In a world where third-pound burgers are rapidly becoming the norm, chefs/co-owners Mike Brown, James Winberg and Bob Gerken go the other direction and embrace modesty, serving a burger that can be politely consumed in four or five dainty bites. It's slightly larger than a typical slider, but smaller (albeit much taller) than a standard-issue McDonald's burger.
"If you get this burger it's not like, 'game over,'" said Brown. "You get a giant burger at other places, and that's it, man, you're done. If you're interested in another part of the menu, forget it, that's not possible. And we used to do that. At the old Travail, with the Broadway Butter Burger, if you had that, and some duck fat fries, and a few beers, that was it, that was the whole experience."
No longer. The cramped storefront that was the original Travail is now the partnership's Pig Ate My Pizza, and the new Travail -- a few doors south of the old one -- is split in half, format-wise; go to the left and you're in tasting menu-only territory, and if you take a seat to the right, you'll select from a list of 20 or so small plate (or "micro plates," in Travail-speak) that include this boffo burger.
"At Travail, it's two hours long, and you're going to sit back and get blasted with food," said Brown. "But the Rookery side is different. You can sit down and punch holes in that menu, and an hour later, you can leave."
The burger is equipped with a bare minimum of bells and whistles. Well, for Travail, anyway, where if the staff doesn't have more-is-more tattooed somewhere on their forearms, they should. The intensely flavorful patty is a luxurious blend of brisket and scraps of aged rib-eye, a rich blend that's seasoned with fresh thyme and salt and pepper, plus onions and garlic that have been sweated on the stove. The mix is loosely formed by hand until it just holds the shape of a roulade, then it's sliced into thick-ish patties. A hot flattop grill takes the exteriors to a lightly caramelized char but keep the interior a velvety medium-rare. It's wonderfully juicy and deeply aromatic, the kind of beef bonanza that taunts your nostils long before it ever approaches your taste buds.
The house-baked bun, tender from plenty of milk yet capable of holding up to that juicy patty, gets the buttered-and-toasted treatment, then both top and bottom are swiped with a Dijon mustard emulsion. Instead of lettuce there's nicely bitter mustard greens, then a few thin-sliced slabs of house-cured bacon, chased by a layer of seductively melty Gruyere. The finishing touch is a palate-cleansing cornichon pickle.
Turns out, Brown is right. I knocked mine back in four bites ("I can take it down in one or two," he said with a laugh), my admiration for the kitchen's burger-making prowess increasing with each progressive chomp.
My initial temptation was to immediately order a second one. But then I remembered the over-the-top scrambled egg, served in its lovely terra cotta-colored shell ($4, pictured, above), and the beyond-tender octopus ($5, surrounded by a pool of yellow bell pepper broth) and a half-dozen other goodies that I wanted to revisit, and I was grateful that my post-burger appetite allowed me to do just that.
Price: $5. Order two and you'll hit, portions-wise, what you'd probably encounter elsewhere, although finding a burger this good for $10 won't be easy. As for the rest of the Rookery menu, it currently features 25 savories, all in the $3-to-$8 range, along with a half-dozen sweets that land in between $1 and $3. The Rookery also offers its own tasting menu, a greatest-hits compilation that runs $40. I highly recommend it.
Fries: Not included. And not available. Well, not really. Right now the kitchen is doing what it does best, namely a dolled-up version of fries, by puffing up finger-shaped potatoes, souffle-style, until they're golden brown, then serving them with creme fraiche and caviar. "It's sick, dude," said Brown with a laugh. "I'm telling you, it's such a cool little dish." The caviar is served in an amusing sleight-of-hand manner: the kitchen empties 1-ounce caviar jars, refilling them almost to the top with creme fraiche that has been dyed (with squid ink) to match the caviar's black color. That's topped off with a single trompe l'oeil-like layer of fish eggs. The result? It looks as if guests are getting an entire ounce of caviar for $6 (although I imagine that the disappointment that they're not is alleviated by the masterful caviar-creme fraiche combination). "It's the most perfect little snack, ever, just awesome bar food," said Brown. Yeah, that just soared to the top of my to-taste list.
