The Taste Bud: Take a road trip back in time to Hinkle’s

When was the last time you had a Hinkle burger? It’s been a while, right? I recently made the 45-minute drive to Madison, Ind., the home of Hinkle’s Hamburgers, for business, and while there I made sure to work in time for a couple of the signature burgers. It’s some of the world’s greatest drunk-snack food, and I even like them when sober.

This place opened in 1933, and it remains pretty much a time warp inside — aside from nearly 80 years of inflation raising the prices, one imagines it looks about the same inside as it did when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio was roaming center field for the New York Yankees.

I hadn’t visited in a couple of years, and the familiar smell hit me when I approached the door under the black and white awning and signature neon sign with the word “Hamburger” curving upward on a dark green background. (The sign burns orange and green when lit.)

It is likely no coincidence that the grill is just inside the main door, facing the street -— meaning the exhaust fan disseminates the delicious smell of the burgers and onions across the sidewalk and onto Main Street, no doubt luring hordes of unsuspecting passersby.

The original part of the restaurant inside features just the grill and a narrow “dining room,” with a counter and a row of stools. That’s about it, unless you count the jukebox. The menu is on the wall — you tell the server what you want, and she jots it down on a notepad and pours your drink. (There is a larger room adjacent to the original restaurant for those who prefer a more traditional sit-down dining experience.)

Since the grill and fryer are at opposite ends of the place, if you get burgers and fries, your order goes in two different directions — which means I ended up getting my crispy shoestring french fries well before I received my two cheeseburgers with onions.

Oh yes, the cheeseburgers — if you haven’t had a Hinkle burger, know that it closely resembles a White Castle slider in that it is small, square and cooked with onions. However, you can opt out of the onions if you so choose.

The key difference is Hinkle burgers aren’t “sliders,” per se. White Castle sliders kind of have a slimy feel, almost like you’re trying to chew an oyster, but a Hinkle is pretty much just a small burger. And at $1.14 ($1.25 with cheese), you can still afford to eat two or three. (Legend has it that it is common for students of nearby Hanover College to descend on the place and eat a substantially greater number. I’m sure they are totally sober, though. Right?)

Oh, and the Hinkle’s home fries are pretty legendary as well. The Hinkle version of “home” fries are close relatives of Waffle House hash browns, and you can get them in assorted styles, like with chili and cheese. There are about 11,000 different flavors of milkshake to be had as well, for washing down all this deliciously unhealthy food.

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention one other discovery: Hinkle’s makes a pretty mean breakfast. Yes, the biscuits and gravy are fairly legendary, and the sausage gravy makes a surprisingly good dipping sauce — for Hinkle burgers. Especially if you’re less than sober.

Please don’t ask me to explain. That was a long night.