Lunch at JJ’s Gourmet Burger Café
JJ’s at 647 S. Peoria Ave.
I’d heard the rumors about JJ’s Gourmet Burger Café: the strict menu, the membership cards, the sizing up and turning away of underdressed patrons, the cash-only constraints, the bygone era of ‘70s swingers and drugged-out discos that used to happen upstairs, and the crass, glowering demeanor of the ex-hippie-turned-burger-Nazi himself, JJ Conley. JJ.
I was sure the friendliness of the abbreviation belied the reality beneath it—a dark, cold-hearted, burger-slinging Tulsa-lebrity past his heyday. I was giddy to be bullied out of this guy’s restaurant. I came ready for a fight.
What I find instead is a slight, well-dressed 77-year-old man in tinted aviator eyeglasses serving burgers, muttering quips under his breath, indulging in his fortress of good-ol’-days memorabilia. He doesn’t ask to see our membership cards (which we don’t have) and he doesn’t criticize our dress. Unyielding preferences aside, JJ is as pleasant as he is peculiar.
“Why don’t you gals take that booth in the back? Plenty of room for you,” he tells us.
JJ’s place is both a trip and a thrill. The dining room reminds me of my grandparents’ den. There’s stuff everywhere—the kind that screams look, but don’t you dare touch.
From the corner of my eye, I catch a stuffed trout wearing ‘80s aviators and a trucker hat throwing shifty glances at me. An alligator in the same garb has the corners of his mouth turned up. Plaques decrying instructions on how to be a gentleman share wall space with national flags from around the world, taxidermy animals, lassos, varsity pennants, and a shelf of light-reading: “BOXING: A Brief History,” “Our Dumb Century,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” and “Lessons in Freudian Psychology.” It’s a hodge-podge of 1980s-era kitsch and cheese, as carefully curated to reflect JJ’s tastes as the menu itself.
That menu has changed a bit in recent years. The burger is still the main attraction, but he’s raised his prices, and now accepts most major cards (though cash gets you a discount). Aside from that, the recipes, garnishes, the mint and orange-adorned iced tea, and the four-course format are all the same as they ever were.
JJ’s infamous burgers tend to divide Tulsans. Price-conscious diners balk at the idea of a $22 “gourmet” patty on a store-bought bun, but patrons with a taste for ceremony and showiness write the cost off as part of the experience.
Speaking of the burger, it’s the only thing on the menu, and JJ prepares it to his liking: a rib-eye patty (with some chuck tossed in to hold it together) cooked medium-ish, pink peeking through, so that juice dribbles down the mouth and wrist. No temp requests, no customizations, no substitutions, no sharing. He does let you choose the cheese—American, pepper jack, or bleu. A barbecue burger is also an option, somewhat surprising considering JJ’s purist tendencies. We order it and the bleu.
After a strange-but-fun first course of flimsy shrimp and celery with a sweet chili cocktail sauce, the burgers are served with sliced fruit, vegetables (grilled peppers, spring mix, tomato, pickles, onion), and your choice of sides, all of which I try. Close analysis shows that the dill potato salad probably came out of a plastic box, while the smoked rib that’s stuck on top of the honey-maple baked beans probably came from heaven. It was tender, thick, and marbled. The beans were too sweet, but suck it up and push them aside to enjoy the rib. JJ’s old-fashioned coleslaw isn’t bad either if ribs aren’t your thing.
The barbecue burger is good—rich and velvety with a little smoke. I found the bleu cheese burger to be too much of a salty, soggy mess. Still, JJ swears by it.
“That’s what I’ve been eating for 40 years,” he said earlier, when I first ordered it. “Why change?”
We ordered pickles and potato chips because the businessmen next to us did, but these extras are unnecessary; on top of the shrimp, beans, rib and burger, the meal is capped by a cappuccino and a slice of chocolate sheet cake garnished with something that looks like busted-up Rice Krispy treats, almonds and walnuts. The immediate next step after any visit to JJ’s will be a nap—chips or not.
JJ checks in a few times with more iced tea and bottled VOSS water (another inexplicable anomaly), never saying much, but offering brief but intriguing answers to my rapid-fire questions. Why all the mystery? Why only serve for eight hours a week? What’s the deal with the dead animals? Exactly which drugs were you on when you walked around and lovingly applied sunglasses to each and every one of them? Polite but distant, he dodges most of them, though he does leave us with a few words of wisdom.
“Some people only do one thing in their life … I don’t do as much as I can. I just do what I want to do.”
For more from Megan, read her article on TNT Wangs.