A Road Tips reader sent me a note earlier this year and said that I really needed to try a burger at Hinkle's Sandwich Shop in Madison, IN. I really have to apologize for not remembering who it was as I do like to give credit to those who steer me in the direction of interesting places when I'm on the road. Hopefully, whoever it was will read this and take credit for sending me there.
I had to look up where Madison, IN was because I wasn't familiar with it at all. It turns out that it's a peaceful little community nestled along the bluffs of the Ohio River just north and east of Louisville (see map). When I was in Louisville recently, I finished a morning meeting and decided that I had time to head up the road a bit and get a late morning burger at Hinkle's. It was a little out of my way to my next stop up in Indianapolis, but I had time as my next appointment wasn't until around 2 p.m.
Hinkle's is well-known throughout Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky as one of the great old burger joints. It opened in the height of the Great Depression when Winifred Hinkle began to make burgers in his little place (that's right - Winifred is a man). Over the years, it became a destination for people looking for the flat grilled burgers topped with fried onions and cheese. Today, Jack LeGrand (who also owns a local trucking firm in Madison) and his daughter, Amber, own Hinkle's Sandwich Shop. People come from miles around for their burgers and on the weekends (Friday and Saturday) they stay open 24 hours a day. A word of warning, if you go there on a Sunday, Hinkle's is closed.
The drive up from Louisville up to Madison takes a little over an hour, first on Interstate 71 northeast out of the city, then up a winding two-lane Highway 421 that meanders through valleys of trees and running streams. Past the city of Bedford, Kentucky, the winding road goes past fields of tobacco, soy beans and corn. It was a beautiful drive on an early fall morning and the trees were already bright with orange and yellow colored leaves that contrasted against the green leaves on trees that hadn't turned yet, and the brilliant blue Kentucky sky. As you near Madison and the Ohio River, the road takes a deep pitch along the bluff down toward the valley below. There's a turnout for trucks whose brakes fail trying to slow down going down the steep grade. The road eventually ribbons around to a narrow bridge over the Ohio that made me nervous to travel on as it was so high and the road was hugging the rails.
Hinkle's Sandwich Shop is located on Main Street in downtown Madison (see map), a picturesque community with post-Civil War era buildings full of businesses and shops. I found a parking spot on the street down the way from Hinkle's and went into the place to get a burger.
Hinkle's is actually two separate places - the little sandwich shop with a counter and bar stools on one side (above left) and the dining room next door (above right) that looks more like an old time ice cream parlor than a greasy spoon restaurant. There were outdoor picnic tables with umbrellas for people who wanted to dine outside. And there were people seated there when I walked up.
I went into the smaller side, sat at the original counter and took a look at the menu on the wall. In addition to their burgers, Hinkle's also has breaded tenderloins (can't be a real greasy spoon in Indiana without having breaded tenderloins on the menu), breaded chicken sandwiches, as well as breakfasts such as biscuits and gravy, pancakes and French toast.
But the burgers are the draw at Hinkle's and they're cooked on an old time flat iron griddle that has, quite possibly, had a million burgers cooked on it in its lifetime. The burgers were cooked on one side and the fried onions on the other. There were already about two dozen burgers on the grill when I got there about 11:30 a.m.
The burgers at Hinkles come as singles, doubles or triples. I really didn't know how big the patties were - they looked pretty good sized on the flat grill when the cook popped them on. I ended up getting a double cheese burger with grilled onions. I like the taste of grilled onions, but my stomach doesn't care for them. I need to get my taste buds and my stomach on the same page one of these days.
When the waitress brought me the burger, it was smaller than I anticipated and was served on a small plate. Looking it over, it was more of a White Castle-style of burger than anything. The patties were bigger than a White Castle burger, but the bun was small and it was flowing with grilled onions.
The taste was also very similar to a White Castle burger. The grilled onions added a nice taste to the overall burger patty and the bun was light and airy, very easy to throw back. I made very short work of the burger and when the waitress asked me if I wanted anything else, I ordered another double cheese with the onions. I was still hungry (no breakfast that morning, still stuffed at 7:30 a.m. from my meal the night before at Lynn's Paradise Cafe) and the second one satiated my appetite. For someone with a big appetite, especially at 2 a.m., I can see where they could easily knock back three or four doubles and have room for French fries.
The burger at Hinkle's Sandwich Shop was good, although I can't really call it great. But the history and nostalgia that surrounds Hinkle's - along with its setting in a picturesque little river town - made it worth the while to make the drive off the beaten path to give it a try. It's a small town White Castle that is much better than a White Castle. The old time flat grill added a great taste to the burgers and, thankfully, the grilled onions didn't back at me the rest of the day. I can see why people flock to Hinkle's. In this case, it's not just the burgers, but it's the tradition and history behind the place.