(Benton Harbor, MI) — We’ve long been on a quest for the “best burger” and while there is no shortage of opinions from our friends and fellow foodies (not to mention differences of opinion), one establishment has been on our list to review for quite some time: North Shore Inn, located in Benton Harbor, Michigan. You don’t have to strong-arm us with tales of old-school tavern fare, so we set out for a late Friday night dinner...
I’ve been hearing about the North Shore burger for so long from Juliet, my interest is definitely piqued. I bide my time until the opportunity rises to zoom on down to Benton Harbor (with a quick pit stop at The Livery), then over to North Shore Inn. The joint is jumping on a Friday evening! Despite that, there’s a parking spot right in front. I’m excited as soon as I get out and smell smoke, meat, and grease. This promises to be a throwback meal.
Indeed, one step in the propped-open front door and anachronistic decor smacks you in the face. Beer signs hang on the wood-paneled walls. A large, packed bar stands in the middle of the tight room, small tables and wood-spindle chairs clustered around the perimeter. I cast about for an empty table, and see another patron on the other side wave us over. You can tell this is a place where the friendly locals hang out on a regular basis. (Much to my surprise, our waitress recognizes Juliet and treats us very kindly, like one of the “regulars”. It gives the whole experience a very homey feel.)
On certain nights, North Shore engages the services of a special chef to offer a full Mexican menu as a supplement to their normal offerings. Everything else is standard bar fare. We are here for the burgers and have no intention of ordering any Mexican food (though it looks fantastic, judging by other patrons’ dishes), but we are given tortilla chips, salsa, and sour cream anyway. The salsa is authentically spiced.
We also opt for deep-fried cheese and cauliflower bites. I have to laugh because the cheese balls are exactly the same as those we get at The Clique bowling alley on our bowling nights. No matter; I absolutely love these spicy pre-packed cheese balls. The cauliflower is probably from the same distributor, but they are fun to dip in ranch dressing and pop down the gullet.
Then, the burgers. Hand-formed and irregular looking, perfectly medium-rare inside, crispy seared on either side, on a sesame seed bun, topped with fresh tomato, lettuce, an olive-mayo spread, and onion slices. It is a quality, tasty burger churned out by the kitchen with skill and familiarity. There is nothing particularly fancy or memorable about it. It is the epitome of a bar burger and something you can count on to taste exactly the same every time. There is comfort to be taken in that fact.
When I’m spending any quality time in Benton Harbor, and I have a hankering for a good, old-fashioned burger, I will definitely put North Shore Inn on my schedule.
In my office, rounding up a group of co-workers for a monthly lunchtime visit to North Shore has become a ritual. In the winter we tend to go more often, maybe twice a month, and if it happens to be a Friday, we have to arrive early or we won't score a table. I've been talking up these burgers to Jeremy for years and finally the timing allows us to get here for dinner.
Along with their usual bar fare, North Shore features authentic Mexican food Thursdays through Saturdays on their dinner menu. I'm told it's prepared by a woman from Mexico who hightails it south of the border for winter. Everyone raves about how good the Mexican food is, but I will not be swayed tonight. Even with the free chips and salsa our server delivers to our table in anticipation of an order for Mexican, I know I'm going to order a burger. Medium rare which is usually closer to rare than medium at North Shore, with cheese, olives, and mayo. North Shore offers two choices of cheese, American and Swiss and I always ask the kitchen to surprise me (though it's never a surprise as they always put American on it.)
Jeremy wants to try the cheese balls with his and I go for a half-order of deep-fried cauliflower. They serve both in separate baskets and the cauliflower comes with ranch dressing for dipping.
North Shore burgers are pattied by hand and the edges become cracked and crispy as they're grilled. I don't know what the cut of ground beef is, but it's flavorful and juicy, marbled enough to moisten up the bottom bun a bit. The bun is nothing special—just plain white. No whole grains, no sesame seeds or onion sprinkles. The burger's so good, there's no need for a fancy pants bun. I don't like tomatoes on my burger, but in the summer North Shore gets tomatoes from a local farmer and Jeremy verifies what I've heard: they're fabulous.
Our server tonight is Becky and I've come to know her fairly well over the years. She's a sweetheart of a gal, hardworking, eager to please, with a quick wit. She remembers how her customers like their burgers and what they order to drink. Like the crispy edges of the burgers and the predictable "surprise" of American cheese, having Becky take care of our table is another comforting ritual.
North Shore isn't formal or fancy. The deep-fried basket offerings are clearly from the freezer section at Gordon Food Service. But that's okay by me. When I'm the mood for an amazing burger with a deep-fried side, no place does it better.