Two years ago this coming March, still basking in the afterglow of a ridiculously gooey double cheeseburger, I filed a review of Jack Nolen's like I would any other week. This time, though, something felt different. As news of the then-emerging COVID-19 threat began to get grimmer with every passing day, it seemed tone-deaf to be reviewing restaurants as if nothing was happening. Should we include caveats in our write-ups about the risk of dining out in public? Should we switch to covering takeout dining only? Should we cancel reviews altogether? These questions weighed heavily on the RFT's editorial team those first two weeks of 2020's third month, but they would be answered for us a week later after we decided to pull the plug on the Jack Nolen's review: Every dining room in the St. Louis area was shut down by the city and county governments, and nearly all of our own staff was furloughed.
Now, two years into what was then thought of as a crisis that would likely last just a couple of months, we are again beating our collective heads against the wall over how we cover food, music, the arts and all of the other things that call us to gather together. Granted, things are much different this time around: Vaccines are available, there is ample PPE to go around, and we are starting to discern some patterns about virus-wave peaks and valleys. Still, considering how highly contagious this current omicron variant is, it again feels uncomfortable to encourage indoor dining, even as we are fully aware that our readers do not have the stomachs to endure months of coverage about curbside and delivery options.
See all of RFT food critic Cheryl Baehr's restaurant reviews
Frankly, we don't know what to do, and neither do restaurants. For news outlets like us, shifting coverage may be challenging, but it does not necessarily pose the existential threat that closing up shop has this time around for restaurants. As Jack Nolen's owner Jim Grindstaff notes, the past two years for his business have been filled with uncertainty, jarring changes, closures of his family's two other restaurants, a dissolved partnership with his mother and brother (albeit an amicable one), and a trip to the bank he called his "walk of shame," in which he had to put his personal finances on the line to keep his business afloat.
It's a far cry from the situation he thought he'd be in when he, his brother and his mother decided to open Jack Nolen's back in December of 2019. An Air Force veteran who was looking for a business opportunity following his service, Grindstaff found himself in the restaurant industry after opening a franchise location of the national wings, burgers and oysters chain Jefferson's in Belleville, Illinois, in 2006. When his brother left the Army shortly thereafter, he joined Grindstaff and their mother in running the Belleville Jefferson's, opening a second franchise of the restaurant in Mascoutah, Illinois, a few years later.
Grindstaff instantly fell in love with the restaurant business and, though he loved running Jefferson's, he always dreamed of opening an independent place that was all his family's vision. Burgers were a particular passion of his; he even had his own burger blog, mostly to keep track of his research, and traveled the country trying to nail down what made the perfect version of his beloved dish.
Armed with that research, he was well prepared to jump when the opportunity came. After seeing an advertisement for a bar in Soulard that was for sale, he checked out the scene and reported back to his mother and brother that it was the perfect spot for a burger restaurant. Naming the place after Grindstaff's oldest son, Jackson, and his brother's oldest son, Nolen, the three Grindstaffs opened Jack Nolen's just over two years ago.SEE ALSO: The Smashed Burgers at Jack Nolen’s in Soulard are Heavenly [PHOTOS]
The place was a hit right off the bat and was quickly embraced by the Soulard community for its outstanding burgers, comfortable atmosphere and immediate knack for making guests feel like regulars. Even after having to close for two months due to the pandemic, patrons flocked back, eager to show their support in whatever ways they could. Around that time, Grindstaff bought out his brother and mother's interest in Jack Nolen's so he could focus on the Soulard bar and they could concentrate on Jefferson's. Eventually, they would go on to shutter their Illinois franchises; his brother wanted out of the hospitality industry, and his mother was ready to retire (Grindstaff recently took over the Belleville Jefferson's and converted it into a burger spot called AJ's Smashed & Smoked), leaving Grindstaff the only one left in the business.
Through all of the ups, downs, upheaval and successes, Jack Nolen's has relied on its winning formula of outstanding burgers to keep it going. One bite of the restaurant's signature juicy, melt-in-the-mouth burger and it's easy to see why. Using a blend of brisket, chuck and short rib, the patty is tender and well marbled so that when it is smashed on a flattop, it gets a slight crispy edge but remains buttery throughout; gooey American cheese melts, not simply on top, but into the burger, seeping into every crevice. The patty is tucked into a soft potato bun and (optionally) garnished with lettuce, tomato, onion and ridge sliced pickles, making it the quintessential — and utterly outstanding — version of the cheeseburger form.
The same decadent burger forms the basis of Jack Nolen's Patti Melt, another instance of the restaurant perfecting a classic sandwich. Here, two patties are paired with Swiss and American cheese, tangy Style sauce (akin to 1000 Island) and grilled onions, and melted between two slices of buttery griddled sourdough bread. It's like taking all that is beautiful about a cheeseburger and a grilled cheese and melding them together.
Once offered only as a special, Jack Nolen's Firecracker Burger was so popular it became a permanent addition to the menu. Here, two burger patties are covered in pepperjack cheese, searing hot jalapeño relish and a mouth-tingling Fire Ranch sauce, making it the spicy chicken sandwich version of the cheeseburger.
If you are looking for an actual spicy chicken sandwich, though, Jack Nolen's has those too — and does them as well as it does its burgers. For this dish, a massive chicken breast is coated in crunchy, black-peppery breading, covered in tangy hot sauce and placed on a bun with lettuce, pickles and onions that cool down the spice. The same sandwich is available without the heat; this version makes it obvious how excellent the breading is: a thick, crispy coating akin to country-fried-steak batter. It's a contender for the best classic chicken sandwich in town.
Jack Nolen's offers a variety of French-fry options, including a deeply savory brown-gravy-and-blue-cheese-covered Bluetine, the mozzarella-cheese-and-Italian-seasoning-topped Scattered, and an outstanding take on a cheese fry, called Style, that pairs the fries with melted American cheese and the restaurant's zesty Style sauce. For those not into fries, the potato salad, laden with creamy mayo and relish, is so classically picnic in form it should come with a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth.
All of these offerings are available through a seamless carry-out system, which is how I felt the most comfortable experiencing the restaurant. Jack Nolen's employs the user-friendly system SpotOn, which makes enjoying its offerings in the comfort and safety of your own home an easy option. Even after traveling from the restaurant's location in Soulard to my house about twenty minutes away, the food was still warm and delicious.
Like most restaurants at this point in this dreadful scourge, Jack Nolen's can't afford to close its doors. Government assistance is no longer an option, revenue reserves are dried up, and, frankly, there isn't the public tolerance for shutdown measures. So, like all of us, they carry on as best as they can, making the decisions they feel are right for their own circumstances, asking for grace and — as each and every one of us is on a daily basis — hoping and praying (but not holding our breath) that this is the last time we have to stress about where and how we can eat.
2501 South Ninth Street.
Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Closed Mondays.)
Double cheeseburger $9.
Fried chicken sandwich $10
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