Floor show: The hard-working Travail-Rookery crew is back on the job after taking a much-deserved mid-summer vacation, and here's hoping that one of my favorite evening rituals has survived the hiatus. At some point during service, Brown steps away from the kitchen to don a chicken suit while chef Nelson Cabrera slips into a kind of robot-meets-Tin Man getup. Cabrera steps up onto a cart, and as Brown pushes him around the dining room and bar -- while simultaneously (and inexplicably) fake-types on a desktop computer keyboard -- they pantomime god-knows-what while tossing popcorn at one another.
I know. I'm what-the-heck-ing as I type that. But trust me: It's peculiar, and utterly, wonderfully Travail.
Address book: 4124 W. Broadway Av., Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday. through Saturday.
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The burger: After taking a brief, spring-is-finally-here hiatus, Burger Friday is back, and taking your calls.
Variations on “What’s your favorite burger?” have been peppering my inbox for several weeks, and despite my reputation as The Thing That Won’t Shut Up, I’m challenged to come up with a response for that one. Only because limiting my answer to a single example is darned near impossible.
So I’ll cheat it and offer, in no particular order, five burger-makers that immediately come to mind: Rabbit Hole, Borough, HauteDish, Victory 44 and the crazy-good (and crazy-inexpensive) sliders served at the Rookery.
Wait, let me add another to the list: Lake & Irving.
One reason why is that, at their new-ish Uptown restaurant, brothers Chris and Andrew Ikeda took no chances on their path to burger nirvana.
“The burger is what so many people screw up,” said Andrew. “We want to make it as perfect as possible, every time.”
And they do. At least the more-than-a-handful of times that I’ve devoured it. That admirable consistency is a result of an exhaustive research-and-development process, one that led the Ikedas to their alert-the-Patent-Office formula.
It starts with a steakhouse-style short rib-chuck blend, imported from New Jersey’s Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors and a grind so flavorful that it barely needs salt and pepper. Although the end result very nearly comes off as a single patty, each burger doubles up a pair of three-ounce-ers. Picture it this way: rather than a clearly delineated double patty, a la the Big Mac, imagine a thick-ish single patty, albeit one with a slightly off-kilter shape.
Here’s the fascinating part: Each patty is cooked on a 500-degree flattop grill for a precise (as in, down to the second) amount of time, a figure determined by a ton of trial and error. Forgive me for not being able to clear the opening credits of 60 Minutes from my train of thought.
While immersed in their R&D period, the brothers stumbled into an ah-ha moment: During that quick cooking period, each patty benefits from a hard press with a spatula, a la Smashburger.
“It’s counter-intuitive, I know,” said Andrew. “At the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], we were taught that if you ever take the back of a spatula to a patty, the patty will lose moisture. But on a hard flattop, it doesn’t. It’s the fattiness in the short rib, which locks all that flavor and moisture into the patty.”
Another integral element is a Wisconsin cheddar, and no, it’s not an artisanal, meticulously aged product. And that’s OK.
"We're purists," said Andrew with a laugh. "A foie burger is one of the most sublime things I've ever had. But we're about doing the basic things really well. We don't want to over-complicate and detract from what makes a good burger a good burger."
Well said. It helps that this very basic cheddar has all the flavor and melty texture that anyone requires in a hamburger-bound cheese (true to form, that long-lasting melt is achieved through a careful baste that’s also measured in seconds). The sense of restraint continues with the burger's other garnishes, a few marvelously made pickle chips, a modest sliver of red onions and a lettuce leaf, all served on the side.
The two-patty formula is genius, in part because the thin shape requires next to no cooking time before each center reaches a picture-perfect pink. These burgers very nearly fly out of the kitchen, making L&I a smart lunch destination for the time-pressed.
(Another benefit of the two-patty system: Flavor. A pair of patties has twice the amount of surface that has been seared on the grill, and when that beef comes in contact with that heat, transformative deliciousness ensues. Now multiply that, times two.)
There’s a nostalgia-dipped backstory, too. The brothers (that's Chris, left, and Andrew, right, from a Star Tribune file photo) wanted to pay homage to the burgers that fueled them from grade school through college.
