The other day, my wife, Gay, and I were driving around north of the river, when a tiny joint caught the corner of my eye.
There were more square feet of cars in the parking lot than there were of this building. Suddenly, I had a flashback from 35 years ago.
“Yes,” I said to myself. “I think my brother worked here.”
We’re going in.
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When you first walk in to Hayes Hamburger & Chili, you’re struck by the limited number of seating options: the small tables that line the outer wall or the counter.
As in most restaurants — whether they are no stars to four stars —Gay and I love to sit at the bar (that’s another story). We staked our claim on the far side of the counter.
This place is known for hamburgers that are cooked directly on top of the onions on their flattop grill, so when you get the burger the onions are melded into the meat.
I learned long ago that no matter where you eat, you should order what a place is known for, or what the chef wants you to order (again, another story). So we are for sure ordering a burger and onion rings.
The burger comes, and we started chowing on it immediately. It’s damn good. I love the softness of the bun along with the flattop-charred onion/burger combination. It’s a winner.
I remember my brother telling me about how packed the place would get in the middle of the night, especially on the weekends.
“It’s the best place to go at 2 in the morning,” said my friend Phil Morrow. “I’d always order two cheeseburgers and two tenderloins. Nothing like ‘em at that time of the morning.”
Note: The tenderloin is grilled, so it is not the breaded kind you might be used to.
I notice a woman at the other end of the counter, closest to the grill, and she moves two seats over towards us. Thirty seconds later, she moves two more seats closer. At first I have no idea what’s going on. Then it hits me — onion gas. You know when you’re cutting onions and you’re crying so hard you can’t see straight? Onion outgassing on the grill is what must be driving the woman away.
The seat-shifter moves down two more seats. Now she’s right next to us. The apron-draped guy behind the counter says, “Lady, that’s not going to help you at all. It’s not the onions cookin’ that’s causing the problem.”
By now, my eyes are tearing up so much, I look like I’m watching Bambi for the first time.
“Yep,” he continues, “We’re cuttin’ onions in the back. We do this every Monday and Friday, so it looks like we all just get to cry together.”
That last comment actually makes me laugh.
We finish our burger and head out satisfied.
As we’re leaving, Gay points out the seat-shifter woman. She’s sitting outside eating her burger. I guess the fumes were just too strong for her.
As for me, I know that I’ve had food so good that it might’ve caused me to shed a tear. But I have to be honest, this is the first time I cried over a burger. But it was worth it.
So if you want an honest-to-goodness burger, make a trip up north and visit Hayes Hamburger & Chili at 2502 N.E. Vivion Road in Kansas City, North.
And if you want a burger to cry over, be sure to visit on Mondays or Fridays.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a master student of pizza crafting, and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.
Photo: Hayes Hamburger and Onion Ring
Photo Credit: Gay Jones