The burger: In the 17-plus year history of Restaurant Alma, there has never been a burger on the menu. Until now.

Well, sort of. Chef/owner Alex Roberts has recently expanded his business, adding a seven-room hotel and a casual, all-day cafe to his dinner-only operation. It’s that breakfast-lunch-dinner setup that’s now featuring a burger.

Well, sort of. Cafe Alma, which is under the culinary purview of 11-year Alma vet Matt Sprague, features a turkey burger and a lamb burger on its daytime menu. “Burgers are ingrained into our culture,” said Sprague. “And now that we have the cafe, we have the opportunity to step out of our normal operating scheme.”

Two weeks ago, Sprague & Co. quietly introduced their first stab at a traditional beef burger. To say that they nailed it is an understatement. The one downside? It’s only available on Thursday, and only after 8 p.m. “We’re testing the waters,” said Sprague.

Don’t let the scarcity scare you off. Burger fanatics will want to arrange their schedules to get a crack at what Sprague has dubbed the Alma Double. It's a hefty beauty that takes its cues from the diner-style double-patty cheeseburgers that are all the rage, yet it doesn’t blindly emulate them, either. “We just identified things we like about classic burgers, and went from there,” said Sprague.

For starters, the two patties – lean and deeply flavorful (they're sirloin-heavy) and sourced from Peterson Limousin Beef in Osceola, Wis. – are thicker than the average diner-style double burger. “Sometimes, when patties are smashed super-thin, they tend to dry out,” said Sprague. Not here. These were liberally charred on the outside, but maintained a juicy, streaks-of-pink interior.

My guess is that the duo patties end up weighing somewhere between a third and a half pound of beef. It's a lot to pick up and hold and still maintain a semblance of grace. Yet, surprisingly, the Alma Double doesn't devolve into a messy, three-napkin experience. 

“That beef is really nice, which is why we don’t want to cover it up too much,” said Sprague. “When I make burgers for myself – and I know that a lot of my peers are the same way – I don’t like a lot of extra stuff. I’m not a huge fan of pork belly on burgers, for example.”

That explains the restrained, tried-and-true condiment mix: Shredded iceberg lettuce, the kitchen’s crunchy bread-and-butter pickles, and a few slices of American cheese.

Well, sort of. It starts as American, then it's reformulated with small amounts of smoked Gouda (“For backbone, and for that smoky flavor,” said Sprague) and blue cheese (“To add some funkiness, and approximate what you might get with a fontina,” said Sprague). It drapes over the patties like a dream.

The bun is a house-baked brioche (Alma pastry chef Carrie Riggs and her crew rank among the Twin Cities' best), rich and sturdy and warmed on the flattop grill with a bit of butter to toast its interior surfaces. Perfect.

The topper? It’s a tangy sauce that Sprague modeled on Russian dressing, and inspired by his memory-making visits to Umami Burger in southern California. The base is aioli, ketchup and Dijon mustard. “And then I went Eastern with it, and seasoned it with a bunch of chopped scallions, a big spoonful of gochujang and kombu dashi,” said Sprague. “It was basically, ‘How do I take a sauce that’s already delicious, and just boost the savory-ness of it a little bit more?”

Sprague should bottle his “Ooohh Mommy” dressing and sell it at the cafe's front counter. Until he does, remember: Thursday nights, after 8. Go.

Price: $12. A bargain, considering the potato situation (see below). 

Fries: None. Instead, the Alma Double is served with the kitchen's cruelly addictive finger food that's formerly known as “Crispy Smashed Russet Potatoes." Here's the process: Russets are scrubbed, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and then roasted until the skins are dried and the insides are fully cooked. After being slightly cooled, the spuds are broken into large pieces and drizzled with hot duck fat. “It sinks into the potatoes, and seasons them,” said Sprague. Once the potatoes are fully cooled, they’re crumbled into bite-size pieces, a step that creates all kinds of crispiness-inducing nooks and crannies. After being deep-fried to order, they're seasoned with a buzzed-in-the food-processor blend of roasted garlic, parsley and sea salt. Trust me, standard-issue fries pale in comparison. In the good-to-know department, the potatoes are available on the cafe’s menu as a $5 side dish.  

Where he burgers: “My favorite burger in the Twin Cities is Matt’s, the Jucy Lucy,” said Sprague. “Sorry, 5-8 Club, although they’re pretty great, too. I just prefer Matt’s. Besides Matt’s, I’ll go to Lyn 65, and I’ve been to Nighthawks a few times and I’ve really enjoyed that. I haven’t been to Revival yet, but I hear great things about that burger. I’m a huge fan of In-N-Out, and if it was here I’d probably weigh 200 pounds, so I’m glad that it’s far away. Oh, and I go fly fishing in western Wisconsin, and it has become a tradition of mine to stop at the El Paso Bar and Grill, in El Paso, Wis. It’s a situational thing. It’s not that I think that they’re doing anything really remarkable with their food, other than they’re making great burgers. I didn’t even know that it existed until a few months ago. But after spending a day on the stream, it’s great to stop in at the local watering hole for a cheeseburger and a few Summits.”

Address book: 528 University Av. SE., Mpls., 612-379-4909. The Alma Double is served at the bar in the cafe on Thursday evenings only, after 8 p.m. The cafe is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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