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On the sauce: 90 years of burger bliss at Jim’s Lunch

The freshly retired Philly restaurant owner eats three. The major-league superstar eats six. The all-time record, if local oral tradition is to be believed, is 15, plus one bite. I ate two, but I probably could’ve done four.

The freshly retired Philly restaurant owner eats three. The major-league superstar eats six. The all-time record, if local oral tradition is to be believed, is 15, plus one bite. I ate two, but I probably could've done four.

In Millville, New Jersey, burgers from Jim's Lunch serve as their own unit of measurement, a common griddle-cooked denominator in the Cumberland County city of roughly 30,000. This Monday marked the beginning of its 90th year of business, a fixed point in a former industrial power now best-known for manufacturing a guy baseball fans can't stop calling Roy Hobbs.

Mike Nagao grew up in Millville, and he's been telling me I should accompany him on an early-morning "Jim's Lunch Day" trip for a few years now. Open from Columbus Day to Memorial Day and shuttered in the months between, Jim's strict operating schedule fosters a level of deprivation that motivates Millville residents — some say "Millbillies," a teasing nod to the country tendencies of locals — to congregate outside prior to the annual 6 a.m. opening. This year, Rochelle Maul, the longtime owner who retired but totally didn't retire, flung the door open a little early to welcome first customers of her new year. Nagao and I showed up a couple minutes later.

Up until a few weeks ago, Nagao owned and operated D.P. Dough, the student-friendly late-night calzone maker near Penn's campus. Grueling schedules and shrinking margins coupled with an expiring lease convinced him and his partners, including his equally Jim's-devoted brother, to close up shop after five years. It was a decision Nagao described as bittersweet, though he displayed the opposite of ennui the second he led me through Jim's door. The staff immediately informed him where his dad and friends were seated.

Just like native son Mike Trout, the five-tool wunderkind Angels centerfielder who now has his own tribute wall at the diner ("#27 Mike Trout is our angel on High and Main," reads the banner), Jim's does it all. The omelettes, French toast, corned beef hash, meatloaf and Salisbury steak are popular orders, but it's the "hamburgs" (Millbilly slang) that really pay the bills. Carried to the table in a bassinet of wax paper, they're thin, short-order-style patties on split-top dinner rolls, topped with whatever condiments you please, plus a dollop of what's simply called "sauce."

They're small enough to eat multiple, like Trout's cheeseless six-pack. A long time ago, Nagao's buddy Dan Gale tried to shatter that 15-and-a-bite record (no one knows who actually set it). He got all the way to 14 before suffering what the International Federation of Competitive Eating calls a "reversal of fortune." Jim Quinn, Millville's mayor at the time, caught word of the feat and rushed over to pay Gale's tab to reward his gastrointestinal gallantry.

Jim's "sauce" is the source of much folklore and fabrication among Millville residents. Seasoned a little like chili (if anything), it's a not-too-thick, not-too-thin meat-based topping that no one, save for Jim's employees, knows front to back. Some say the recipe, originating with founder James K. Arnes, is squirreled away in a safe deposit box. The father of one of Nagao's friends swears he spotted cans of Old Bay in the back, though no one else has been able to confirm such a sight.

It's a rite of Millville home-cooking passage to attempt to recreate it, but no one's ever cracked the code — the sauce is the sword in the stone. When Nagao's friend Kyle Platt chimes in that his mother once nearly had it, Nagao's father, Scott, shared in the lamentation. "Everybody's gotten pretty close," he said. "Everybody's made their own attempt."

All the Millville natives at my table observed that the opening-day crowd seemed considerably thinner than it used to be. (Management has had to trim staff the past year or two, an issue that never arose prior.) A gradual movement toward healthier eating, maybe — the same wisp of a lifestyle drift that might've contributed to D.P. Dough's demise, Nagao posits. But Jim's isn't going anywhere, so you have to go to Jim's.

Right before she took our order, our peppy-for-6 a.m. server noticed a black plastic cap, maybe off a table or chair leg, loose near our feet. "That's OK," she said, scooping it up and tossing it onto a nearby windowsill. "We'll fix it in May."