlidge, passed away about two years ago. Lew set very high standards for the food that was served in his club. He always bought fresh, local ground beef and picked only the best ingredients for all of his dishes. I always enjoyed visiting the Upper Inn Club, eating a half-pound Angus burger, and chatting with Lou.
Following Lew’s death, I thought it was the end of great cheeseburgers in Pocahontas County. But I learned that Lew’s manager, Laura Dent, continued to manage the place after her family bought the business. Dent’s father, Al Palmer, is the new owner.
Before I had the opportunity to sample the food at Al’s Upper Inn Club, people told me that Dent was keeping up the same high standards that Lew had set. Now, after eating a burger at Al’s Upper Inn Club, I’m happy to say those reports were true.
I had a tough choice when Dent brought me my menu. I’ve always ordered the half-pound Angus burger, but this was April and ramp burgers were available. I couldn’t resist a ramp burger and also deviated from my normal order by ordering “crinkly fries” instead of standard fresh-cut fries.
The burger was delicious. The mellow flavor of ramps really complements a good cheeseburger.
Dent said everything is carefully measured to ensure a consistent product.
“We have the same recipe that Lew had,” she said. “We buy our meat local. We do portion control. We weigh the meat so that everybody gets the same size burger. Before a burger goes on the grill, the grill is cleaned between each order, so we have a nice, clean cooking surface. You’re not eating the remains of somebody else’s sandwich.”
Dent described some of the other menu items available at the club.
“We have basic bar food, appetizers, onion rings, french fries, mozzarella sticks,” she said. “We have really good, hot fried green beans – something we’ve recently added to the menu.”
Bar food is an inappropriate term for the delicious fare at Upper Inn. But the same attention to detail that goes into Upper Inn’s burgers goes into the club’s bar food.
“When we cook our food, we use a timer,” said Dent. “We make sure it gets cooked properly. If you order cheese cubes, they’re cooked right, they’re not overcooked and they’re not undercooked.”
Adult beverages are available at Upper Inn – after all, it is a bar. For microbrew lovers, Dent brought in a line of Leinenhugel’s beer, from Wisconsin, including the best wheat beer you’ll ever try. I never liked wheat beer until I had a Leinenhugel’s wheat at Upper Inn. The club also offers a nice variety of wine and mixed drinks.
The new owners gave the club exterior a much-needed facelift. A nice new sign and some trim painting has really done wonders. There are two tables on the sidewalk now, for smokers or diners who prefer patio dining. The club’s interior dining area has been expanded, with more tables in a previously unused area. The restrooms have been upgraded and everything is sparkling clean, just like Lou left it.
Al’s Upper Inn is right across the street from the Historic D&GVR Railroad Station in Durbin. Thousands of tourists visit Durbin every summer to ride the vintage Climax steam train. Dent hopes the spruced up exterior will attract more tourists into the club.
“I want everybody’s business, not just tourists,” she said. “People passing through and tourists are very welcome, but our best customers are local people who live here.”
Al’s Upper Inn Club is open for dining Monday through Thursday, noon till 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon till 11 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.