Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

standing room only

In the world of food, few things are as simple, and as good, as a quality burger.

The best burger I’d ever had, I had kind of by accident. While driving from Bakersfield, California (my home before Fargo) to Fargo, I passed through a little town in northern Wyoming called Buffalo. It was dark (7:30ish pm), so I decided it was time to stop for food. Buffalo is a town of a few thousand, and the first place I saw was the classic fast food joint, McDonald’s. But then a thought passed though my head: I’m in Wyoming. I want a real burger or steak.

So I stopped at a place attached to a Motel 6 (which I probably should have stayed at instead of a $115 room in Gillette, 60 miles east) called the Bozeman Trail Steakhouse. It had a very western feel, with dark wood tables and booths, and country music playing over the speakers. I ordered the first burger my eye stopped at, the Buffalo burger (and this was real buffalo meat), which came only with a slice of American cheese. It came to my table, medium rare, as all wild game should be, with waffle fries and a Coke.  It was perhaps the most perfect burger I’d ever eaten, taking the top spot from Detroit-area landmark Miller’s Bar (where lesser burgers go to worship).

In the past year or so, Fargo has gained a new burger joint. Tired of the chained and franchised burgers that permeate Fargo’s food scene, local brothers Randy and Lance Thorson opened their dream bar, JL Beers (in tribute to a friend of theirs) downtown. Their motto, “Seating for 25,000–24 at a time” is both amusing and on purpose. The bar is small.  Almost every time I’ve been, it’s packed.  There are a few tables at the downtown location but most of the seating space is at the bar itself. Both the downtown and West Fargo locations (West Fargo is bigger and has a few more tables–they can hold 49 instead of 24) have patios. The small size promotes a big-city bar feel and a community vibe at the same time.

Each location has an unmistakeable figurehead: a counter with 40 beers on tap at all times, and they’re always changing. The bartenders are one step down from a sommelier (they’re called “beer advisors” in the menu), and it’s nice to see that in a bar. Every recommendation I’ve even been given has been both spot-on and wonderful.  I’ve had some amazing brews there, but my favorite part of the place’s selection is that they keep at least three Bell’s beers on tap at all times, including Two-Hearted Ale, an India Pale Ale named for Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” which he wrote while living in Michigan.

The real highlight, however, is the food.

They serve burgers, fresh-cut fries, and house-cut chips. The chips are special because I’ve watched them slice an entire potato on a spiral slicer and then introduce the spud immediately to the fryer. One of the specials of the house is the Buffalo Blu Chips, which involves tossing the fresh-fried chips with buffalo sauce and then covering with crumbled maytag blue cheese. Each location has unique food specials and also different beer lineups.

The burgers are something special. My personal favorite, the Ragin’ Cajun, is spicy and powerful, and goes perfectly with the Buffalo Blu Chips and a good wheat beer. Their Humpty Dumpty burger, which is essentially a cheeseburger with a fried egg, is excellent, as is the BLT Blue (a BLT burger with blue cheese), and the house signature burger, the JL (two patties with grilled onions, cheese, and thousand island dressing).

Probably my favorite part of the place, however, is the atmosphere.  I hate bars that don’t serve food, and bars that exist solely for the purpose of serving alcohol just don’t really do it for me. On random occasions, I’ve run into the Mayor of the city, a former US Senator, The Hotel Donaldson‘s rising star Chef Tim Fischer (before I knew he was the chef at the Hotel Donaldson), and local television news personalities taking a break between newscasts.

The staff is friendly and always ready to talk about sports, current events, and beer trends. It makes a guy like me feel warm inside to know that there’s hope yet for this overdeveloped, overchained piece of land in the middle of nowhere.

Or maybe that’s just the beer.

JL Beers is at 518 1st Avenue N in Fargo, and JL Beers West Fargo is at 810 13th Avenue E in West Fargo.


1 Comment»

  Searching for Tony Bourdain wrote @

You forgot to talk about the buffalos buffing. -M

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