Thursday, January 19, 2012

Burger joint of the week: The Hop on Cantrell

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2012 at 7:08 AM

INDULGENT:  A chili cheeseburger from The Hop.
My first question: will there be competition between the two locations in Little Rock known as The Hop? Because yes indeed, right now there are two different restaurants offering burgers, fries and shakes with the same name that aren’t connected to each other.

Indeed, this incarnation of The Hop Drive In on Cantrell Road is being run by the same folks that run Bob and Scottie’s Dairy Barn in Benton. And let me tell you, this is a very, very good thing.

UPDATE: A little more about the owners: Two years ago Bob and Scottie Viall opened Bob and Scottie’s Dairy Barn in the old Garry’s Drive-In space in Benton (a legendary locale, where, Scottie said proudly, a scene in “Slingblade” was filmed). Last year, the landlord for The Hop space recruited the Vialls to expand into Little Rock and about three weeks ago they opened. The menu is nearly identical at Bob and Scottie's and The Hop, Scottie said, but added that she and her husband plan to serve the barbecue sandwich that’s popular in Benton in Little Rock as soon as they can add some equipment.

The Hop has switched hands, closed, operated as not The Hop but as Hunka Pie for a while and closed again. In fact, I was very surprised when people started pinging me and asking me what the deal was with The Hop. Well, I’ve never been known to turn a burger down, right?

I headed over one afternoon to place an order for the family. Several other cars stopped in while I was there, probably just as curious as I had been.

I ordered up a couple of combos for me and the hubster and a cheeseburger kids meal for the girl child and headed home. I thought about a milkshake, but figured that’d wait for another time. I am actually trying to cut down on my daily intake.

I get home and open up our meals, and this is what I found — three burgers, a lot of fries, three drinks and a budding sensation of “hey, I think this version of The Hop is gonna make it.” And here’s why.

Let’s start with the kids meal. Hunter’s burger and fries were served up in a box. Her kid size order of fries was substantial (which is good, since she can go to town on some fries). She received a three ounce burger patty with ketchup, mustard and pickle and a slice of American cheese. And it was yummy, she told me. Of course, she’s three, so take that into account.

So the hubster’s burger… he always orders his with just cheese, lettuce and ketchup and The Hop kindly obliged with a cheeseburger. I got him the larger one — the seven ounce patty as opposed to the four ounce patty (Cheeseburger is $3.60/4 ounce or $4.60/7 ounce, combo is an additional $2.50). The medium-cooked burger had a nice pleasant crust to it, with notes of salt and pepper and dried onion. The patty had been cooked on the old flat griddle that’s been there through at least the last couple of restaurant incarnations in that location. Unlike previous burgers cooked there, it had been cooked under an aluminum steamer top, and this seemed to give the patty a bit more moisture. The hubster says it’s one of the best burgers he’s enjoyed in town.

There are several extras offered for The Hop’s traditional burgers — bacon (.70), BBQ sauce (a quarter), homemade chili (.80), jalapeno peppers (.60), extra cheese (.40), extra tomato (.30), mushrooms (.50) and grilled onions (.40). There are also several specialty burgers listed on the menu with a price difference for the size of the burger patty. The choices include a Patty Melt, a Mushroom Swiss burger, a Rodeo burger, a BBQ Bacon Cheddar burger, a Pizza burger and something called a Catfish burger. I should have asked about that last one.

Me? The main reason I didn’t get an ice cream delicacy was because I wanted to splurge on a Chili Cheeseburger ($4.50/5.50). The idea of homemade chili just set off the lovely bells and whistles in my head, and it has been some time since I had splurged so.

And oh my… it was a brave chili cheeseburger. Mustard on both slightly toasted buns. Raw white onion chips. A deeply red chili packed with tomatoes and chili powder and plenty of ground beef. What cheese had been part of the burger had become incorporated into the chili mass and was acting as a salty glue for it all. It was served in its own separate Styrofoam box (as opposed to the hubster’s burger, served in the traditional wax paper) for convenience and ease of handling, and thank goodness for that, because can you imagine the wet red mess that chili would have made everywhere?

It was bold and strong. The raw onions would later be a strong palatial memory in my gullet, but with the cooked onions already in the chili and the assumed onion seasoning in the burger patty itself completed a symphony of bright, pungent and mellow flavors that blended beautifully. If I were to make this burger myself, the only change I would make would to be to lower the quotient of mustard; one bun’s worth was sufficient. Two was a bit much.

The Hop does offer a lot more than burgers. There are a variety of “dawgs” (Polish, corn, footlong, chili) and sandwiches (fish, fried steak, ham and cheese and a Razorback Club with mayo, ham, turkey, bacon, American and Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato) along with a variety of fried side items. And there are several ice cream confections — including a banana split, milkshakes and sundaes. The restaurant does have one of those flavor-add machines that puts a syrup of your choice of flavors into your soft-serve.

The Hop is where it always was, right there at 7706 Cantrell Road, just down the way from where Burger Mama’s will soon take over the old Eastern Flames. It’s open Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. The new phone number is (501) 228-5556.

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