Jim and Debbie Nearing's homemade burgers are so good, their friends volunteered to pay for them.
The burgers, the friends said, are so good, they should be a sin.
So it makes sense that after seven years of regular barbecues at home and lots of urging from their son CJ, the couple launched Sinful Burgers in a Bellevue strip mall.
All the recipes at the restaurant, which opened in May, are tightly held family secrets. What's not secret: Almost all the food we sampled during two recent visits was sinfully good.
Sinful Burger sits just east of 42nd Street and Twin Creek Drive in a roomy corner bay. The restaurant's roominess, decor and setup surprised us. A semi-circle bar made of dark wood, surrounded by a dozen bar stools, takes up almost half the restaurant. Six tables and six booths all have refinished tabletops to match the bar. Two family-size booths sit in the corners of the restaurant — they make a great place to trap your unruly kids.
The wide variety of patrons is testimony to the good food: blue-collar types, young professionals, military men and families.
Pictures of sporting events, athletes and stadiums cover the reddish walls. National Football League pennants hang from the ceiling, and televisions take up some major real-estate: seven 42-inch flat screens and a big-screen projection television mean you couldn't miss a game if you tried. There's also keno, a karaoke machine, two large dart boards and video games.
Each open-flame-grilled burger on the menu gets its name from one of the seven deadly sins, and the contents of the burger often reflect the sin itself: For instance, the gluttony burger is two patties between two full-sized grilled cheese sandwiches that act as a bun.
On our first visit, my wife had the Lust Burger. The burger tempts more than just your taste buds: its aroma of garlic, basil and blue cheese is the first hint at the flavors to come. The tangy blue cheese blends well with the sweet and spicy basil. This is a marriage that works. The only variation we'd recommend is a dash of the chipotle mayo, which was good on everything we tried.
The size of the burger ensures that no one will go home hungry. In fact, my wife ate only half of hers.
I had the Wrath Burger on my first visit. Pepper-jack cheese, jalapenos and chipotle mayo made for a great spicy combination. Sinful Burger makes nearly everything on its menu from scratch, including sauces.
The only thing not made there is the buns, and it gets those from locally owned Rotella's Bakery. I really like how the bun only barely covers the burger. It doesn't hide the meat and doesn't subtract from the most important part of the sandwich.
We had uneven experiences with the onion rings. The first time we had them as an appetizer, they were amazing: thinly sliced with a very light batter that managed to stay on the ring even as you bit into them. Jim Nearing, in an interview later, wouldn't tell us what seasonings he uses in his batter, though I thought I tasted an Italian seasoning combination and another spice — adding great flavor — that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
On our second trip, my wife, Kris, had the rings as a side with her burger and they were not the same. The rings were larger and tough and the batter easily fell off. Nearing explained that they had recently hired additional kitchen help and that it can take a while to get the prep methods just right.
On both of our visits, I had to get up to get things like sweetener, ketchup and silverware. The first trip was on a Friday night and the second on a Thursday, and each time the waitress seemed to struggle to keep up. We've had similar experiences at other sports bars that serve food.
The owners say they continue to work on wait staff schedules. Nearing said the restaurant's busy times have been somewhat random, and after six months in business, he's learned that scheduling is one of the toughest parts of running a restaurant.
On our second trip, we brought our two boys. They were especially excited to a see stuffed-animal claw machine along one wall. Ten tries and $5 later, Mom and Dad failed to grab a stuffed animal, but a game of Ms. Pac-Man satisfied the kids.
Our second trip was also coincidentally Sinful Burger's delayed grand-opening celebration. Nearing told me he didn't want to have a grand opening just for the sake of bringing people in. He wanted it to be special.
After a small ribbon-cutting ceremony, U.S. Army Spc. Mike DeMarinis gave the restaurant the flag he carried while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. DeMarinis said the flag once flew over one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. The flag hangs on the back wall of the restaurant, next to a glass-encased flag that flew over the World Trade Center.
The Philly egg roll was one of the highlights of our visits to Sinful Burger. CJ Nearing came up with the idea to put sliced beef, onions, peppers and cheese into a egg-roll wrapper and deep fry the whole thing. A second version of the egg roll comes with the flavors of a classic Reuben.
Four full-sized Philly egg rolls fed me, my wife and both kids. The Philly comes with chipotle mayo while the Reuben is served with Thousand Island dressing.
After spending many summers in Philadelphia, I never would have combined a wonton wrapper and cheesesteak. But it somehow works: The crunchy wrapper surrounds the surprisingly authentic flavor of a cheesesteak sandwich. It's a little gooey, but you'll be glad you tried it.
The most popular burger is the Sinful Burger. This is the one the Nearings first started making for their friends. A half-pound burger is stuffed with melted American cheese.
The menu says the burger will be prepared medium (Juicy Lucy style) with some pink. My wife asked for her burger to be medium rare and was very pleased when she cut it open. Kris always wants meat to be closer to rare than medium rare, and this was cooked perfectly.
After trying three of the burgers — Envy, Lust and Sinful — during our two trips, I ordered Debbie's Famous Indian Taco. The taco is a family recipe from Debbie Nearing's Sioux upbringing.
Thick, yummy Indian fry bread, a flat piece of yeasty dough fried until crisp, is topped with homemade chili, cheese, onions, tomatoes and a dollop of sour cream. The chili was filled with big chunks of beef and beans. I like my chili spicier than this was, but a drop or two of hot sauce kicked the spice up to where a New Orleans native needs it to be. I suggest you order the taco to share because it really is too much for one.
The kids' menu includes grilled cheese, chicken strips and a kid-size cheeseburger. The chicken strips are too delicious to be just for kids. The strips aren't spicy, but there's pepper and several other spices in the breading — another Nearing secret recipe. The strips are so juicy and flavorful it made me sad that I didn't order the Toaster sandwich, a chicken strip sandwich with cheddar cheese and chipotle mayo.
We had the fried ice cream for dessert. Sinful's version is a fried cinnamon and sugar tortilla covering a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup drizzled across the whole thing and powdered sugar on the top. My favorite part of fried ice cream is always the balance of the cold and hot, but this time, the chocolate syrup really made the dish. In the past, I've had it drizzled with raspberry or strawberry sauce. Now that I've had it, I prefer chocolate. My wife and I shared it and both got enough.
Jim and CJ Nearing say they want Sinful Burger to be a place where families can eat during the day and adults can drink and watch sports at night. So that explains the "man mug," as Jim calls it: a 21-ounce beer goblet that can be filled with one of six beers on tap.
Selections from local breweries including Lucky Bucket lager and Winter Snow Suit, and Nebraska Brewing Co.'s Infinite Wit, are among the six. Two Empyrean Brewing Co. beers are available in bottles. The full bar also includes monthly shot specials and several martinis.
The Nearings said they know that lots of national chains and local outposts serve burgers across Omaha. They hope their burgers stand out.
I may not know what's in their sinful, secret recipes, but judging from the taste of their food, I think they might be right.
Mike'l Severe is the co-host of "Unsportsmanlike Conduct," a sports talk show on 1620 The Zone Radio, weekdays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. He grew up in New Orleans, spending most of his childhood in his grandmother's kitchen. He first learned to cook from his father, Henry, who was a chef for more than 50 years. Mike'l and his wife, Kris, love to try new restaurants every Friday on date night.