Thursday, November 11, 2010


Fuddruckers held grand-opening ceremonies for its first Ohio location on Nov. 8 in the Eastwood Mall, and a few hours later, my husband Jack and I popped in for lunch. The fast-food eatery, which specializes in burgers, is located at the food court entrance to the mall in the space once occupied by Ruby Tuesday. For those who aren't there for the mall, there's an outside door that opens directly in the restaurant (definitely a plus).

In fact, it's not the first time we've eaten at Fuddruckers, but that happened so many years ago that we've long since forgotten when and where. All I can say for sure it that it was after 1980, when restaurateur Phil Romano (think Romano's Macaroni Grill) opened the first one as Freddie Fuddruckers in San Antonio, Texas. The Fuddrucker, according to reports, was described as an "uncommonly fresh burger of grand proportion."

The transformation from then to now hasn't exactly been easy. Most recently, on April 21, Magic Brands LLC, parent of Fuddruckers, Austin, Texas, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, although that filing did not include any of the then-135 franchised Fuddruckers restaurants. Fuddruckers' assets were later purchased at a bankruptcy auction by Luby's Inc., also of Austin, and officials pledged to keep the menu as close to the original as possible.

Roughly two-thirds of the restaurants, according to corporate reports, are franchises owned by small business owners and multi-unit operators in some 32 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico -- and this includes the Niles location (the franchise owner also owns a Fuddruckers in Erie, Pa., we were told).

The Eastwood Mall location also has a feature you won't find elsewhere: A full-service bar. This came about, we were told, because the location sale included a liquor license, and the owner decided not to waste a good thing. That's just fine with us; for years, Jack and I have said what the restaurant industry could use most is something close to a fast-food place like McDonald's, KFC or Burger King that also served beer (and/or other alcoholic beverages). On many occasions, all we're looking for is a place to pop in and grab a quick burger and a beer without all the hassle of waiting for a table (and a server to find us). And we'll bet that's true of other folks as well.

For sure, having the beer option means we'll go back to Fudds, as it's known for short -- we did exactly that two days later, as a matter of fact -- but there's another good reason as well: The food is great.

First, though, let's clear the air about one thing; this is basically a fast-food joint. The atmosphere is quite casual, the decor is airy and cheerful but nothing to write home about, and you have to walk through a line to place your order at a counter (and then pick it up when the little jiggler thing they give you starts buzzing and flashing). A handful of TV sets hang high on the walls, none of which I'd call very large. If you want beer, you must order and pay for it separately at what I'd describe as a "beer island" in the middle of the restaurant. If you want, you can sit on stools at the bar, but generally speaking, that's not an option I'd choose simply because there's not as much room.

As I mentioned before, Fuddruckers is known for fresh, grilled-to-order hamburgers that are served on made-from-scratch buns that are baked daily. When Luby's purchased the company, news releases said they planned to add a "wild game" option that includes buffalo and elk burgers (more on that later).

When you place your order, you can buy add-ons like grilled mushrooms and onions for a couple of bucks or less, but there's really no need to do that unless you just want those items specifically. Instead, we prefer the "regular" style -- an open bun and bare-naked burger, to which we add "fixins" from the free market-fresh produce bar.

At our first visit, Jack chose a half-pound hamburger for $5.49 with cheddar cheese (50 cents more) and an order of "regular" fries for $1.99. Had we realized it earlier, he could have skipped the 50 cents and instead added melted cheddar from the free bar -- we filled up a couple of containers to dip the fries in. For my choice, I decided to throw caution to the wind and get an elk burger ($5.99) and share Jack's fries.

Diners are asked how they'd like the burgers cooked; well done is the only option Jack will consider. I, on the other hand, asked for medium well. But when the order-taker informed me that they recommend medium for elk burgers because elk meat has less fat (zero artificial trans fat, in fact) and therefore can get too dry when cooked well done, I immediately agreed (but, I'm quick to point out, I'm quite fine with red meat that's barely out of the still-mooing stage).

Sandwiches are sold as sandwich-only or as a meal, which includes "Fudd" fries and a refillable soft drink (the difference is roughly a couple of bucks). Hamburgers come in three sizes: one-third pound ($7.99 for the meal), one-half pound ($8.49) and a whopping two-thirds pound ($9.19). Smaller sliders are priced at three for $5.

The add-ins island is tricked out, to say the least; you can choose lettuce, sliced tomatoes, two or three kinds of peppers, sliced red onions and chopped "regular" ones and more -- including a delicious tomato-based salsa that is so delicious I asked Jack to go fill up an extra paper cup with it for me. Within minutes, a smiling employee wearing a Fuddruckers shirt brought more in a real bowl -- obviously having seen that I like it (that's when I learned it's made fresh each day). A very nice customer service touch, I hasten to add!

