Man I used to love me some Sonic. I first discovered the drive-in burger chain in North Carolina, when I was in college, and the joint's bright, snappy logo still makes me nostalgic for orange-leaved trees, vanilla Cokes, tater tots and ACC basketball at the Joel. I guess, technically, I still do like Sonic: It's not as if the chain has disappeared. But it's been gone from this area since Manatee County's three locations closed up back in 2010, and I haven't stopped at one since.
Which is a long way of saying that when I saw activity at the old Sonic along U.S. 41 in south Bradenton, I got excited, and I got even more excited when I saw the place was actually open for business last week. According to the Bradenton Herald, the concept was imported from Sax Deli in Hendersonville, Tenn. The sign out on 41 proudly touts the restaurant's long history: "Est 2010."
Although the restaurant has been given a serious facelift, everything pretty much operates like Sonic did. You can pull up to any of the joint's brightly lit menus, punch the red button and place your order. But you don't have to eat in the car. My wife, son, mother and I grab a table in the center of the drive-in, right outside the small kitchen. The black wood tables are brand new, as are the neon blue tubes of light that run along the edges of the overhangs that guard the menus from rain. Sedans idle as drivers chow down. Young women in jeans and black tights and black T-shirts with Sax logos stride to and from the cars, bearing shiny metal trays heavy with stuffed white paper bags.
While everything works like a Sonic, the food is a cut above. Sax's smoked cheddar bacon burger ($5.89) is closer to a restaurant burger than fast food, with a thick beef patty. It's a touch on the dry side, but the dripping cheese and condiments help counter that. The bacon is still crisp, a real feat, and the bun carries just the slightest hint of sweetness, nicely balancing the salt and smoke of the rest of the package. You can combo-ize most everything at Sax; adding an ic
ed tea or soda and fries to that burger runs you an extra $2.49. Those fries are a heck of a lot better than Sonic's: hand-cut, with a soft texture and flavor that actually reminds you of potatoes. They're reminiscent of Five Guys' fries, but smaller, almost shoestring-sized. And hey, the sweet tea is killer, sugary enough to make you remember that this restaurant got its start in Tennessee.
The black bean burger ($5.89) is another winner. The menu claims the burger is made fresh each day, and you can tell. A bite fills your mouth with outrageous bean-ness. It suffers from the same dryness that afflicts the burger, but the pepper jack cheese and chipotle spread (plus a dab of ketchup) keeps things juicy. The bean burger tends to fall apart a bit, but hey, you're eating beans mashed together—what do you expect? I've been hassled by friends for not uncovering enough vegetarian delights in this column. Sax's bean burger is one. Eat it.
In addition to its run of burgers, Sax's also offers deli-ish sandwiches, like a pretty good reuben ($6.49) that's juicy enough to soak its bread, and a jumbo spicy grilled cheese ($3.99) with enough crunchy jalapeños to make it, you know, spicy and stuff. Hot Sax on a platter? Yes, please!
Given all the nostalgia at stake, I can't say with 100 percent certainty if I prefer Sax over Sonic, but I'm glad someone's breathing life into this location, that's for sure.
Sax Burgers & Sandwiches
6008 14th St. W., Bradenton
758-4900 or saxburgers.com
This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature in Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at email@example.com or hit me up on Twitter:@LeveyBaker.