The Other Puck
Welcome to Mike’s Hockey Burger, in scenic Vernon, California, an industrial town that seems more like an enormous, truck-choked loading dock. The restaurant, marked by its sign depicting a giant hockey player, is within sight of the bulbous Vernon water tower, which resembles an alien spaceship come to colonize the earth. The restaurant is close to the once-majestic, freize-speckled Washington Boulevard bridge.
At noon, the line at Mike’s Hockey Burger spills out the door, the groups of sheriff’s deputies and truck drivers double up two or three to a table, the shortsleeved factory managers do the sidewalk cafe thing at the picnic tables outside among billows of diesel smoke. In Vernon at lunchtime, the Hockey Puck is the only place to be.
Meet Mike, who owns the joint--he’s the guy with a black mustache, scowling in the corner by the fryers. Mike used to play a little hockey himself, and has the pictures to prove it. There they are, surrounded by Kings pennants and autographed photographs of hockey greats, right up there on the Hockey Burger Wall of Fame. Another wall boasts autographed photos of celebrities that you’ve actually heard of--Dolly Parton and Larry Hagman, among others. Mike has friends in high places. Mike has some hockey trophies, too.
There are cheeseburgers at Mike’s restaurant, and tuna sandwiches, and pastrami dips dripping with peppery grease. A Mike’s Special includes roast beef, melted cheese and plenty of onions, stuffed inside a slab of Armenian bread but is nothing that would make the guys at Philippe’s lay awake at night with worry. Mike, who is of Armenian descent, also serves something called a “Hye Pie”--a round of “Armenian pizza,” lamahjun , folded around onions and tomatoes and pickles and a few sticks of Armenian string cheese and grilled until the outside becomes crisp and the cheese melts into the tomatoey lamb mixture inside. The Hye Pie is very good.
What Mike is proudest of is the Hockey Burger itself, which is essentially a cheeseburger garnished with a sliced, grilled Polish sausage. “Number 1 first quality,” Mike says. “It is the only one.” Somehow, you are prepared to believe this.
Some theorize that the concoction is called a Hockey Burger because the burger symbolizes the puck and the sausage the hockey stick; some say that the trisected sausage resembles the grille on a Zamboni machine. Some people think that Mike is just a fool for hockey. But although the Hockey Burger may be fearsome to behold, it is actually pretty delicious: the lightly toasted poppy-seed bun both crisp and chewy; the lettuce crisp; the tomato ripe; the spicy sausage providing an unctuous foil to the slightly bitter tang of the thin, charred hamburger patty. You will finish it in about a minute, no matter how resolved you may be toward moderation. You will also feel it, for the rest of the day, as a small, indigestible lump.
“Try a Hockey Burger,” Mike’s sign reads. “Made Out of Old Pucks.” You can’t say he didn’t warn you.
* Mike’s Hockey Burger, 1717 S. Soto St., Vernon, (213) 264-0444. Open Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. 2:30 p.m. Beer. Lot parking. Takeout. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $5-$8.
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