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Hungry for ramen? Make your own

Posted by: Lee Svitak Dean under Recipes Updated: February 21, 2015 - 2:56 PM

Tonkotsu ramen. Photo from Serious Eats.

Tonkotsu ramen. Photo from Serious Eats.

Tonkotsu ramen. Photo from Serious Eats.

Forget the instant ramen that comes in a cellophane package with seasoning packet. That originated in 1958 with Momofuku Ando of Nissin Food Products in Japan.  

We’re talking homemade ramen here, a dish that seems to be simply noodles and broth and extras, but one which is based on the complex flavors of a long-simmered stock, which comes in as many variations as there are cooks. In Japan, the dish is often sold in small shops called ramen-yas.

Of the four basic kinds of ramen broth, the one made with pork bones – tonkotsu -- is a favorite of many. Its intense pork flavor and opaqueness comes from boiling (not simmering) the bones – a lot of them -- for a very long time (6 hours or more).

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, managing culinary director of the online site Serious Eats, developed this version of the classic. He recommends cutting the bones (or having the butcher do so) into cross-wise disks rather than to split them lengthwise for better flavor extraction during the boiling. He also uses a chicken carcass to mellow out the flavor.

To arrive at the clean color he wants in his soup, he “washes” the bones by putting them in water and then boiling them. Then he rinses the bones and cleans them off before starting the actual cooking process. 

His recipe is strictly for the broth. You can find fresh ramen noodles at United Noodle in Minneapolis or make your own with this recipe from Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of “Japanese Farm Food,” which is part of her simplified version of ramen in a chicken-based broth.

To find out more about Kenji's process for deducing the best broth, read his article in full: http://www.seriouseats.com/2012/02/how-to-make-tonkotsu-ramen-broth-at-home-recipe.html

For Kenji's step-by-step recipe, go to:http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2012/02/rich-and-creamy-tonkotsu-ramen-broth-from-scratch-recipe.html

Kenji has also recently posted a vegan version of the broth. 

How good is homemade ramen? It just might change your life. For my tale of eating ramen in Tokyo, read this.

Rich and Creamy Tonkotsu Ramen Broth

Makes about 3 quarts, serving 6 to 8.

Note: This broth takes a full day or at least overnight to make (about 2 hours of active attention, 12 to 18 hours total). Plan accordingly. Unused broth can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days or frozen for up to three months. This recipe is for the broth only. For a full meal, you will need ramen-style noodles and toppings of your choice, which could include sliced braised pork belly, soft boiled eggs, sliced green onions, raw enoki mushrooms and blanched baby bok choy leaves. Recipe from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Seriouseats.com.

3 lb. pig trotters, split lengthwise or cut crosswise into 1-in. disks (ask your butcher to do this for you)

2 lb. chicken backs and carcasses, skin and excess fat removed

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

1 large onion, skin on, roughly chopped

12 garlic cloves

1 (3-in.) knob ginger, roughly chopped

2 whole leeks, washed and roughly chopped

2 dozen green onions, white parts only (reserve greens and light green parts for garnishing finished soup)

6 oz. whole mushrooms or mushroom scraps

1 lb. slab pork fatback

Directions

Place pork and chicken bones in a large stockpot and cover with cold water. Place on a burner over high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat as soon as boil is reached.

Meanwhile, heat vegetable oil in a medium cast-iron or nonstick skillet over high heat until lightly smoking. Add onions, garlic and ginger. Cook, tossing occasionally until deeply charred on most sides, about 15 minutes total. Set aside.

Once pot has come to a boil, dump water down the drain. Carefully wash all bones under cold running water, removing any bits of dark marrow or coagulated blood. Bones should be uniform grey/white after you’ve scrubbed them. Use a chopstick to help remove small bits of dark marrow from inside the trotters or near the chicken’s spines.

Return bones to pot along with charred vegetables, leeks, whites from green onions, mushrooms and pork fatback. Top with cold water. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat, skimming off any scum that appears (this should stop appearing within the first 20 minutes or so). Use a clean sponge or moist paper towels to wipe black or gray scum off from around the rim of the pot. Reduce heat to a bare simmer and place a heavy lid on top.

Once the lid is on, check the pot after 15 minutes. It should be at a slow rolling boil. If not, increase or decrease heat slightly to adjust boiling speed. Boil broth until pork fatbck is completely tender, about 4 hours. Carefully remove pork fat with a slotted spatula. Transfer fatback to a sealed container and refrigerate until broth is finished.

Return lid to pot and continue cooking until broth is opaque with the texture of light cream, about 6 to 8 hours longer, topping up as necessary to keep bones submerged at all times. If you must leave the pot unattended for an extended period of time, top up the pot and reduce the heat to the lowest setting while you are gone. Return to a boil when you come back and continue cooking, topping up with more water as necessary.

Once broth is ready, cook over high heat until reduced to around 3 quarts. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a clean pot. Discard solids. For an even cleaner soup, strain again through a chinois or a fine mesh strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Skim liquid fat from top with a ladle and discard.

