Drive past Blimpy Burger’s new location on Ashley next to the Fleetwood Diner, and you might see a line of people snaking outside the front door, as it was almost every day of the frigid Thanksgiving break. It’s a testament to well over half a century of serving up burgers and customized attitude to U-M students and townsfolk. Old-timers were coming around in droves this past fall’s weekends to check out the new digs with the comfortably throwback decor and classic rock soundtrack.
Will today’s students trudge the extra half-dozen blocks from campus to build similar ties to Blimpy? That appears to be the hope. Though the new place has a few more tables and less accumulated grease, the spirit and details of the enterprise survived the move remarkably intact. The menu is still topped with a cartoon drawing of the old “Krazy Jim’s” building, complete with the wonderful wintertime snow bears. The new address has been penned in among profuse marketing proclamations jockeying for space on the menu and walls: “The Oldest Hamburger Stand in Ann Arbor, A Favorite Since 1953, Now Serving the 6th Generation of Blimpy Addicts,” etc.
“There Are More Than 2,147,483,648 Possible Blimpy Combinations” still produces a double take. Supposedly calculated by a U-M math major, it’s beyond my factorial ability to confirm. I did count four possible choices of buns, five choices of cheese, and a vast array of free condiments and extra-charge toppings. There are four sizes of burgers listed, ranging from the smallest “Double,” weighing in at 3.2 ounces of fresh-ground chuck, to the largest “Quint,” adding up to a half-pounder.
The chefs now making sliders as small-plate curiosities in upscale restaurants weren’t even born when Blimpy launched in the 1950s. You order from the counter, and watch the Ping-Pong-sized balls of nice red meat get plopped on the grill, flattened with a spatula, flipped, and scooped with meat juices and a bit of grease onto the bun. That part of the formula is straightforward and pleasing in its simplicity (no fussing about rare, medium, or well-done on these mini-patties). Their good flavor and texture are timeless.
Another standout is a deliciously warming bowl of chili, with a dark red smoky-sweet broth that has as much complex cinnamon-like spice as tomato flavor and just-right amounts of meat, onion, and beans. I also liked the hand-breaded onion rings, which are light on the coating. The fries were less pleasing, mainly because I didn’t get to enjoy them hot from the fryer. This seems to be a problem in Blimpy’s operational approach: the fry cook asks you for your order before the sandwich chef, and then your fried food comes up first and sits, as the seconds agonizingly tick into minutes, while your sandwich is finished and you pay and look for a seat and maybe even grab your fountain drink. The onion rings, crisped to caramel-brown sweetness, held up OK; the thick-cut fries, greasy in spots and undercooked in others, fared less well. Breaded vegetables also suffered as they cooled, which is too bad. Deep-fried mushrooms, zucchini, and cauliflower can be great, but mine here were doughy and not their sizzling best. Picking through them, my eye landed on the topmost slogan on the Blimpy menu: “Cheaper than Food.” The humor of it was lost in that moment, especially since our bill for lunch for four one afternoon teetered close to $50.
True to their brusque reputation, the line cooks grumbled about my condiment-ordering performance, in which I changed my mind once. Sorry, I felt like saying, but it’s not always easy knowing what combination of ketchup, mustard, and mayo I want on a burger I have not yet tasted. Why does the sandwich chef have to slow the line to apply condiments for us anyway, my companions and I wondered.
Blimpy’s likely isn’t at its best with non-regulars who haven’t developed a soft spot for its legendary “tough love” customer service. But I’m hoping they’ll decide to switch up the frying and grilling order at the bigger new place.
A half-mile east toward campus, a stone’s throw from the Diag, the new Hunter House Hamburgers has transformed the former White Market location on E. William into a burger joint so old-style that you almost expect the staff to be wearing bow ties and white paper caps. Instead, they wear blue baseball caps with H2A2 on the back, indicating the second iteration of the Hunter House nameplate. The original has been operating on Woodward in Birmingham since 1952 (a year before Blimpy Burger first opened its doors in Ann Arbor).
As at Blimpy, sliders are Job One here, with little burgers stacked as tall as you dare. At Hunter House, though, you can get a single–a two-ounce $2.10 one-patty hamburger–and you can have it with a made-to-order Stroh’s ice cream malt or milkshake with candy-bar mix-ins. Grilled hot dogs also are available, and they can be dressed up with a mild-flavored chili, cheese sauce, or special combos with cartoon names like “The Bad Dog,” with cheese, grilled onions, and bacon. I enjoyed the “Robcat Honey Burger” special burger, with cheese, onion rings, and Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce.
The low chrome-edged counter is inviting for a singleton checking out the place for the first time. A big chalkboard proclaims “Our butcher, baker, and ice cream maker all hail from Detroit.” Local sports and music memorabilia line the walls. Friendly staffers seem eager to talk up the very limited menu, bordering on oversell for what is essentially frozen tater tots and onion rings. To their credit, they did consistently maximize the appeal of these offerings by serving them up hot from the frier to the table. Still, a few veggies would be welcome here–lettuce, tomato, and raw onion slices for the burgers, at least. And maybe some coleslaw? A manager said a few more offerings should appear soon, like fried eggs and the currently very trendy chicken-and-waffle sandwiches.
I saw more kids at Blimpy Burger, but if I still had rug rats Hunter House would be my choice for its single-burger starting point, G-rated cheeriness, open space, and Motown-dominant soundtrack. Hunter House is the only place in Ann Arbor I’ve ever had a moment’s deja vu for the urban flair of Washington, D.C.’s Ben’s Chili Bowl. And Hunter House’s deceptively simple decor actually is more pedigreed than a quick glance might reveal. For instance, I walked by a couple of beat-up blue metal seats by the door several times before noting they came straight out of Tiger Stadium.
On the other hand, if you’re hankering for a variety of offerings, Blimpy has you covered with all the usual burger toppings, plus surprises like salami and olives (green or black). Blimpy also extends its range with seven reasonably priced beef-burger alternatives, like deep-fried cod and tarragon chicken.
Both these admirable slider shops represent southeastern Michigan success stories. They hold true to distinctive style statements. They don’t serve alcohol but stay open ridiculously late on weekends. And their hefty fare will satisfy your hunger on the even the coldest of Michigan days.
304 S. Ashley
Sandwiches $2.99-$7.80, soup and sides $2.25-$6.99, cookies and brownies $2.
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.- p.m. and sometimes on Sun.
609 E. William
Sandwiches $2.10-$4.75, sides $2-$3.25, shakes and malts $3.25 and up.
Mon.-Wed. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 a.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.