“We’re trying to get back to our roots,” said Andrew. “We grew up on Lions Tap – that’s what I ate after soccer games when I was 14 -- and other old-school burgers, with their smaller, thinner patties. But we also looked around, and we see a lot of these big, thick, medium-rare patties, and we don’t see anyone else doing two patties. So we thought we’d try it out.”
I nearly forgot about the crowning touch, a brioche bun from Patisserie 46, a golden, flaky, buttery thing of beauty that has quickly become the bun by which all others are measured. At L&I, it’s lovingly split and grilled in butter, caramelizing until it reaches the color of dark butterscotch.
“A lot of the credit goes to Patisserie 46, because that bun is dynamite,” said Andrew. Agreed.
Not convinced? Consider the numbers. The L&I cheeseburger (it’s served on every menu: lunch, dinner, late-night and brunch) is outsold only by the kitchen's category-killing fried chicken sandwich. The latter has developed a (well-deserved) cult following. In my opinion, the burger merits similar standing.
Price: $11. For a criss-cross of expertly fried bacon (highly recommended), add $2.
Fries: Included, and on par, quality-wise, with the burger.
At the bar: The Ikedas are clearly beer aficionados, and their eclectic, always-on-the-lookout list is bound to have a few choices that pair beautifully with burgers. Andrew is partial to Expat, the rye saison from Fulton Brewery, “although you can’t go wrong with Bell’s Two Hearted, that’s always money,” he said. “Or if you’re really going heavy, have the North Coast Old Rasputin Nitro, that’s going to stand up to the burger really well.” See what I mean?
Address book: 1513 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-354-2453. Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. weekends. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more.
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The burger: Can we all take a moment and pay our respects to the demise of the phenomenal brioche hamburger bun -- a.k.a. the "milk-bread bun" -- from the Salty Tart? Michelle Gayer, the bakery’s James Beard-nominated owner, is getting out of the wholesale bun business, which may be the single most depressing news on the local dining front since chef Peter Ireland turned out the lights at the Lynn on Bryant.
It’s tough enough getting out of bed in the morning knowing that we live in a world without the Lynn on Bryant’s magnificent apple cider doughnuts; that those insanely buttery brioche buns will no longer be gracing burgers at select Twin Cities restaurants is almost too much for my psyche to absorb.
“It’s devastating,” said Chef Shack co-owner Lisa Carlson. She speaks from experience. Between her various food truck and restaurant operations, Chef Shack customers can consume 300 Salty Tart buns over the span of a week.
I was enjoying the bison burger at Carlson’s Chef Shack Ranch on Thursday night, and thanking my lucky stars that Carlson and co-Shack-er Carrie Summer now have a Minneapolis bricks-and-mortar setup to complement their mobile fleet. Gazing at that gleaming, absurdly golden bun was both joyous and heartbreaking. The former because, well, just look at it. And the latter because I knew that it was probably my last. Cue “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
Carlson said that when she heard that Gayer was pulling the brioche plug, she ordered as many as she could get her hands on. “And I’m down to the last of them,” she said. Job one on her to-do list: Find a replacement, as if one exists. “I’m open to suggestions,” she said with a laugh.
At least I my last shot at the soft, rich-tasting, egg-washed goodness of the Salty Tart milk-bread bun came as a part of a tops-in-its-class burger.
Carlson subs out bison – naturally lean and surprisingly juicy -- for beef, forming thick, knobbly-edged patties. The meat, super-seasoned, is taken to a just-right, flavorful char. What also makes this burger stand out is Carlson's gifted way with garnishes. For starters, there’s a cautiously fried egg, its near-creamy white a vivid contrast to an oozy yolk so vividly caution-sign yellow that it’s obvious it came from a lovingly-tended chicken.
McDonald’s should recruit Carlson for a stint at the company’s Hamburger U, because she could teach the world’s largest burger operation a thing or two about refining ketchup, pickles and the kind of Thousand Island-inspired sauce that the Golden Arches has been using on its Big Macs for forever. Oh, and she could conduct a master class on the importance of crisp, ultra-fresh lettuce, as well as a tutorial on rooting out off-season tomatoes that still manage to form a semblance of their in-season counterparts.
