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Thursday, July 22, 2004 06:08 pm

What makes a good burger joint?

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Jennifer Tega and Monique Nally
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP

Sometimes food, like life, should follow this motto: The simpler, the better. And in the summertime, a grilled hamburger, milkshake, and seat at an outdoor picnic table may be all that's required for a perfectmeal. When you can enjoy this simple pleasure for less than $5, so much the better.

Krekel's Custard & Hamburgers is carrying on a rich tradition of grilled burgers and handmade milkshakes. William Krekel opened his first hamburger and custard stand in the 1950s in Decatur. Today there are six family-owned locations in central Illinois: four in Decatur and one each in Mount Zion and Springfield. Suzie Sperry, Krekel's granddaughter, and her husband, Dan, own and operate the Springfield location.

Krekel's is known for thin grilled hamburgers, handmade milkshakes, and reasonable prices -- oh yeah, and the Krekel's chicken car. Once parked out front of the white metal building, the 1970 Cadillac with a rooster head mounted on the top served as an advertising tool. The car -- one of a fleet -- was once a popular sight in parades and local events, but is currently keeping a low profile while the Krekel's estate is settled. But even without it, Krekel's is still quirky and brimming with nostalgia, just what an old-fashioned hamburger and ice cream stand should be.

Krekel "just had a quirky fascination with chickens," says Dan Sperry. Because of the car and red rooster head on the neon sign in front of the building, "we get people asking for fried chicken all the time," he says.

Customers such as Oscar Kuder have been coming to Krekel's since it opened in the capital city in 1993. Kuder, 79, lives on the city's south side, but for the past five years he has been coming to Krekel's regularly for a single burger and milkshake. He says it reminds him of root-beer stands from the past.

The atmosphere, inside and out, is inviting. White walls, black chairs, and brown tables fill the interior. Vintage black-and-white photos of Krekel's original Decatur location and old signs advertising 20-cent hamburgers adorn the walls, providing a bit of history. They're accompanied by pictures of Marilyn Monroe. Outside, the white building sports a red neon sign with a chicken head next to the name. Two red picnic tables are set under an awning for outdoor seating.

You can place your order at the outside window or at the inside counter. You get a handwritten number on a small square of cardboard when you place your order.

Krekel burgers, made to order with fresh ground beef, are seared thin and served on a toasted bun. The first time I ordered a Krekel burger, I got the single cheeseburger, which so thin that it didn't come close to covering the inside of the bun. If you want substance and enough meat to give the bun something to hang onto, order the double or triple. It won't cost much: Even a triple burger rings up at a mere $2.90. But beware -- the grease from the burgers makes them stick together, turning the lettuce to mush on the bun. I prefer the single or double, and I skip the lettuce.

The burgers are amazingly thin -- almost crunchy -- with just enough grease to add flavor and remind you that they're prepared on the grill the old-fashioned way and haven't been sitting under a heat lamp. They come wrapped in waxed paper, which is a little slick with grease. Isn't that how you tell you're in a good burger joint?

Burgers come with ketchup, mustard, pickle, and onion. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, extra cheese are available, as are grilled onions, a perfect complement to the burgers.

Other sandwich offerings include breaded tenderloin, fish, chicken, chicken club, chicken strips, and toasted cheese. Side orders include french fries and homemade chili.

I tried three flavors of shakes: marshmallow, orange, and chocolate. The orange was a nice change of pace, rich in orange taste without being too sweet, but the chocolate was my favorite. A large shake, at $3, is nearly a meal in itself.

Despite a variety of ice cream options and other menu items, Sperry says most people order a burger, fries, and a shake. "We keep it simple," he says.

Krekel's is located at 2121 N. Grand Ave. E., 525-4952. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Carryout is available. The lobby closes at 8 p.m.; outdoor window stays open until 9 p.m.

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