After our dinner at Green Market Kitchen when I was in Fargo earlier this past fall, my dealer, Rod, suggested that we go to a place down the street from the restaurant - JL Beers - to get a couple nightcap beers. As we were walking there, Rod's wife, Ellen, said that JL Beers has pretty good burgers. "They have this machine that cooks them on both sides and they come out to you pretty fast," Ellen said. "And they have the most amazing homemade potato chips!" We had a few beers that night, but before leaving Fargo the next day to head west, I stopped in at the West Fargo location of JL Beers to see what the deal was.
The JL Beers in downtown Fargo was the original of what is now four locations of the beer bar/burger joint. In addition to the one in downtown Fargo and the one I visited in West Fargo, there's a JL Beers that opened up in 2011 up the road in Grand Forks. They were also scheduled to open a JL Beers across the Red River from Fargo in Moorhead, MN sometime before the end of the year. Each location features at least 32 beers on tap and another 25 to 30 beers available in bottles. The food menu at JL Beers is pretty basic - they feature nine burgers and you can add on toppings such as cheese, onions (raw or fried), an egg, bacon, lettuce, tomato, or grilled peppers for an upcharge. In addition to the great homemade chips Ellen was raving about, they also have fries and something called "Buffalo Blu" chips. The fries and the homemade chips are available seasoned in either sea salt, barbecue spices or Cajun spices.
Warren Ackley and Randy Thorson (pictured right - photo courtesy of the Fargo-Moorhead Forum) are the two owners behind JL Beers. Thorson's and Ackley's company - Global Investments - is the owner of the Old Broadway, a downtown saloon/eatery that I've eaten at a couple times in the distant past, as well as Borrowed Bucks Roadhouse (also with locations in Sioux Falls, SD, Grand Forks, ND and Bismarck, ND) and the WOW 94.7 Radio Bar, billed as the world's first radio station that also serves beer.
The name JL Beers pays homage to an old friend of theirs - Jim Lauerman - who owned Jim Lauerman's Chili, Sandwiches and Beer, a popular hangout for the locals. After Jim's death, Ackley and Thorson bought the building that housed Lauerman's chili joint hoping to put a restaurant in it. However, they didn't do anything with that building and ended up selling it. Instead, they bought the building on 1st Ave. North in downtown Fargo that also housed a sandwich shop called 1st and Deli. They opened the first JL Beers in November of 2009.
The concept was pretty basic - burgers and beers. And because of the small, narrow size of the space for JL Beers, they initially had seating at the bar - 24 seats. In fact, their motto was "Seating for 1000 - 24 at a time." The did put in three high top tables that seated four each at the downtown Fargo location. The West Fargo location is a little bigger - their motto is "Seating for 25,000 - 49 at a time."
While the JL Beers in downtown Fargo is located within a building, the other JL Beers locations are free standing buildings that are constructed to look like it's an old building in which the buildings on each side were torn down. It's a pretty clever design and a pretty neat concept. When restaurants are looking to expand and have seating for up to 100 or more people, JL Beers wants to keep it simple.
I got into the JL Beers in West Fargo (see map) around 11:30 a.m. and there was already a good sized crowd in the house. I took a seat at the bar and took a look at the menu. As I said, JL Beers only features nine different burgers, but with the add-ons you can literally call your own shot as to what you want on your burger.
The burgers are cooked on a flat grill with a heated press that comes down and smashes the burgers, cooking them in less than five minutes and giving them sort of a crusty edge. I'd never seen a flat grill with a heated press like this before. Once again, another unique concept to the place.
The burgers they have on the menu range from the Original Burger with just pickles and a special sauce on a single patty, to the Buffalo Ranch burger that has Buffalo wing sauce, ranch dressing, tomato, lettuce and a seasoning on the burger. Three burgers that caught my eye were the Humpty-Dumpty that featured a burger with cheese and a fried egg on top, the BLT Blu with bacon, lettuce, tomato and bleu cheese on top, and the Rajun' Cajun with pepperjack cheese, JL Beers homemade chili lime sauce and grilled onions.
And, of course, they have beer at JL Beers. The West Fargo location has 40 beers on tap as well as a number of imported and domestic beers in bottles. JL Beers also slums with the best of them by offering over a dozen domestic beers in cans from the likes of Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Grain Belt Premium. The previous night, I was introduced to a beer from a new local brewery called Fargo Brewing. They have a Wood Chipper India pale ale (the wood chipper is a nod to the somewhat gory scene in the movie "Fargo") that was pretty darn good. For now, the beer is brewed in Wisconsin, but the group that owns Fargo Brewing hope to have a local brewery up and running sometime within the next year or so. I had a Wood Chipper IPA brought to me while I looked through the menu.
One thing I thought to be somewhat odd at JL Beers was the fact that you couldn't get mushrooms or jalapenos on a burger. I was hoping to do a bacon, mushroom, Swiss cheese burger, but I couldn't do that. I ended up going with the Great American cheeseburger topped with ketchup, mustard and pickles and a slice of American cheese. For extra measure, I got some bacon on top. I also ordered some of the homemade chips with the sea salt seasoning and I got a side of their chili lime sauce.
It certainly didn't take more than three or four minutes before my meal showed up in front of me. There was a pile of homemade chips surrounding the burger with a toasted homemade bun. The chips were warm and very tasty. And the chili lime sauce had a little zip to the taste and went along great with the chips. But there were so many of the chips and a healthy side of the sauce that I knew I wouldn't be able to eat all of them. Two people could easily share the order of chips at JL Beers.
The burger, itself, was, well, just OK. The bun tasted good - nice and fluffy, but not chewy. The burger wasn't all that large to begin with and had sort of a crunchiness to the outside of it. But it wasn't all that flavorful. It seriously tasted like a fast food burger. As I said, it was OK, but it wasn't spectacular at all.
It was a pretty expensive lunch, too. With a beer the bill came to $14 bucks before the tip. You get dinged pretty good for the burger, then when you add on the chips and the chili lime sauce, it adds up pretty quickly. Actually, the highlight of the meal was the chips. Well, and the beer. The Wood Chipper IPA is a very good beer.
My impression of JL Beers is that you go there for the beer and if you're hungry you can get an average burger. Or get the chips if you're looking for something salty in taste to go along with the beers. While I do like the concept of JL Beers, I'm not overly impressed with the burgers. Go for the beer, but there's better burgers elsewhere in Fargo, I'm sure.