The burger: In all the years that I’ve been dining at the 128 Cafe – and that goes back to (gulp) the late 1990s -- I don’t recall ever encountering a burger. Until now. To chef/owner Max Thompson -- he bought the place about a year ago -- its appearance on the menu is something of a no-brainer.
“We’re sitting here surrounded by a bunch of college students,” he said.
He's referring to the University of St. Thomas, which spreads out across the street from the restaurant's dimly lit, knotty pine-paneled coziness (conditions I'll use as my explanation for that poorly illuminated photo, above; a more plausible interpretation is my skill-free use of the photo function on my iPhone. In any event, apologies).
Count me a fan of the 128’s Thompson era (see my review here), and this burger is no exception. One bite into it, and I was consumed with nostalgia-tinted envy, something along the lines of, “If only the burgers were this good when I was an undergraduate.”
Thompson builds the goodness from the ground up, starting with a blue-ribbon grind. As with so many gotta-have burgers across the Twin Cities, Thompson turns to Peterson Limousin Beef, and his formula is primarily chuck, supplemented by premium scraps from the menu's New York strip, as well as the brisket that Thompson channels into his category-killing Reuben.
Seasoning is kept to a minimum, just salt and pepper, allowing the meat’s quality to speak for itself. “I’m not big on messing around too much with that beef,” he said. “I feel very strongly about that.”
The kitchen forms that flavorful beef into thick, loosely packed, hug-the-edge-of-the-bun patties, and grills them to a tantalizing medium-rare on a charbroiler (“I sure wish it was a wood-burning stove,” said Thompson) until the outer edges take on a slight crispness; inside, it's all about pink, juicy tenderness. It's the kind of well-reasoned patty that separates the professionals from the Five Guys.
As far as toppings go, it’s a few basics – a decent tomato slice, lively lettuce, nicely vinegar-ey cucumber pickle chips – and a Wisconsin white Cheddar with a slightly nutty bite. Oh, and a generous swipe of what Thompson calls his “fry sauce,” a blend of aioli, those zingy pickles and hot sauce – all prepared on the premises – whisked with onions, Dijon and ketchup (“It’s Heinz, because I can’t best Heinz,” he said), a condiment he has been making “since I was a young man,” he said. It’s a keeper – Thompson should consider bottling the stuff – and it adds all kinds of subtle flavor dimensions to an already delicious burger.
The final compoment, a brioche-style bun (from Main Street Bakery), with its buttered-and-toasted treatment, fulfills all requirements. Yes, this a habit-forming burger that you'd hope to encounter in your neighborhood restaurant. Fortunately for me, the 128 is my neighborhood restaurant, and forging that habit over the coming winter months is exactly my plan.
There's more. Thompson has recently expanded into lunch, serving Tuesday through Friday. Naturally, the burger – along with a changes-frequently burger special – is a menu mainstay.
Price: $12 dinner, $10 lunch.
Fries: None. Instead, potato chips.
Bargain hunters: For his happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday), Thompson offers a burger-related doozy. Two of them, actually. Diners can pick up a burger and any bottled beer for $10, or choose to knock 50 percent off the price of a burger.
Address book: 128 Cleveland Av. N., St. Paul, 651-645-4218. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
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It’s a memorable day at Gavin Kaysen’s opening-in-mid-November North Loop restaurant.
“All of our plates, and glasses, and silverware just arrived, and we’re unpacking,” he said. “It’s a little hectic around here.”
Oh, and then there’s the slight matter of an announcement Kaysen dropped on social media this morning. He’s changed the name of his enterprise, from Merchant to Spoon and Stable (check out his video here).
The new name reflects the century-old building’s original use as a stable — remnants of the horse stalls remain in the dining room’s brick walls — and Kaysen’s well-known penchant for stealing restaurant spoons. As souvenirs. To date, he estimates that his collection, numbers-wise, hovers around 500.
Q: So, spoons?
A: Yeah [laughs]. I started doing it when I was probably like 20. It didn’t start out as much. You know, when you travel, you save a postcard, or you save currency — and I did, all these countries before they went to the euro, I have them framed — and I didn’t think much of it, I just starting taking spoons, thinking it would be a fun way to remember where I’d been. You know, I would be inspired by the meal, or the company. What’s funny is that people started sending them to me. I’ve had cooks who staged in places around the world, and they’d send me spoons. I’ll be honest, I have a number of spoons that I don’t know where they came from — no clue — and some of them have got a note taped to them to remind me. But I do know where the majority came from.
Q: Is your collection going to be displayed in the restaurant?