Still another area offers yellow mustard, catsup and mayonnaise in push-button vats, plus rows of other sauces like Tabasco in bottles. Quite honestly, I can't think of anything I'd ever want on a burger that can't be found here.

Oddly, what we never found were napkins; since we ordered beers from the island, we made do with the extra cocktail variety that came with our drinks. No doubt they're hiding somewhere, but a couple of trips around the build-it-yourself area didn't turn up a thing.

As for the burgers, they were delicious. Jack raved about his hamburger, even though it was a bit more tinged with pink inside than he's like (my suggestion for those who really want it well done, especially the larger sizes, is to emphasize that when placing the order -- clearly, Fuddruckers aims to please). I'm glad I listened to the order-taker and got my elk burger medium; it was wonderful, but I can see that with less fat, it could be too dry if cooked more toward the well-done end of the spectrum. It was also quite large; the patty was roughly 8 inches in diameter and close to an inch thick.

We loved the fries, which are small-size "Texas" type spears sprinkled with seasonings including what tasted like paprika. They're wonderfully tender inside, and dipped in that warm, melted cheese sauce, an absolute delight. Apparently, we're not alone; a friend we bumped into (not literally) while we were there told us they're a special favorite of hers as well.

A shortage of time and stomach space kept us from sampling more on this visit, so I was delighted to have another go-round a couple of days later. This time, Jack had another burger, down-sizing to the one-third pounder. I decided on the chicken sandwich -- choosing crispy instead of grilled -- plus a side of BBQ beans ($5.99 for the sandwich and $1.79 for the beans). Once again, we shared an order of those tasty fries, which we happily dipped in that wonderful warm cheese sauce.

This time, even though it was close to 1:30 p.m. and past the traditional lunch hour, the place was packed; nary an empty table could be found, so we ended up sitting at the bar (we were ordering beers anyway -- 12-ounce domestic drafts are $2.50, for the record). The stools were comfortable, the bartender was very friendly and we encountered no space problem, but I stand by my original premise that given a choice, it's more enjoyable for me to eat at a table or booth.

The burger was great as advertised, and the chicken sandwich was wonderful as well -- and much too large for me to finish it all. The beans had bits of pulled pork in them coupled with a very tasty barbecue flavor.

Once again, we simply ran out of room to try more, so trust me, there's plenty here we're looking forward to trying. Milkshakes made with Edy's ice cream in three flavors sound wonderful ($3.99 each), as does the "Dogzilla" hot dog ($3.49). There are tempting salads, ribeye steak and fish sandwiches, wings and tenders and more as well as cookies, brownies and "rice crispy" treats for dessert. Besides all that, my experience with the elk burger all but guarantees that I'll try the buffalo version soon.

And in case anybody cares, our search for those elusive napkins proved fruitless on this visit as well. But this time, there were stacks of dinner-size napkins on the bar, so we just snitched a couple. Also on the bar are baskets of those individually wrapped red-and-white peppermint candies for guests to help themselves. I don't care much for them, but I suppose they'd be great for camouflaging beer breath if I were heading back to work!

Several days after our second visit, we happened to be near the mall around lunchtime and decided to pop in again. This time, Jack tried the sliders (three miniature burgers for $5), while I sampled one of the regular one-third pounders. Once again, we couldn't resist those wonderful fries, dipped in the hot cheese sauce.

My allergies have been awful, so drinking beer wasn't an option, prompting me to choose the "meal" version of the burger that comes with fries and a refillable soft drink (several kinds are at the fountain, and I picked the "light" lemonade). Jack, however, went to the bar for a beer once again.

This time, the food was just as good as ever -- I discovered how good those burgers are -- but the wait for our orders to be ready seemed overly long compared with the other two visits. That's when we learned that waiting isn't on the company's list of things that should happen to customers. A wandering server stopped at our table to ask how long we'd been sitting there without food, and then told us if our jiggler didn't alert us within another minute, to please get her attention and tell her. We'd love to know how she would have resolved the problem, but as luck would have it, the minute she turned away from our table we were buzzed.

So once again, we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Oh yes -- also this time, we finally located those wayward napkins. They're hidden, quite literally, in a dispenser near the condiments and silverware. It appears we're not the only ones to have trouble finding them, too -- we noticed a server pointing them out to a couple of other diners while we were there. Hey, folks, how about either putting them in a different kind of dispenser or adding a big sign to show folks where they are?

If you go:

Eastwood Mall

5555 Youngstown-Warren Road

Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 505-1400

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.