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There's burger joints, and then there's Jack Rabbit's/The Rabbit Hole, a burger joint that is most definitely a contender for the shoreline area burger crown.
And P.S., I'm counting Bobby's Burger Palace among Jack Rabbit's peers. Yeah, it's on.
Jack Rabbit's opened on Main Street in Old Saybrook a few years ago, but recently the brilliant owner/chef Jack Flaws decided to expand the adorable little eatery into the neighboring Old Saybrook Tavern, and now, voila! We can eat Jack's dynamite eats with full bar service and a rockin' jukebox at what's now The Rabbit Hole. (Jack Rabbit's remains for the non-bar set.)
I'd be satisfied with a burger joint that offers a stellar cheeseburger, but no, Jack took it several wonderful steps further. First, you've got to choose your patty: turkey, vegan, or certified Angus beef. Then you've got to trick that baby out. You could get a basic cheeseburger (choose from Swiss, American, Cheddar, Cheddar Jack, Brie, Munster or Gorgonzola cheese), but when you're faced with options like Buffalo Bill Burger (Buffalo Blue cheese sauce, gorgonzola cheese, lettuce and celery salad) or the Pepé Le Pew (caramelized apples, smoked bacon and brie), it becomes really, really hard not to overdo it.
About a dozen more doozies like those fill out the burger menu, PLUS you can get sliders by the six-pack (or just one) in several styles. I recommend starting with the super tasty Original Link Sliders, which come covered in caramelized onions, bacon, American cheese and magic sauce (Russian dressing, methinks.)
On a recent visit, I went with a cheeseburger with American cheese (possibly my favorite guilty pleasure), which was delicious and perfect. I ordered it medium, and I got it perfectly textbook medium. Cheese melded with juicy beef, and the proportional lettuce and tomato (don't you hate it when your burger comes with a dinosaur-sized leaf of lettuce?) offered a cool balance to the hot burger. Next time, I'm trying the Mexican Burger, outfitted with pico de gallo, guacamole and Munster cheese.
And see how the Buffalo Bill Burger comes with celery greens? That's because Flaws knows certain cheeses and condiments need just the right pairings. You could put lettuce with blue cheese sauce, but celery greens is the better marriage. And the way the blue cheese is blended with buffalo sauce made this burger pleasantly palatable, and I'm a stinky-cheese wuss.
Then there's the hotdogs, or what Jack's refers to as "Dragon" dogs. Hotdogs at Jack Rabbit's take no backseat to the burgers. Once again, start with your base: do you want a turkey, vegan, kosher beef, or Hummel dog? Spend a few more bucks, and you can order Red Hot or kielbasa dogs. Then there's some tough choices to make from a dozen or so topping options. You've got exotics like the Maui-Wawi with mustard, mango chutney and candied nuts; or items that are a little more old school like the Chicago dog, smothered in poppy seeds, dill relish, jalapeños, tomatoes and celery salt.
The One-Eyed Jack is a double threat because it comes with bacon. A hot dog covered in bacon is enough to make anybody happy, but the One-Eyed Jack is topped off with roasted corn relish, mustard and sautéed onions. It's a savory dynamo, and the moist dog is nestled in a soft, doughy bun.
Prefer wings? Jack's has very good wings, too, and a slew of wing sauces and heat levels to choose from. The chipotle barbecue sauce offers a few stages of flavor: first smoky, then brown sugary, then ZING! Chipotle. The wings themselves are nice and thick, and $8.25 will get you a basket of 12.
Now, I mentioned it's easy to overdo it at Jack Rabbit's, and here's why: side dishes/starters won't play second fiddle here, either. The guacamole is special, indeed. It comes with nice, thick pita chips, which is a great scoop for the chunky guac. The guac itself tastes green - first the green of cilantro, then the green of peppers - and the spicy kick therein keeps your tastebuds primed for more.
The sweet potato fries are well prepped (read: not soggy) and perfectly salted, and the onion rings are the best I've ever consumed. You know how sometimes you get rings and you bite into one, and a hot slimy onion comes slithering out? Not good. A perfect alchemy of batter and onion produce a very fine onion ring at Jack's.
Consider this, too: Flaws was executive chef at Three Fish Restaurant in Westerly, and Max Downtown in Hartford, among other great gigs, before he opened his shoreline eateries (he's got a steak house a few doors down from Jack Rabbit's and a seasonal hot dog stand next to Saybrook Point Inn). In short, he knows his business. One might assume such a star chef wouldn't bother with cheaper eats, but it's been his stroke of genius to apply the principles of fine dining to pub food like burgers and dogs. And as far as I'm concerned, he's done it with smashing success.
254 Main St., Old Saybrook
Cuisine: Burgers, dogs, classic sides
Atmosphere: Remnant of a 1950s diner at Jack Rabbit's; very basic bar vibe at The Rabbit Hole.
Prices: Pretty darn affordable; burgers start at $4.25, with gourmet burgers at about $7; gourmet hot dogs are $3.75 ($5 for Red Hots or kielbasa)
Service: Super friendly at both establishments; a little slow at the Rabbit Hole, where bartender often seems to serve as waiter.
Hours: Jack Rabbit hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., until 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Rabbit Hole hours are 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Mon.-Thurs., until 2 a.m. Fri. and Sat.
Credit Cards: All majors
Handicapped access: Decent doorways, but no ramps.