A: My brother is going to create a piece of art work with them. We're going to get out a couple bottles of wine, he’s bringing over driftwood from California, and we'll get some glue or nails so they don’t get stolen like I stole them [laughs].
Q: Are you holding any spoons back?
A: Yes, I want to be sure they’re not included because they mean so much to me. I have a spoon from my first meal at Cafe Boulud. I’ve got a spoon from Paul Bocuse, I remember that very well. I’ve got one from the French Laundry, it was given to me, I didn’t take it. There’s one from David Myers from Sona in L.A. At the end of the meal, I was presented with a cigar box, and I opened it, and inside, there was a spoon.
Q: Have you ever been caught?
A: No. I used to sometimes take them and slip them into my wife’s purse, and she’d say, "Don’t make me be that person." But there’s a spoon that I’ve never been able to get, from Alain Ducasse's restaurant in Monoco. The silverware is gold. I’d give my left leg to get one of those spoons. A friend was there, and he sent a picture of it, and said it was "the spoon that got away." He didn’t take it for me. He said, "Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to steal a gold spoon for you." [laughs]
Q: How much do 500 spoons weigh?
A: A [expletive deleted]-ton, you have no idea. When I moved them from New York, I vacuum-sealed them, separately, because they were so loud. From there, I divided them among three separate boxes, that’s how heavy they are.
Q: Are you setting yourself up for souvenir seekers like yourself?
A: Probably [laughs]. I’m going to put a souvenir charge on our POS [point of sale] system. That’s the only way to control it. I got the idea at Tru in Chicago. I was having dinner there, by myself, and there was a lady who had ordered that beautiful caviar staircase, do you remember that? When she finishes the caviar, she discreetly grabs the caviar staircase and puts it in her purse. No one says anything, not the waiter, no one. I was shocked. She proceeds through the meal, and asks for the check. When she sees the final invoice, she opens her purse, puts the caviar staircase back on the table, and the waiter takes the bill away and readjusts it. Later I asked him, "What did you do?" And he told me they have a souvenir fee, because people take the staircases all the time. It was $250. And I said, "You legitimately have that as a line item on your POS system?" [laughs].
Q: I can’t tell if you’re being straight with me. You’re really going to have a souvenir charge? How much?
A: I don’t even know. Good question. But I’m totally going to have to have a souvenir fee. We have to do something [laughs]. Or we can just let it chill out for six months, and then get the word out that we’ll have a Sunday where everyone can come in and return the spoons, no questions asked [laughs].
Q: When did you decide to change the name?
A: About two weeks ago, when I began to realize all the other restaurants named Merchant. I didn’t know about them. There’s one close to us, in Madison, Wis. More than anything else, I was putting on my small business owner hat, and asking myself, ‘How will this help or hurt the guys in Madison, or in New Jersey, or in L.A.? I don’t want to the cause of any hurt. I want our name to be genuine to this space.
Q: And you went to your mentors for advice?
A: Yes, I went to Daniel [Boulud], and I asked Thomas Keller. I said, "Chef, do think this is bad, changing the name?" My biggest concern is that people would think it was weird; you know, the prime rib special that’s now $9 when everyone else is charging $18. Chef said, "Naming the restaurant is the hardest part of the build-out, and I’m always glad that I didn’t have to name the French Laundry, because it was already called that. Whatever is on the front door, you have to believe that. You make it that name."
Q: How many names did you brainstorm?
A: It’s funny, Spoon and Stable was the first name that I came up with, way back, but I set it aside. Actually, when I originally wrote the business plan, I was calling it Dorothy’s [for Kaysen’s late grandmother, Dorothy Ann Kaysen]. Then I walked through the space and saw the stable and thought, yeah, this makes sense. Why didn’t I just listen to myself the first time? It could have been a lot easier. But that’s part of the process, and I learned a very valuable lesson. That’s being a business owner. You learn these things. I want to learn from my mistakes, it makes you better.
The burger: Welcome to the Duluth Road Trip version of Burger Friday. I recently spent a few hours in the Minnesota half of the Twin Ports – a noon-hour layover on an Apostle Islands-St. Paul trek – and once we crossed the Blatnik Bridge (the Bong Bridge, my favorite infrastructure name, ever, was out of commission) we made a beeline for the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace for a quick sandwich stop at my Canal Park culinary go-to, Northern Waters Smokehaus.
Wouldn't you know it? The line was out the door – as always. Fidgety with hunger, we turned to the right and opted for a table inside the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar.
Although momentarily disappointed -- goodbye bison pastrami! – but we were not disappointed.