Yes, the payoff is in the details, and this is one expertly detailed burger. Next up: Convincing Carlson and Summer to open their doors more than three nights a week. This is a burger that needs -- correction, demands -- a wider audience.
Price: $15, and worth it.
Fries: Included, and outstanding, another example of the goodness that happens when a skilled chef embraces a humble, all-American icon.
Hope for the future: If you’re thinking that you’ll run to the Midtown Global Market and pick up a six-pack of Salty Tart milk-bread buns for your Memorial Day weekend burgers-on-the-grill-fest, lose that thought. Both wholesale and retail milk-bread bun sales are history.
“They’re gone for good,” said Gayer. “That is, until Michelle starts up her own burger concept. There’s a plan for the milk-bread bun, and it’s all mine.”
Their demise is primarily an operations issue. “We’re just not set up to be a production bakery,” said Gayer. But there's another factor at play.
“I don’t love making them,” she said. "And I’m not interested in doing anything I don’t love, not anymore.”
Breads will remain in the bakery’s rotation. “We’ll still have the baguette, the beer bread, all those breads that we do for the farmers market, and we’ll be making breads for our sandwiches,” Gayer said.
Meanwhile, goodbye milk-bread buns, and a big-old hello to fruit pies. At least at the Salty Tart’s new stand at the Tuesday and Saturday iterations of the Midtown Farmers Market. “I’m trying to build a pie culture,” said Gayer. “Yeah, pie culture. Doesn’t that sound great?”
It sure does, especially when it also involves the word rhubarb, which is the theme of this Saturday’s market. Rhubarb is also the featured attraction at the bakery’s Saturday morning stand at the Mill City Farmers Market, in the form of galettes. Don’t miss them.
Back at the Ranch: Don’t feel like a burger? Consider Carlson’s “Big Boy Ranch Plate,” a comes-in-two-sizes platter ($15 for gigantic and $25 for a Fred Flintstone-like portion) weighed down by sublime pulled pork, slabs of smoky, fall-apart beef brisket, a zinger of a sausage and a parade of sides, including knobbly-on-the-oustide, beyond-tender-on-the-inside biscuits, and practically-perfect-in-every-way baked beans.
Address book: 3025 E. Franklin Av., Minneapolis, 612-354-2575. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
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The burger: “We think of ourselves as a kind of tribute band,” said Cynthia Gerdes with a laugh. The co-owner of Hell’s Kitchen was referring to the restaurant’s Juicy Lucifer, its version of Minnesota's unoffical state burger, the Juicy Lucy. “It’s important that no one has the perception that we’re trying to put a claim on it,” she said. “The Juicy Lucy belongs to Matt’s, not us.”
It was demand that dictated this recent foray into iconic-burger territory. A not-insignificant percentage of the restaurant’s clientele comes from nearby hotels, and many Food Network- and Travel Channel-watching out-of-towners were asking if the famous Juicy Lucy was on the menu. “We’d say they should go to the 5-8, or to Matt’s,” said Gerdes. “And they’d ask, ‘Is that within walking distance?’”
Um, no. Enter the Juicy Lucifer. “We thought that we would give it a try, because our circles don’t cross over,” said Gerdes. “No one is going to come downtown to get a Juicy, and people in hotels probably aren’t going to get in a cab for one."
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? And, frequently, the most lucrative. In the few short months since its debut, the Juicy Lucifer has rocketed up the restaurant’s sales charts, surpassing 120 other items to grab the No. 2 spot behind the kitchen’s sublime lemon-ricotta pancakes.
"If this kind of growth continues we would end up selling between 18,000 and 19,000 for our first full year," said Hell's Kitchen vice president Pat Forciea. I did the math. That's an average of roughly 50 Juicy Lucifers per day.
Gimmicky but inspired name aside, the Juicy Lucifer follows the time-tested Juicy Lucy engineering, with a pair of patties sandwiching a chunk of good-old American cheese. At Hell's Kitchen, the patties are on the thick-ish side; my guesstimate is that they weigh in somewhere in between a third- and a half-pound. Like the vast majority of stuffed burgers, the Lucifer is uniformly grilled to a more-than-medium.
