Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the Class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse are visiting the Iowa incoming freshman class to show you more than its 40-yard dash times and recruiting rankings. We talked with 5-star DE A.J. Epenesa, but before we bring you the full profile on the Edwardsville (Ill.) High School star, here is a sneak peek at what you can expect.
EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — Nestled across the street from A.J. Epenesa’s greatest high school rival sits Huddle Bar and Grill, home to the massive Samoan knuckle burger.
The stacked culinary creation includes two 8-ounce beef patties, another 8-ounce slice of half ribeye/half-beef patty, four pieces of bacon, two slices of cheese, plus lettuce and tomato. The burger stands more than 6 inches high and towers over a scattered group of french fries.
It’s a jaw-dropping phenomenon born in the mind of restaurant owner Tom Yenne, a longtime friend of the Epenesa family. A.J. Epenesa, a 5-star defensive end who signed with Iowa in February, lives about 10 miles away in Edwardsville. Huddle Bar and Grill actually sits in Caseyville, Ill., and overlooks Collinsville High School, against which Epenesa suffered a broken leg in his freshman year.
For years, the Epenesas ate meals at the Huddle Bar and Grill, and one day the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Epenesa — rated the No. 2 strongside defensive end in he Class of 2017 by 247Sports — was extra hungry. The history then gets as thick and heavy as the burger itself.
“I just went to them and said, ‘What’s your biggest sandwich because I’m starving,'” said Epenesa, who is of Samoan descent. “(Yenne was) like, ‘I got you. I’ll hook you up right now.’ My friend’s dad just cooked it and brought it out. It’s a gigantic sandwich.”
Yenne loves a burger’s presentation as much as he appreciate how it satisfies a customer’s palate. The encounter inspired him to build a burger with staying power for Epenesa.
“I just wanted to make something for him because when he and his family comes here — especially him and his dad — they come hungry,” Yenne said. “You know what, let’s pile up some meat, let’s get a little inspired with the name and the Samoan knuckle sandwich was just something off my head.”
Yenne handed off the particulars to his chef, Toby Campbell, who sharpened the ingredients.
“Tom was saying, ‘Let’s do this, this and this,’ and I just put it together,” Campbell said. “We wanted to make the Samoan burger a big burger. They’re capable of eating it, that’s what gets me.
“(A.J.) didn’t have a problem with it He didn’t have a problem with the name.”
Eppy Epenesa, A.J’s father, goes way back with Yenne, whose son, Jordan, played baseball with A.J. in their younger years. When members of Epenesa’s extended family come to town, they often patronize Huddle Bar and Grill. They all buy the Samoan knuckle burger, and they all put them down.
“It was the coolest thing that he was naming the sandwich after A.J.,” Eppy Epenesa said. “It’s good for the young kids, and it’s good for the eaters. Tom is a good person, and a good friend with the whole family.”
Members of the Edwardsville football team filled up the restaurant last fall and they all ordered the burger, which officially does not appear on the menu.
Yenne said A.J. Epenesa’s talent, character and work ethic provided ample motivation for the sandwich.
“I’ve known A.J. since he was a little bitty kid, but he was never little,” Yenne said. “Just something for the family.
“I can say it’s all for him. This is family. He’s worked his butt off to have a sandwich named after him, I think. Not too many people have that honor. It was pretty neat.”
For the complete Iowa NextGen series, click this link.