It’s anchored by a patty with a sterling grass-fed beef pedigree, hailing from Thousand Hills Cattle Co. The kitchen takes it to a deep, almost crispy exterior char, grilling it until there are just trace elements of pink in the patty’s center.
Beran’s formula blends brisket, chuck and tri-tip sirloin, and the combination tastes as good as that sounds. For added richness, he freezes butter, runs it through an electric shredder and folds it into that richly beefy mix. “I remember reading that Erick Harcey [chef/co-owner of Victory 44, home to one of the Twin Cities’ blue ribbon-worthiest burgers] was throwing butter into his burgers,” said Beran.
Smart call. Each patty starts as a hand-formed ball, and it’s fried in a hot cast-iron pan. “We shmush them to order – it’s like the Smashburger idea, only better – using a large spatula and giving it a single press,” said Beran. Seasonings? Just salt and pepper.
From there, Beran sticks to the tried-and-true: wonderfully crunchy (and welcomingly acidic) cucumber pickle chips, crisp chopped lettuce and red onion, a juicy tomato slice and a swipe of mayo fortified with fish sauce, sweet onions and ketchup.
As for the cheese, it’s a doozy, a teasingly salty and appealingly melty slab of white Cheddar with a fascinating background story.
“We go through one of those molecular processes,” said Beran. Here’s how it works: After nudging a mix of beer, vinegar and sodium citrate – an emulsifier – to a boil, Beran whisks in white Cheddar. The fondue-style results are cooled into a sliceable (and flavor-boosted) format that melts with reliable grace, not unlike a good-old piece of individually-wrapped Kraft American.
The bun hails from the Red Mug Bake Shop in Superior, Wis., a favorite stop of mine in the Twin Ports. It was billed as a challah bun, and while I wasn’t feeling the traditional egginess, it was a fine bun all the same: soft, golden, lightly toasted, lovely.
In short, a burger anyone would hope to encounter on a road trip. A quick glance around the dining room confirmed my hypothesis; a hefty percentage of my fellow diners were also in relishing burgers.
“Duluth is a burger-loving town,” said Beran with a laugh, which probably explains some of the high sales figures. But I have to think that Beran’s prowess is a primary reason behind those big numbers.
Fries: Included. They’re great: Thick-ish, deeply golden, admirably crisp and generously seasoned.
Address book: 394 S. Lake Av., Duluth, 218-722-2355. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 am. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recipe bonus round: The restaurant’s new-ish cookbook (those thinking of grabbing one for a souvenir might reasonably be taken aback by the stratospheric $34.95 price tag) contains nearly four dozen appealing recipes, including what to me reads as this quintessential Duluth formula.
LAKE SUPERIOR FISH CAKES
Note: Adapted from “Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar Cookbook” (Heirloom Industry, 2013). “Substitute whitefish with herring, walleye, perch, sunfish or our favorite, Victus Farm tilapia from Silver Bay, Minn.,” writes Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar chef Tony Beran. “Most white flaky fish will work well.” For julienned carrot and radish, cut vegetables then place them into an ice bath for at least 2 hours prior to serving (“to achieve a curl,” writes Beran). When ready to serve, remove vegetables from water by hand and place them on a paper towel to remove excess water.
1 lb. whitefish, skinned and deboned
½ yellow onion, minced
½ jalapeno, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
Zest from 1 lemon
1 tbsp. fish sauce
1 1/2 c. panko bread crumbs
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. salt
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and carefully add whitefish. Cook for about 5 minutes. Remove pot from heat, strain fish from water using a fine colander and allow fish to cool.
In a large bowl, toss cooled fish with onion, jalapeno, celery, lemon zest, fish sauce, bread crumbs, eggs, pepper and salt.
Using your hands, form mixture into 8 2-ounce patties (roughly 1/4 cup portions).
Fill a heavy skillet or fryer with enough vegetable or canola oil to cover the cakes (only up to half the height of the pan) and bring the oil to 375 degrees. Fry cakes until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spatula, remove cakes from oil and transfer to a paper towel-covered plate.
To serve, 1/4 cup Tomatillo Yogurt (see Recipe, below) across each of four plates. Place 2 cakes on top of each plate. In a medium bowl, toss pickled beets (see Recipe, below), julienned carrot and julienned Daikon radish (see Note) and sprinkle over cakes.
Makes 1 cup.
