I had heard the rumors about Ann's Snack Shop, an unassuming little joint on Atlanta's Memorial Drive next to a liquor store and two doors down from a Checkers, a burger competitor whose fast-food fare literally doesn't stack up next to Ann's towering concoctions.
Word on the street was that Ann had been serving up America's best burger by herself for more than 30 years from her little stand, which can only seat nine customers simultaneously at the barstools in her small restaurant. And woe unto those who break Ann's strict rules about intrusion (or any of those posted on the wall above her kitchen). Ann's place is sitting room only, and she quickly shoos out anyone left standing up or milling about.
It wasn't until last year that Ann gained national recognition in a Wall Street Journal article for her culinary specialties, but plaques on her dingy walls proclaimed that she'd been at the top of the city of Atlanta's food chain in the burger category just about every year since AOL Citysearch and other sites began rating shops like hers.
But it wasn't the critical acclaim that drew me to Ann's. It was hunger, for adventure and for ground beef. I'd never heard of Ann's place until I drove by one day and saw a wooden sign out front painted with cursive letters that read, "Home of the World Famous Ghetto Burger." The picture on the sign, I found out, is pretty close to life-size. The Ghetto Burger is a veritable mountain of food: two handfuls of ground beef from a smashed onto a commercial grill, coated with melted cheese, laced with bacon and topped with lettuce, tomato, onions, chili, ketchup and mustard. For coleslaw aficionados, Ann offers the Hood Burger, which is basically a Ghetto Burger with some slaw on top. The Hood is actually a bit more expensive, and I guess the extra cost coupled with slaw's polarizing nature as a fixin' has kept the Hood from reaching the Ghetto's level of worldwide fame.
A co-worker and I traveled to Ann's twice. The first time we were left out in a sort of lean-to lobby area for awhile, waiting behind other eager customers who warned us not to try to enter before a seat came open. They also told us that Ann's old-school shop doesn't fool around with credit cards. Sadly, we settled for Checkers.
Our second try was marked with determination, which we would need along with a little dab of patience. We came armed with cash and blocked out an hour for lunch. We wound up needing two.
Nowhere in Ann's rules does it say, "Provide good or even adequate customer service." Maybe it's the product of being the lone ranger of burgers in her neighborhood, but Ann was too busy to worry about being courteous. Although we sat down immediately this time, we were at the bar for a half-hour before Ann acknowledged our presence. Another hour later, after enduring two soap operas on the blaring TV inside, we had two bags of steaming goodness to take back to the office.
The long wait was trying, especially since my breakfast had been small that morning. But I found that the long period of "burgatory" between entry and exit fostered conversation that produced bonds between the customers. The guy next to us had traveled from across town. Every time he came this way for work, he stopped at Ann's. With the long wait, I hoped he didn't get paid by the hour.
Hip hop mogul P. Diddy, Puff Daddy or Diddy, whatever his name is now, had come to Ann's while he was in Atlanta, this guy told us. Our new friend didn't get to see Puffy, but he heard that the star liked his Ghetto Burger.
I don't know of any more appropriate endorsement for something called with "ghetto" in its name, but another guy in the store offered his as well. He came all the way from the United Kingdom to sink his teeth into Ann's specialty, he said. As he thanked her, Ann nonchalantly took his cash and I think - just maybe - managed a small curl of the lips that bordered on a smile.
She took our payment in much the same way, with little outward expression of gratitude. Ann seems to think that seven-plus bucks is an appropriate price for a burger.
After downing the whole thing in one sitting, I'd have to agree.
For more information on the Ghetto Burger and some good photos of the actual burgers, check out The Blissful Glutton's thorough blog post or check out the YouTube video below from Atlanta's ABC affiliate. Sadly, my one-track focus on the burgers caused me to forget my camera that day.