I've had a number of people who have been bugging me about getting over to Short's Burger and Shine in Iowa City, a burger joint just across from the University of Iowa quadrangle (and the Old Capitol). (see map) I had some time off around Christmas and met my old friend, Jim Kellogg, there for lunch. I was really looking forward to trying one of the Short's burgers out because so many people had spoken so highly of the place.
Short's Burger and Shine has been open since 2008 in a building that used to house Short's Shoe Shine - a business that was a fixture in downtown Iowa City for about 50 years before closing in the early 70's. Three partners - Kevin Perez, who opened the One Twenty Six bistro in Iowa City with his brother in 1999, and who also owns Mama Deli's and Catering in Iowa City; Dan Ouverson who helped resurrect the venerable Mill Restaurant along with his brother-in-law; and Iowa City native and Miami Dolphins placekicker, Nate Kaeding - own Short's Burger and Shine. In 2010, the trio, along with Perez's wife, Lisa, opened Stella, an American-style cafe near Kinnick Stadium in what was the old Melrose Market.
Even though it was the Christmas break at the U of Iowa, I found Short's to be packed when I walked in just after 1 p.m. I found Jim, who is the Director of Student Health at the University of Iowa, sitting at a table near the front. The building is long and very narrow. Booths line the walls on the north side of the building back to the bar area, with three-seater tables along the opposite brick wall. Lattice covers the ceiling and above the brick walls on both sides. When the place is packed - like it normally is during lunch - it's a little tight in Short's.
The bar area is situated about halfway back in the building. Ornate lattice arches hang above the bar with a number of bottles on shelves hung on the brick wall. If I was in there by myself, I'd probably sit at the bar as it was pretty nice.
Jim knows his burgers - he was the one who turned me on to the very good Green Gables, one of my Top Ten burgers places. (Click here to see my entry on Green Gables.) A food menu was on the table waiting for me and I took a look at the beer menu to figure out what to get to drink. Short's features a number of Iowa micro-brews on tap and I decided upon the Peace Tree Red Rambler out of Knoxville.
The burgers at Short's are made with locally-sourced corn-fed Black Angus beef. They get their beef from a farm near Columbus Junction and the meat is processed at a butcher shop in nearby Riverside. Their produce they buy from local farmers markets and growers. The buns for the burgers at Short's are all made fresh daily at a local Iowa City bakery.
They have about 20 burgers on the menu - many of them named after small towns across the state of Iowa. I grew up near Baxter in Central Iowa, and the "Baxter" burger consists of blackened burger topped with bacon, provolone cheese and a chipotle mayo sauce. The "Larchwood" burger, named after a small town in extreme Northwest Iowa, features grilled onions, peppers and mushrooms, with Swiss cheese and a red pepper mayo sauce. Some of the towns we had to look up on my smartphone. Eldorado, IA is a small unincorporated town just north of West Union and its namesake burger at Short's had a Mexican theme - a burger topped with pepper jack cheese, then garnished with guacamole, salsa and sour cream. The "Arion" burger, named after a small town I passed many times on Highway 30 on my way from Omaha to Carroll a number of years ago but I certainly don't remember, had a Greek slant to it with a burger topped with feta cheese, cucumber, tomatoes and tzatziki sauce.
For the health conscious, Short's also has a dozen different variations of chicken sandwiches - all named after Iowa counties; and vegetarian black bean burgers named after various towns with "Junction" in their name. I sort of liked the nod Short's gave to the rural areas of state on their menu.
It just so happened that Jim had eaten at Short's recently and had tried the "Colo" - American and Swiss cheeses with grilled onions that was placed on marble rye bread. This time he ordered the "Essex" burger - a burger patty topped with brie cheese, then finished with grilled peppers and mushrooms with the roasted red pepper mayo. He got his without the bun and the red pepper may on the side. Fries come with each burger order.
Although the "Baxter" burger sounded pretty good, I found the "Dundee" burger. It featured a slice of American cheese on the burger, then topped with garlic aioli, sauteed mushrooms and a fried egg. I said to Jim, "I don't know if I've ever heard of Dundee, Iowa."
He laughed. "Dundee is about 8 miles south of Strawberry Point," he said. Jim should know - he grew up in Strawberry Point. "It's on the south end of Backbone State Park." I ended up ordering a "Dundee" with fries.
Our server brought out burgers out to us a number of minutes later. Jim's "Essex" burger (below left) was piled high with a mixture of brie, green peppers and mushrooms sitting on shredded lettuce, pickles and a tomato slice. He told me that one of the reasons he likes the roasted red pepper sauce on the side so he can dip his French fries in it.
My "Dundee" burger (above right and at right) was a majestic looking burger with a thick beef patty sitting on veggies, with the ingredients oozing off the top of the burger. The bun crown had a thick peak in the middle with a crunchy outer shell. The burger looks damn good, doesn't it?
I had to cut the burger in half just to be able to handle it. From the first bite, I knew there was a lot of busy tastes in my mouth. The crisp bacon was very good. The fried egg - over hard - was superb with the burger, as well. I could hardly taste the mushrooms with everything else going on, but I did pull one off and eat it plain. It, too, was very good. I'm not certain I liked the burger with the tomato and the lettuce - they don't seem to go well with an egg and bacon. And even though the mushrooms were a stretch with the egg and bacon, it still seemed to work.
The only problem was the burger. They severely over-cooked it. Looking back, when I placed my order the server didn't ask how I'd like mine cooked. I usually get my burgers medium when asked. But she never asked. There was no juiciness to the burger as it was pretty lean to begin with. I know some people like their burgers well-done, but this would have probably been too cooked for those people as well. What I could taste of the burger meat was all right, but I was very disappointed that it was cooked as badly as it was. The life was cooked out of what could have been a superb burger.
Not to be deterred, I went back to Short's for another burger not long ago. This time - sitting at the bar - I had a "Tingley" burger (named for a small town near the Missouri border in Southwest Iowa). It was topped with green chiles, guacamole, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo. I asked the server to put the guacamole on the side and have the cook pull it off about three minutes sooner than he normally would. He said, "Do you want it medium rare?" Knowing how overcooked the first burger I got at Short's was, I thought their idea of medium rare would be a little pink in the middle.
Not so. This was all pink in the middle. I couldn't tell them to send it back because the pepper jack cheese was melted over the top, so I just ate it as is. Because the beef is so lean, there was still a lack of juiciness to the burger patty. The burger, as presented, looked great. The green chiles were more of a sauce than roasted chiles like I thought they may be, but that was fine. I need to have them deep-six the lettuce and tomato the next time I get a burger. My stomach was a little upset for a time after eating the burger because it was so undercooked, but I felt better toward the evening. I will say the taste was much better than the burger I had on my first visit. I guess I need to specify medium on the next visit. The "Baxter" will be the next one I get when I make my next visit to Short's.
I understand there's now a Short's Burger and Shine on the east side of Iowa City. That could take some of the pressure off the downtown Short's.
After two visits, I'm somewhat mixed about Short's Burger and Shine. The first burger was severely overcooked. The second burger was undercooked. Maybe I went in with too high of expectations on my visits. On my next trip, I'm getting the "Baxter" and making sure to order it "medium". And without the shredded lettuce and tomato slices. I know they're trying and have quality beef and toppings for their burgers. But I haven't been entirely impressed with the taste of the burgers on my visits. I'm going to give them another shot and hopefully I'll get over the psychological hump that I'm having with Short's.