The Awful Awful truth
An investigative look at the storied burger
My family faithfully attended the Reno Silver Sox games in the late 1950s and early ’60s (my brother Tom was one of the two batboys), both at the old Moana Stadium which crazily faced west, into the sun in afternoon, and at the new stadium, which faced east and recently was demolished.
At my single digit ages, I paid less attention to the games than to running around the park playing. I can give better descriptions today of the trappings of the park, including the chatter of the announcer, than of the games. At each game, he announced the winner of a drawing of admission ticket stubs, the prize being an Awful Awful sandwich at Jim Kelley’s Nugget in downtown Reno. People were still calling burgers sandwiches then. I was certainly aware of the Awful Awful at an early age. As I grew, I also learned they were regionally well known.
One travel website reads, “Big. Scrumptious. Delicious. Hot. Tasty! These are only a few of the words that describe the one and only Awful Awful hamburger!”
The problem is, there is no one and only Awful Awful. There are at least four of them, and they don’t necessarily resemble each other. So we set out to find out what is an Awful Awful.
Considering how identified they now are with Nevada, it may surprise some silver staters that the Awful Awful was created in Idaho. Dick Graves owned clubs that featured slot machines and restaurants in Idaho until 1954, when slots were outlawed. He transferred his operations to Nevada.
Historian Dwayne Kling has written, “Graves’s practice was to open a casino, sell it, then move to another town.” He began with the Yerington Nugget, and then he operated in Carson City, Reno and Sparks. In Reno he had a partner, Jim Kelley. When Graves was ready to move on from Reno to Sparks, Kelley didn’t want to go, so they split up the business.
Among the assets they neglected to distribute was the Awful Awful. As a result, it is available in the Carson, Reno and Sparks Nuggets and at a Reno restaurant called the Wolf Den, owned by Rick Heaney, who also owns the Reno Nugget. And what constitutes an Awful Awful has become fuzzy over the years.
For a definition of the Awful Awful, we turn to one of its inventors. After his retirement, Graves described the creation of the Awful Awful for the University of Nevada Oral History Program:
“This sandwich was a hamburger sandwich which was actually, shall we say, invented by Bill Webster and myself and the cooks in the Twin Falls [club]. We started it there. It was very successful. … This was a two-patty hamburger, much the same as a Big Mac today, with onions and tomato, mayonnaise and seasoning and all in it. … I think it sold for about thirty-five, forty cents in those days. Now I don’t know what they get for it. They’re still selling it in the Sparks Nugget.”
Though double burgers are now sold in every fast food restaurant, they weren’t that common when the Awful Awful was created.
An old Sparks Nugget matchbook cover lists the ingredients: “A fresh bun, two patties of our ground round, crisp lettuce, slice of garden fresh tomato, slice of nippy cheese, slice of mild Bermuda onion, spicy relish, dill pickle, mayonnaise, salt and pepper, served in a basket and covered with Idaho giant French fries.” Nippy is defined as biting or tangy.
Thus, we have it from two sources that the Awful Awful is, by definition, a double burger—which agrees with my Silver Sox recollection. And the Awful Awful is the full dish, not just the burger. It refers to double burger-and-fries.
What all this means is something a bit shocking—the Reno Nugget and the Wolf Den do not serve the Awful Awful. They sell a one-patty burger. They’re selling ordinary burgers and calling them Awful Awfuls. Granted, the Wolf Den patty is substantial—half an inch thick, after cooking. But it’s not an Awful Awful. This means that in a 2010 competition conducted by the Food Network—whose operatives failed to do their homework—between the Reno and Sparks Awful Awfuls, the Reno Nugget won with an ordinary burger, not with an Awful Awful. I suspect, based on sales figures from numerous fast food chains, that a single-patty burger will always beat a double. Thus, the Reno Nugget actually forfeited the contest by not serving an Awful Awful. Add that to the fact that the Wolf Den and Carson Nugget (which does serve a real Awful Awful)—were excluded from the competition and the Food Network staged a dubious contest.
A case can also be made that the Sparks Nugget no longer sells an Awful Awful, either. It no longer accompanies the burger with a basket of fries, just a normal order of fries. But that evolution in the Awful Awful makes sense, which reminds me: Parents, in this age of childhood obesity, keep your children away from the Awful Awful at the Reno Nugget or the Wolf Den. Each is served with nearly a pound of fries—15.2 ounces was the batch we weighed.
Beyond that, here’s what I found about the various Awful Awfuls:
Carson: Awful Awful served in a basket with fries in a sane amount, excellent fries of a type I’ve never encountered before. The poor quality cheese on the burger undercut its appeal. $7.75.
Wolf Den: A good burger, though the taste is not particularly burger-like. I’m not dissing it, just warning that it may not taste like what you expect. Contrary to the menus at both places, it is not like the Reno version a few blocks away (and it costs a dollar more). The seasoned bun adds to the taste. Very good fries. $8.
Reno: This burger is kind of a mess. Wringing it out before eating is recommended because otherwise it falls apart from all the goo, which is something like Thousand Island dressing. Very good fries and the same seasoned bun. $7.
Sparks: This is easily the most elaborately prepared. Customers are asked how they want the meat cooked, are given four choices of cheese, are given a choice of two kinds of fries, and are given two alternatives to fries. The cook also knows the rare skill of how to melt cheese on hamburger. The fries, however, are dry, almost stale, like McDonald’s fries. And why don’t restaurateurs learn that burgers require flat, not spear, pickles? $6.95.
My overall conclusion: While these are good burgers, that’s all they are. They don’t deserve all the fuss their publicists have stirred up, and there are better ones in the valley, such as at Great Basin Brewing Co. and Juicy’s Giant Hamburgers.