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Call it the tale of two burgers, but you’ll never get us to say one’s the best and one’s the worst.
I’ll just say that mama is selling a lot of hamburgers in Little Rock these days.
There’s Burger Mama’s Bar and Grill at 10721 Kanis Road. And there’s Mama Bea’s Big Burgers at 5900 West 12th.
Didn’t Burger Mama’s used to be Mama Bea’s? And didn’t Mama Bea’s used to be on Asher? Is there a difference? Yes and yes and yes.
To begin at the beginning. About 23 years ago, “Mama Bea” Byrd, now 80, turned on a grill in her husband Willie’s tire repair shop on Asher Avenue and began turning out burgers as big as the hubcaps he pried off flat tires. They were tasty. Word got around.
Things went so well, in fact, that Mama Bea and daughters moved the business to the Alley Oops restaurant’s former location at Kanis and Shackleford. In time, though, some of the daughters decided to go different directions. Not quite a year ago, two daughters -– Willie Moore and Karen Starks — took the Mama Bea’s name to the building originally built for a Dairy Queen on 12th Street. You’ll find Mama Bea behind the lunch counter there most days. Daughter Lisa Byrd and her partner Delphia Jones took over on Kanis, renaming the spot Burger Mama’s.
Enough genealogy. Let’s get down to food. Burgers are headliners, duh, and at either place you can start small, go jumbo and then double or triple up. I think the jumbo is the preferred stopping point, six ounces at least and probably more, because both places hand-form thick patties for oversized buns.
I mean no disrespect to the genial operators of both restaurants in saying the product is very similar. I thought Burger Mama finished the bun better, with a bit more grilling that left the outside glistening with a touch of grease ($4.25 for just the burger). I thought Mama Bea ($5.99 for a jumbo burger, fries and soft drink) put a bit more crust on the meat, the way I like, and seasoned it a touch more. The toppings were just fine and the same both places –- all the way meant mustard and mayo and iceberg lettuce and onion and tomato. Either is a fine, messy double handful. And at both places, mayo really means a slightly sweeter salad dressing, like Miracle Whip, which seems a perfect fit for a fully dressed burger.
Fries are poured out of a sack into the fryer at both places –- crinkle cuts at Burger Mama’s and straight-cut thick fries at Mama Bea’s. Both places fry well. The finished product is smoking hot and almost crisp enough on the outside, maybe closer to perfect on the crinkle cuts.
The good frying suggests that both places are justifiably proud of their fried catfish and chicken wings. Mama Bea’s claims mama’s original coating appears on their wings and says the restaurant probably sells more chicken than burgers. An eight-piece order of “drumettes” costs $4.99.
The menus are similar. Both include foot-long chili dogs (sold out when we visited Mama Bea’s) and chili Frito pie (at Burger Mama’s a healthy — make that large, if not so healthy — portion of chips, chunky chili and cheese dip.)
Don’t look for fancy eating or a fancy setting at either place, even if both represent a long step up from a tire shop (still in the family and now operated by one of Mama Bea’s sons). But the long run of the businesses suggests there are many happy customers.
There’s table service and an outdoor area for smokers at Burger Mama’s. You order at the counter at Mama Bea’s, which gets a big noontime crowd and sometimes can get a bit discombobulated as a result. (They ran out of forks one day.) We were served a burger in what seemed like seconds at Burger Mama’s, but we visited on a quiet Saturday. Both places caution that you’ll have to wait a few minutes for fried chicken.
Sweet touches: At Mama Bea’s they include moist home-made cakes, Bundt-style chocolate and lemon, sliced VERY thick. At Burger Mama’s, they fry home-made apple and peach pies and also put what seems like a pint of ice cream in thick, enormous homemade milk shakes, a bargain for two at $2.49.
One other key difference: Burger Mama’s serves alcohol in generous measure. The happy hour is 4-7 p.m. “Fish-bowl” mugs of margaritas go for $5. Draft beer is a buck. And free snacks are served -– wings, fried mushrooms and nachos, for example. Mama Bea serves on the Mothers Board at her Baptist church, so don’t expect the addition of an alcohol permit on 12th Street any time soon.
Split the difference: For a filling lunch or a takeout dinner, try Mama Bea’s. And be sure to say hello to Mama Bea. After a long day, kick back at Burger Mama’s with a margarita and some sports on the big-screen TVs. If you’re in a hurry, both spots have drive-through windows.
5900 W. 12th St.
Burgers, of course. Unexpected pleasure: Crunchy fried okra and a polish sausage with kraut.
10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Mon.-Sat.
Inexpensive. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.
Bar and Grill
10721 Kanis Road
Burgers, of course. Unexpected pleasure: Homemade vegetable beef soup.
10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-8 p.m. Sunday.
Inexpensive. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.