“There’s definitely a science to that sucker,” said Gerdes. “It takes time to figure it out. We tested with pepper jack, and cheddar, but other cheeses take too long to melt, and you end up overcooking the burger.”
The Lucifer has a handle on the proper Lucy melt. Mine heralded its Juicy Lucy bonafides with a rivulet of semi-molten cheese oozing onto the plate. And rather than streaming out of its hiding place after the first bite -- a frequent Juicy Lucy complaint of mine -- most of the Lucifer's cheese stayed inside yet still managed to retain a semblance of semi-gooey-ness.
Finely minced jalepenos folded into the beef are what set the Lucifer apart from the more genteel Lucy. Not to worry, spice-wary Minnesota diners: the results rank fairly low on the Heat Index; think peppy rather than scorching. To insert a more hellacious (apologies, but when in Rome, right?) kick, turn to the side of red chile pepper sauce.
The beef, by the way, is an all-natural, grass-fed, Minnesota-raised product, qualities that come through in every bite. The bun, lightly toasted, has enough strength to support the zaftig heft of that cheese-infused double patty. A crisp lettuce leaf adds welcome color, and a few red onion rings contribute a pop of tangy flavor. But the joyless tomato slices have to be considered a major fail. Their deceptive ruby red color masks a less-than-zero flavor, and their juiceless texture does a fine job of impersonating refrigerated cotton. Why bother?
Still, it's an effort that does the Juicy Lucy heritage proud, and the added jalapenos are enough of a Hell's Kitchen-esque touch to swat aside complaints of outright copycat intent. Affectionate homage, certainly. Theft, hardly.
The Juicy Lucifer also another candidate for entry into the Knife-and-Fork Hall of Fame. Few are those who can politely and successfully consume this monster as a hand-held sandwich.
Fries: Included. Meh. A little too limp and greasy for my taste. Instead, I'll give a shout-out to the exceptional service, from the host's Oh-My-God-I-Am-So-Glad-To-See-You greeting to our efficient and highly personable server. The kitchen worked overtime, too. We had food on the table in a relative flash -- about 12 minutes -- a demonstration of how much the busy restaurant respects the time-pressed schedules of its lunchtime clientele.
On your way out: Drop in on the restaurant's Angel Food Bakery + Coffee Bar and pick up something sweet and decadent.
Address book: 80 S. 9th St., Mpls., 612-332-4700. Open 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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The burger: I spent a few days in New York City this week, and since my hotel was a three-block walk from Madison Square Park, I decided to make a Burger Friday stop at the Shake Shack.
Restaurateur-to-end-all-restaurateurs Danny Meyer launched this fast-food phenomenon from a hot dog cart, and it had been a few years since I'd experienced its charms. (Meyer's empire, which has amassed a staggering 25 James Beard awards over the past 24 years, started a few blocks away at the Union Square Cafe in 1985). After several headed-to-the-subway walk-bys, I wasn’t surprised to discover that the Shake Shack – which is located in the southeast corner of what is easily one of Manhattan’s prettiest parks – is as popular as ever.
It was easy to discern the fool’s errand-ness of a drop-by during peak lunch and dinner hours, so I opted for a mid-week 3 p.m. plan instead. Silly me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, upon arrival, I found 97 people queued up, a figure that eventually translated into a 43-minute wait. Fortunately, it was a spectacular spring day, and, as previously mentioned, I was standing in a supremely appealing urban setting.
I probably owe Apple a note of thanks, because when I got in line, the battery on my iPhone was reading 4 percent. Annoying, yes, but a nearly-comatose phone has its benefits. For once, my eyes weren't glued to my phone. They were where they belong: on my surroundings.
There was certainly plenty to take in. For starters, the park is ringed by a hefty number of architectural landmarks. Architect Daniel Burnham’s iconic Flatiron Building (pictured, above) has been dominating the park’s southwestern flank for 112 years. The park's eastern border is graced by the former Met Life complex, including its 700-foot tower (the world’s tallest when it opened in 1909), modeled after the Campanile in Venice. Architect Cass Gilbert’s 1928 New York Life Building, with its distinctive gold-gilded pyramidal cap, anchors the view to the north. The neighborhood's most notable newcomer is super-skinny One Madison Park, a glass-clad slip of a 60-story tower housing 53 luxury condominiums (media mogul Rupert Murdoch purchased the four-story, 10,000-square foot penthouse a few months ago for nearly $58 million).
