Toward the deserted end of the deserted Nebraska panhandle, an endless, yawning territory of tallgrass and strange animals, like a landscape from Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, the town of Harrison appears like a patch of stubble on an imperfectly shaved cheek — a garage, a few houses and a school — the only town in one of the least populated counties in America. Harrison is the kind of place where a man can tell you that there isn’t a bit of ice cream to be had in town and know it to be true with some certainty. Chief Crazy Horse met an Abu Ghraib–style end a few dozen miles east of here, and the Buffalo Soldiers were garrisoned around here too, but you get the feeling that history is something that hasn’t happened around these parts in a very long time.
Sioux Sundries is the general store in Harrison, a sun-bleached place whose shelf stock probably hasn’t been rotated since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, a dusty museum of Ace bandages, faded balls of yarn, all manner of cuticle cream, bottles of hair dye whose labels are laid out in an Empire Strikes Back font, and greeting cards from Christmases long past. There is a tidy lunch counter at the back of the store with half a dozen stools and a few red-vinyl booths, but the day I stopped by last week all of the customers were at tables plunked down out by the display cases, tables that sported St. Patrick’s Day tablecloths although it happened to be August.
Sioux Sundries is not unknown. The lunch counter is sometimes listed among the attractions of the area, along with the Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed and the Toadstool Geologic Park. Charles Kuralt visited the lunch counter in the ’90s, and the late owner, Delores Wasserburger, was probably about as famous as it is possible to get out here in the Nebraska panhandle. The hand-cut, skin-on French fries are about as good as American-style French fries ever get.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Sioux Sundries serves what may be the biggest hamburger in the United States, a gargantuan burger that involves 28 ounces of local Angus beef, the usual condiments, and what seems to be half a loaf of Velveeta cheese, and a tiny bun that teeters on top of the thing like a bellcap hat on an NFL lineman’s head. This Coffee Burger, named for a local cattleman, Bill Coffee, who suggested a hamburger substantial enough to feed his ranch hands, might seem like a promotional gimmick, the kind of dish that exists as a sort of advertisement for the restaurant, but the table next to ours groaned under the weight of several of the beasts, and nobody seated around it looked as if he were sharing. The excessive hamburger here is the Billy Burger, which is essentially the Coffee Burger times two.
I had something called the Badlands Burger, probably designed to please the palate of the occasional biker wandering down from Sturgis, a mere pound of meat garnished with sliced jalapeños, pepper jack, chile sauce, and pepper bacon that had been booby-trapped with about half an inch of ultra-hot mustard, a cheeseburger that left me unable to speak or focus my eyes for several minutes afterward. I had faced the Waimea of cheeseburgers, and I had survived.
As soon as I hit Los Angeles, I headed almost straight for Cora’s Coffee Shoppe in Santa Monica, a diner that may be as emblematic of the good life in Los Angeles as Sioux Sundries may be of all that is best about western Nebraska. Instead of weatherbeaten siding, of course, there is an artfully rusted pergola, a patio shaded with crimson bougainvillea, a burbling Tuscan fountain. A perfect insalata caprese is rarely offered in the panhandle — the farmers’ market tomatoes and fresh, oozingly creamy burrata cheese are doubtless difficult to find — and while some of Nebraska’s pork products may be exemplary, plates of pale, nutty San Daniele proscuitto don’t seem to make it onto the menu, nor do super-spicy carnitas tacos. Nobody would accuse Nebraska of being short on corn, but it somehow never manages to take the form of polenta sauced with a long-simmered tomato ragu.
What Cora’s does have is burgers, magnificent creatures made of coarsely chopped, beyond-prime Wagyu cow, mellow and intensely beefy, on a bun whose slight crispness contrasts with the patty’s yielding fleshiness and sogs a little as it absorbs the rich, mineral-tangy blood. There is good Cheddar if you ask for it, decent tomatoes and lettuce. Cora’s owner, Bruce Marder, used to make the best hamburgers in Los Angeles at his beloved West Beach Café, but those were burgers to be savored with a fine, old Zinfandel — these are the platonic version of diner burgers, a genuinely beautiful evocation of our own Nebraska by the sea.
For dessert, there is peach pie and an intense, profound homemade burnt-caramel ice cream bitter enough to make a 10-year-old child weep.
Cora’s Coffee Shoppe, 1802 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 451-9562. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. AE, MC, V accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking.
Sioux Sundries, 201 Main St., Harrison, Nebraska, (308) 668-2577. Open Mon.-Sat. for breakfast and lunch.