It seemed like a good plan to me: Open up a fast, high-quality, slightly quirky burger-and-shake joint at the corner of Walker and Elam; keep it open late so the barflies can get cheeseburgers and shakes before hitting the after-hours parties, but also be mindful of daytime foot traffic by offering sensible lunches and stuff for the neighborhood kids. Trade in on past success just a bit, but offer something unique, too, to get people interested.
And that’s what Emmett and Lee Morphis, known by most as owners of Fincastle’s in downtown Greensboro, set out to do. They bought the tiny barbershop near the intersection, broke it down and fleshed it out, put in a big flat-top griddle and named it after his maw maw, Emma Key of western Mississippi.
All of this happened amid the relocation of the Blind Tiger and the always-present parking issues on Walker Avenue, but now, in its second month of business, things are taking hold.
Some of the menu items echo those at the sister restaurant, like the flat-top burgers, which are made from the same squished, red meatballs, though the buns at Emma Key’s are grilled, not steamed, and in lieu of Castle Sauce, they offer a house-blended Tabasco ketchup.
Milkshakes, too, are a big part of the formula here, as are other sweet goods like the posted dessert the day I visit with my wife and a friend: homemade butter pound cake, grilled and topped with vanilla ice cream. And come spring, Lee promises, there will be New Orleans-style snoballs.
There is also breakfast service, with French toast, pancakes, eggs, various meats and a few vegan items.
But for now, lunch is in order. Lee starts us off with homemade clam chowder, seriously hot and delicately flavorful, and some fancy fries. Emma Key’s fries are not hand cut, as at Fincastle’s, but topped with cheddar, jalapeños and house chili, who really cares?
After wailing pretty hard on the fries, my wife tackles her tuna melt, made from maw maw’s recipe on grilled bread with green lettuce. Her response is favorable. Our guest chose Pattie’s Melt, a variation on one of my all-time favorite sandwiches: a burger on grilled rye bread with Swiss and grilled onions, and watching him eat it gives me a taste of buyer’s remorse.
I stick with food-writing rule No. 1: If there’s a dish named after the place, or a dish the place is named after, you should get that dish.
I work a basic Flat-Top cheeseburger, with chosen toppings of tomatoes, lettuce, diced onion and some of that Tabasco ketchup., and when I’m done sniveling about the patty melt I tuck in.
The burger is glorious: a hand-formed patty browned atop the griddle to a perfect bark on the outside, with a center pristinely pink enough to remind me that I’m eating meat. Bit of grease drips onto the plate — that’s a good thing — and more of it seeps into the toasted bun. The spicy ketchup, tomatoes and cool, crispy lettuce conspire to bring a fresh taste to the proceedings. And the fries, what’s left of them anyway, make a perfect accompaniment.
Emma Key’s Flat-Top Grill 2206 Walker Ave. Greensboro