The park itself is a flat-out knock out, a series of lawns and gardens bisected by walking paths, monuments (my favorite is sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens commanding memorial to Admiral David Farragut, he of "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" fame), a fountain and a playground. I can recall when the park was a derelict mess, but a multi-million dollar fix that began in the late 1990s has meticulously restored its formal, late-19th-century splendor.
Tulip season was in full swing, and the park’s 10,000 bulbs dazzled, as did the many flowering trees, all decked out in their lush, Technicolor-soaked splendor. A different kind of scenery, no less watchable, was the never-a-dull-moment aspect to New York City people-watching. Long story short, it was a not-unpleasant wait. Neither was the 15 minutes that lapsed from when I handed over my credit card to when I was eating.
Given the competition, I wasn’t sure if I was going to secure a table. The outdoor-only restaurant has a relatively large seating area, sheltered from the sun by some of the park’s many leafy Sycamore trees. Fortunately, I lucked into one right away.
As for the burger, it definitely occupies a berth on the upper end of the fast-food bell hierarchy. The patty was fresh and sizzling hot (the kitchen grills to a uniform medium) and spilling out from a soft, eggy bun. Plenty of melty American cheese was insinuating its way into the beef, the tomato slices actually boasted some flavor and juice (and a pleasingly deep red color) and the lettuce leaf was crisp and garden-fresh. The swipe of "Shack sauce" -- a proprietary concoction of what I'm guessing is some combination of ketchup, mustard, mayo and seasonings -- added rather than distracted from the overall taste sensation.
Yes, a fine fast-food burger, although that's a generous use of the word fast. I'm not quite sure how to weigh the effects of that lengthy wait on my appetite. Did my innate Lutheran common sense dictate that I muster a greater appreciation for the burger, given my hour-long time investment (and my ever-growing hunger)? Or had the Space Mountain-like line annoyed me to the point where the world's most impressive burger wouldn't have impressed me? Hard to know. But I can say this: Next time -- and yes, I'd definitely return -- I wouldn't hand over a precious hour of New York City time for a Shake Shack burger. A half-hour, maybe.
Price: $4.75 for a single patty with cheese, proof positive that eating well in Manhattan doesn't have to be an expensive proposition.
Fries: Extra. After watching them come out of the fryer -- and getting showered by some pretty serious salt action -- I regretted not ordering a basket of the thick, crinkle-cut fries ($2.85). Next time, right? Speaking of that sometime-in-the-future visit, I’ll gauge the potential wait – or lack thereof – by logging on to the handy web cam that’s aimed at the ever-present queue.
Wisconsin terrritory: The shakes of the restaurant's name are crafted from the kitchen's own vanilla frozen custard. It's a Culver's-like product, only richer, milkier and less sugary. I indulged in the coffee version ($5.50). It was a wickedly creamy delight, and each slurp brimmed with a dark-roast bite.
Wouldn't it be nice: Since opening in the park in 2004, the Shake Shack has sprouted an additional five Manhattan locations (none come close to the original's sublime setting), along with three in Philadelphia, three in Miami, three in Washington, D.C. and one in suburban New Jersey. A Texas outlet (in Austin) is planned for this year, and the company also operates a dozen overseas branches.
A part of me would like to see a Shake Shack energizing a Minneapolis park -- Loring, maybe? -- but in the end I'd prefer to see a local operator in that position, following in the successful footsteps of Sea Salt Eatery, Sandcastle, Bread & Pickle and Tin Fish. Perhaps the powers-that-be behind the Mall of America’s $325 million expansion can latch onto the company's growth curve and lure the Shake Shack to the megamall. Can someone get on that, please?
Address book: Madison Av. and E. 23rd St., New York, New York, 212-889-6600. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org. Burger Friday's regularly scheduled programming will return next week.
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