Cosmetic changes and modern improvements are slow or non-existent here and a large lot of the homes and businesses are in various states of decay. Porches lean precariously over front yards scattered with rusting automobiles and dysfunctional appliances. Oddly, many of old Rathdrum’s shantytown driveways and trailer park lanes are decorated with shiny new late-model vehicles, creating a dramatic and slightly bewildering incongruity, like catching Paris Hilton shopping for shoes at a Kmart clearance sale.
The local chamber of commerce doesn’t seem to worry itself much with the idea of promoting tourism; there’s not even a single hotel in town so unless you manage to finagle a room in some granny’s double-wide, you’re out of luck when it comes to accommodations. Let’s face it, Rathdrum isn’t really the kind of charming hamlet that anybody might visit just for the thrill of it; you’ve either got to know a resident or have some other practical explanation for going. I was raised in Coeur d’Alene, but I’d never actually had a reason to make that northern trek until I was well into my twenties and discovered an affordable animal clinic there. A friend of mine only ever makes it up for the services of a specialty car mechanic. These are the kinds of mundane things that draw outsiders into the town, and people get in and get out as fast as possible.
I decided to attempt to uncover one or two neat and notable things about Rathdrum that might justify occasionally rolling into town on an afternoon drive. So I did just that recently, heading north on US95 on a drizzly spring day with an open mind and a hungry tummy. I pulled into a spot in the tiny downtown district to snap a few pictures and jot down some notes. Looking up, I noticed four mustachioed faces suspiciously glaring back at me from inside the window of One Eye’s Tavern. I realized that maybe this not-so-welcoming committee had me pegged as an undercover agent of some type, the type Rathdrum folks might not really be so keen on. Cheese Rock cover band Nova was to be the featured act that night, and I thought about sneaking in to request “Smoke on the Water,” but I’d already blown any chance to blend in unnoticed.
Moving on, I slowly drove past mostly empty old buildings with a scant few shops including a thrift store, which might have been a reason to actually get out of the car, but sadly it was closed. One large historic building had been given a noticeable renovation, reborn as an architect’s office, its exterior heights cleverly topped with bronco-riding cowboy statuettes in lieu of gargoyles. Massive Dodge trucks clogged all available parking spots in front of the Wildwood Saloon, a rowdy beer hall that survived the great fires of 1890 and 1924, as well as the great Mullet Wars of 1988 and 2006. Conveniently, both downtown bars are located across the street from junk-cluttered daycare centers, in case you have that urge to ditch the wee ones and pop in for some Jack Daniels shots.
Hunger was beginning to harsh my mini-tour of Rathdrum so I decided to check out “the other side of the tracks” and seek sustenance on Highway 53. I was first drawn in by the prospect of Mexican food at El Molino, which with its dusty orange and green exterior, looked like it popped directly out of 1975. I chickened out after spying not a single car in the lot, just a skeletal old cowboy doddering dolefully around by the door. Up the road, Granny’s Pantry looked like a decent prospect, but the little log cabin was too hopping with action. Surely not a bad thing for them, and either they must serve good food or they serve free beer, but I needed instant gratification with minimal fuss.
A cow-shaped mailbox caught my peripheral vision and an unseen magical force made me veer suddenly left and into the parking lot of Burger Heaven. Never before was an establishment so meaningfully, perfectly named. Burger Heaven is the big crossing over, the Burger nirvana, the divine ecstasy of the Holy Burger Mother. Burger lovers spend their lives praying to the Burger Gods trying to attain this final reward when they shuffle off this mortal bun. The point is, it’s a damn good burger. I’d even put out there the possibility of it being the best burger in North Idaho. And by the miracle graces of thousands of blessed bovine angels, its here on Earth in a non-descript building up in dowdy old Rathdrum.
The drive-in style menu lists dozens of burger varieties in single, double or triple patty formats, chicken and shrimp baskets, sandwiches, shakes and malts, even some monumental breakfast burritos. I was delighted to discover my all-time favorite burger featured as “Mark’s Special” and I ordered it complete with the obligatory fries-and-a-Dr.-Pepper upgrade. It’s a thick patty topped with bacon, bleu cheese crumbles, and grilled onions, and the way Burger Heaven does it works a new kind of magic on this delectable combo. Burger Heaven’s bacon is thick cut and super crisp, not the dreaded limp and chewy stuff. The rich onions and the sharp twang of the bleu cheese detonated the flavor of the juicy ground beef in an overload of umami bliss. The fries were golden perfect fantasies and even my Dr. Pepper seemed somehow enlightened by all the glorious burger beatitude.
Burger Heaven was clean and welcoming, an Eden teeming with lush green, oxygen-producing plants, retro booths in lurid shades of orange and blue, oldies on the radio dial, and a huge mess of old-school video games bleeping in from in the arcade. You don’t necessarily expect flawless service in fast food places like this, but my rocker-girl server was hospitable and right on top of things, her black attire and endearingly mopey demeanor a perfect compliment to the comfortably somber skies. Burger Heaven is the choice fulfillment of my quest to name a reason to visit Rathdrum voluntarily, and for those seeking a transcendently tasty burger experience, it’s a pilgrimage worth making repeatedly.