The Indy Burger Guy visited The Workingman’s Friend on Friday, December 23, 2016.
There is truly something to be said for a mainstay location. They are able to stand the test of time more on the quality of their product than anything else – after all, if the product isn’t quality, it’s going to be next to impossible to inspire loyalty in the customer base. Especially when we’re talking about the kind of loyalty engendered by The Workingman’s Friend on Indy’s near west side.
The Workingman’s Friend is a Central Indiana mainstay, having opened its doors almost a hundred years ago in 1918. Since then, the restaurant – part greasy spoon, part dive bar – has stayed in the Stamatkin family and has been serving up burgers that are consistently named among Indy’s favorite! In fact, beyond just being a favorite for Indy residents, Workingman’s Friend has been recognized nationally as one of the best burgers in America by organizations like Business Insider, Thrillist, Local Eats, Eater, Serious Eats, theChive, Purewow, TimeOut, and the Daily Meal and been the subject for food bloggers like Hoosier Burger Boy (an Indiana native now living in California and, truth to tell, an inspiration for this blog as well) and Michael W Travels.
Ever since this venue first came to my attention a few years back (I’ll admit – I didn’t even know it existed until it made Thrillist’s list), it’s been on my radar as a ‘must-go’ burger spot. The only issue with that is the fact that, whenever I happen to be off-work and burger-ready, The Workingman’s Friend is closed. They never stay open later than 8pm and, even then, only on Friday. Monday through Thursday, they close at 5pm and, on Saturdays, 3pm. Not conducive to someone who works midshift hours (or even first shift, for that matter) and the occasional Saturday.
The Friday before Christmas, though, I finally got my opening. I had been trying since after Thanksgiving to get in, to no avail. Anytime I was free, they were closed. Plus, I’d been wanting to visit Indy’s oldest burger joint before Indy’s bicentennial year was through and, thanks to their not closing for the Christmas holiday until the 24th, the 23rd was my day! Huzzah!
I arrived shortly after noon to find the parking lot packed. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with the idea to grab a pre-holiday burger! After I finally found a parking spot, I made my way into the building through a single white door along the building’s side. (There’s a front door also, but it’s more for those parking along Belmont Ave. rather than the parking lot.) The tavern itself was built in the mid-forties and, with the exception of a few flatscreens inside, it certainly looks it.
Very little has likely changed since the building was put up. There are a number of formica-topped tables with red diner chairs – seating for about 50 or so – though not all of those chairs were spoken for when I walked in. Rather than monopolize a whole four-top during what was clearly the lunch rush, I sauntered up to the long wooden bar taking up the entirety of the far wall. Seating myself a few seats away from a man in military fatigues, I wasn’t waiting long before the bartender came my way.
Our exchange went something like this:
HER: “Hi, have you ever been here before?”
ME: “I have not.”
HER: “Well, our double cheeseburgers are to die for and I do need to let you know we are cash only*.”
ME: “No problem. I’ll go ahead and take a double cheeseburger. What comes on that?”
HER: “Lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and mayo.”
ME: “Perfect! Now, for the side, would you recommend the fries or the onion rings?”
HER: “Well, the onion rings are my favorite…”
ME: “Great! I’ll take those!”
I also ordered a frosted chalice of Budweiser which, even for a beer snob like myself, was surprisingly refreshing. Something about the ice cold chalice, I think, or perhaps the setting in general.
I wasn’t waiting long before she returned with my burger. It wasn’t a pretty burger, but boy, did it look tasty! This is a serious burger: two quarter-pound smashed fresh beef patties covered in melted American cheese with a hamburger bun in between them. (More on this point in a bit.) Below the bottom patty were the toppings – shredded iceberg lettuce, a tomato slice, mayo, and onions. Four pickle slices sat off to the side, which I arranged between the top patty and the ‘middle bun.’
Now, if you’ve read my blog you might know my feelings on ‘middle buns’ – that extraneous bun that comes between the two patties on certain double cheeseburgers. I’ve encountered these burgers twice before – my very first review, The Twin Steer @ The Historic Steer-In, and again with the Double Cheeseburger @ Mug-N-Bun – and, on both occasions, the ‘middle bun’ was superfluous, an unnecessary obstacle to the MTB Ratio and, with it, full burger enjoyment.
That wasn’t the case with the Double at Workingman’s Friend, however. The beauty of the smashed patty is the excess of oily, greasy goodness, which is, naturally, doubled in a Double Cheeseburger. What the ‘middle bun’ at WMF accomplishes, though, is a kind of ‘moist-maker’ – a bun that serves to absorb the grease from the smashed patty burgers and slowly dissolves into the burger itself, imparting the beef essence even further into the burger. It’s an amazing thing and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before with a ‘middle bun.’ The Workingman’s Friend has not only perfected the ‘middle bun,’ but elevated it to another plane entirely.
The beef was magnificent. Fresh ground beef, most likely ground and hand-pattied back in the kitchen, smashed almost flat on a well-seasoned flattop griddle – likely the same one that’s been there since the place has been opened. This makes the edges nice and crispy, while leaving the middle thick and juicy enough to be supremely satisfying. The American cheese is melted perfectly, oozy and melty and delicious.
With the exception of one, the toppings were pretty standard: shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo. But the real standout of this burger, for me anyway, was the pickle, which triggered a major nostalgia moment for me. These were the same kind of cheap dill pickle chips I remember my mother buying when I was younger – tart, salty, sour, and crunchy. This was the pickle of my youth… and now I’m tasting it as part of an amazing burger. It was like eating it for the first time. Placing them, as I did, on top of the ‘middle bun’ allowed some of that pickle juice to seep in as well, allowing for a greater spread of that great flavor.
There was a moment, while eating this burger, right about the middle, when I attained a state of ‘burger bliss’ – so taken was I with the freshness and quality of the beef, the beautiful marriage of the ‘middle bun,’ the gooiness of that cheese, and that wonderful tang from the pickle. This was a transcendent burger experience, to be sure. In fact, Workingman’s Friend has the tastiest burger I’ve yet encountered here in Indianapolis, hands down!
A word about the onion rings: these are some of the best onion rings I’ve ever had in my life! Large, battered, and able to stay intact (which, for me, is the defining characteristic of a ‘good’ onion ring), these are the ultimate pairing with this burger. And, as I said above, even the chalice of Budweiser (which I would normally not go in for) was so perfect a match for everything else on the plate. This was not just another burger – this was an experience!
If you’ve not been, and can find your way down on a day that they’re open, head over to The Workingman’s Friend and grab yourself one fantastic burger!
FINAL RANKING: 9.2/10
The Workingman’s Friend
234 N. Belmont Ave.
Indianapolis, IN 46222
The Workingman’s Friend on Facebook
Cost Range: $ ($6 and under)