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Front Page - Friday, April 7, 2017

Heart Attack Cafe: What a way to go!

My friend, Adam, shouted my name from across the parking lot of Heart Attack Shack as I was unlocking my car to leave. I turned and saw him standing next to his vehicle, clutching his chest.

An hour earlier, we had strode into the new burger, wings, nachos and fries joint on Ringgold Road with our chests puffed out, emboldened by a naive bravado. The very name of the place implied a dare, and we were there to prove ourselves worthy of the challenge.

As we approached the counter, we lifted our eyes to view the menu, located on the wall behind the cashier. My pupils must have widened as I looked over the cholesterol-laden wonders that awaited me.

Housed inside the former home of Hungry Howie’s Pizza & Subs, Heart Attack Shack offers the four menu items I mentioned above and nothing more. But there’s plenty of variety within those categories. If you order a burger, you can choose to add several toppings, spreads and cheeses and upsize it from a quarter of a pound all the way up to a full pound.

 The same goes for the fries, which come straight, crinkly, waffly and curly, and can be loaded down with shredded cheese, jalapeños, real bacon bits, Heart Attack Shack’s signature sauce and several spices. Chili cheese fries would seem like an obvious item for a place called Heart Attack Shack, but Adam immediately groused about the lack of that option.

He’d skipped lunch in anticipation of the feast of fats we would be consuming that evening, so he was hangry (with an “a).

Wings come bone-in and bone-out and can be slathered in one of several sauces. Finally, nachos come piled high with grilled chicken or steak and covered in house-made queso, black olives, jalapenos (those buggers pop up everywhere at Heart Attack Shack), sour cream and pico de gallo.

As I scanned the menu, I noticed something surprising. Heart Attack Shack doesn’t do small; their portions are massive. But their prices aren’t. I was already leaning toward the steak machos (with an “m”) and was surprised to see an out-of-pocket cost of $6.99.

The rest of the menu follows suit, with 12 wings costing $8.99, the full-pound burger coming in at $8.49 and the extra large fries crossing the finish line at $2.99. How can Heart Attack Shack offer huge portions at reasonable prices? I was pondering this when the thought of biting into a crunchy, cheesy home-made chip topped with freshly grilled steak steered my mind in a different direction.

My brain shifted gears again when another thought occurred to me. Heart Attack Shack makes no apologies for the kind of food it serves despite the growing tendency of people in our culture to eat healthy. Essentially, the restaurant is thumbing its nose at current foods trends and saying, “Eat like it’s your last meal.”

While that sinks in, think about this: the slogan on Heart Attack Shack’s website (www.heartattackshack.com) is “Get your heart ready.” Short of stopping by Erlanger Hospital first for an angioplasty, I’m not sure how one would do this. If you’re going to eat at Heart Attack Shack, you simply have to set aside everything you know about eating right and commit.

If you really want to commit, take the Heart Attack Challenge. This involves consuming two one-pound bacon cheeseburgers and a large order of fries within an hour. If you succeed in cramming all of that food down your throat, your meal is free; otherwise, the cost of your failure is $19.99.

Knowing Adam must have been famished, I suggested he take the challenge. He declined and ordered a bacon cheeseburger and regular fries with cheese, jalapeños and bacon bits.

As I looked at the cashier and mouthed the words, “steak nachos,” my chest tightened. It wasn’t my arteries closing up to defend themselves from the meal to come; it was my conscience reminding me that I’m on a low-sodium, low cholesterol diet as part of an effort to lower my blood pressure.

Determined to experience what the Heart Attack Shack has to offer for myself, I pushed through my hesitation and committed.

I was glad I did. When my name was called at the pick-up window and I saw what the cook had crammed into my to-go box, my pupils widened all over again. It was a true PILE of nachos.

As I sat in the dining area and ate my fill, using the chips as a means of conveyance for the copious amounts of steak and cheese, Adam consumed his burger and fries.

Adam is a true foodie with a picky palate. But that doesn’t mean he’s a restaurant hound; as much as he likes to eat out, he’s just as happy staying home and enjoying his wife’s cooking. As we entered Heart Attack Shack, he said the place would be hard pressed to top her burgers.

Heart Attack Shack came close. Adam said the burger was tasty, juicy and better than the burgers at one of Heart Attack Shack’s main competitors. He also said he’d eat at Heart Attack Shack again. That’s no small thing coming from him.

I joked that he should give the restaurant a seal of approval for the front door. It could have a picture of him giving the place a thumbs-up and the words: “Adam approved!”

I knew my wife would not approve of my meal, but if I survived the machos, I figured I’d make it through the lecture that was waiting for me at home.

As Adam and I ate, we talked about what we liked. By and large, we gave the food good marks. Other than the bacon bits on Adam’s fries tasting like ham and the lack of a soda fountain, we enjoyed our meals.

We also chatted about the things that gave us pause. As a new restaurant trying to fit into a former takeout pizza place, Heart Attack Shack does have some quirks, the most notable of which are the limited amount of seating and the potentially awkward journey through the kitchen to the restroom.

Manager Justin Howarth assured us, however, that as Heart Attack Shack establishes itself and picks up steam, all the  wrinkles will be ironed out. For now, your best bet is to treat the place like take out.

Heart Attack Shack is Howarth’s brainchild. A former cafeteria manager at a customer service center, Howarth came up with the idea for his emporium of cholesterol when his customers began requesting heart attack fries – an off menu item that grew in popularity as word about them spread.

Brian Tipps of Nashville put up the money for the heart-stopping endeavor and the rest is history.

Fortunately, I’m not history, even after consuming most of the mountain of machos placed before me. As penance, I ate oatmeal for breakfast this morning, and I am drinking cold-pressed almond milk as I type this. When you play, you pay.

Adam is still around, too. After clutching his chest in mock pain in the parking lot of the Heart Attack Shack, he waved goodbye, hopped into his Nissan Quest and drove off, his heart still beating.

The Heart Attack Shack didn’t take out either of us that night, which will only encourage us to return, emboldened by our victory and eager to prove ourselves worthy of another challenge.

Just don’t tell my wife.