2 1/2 tomatillos, thinly sliced
3/4 tsp. salt
1 c. plain yogurt
1 1/2 tsp. soy sauce
1 1/2 tsp. honey
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, toss tomatillos with salt then arrange in a single layer on prepared baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer tomatillos to a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse until well-blended. Line a medium bowl with a paper towel, transfer pureed tomatillos to bowl, then squeeze out excess liquid. Place tomatillos back in food processor, add yogurt, soy sauce and honey and pulse until well-combined.
Makes about 1 cup.
1/2 c. balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
1/4 c. water
1 star anise pod
1/4 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp. plus 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 large red beet, peeled and julienned
In a medium pot over medium-high heat, combine balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, water, star anise, cinnamon stick, sugar and salt and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar and salt. Remove from heat and bring to room temperature. Place beets in a glass jar and strain mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into the jar. Allow beets to sit, uncovered, for 24 hours, and use as desired. Store in a tightly sealed jar for 3 to 4 weeks.
Burger Friday is on vacation, soaking up some fall color. On that note, here's some burger color, from Burger King in Japan. Behold two variations on the "Kuro" burger, featuring black buns, black sauce and black cheese (kuro is black in Japanese).
The ingredients are tinted with bamboo charcoal and squid ink, and prices start at the equivalent of $4.
According to Forbes, Burger King is offering the novelty burger to celebrate its five-year anniversary in Japan, and the response has been huge. "As many as half the customers are ordering the trendy new item off the menu at Burger King outlets," notes Forbes.
Naturally, McDonald's is getting in on the action, offering a Halloween-themed "Spooky" burger. "Some customers, however have termed the imitation 'niban senji,' the popular Japanese expression denoting second-best," writes Forbes.
(Photo: Burger King employee Rumi Sekine with the Kuro Pearl burger on the left, and the Kurl Diamond burger on the right, from the Associated Press).
Burger Friday returns Oct. 24.
The burger: At first glance, newcomer Cocoa Loco (it opened in July) might come off as a coffeehouse, right down to the pastry case. But there’s a kitchen behind that counter (and table service, too), and in the post-breakfast hours, it focuses on burgers, of all stripes. Burgers weighed down with thin-sliced brisket, onion rings and bacon. Burgers seasoned to resemble meat loaf. Burgers made to resemble Reuben sandwiches.
That’s just the designer versions. The menu also has a giant mix-and-match thing going on, with a choice of patty (beef, black bean, turkey or grilled portabella), grilled bread (sesame seed bun, pretzel bun, gluten-free bun, ciabatta), six cheeses (each $1), seven 40-cents-extra toppings (from caramelized onions, chipotle-infused mayonnaise) and five $1 potential add-ons (avocado, grilled pineapple, fried egg).
Me? I went old-school and opted for the single third-pound beef patty, From there, I went with Cheddar, and a sesame seed bun, sticking with the freebie garnishes: pickle chips, shredded iceberg lettuce, a decently juicy tomato slice and a few raw onions.
My first impression was a favorable one, and it was all about the bun, a light and lightly toasted beauty. It’s from Mainstreet Bakery, a wholesale operation in Edina, and it hit all the right burger requirements.
The other key element, the patty, is an obviously not-frozen mix, pressed relatively thin but wide, hanging over the bun’s edges. While it was crying out for salt, it was cooked precisely to order, with an easygoing char that revealed a slightly pink interior. Nice.
I paid an extra $1 for a thin, bubbled slice of forgettable Cheddar; I should have gone for the American, which would have probably had a more agreeable melt and more salt. Still, for a basic burger? Not bad. Not bad at all. If I lived in the neighborhood, I’d be a regular.
Price: $6.99 for a single patty, $8.99 for a double patty.
Fries: Included. I have to admit that I’m powerless over this style of thin-cut, lightly salted, just-shy-of-golden fries. My one quibble – ok, two – is that the ones I tried were bordering on being over-fried. And under-salted. But otherwise, lovely.
Ice cream treats: The restaurant’s owners – they also operate the Lone Spur Bar & Grill, a few doors down in the same strip mall – are obviously tapping into the huge audience from nearby Hopkins High School, with 14 flavors of shakes and malts in two sizes: big ($3.99) and bigger ($4.99), the latter served with the overflow from the iced-up malt can. I tried a banana-hot fudge malt, which was creamy and occasionally (in a good way) lumpy, with a just-barely malt-ey aura.
Bargains: Every Wednesday, the basic burger -- and a small shake or malt -- is available for $8, a $3 savings. Oh, and the deal includes fries. There’s also a kids-eat-free setup on Monday and Thursday: with every adult entrée, the kitchen will send out a free kid’s entrée.
Address book: 11056 Cedar Lake Rd., Minnetonka, 952-322-7395. Open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends.
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