It was while backpacking along Ghana’s Gold Coast, hungry and waiting out a thunderstorm under the verandah of a grass hut, when the thought struck me: I could sure use a decent hamburger right now. I hadn’t had one in months—hadn’t had anything besides fried rice in months, actually—and nostalgic hunger pains from home had been seeping in for quite some time.
Throughout the Ghana semester, my roommate and I indulged in a particular episode of How I Met Your Mother any time our longing for American cuisine got the better of us. “The Best Burger in New York” recounts Marshall Eriksen rallying the gang to track down the best burger he’d ever had from years ago. I’d see that steaming burger and my mind would drift to my own favorite eatery from back home, a lowly chicken-hatchery-turned-burger-joint in Walker, Michigan known only by locals as Bud’s Hamburg.
It’s hard to describe the old Bud’s in brevity. It had fewer square feet than a one-stall garage. The ceiling tiles were stained with grease. The sign at the door read, “This is not Burger King. You don’t have it your way. You take it Bud’s way.” This was true. There were two items on the menu, a “hamburg” and a “cheeseburg,” and piqued heads would turn if you ever tried to customize Bud’s methodical technique. Bud himself had to be approaching his ninth decade of resolute, putzy grilling, but he never seemed fazed by the lifestyle of steam and grease. The hamburgs were decent—if you could get one. Bud’s was only open about three hours a week, from 11-2 on Saturdays. In any case, the place had kind of a gritty character, and that’s the real reason we went.
Inevitably, Bud passed away, and the oldest registered business in Walker was handed off to a new proprietor, a nicknameless young chap named Jeff. For several unhurried months, Bud’s sat empty and decrepit while the handful of loyal regulars idled past in their pick-ups, wondering what, if anything, would become of their beloved burger joint.
When Jeff finally did open up shop, he had the courtesy to keep the endearing name of “Bud’s Hamburg” alive. The regulars all came back, albeit timidly and skeptically: “Ain’t no one could make a hamburg like ol’ Bud.” “He was the only man I knew who could dish out attitude without never sayin’ a word.” “This new guy, nah. Seems too nice. I don’t like him.”
I like to think I took a little more sanguine approach.
At first glance though, I could tell something was amiss. The menu had six types of hamburg; it was almost overwhelming. When Jeff approached me, there was a discernable eagerness in his eyes. “What can I get for ya, bud?”
I blinked, scanning the options. “Uh… Cowboy Burger, I guess.” It wasn’t even called the Cowboy Hamburg.
“And how would you like that cooked?”
“Er—normal? I don’t know.”
“How’s medium sound?”
Jeff raced around the counter and began grilling immediately. To my surprise, he was back with my food in five minutes. It would’ve taken Bud that long just to amble back to the kitchen.
When I bit into it, my heart skipped a beat. I swallowed the first bite, held the burger away from my face, and uttered, “Whoa.”
Jeff noticed my stunned reaction and walked over. “You like it?”
“It’s…it’s the best burger I’ve ever had.”
All heads turned in my direction. Heresy! I could tell what they were thinking: Who does this kid think he is, declaring these new burgers better than the ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it old recipe? Do you know whose picture frame you’re eating under, son? Poor Bud would be turning in his grave…
But it was, it truly was! And as I watched with interest, the other patrons began to realize it as well. I watched one man consent with a begrudging nod, all reverent biases aside, calling Jeff over to concede approval. “You make a pretty good burger there, bud.”
I know what you’re thinking: Why haven’t I heard of this place? Unfortunately, I have no idea. Poor marketing perhaps, but still, something this divine usually catches the attention of hipster foodies of under-the-radar cuisine by now. It may be the last, certainly the best, hidden gem of Grand Rapids’ west side.
I like to think I speak with some authority on this. I’ve been to Stella’s, the Cottage Bar, the Corner Bar. I’ve had the Roo Burger, the Diablo Burger, the Roadhouse Burger, and every other self-proclaimed “Best burger in Michigan.” All good, yes, but all lacking compared to Jeff and his arresting array of humble hamburgs. As Marshall Eriksen remarked to his naysayers, “This is no mere sandwich of grilled meat and toasted bread…This is God, speaking to us in food.”
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.