Finely chop cooked pork fatback and whisk into finished broth. To serve, season broth with condiments of your choice (salt, soy sauce, miso, sesame paste, grated fresh garlic, chili oil or a mixture of all) and serve with cooked ramen noodles and toppings as desired.

For another variation of the classic ramen dish, this is from Kris Toliao, a cook at Luce in San Francisco.

Tonkotsu Ramen

Serves 4 to 6.

Note: This home version of tonkotsu comes from Kris Toliao, a cook at Luce in San Francisco. He uses bones from three parts of a pig and hard boils them at length to achieve the broth's milky texture. Marrow, which is essential to this broth, can be found in large pork bones, such as the feet. The bones can be found at Asian markets or meat markets. From the San Francisco Chronicle.

Broth:

2 pounds pork neck bones

2 pounds pork back bones

2 pound pork marrow bones (see Note)

3 large yellow onions, halved and peeled

8 garlic cloves, peeled

3 gallons water

About 1 1/4 ounces dried kombu (kelp)

Shoyu, to taste (soy sauce)

Pork topping

1 pound pork loin

1 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup mirin

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon crushed or grated garlic

Pinch red chile flakes

1 tablespoon canola oil

Additions:

Store-bought fresh ramen noodles, cooked

Toppings, as desired: sliced green onion, nori (dried seaweed), sliced store-bought fish cake, bean sprouts

For the broth: Place the bones, onion and garlic in a large stockpot, and add the 3 gallons water. Bring to rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil 6 hours, stirring and skimming frequently to clear away the impurities that arise. Start the pork marinating (see below) while the broth is cooking.

After about 6 hours, wipe the kombu with a damp cloth and add it to the broth; boil for an additional hour.

Turn the heat off and let the broth cool a bit. Carefully strain the broth through a large mesh strainer - you should get about 8 to 9 cups broth. Discard solids, and season broth to taste with salt.

For the pork topping: While the broth is cooking, combine the pork loin, soy sauce, mirin, ginger, garlic and chile flakes in a heavy-duty self-sealing plastic bag, pressing out as much air as possible before sealing. Let marinate in the refrigerator at least 2 hours or up to 6 hours, turning a few times.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Remove the pork loin from the marinade and pat dry with a paper towel. Place on the baking sheet and roast until the pork is slightly firm to the touch, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven and move to a cooling rack; cool to room temperature before slicing, about 1/4-inch per piece.

To serve: Pour about 2 cups of hot broth over the desired amount of noodles; refrigerate or freeze extra broth. Top as desired, finishing the bowl off with a few slices of roasted pork.

Burger Friday: Birchwood Cafe ventures into veggie magic

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: February 20, 2015 - 12:13 PM

The burger: It’s hardly rocket science to believe that if you want a great veggie burger, you go to a great vegetarian (or vegetarian-friendly, anyway) restaurant. Someone recently asked where they could go and not end up with a thawed Morningstar Farms patty — that a restaurant would actually have the temerity to serve such a dreary supermarket downer is a mind-boggler, but that’s another story — and of course my first thought was the Birchwood Cafe.

I was not disappointed. The restaurant, 20 years young, has had a black bean-based burger on the menu since opening day, and although I’m a frequent diner (don’t get me started on my love for the savory waffles, or the vegetable handpies), I’ve never gone down that particular path.

Not that I feared the burger equivalent a tragic no-food-with-a-face substitute. That has never been the Birchwood's style. And it's not that I didn't know that the restaurant wouldn't approach the veggie burger with the same intent that it displays with the rest of its frequently but not exclusively vegetarian menu. 

I was not surprised to learn that chef Marshall Paulsen has, during his eight-year tenure, put the black bean burger through probably two dozen refinements. It’s easy to see why the one I scarfed down earlier this week is a pinnacle experience.

First, the thick patty nails the moisture-texture conundrum that trips up so many dry and pallid veggie burgers. Paulsen’s secret lies is in the way the beans are prepared. Some are simmered for six hours in highly salted water until they’re tender but not mushy, while others are cooked longer, then pureed and seasoned with garlic-infused oil.

Binders include white quinoa, the flesh of dry-roasted russet potatoes, potato starch and locally raised cornmeal, and the mix is seasoned with plenty of cumin, coriander, salt and black pepper. When the B’wood’s kitchen was the size of an Eden Prairie McMansion’s walk-in closet, the black bean burgers were baked. But thanks to a recent renovation and expansion, Paulsen finally has a kitchen that matches his skills and ambitions, and one benefit is embodied in the way he’s now able to prepare his black bean burger. No more baked burgers, thank you very much. That bean-quinoa-potato mixture gets formed into a ball, and as each ball is seared in a hot cast-iron skillet, it gets a schmush, Smashburger-style, and cooked until the outside of the patty develops a pretty decent burger-like char, and the interior remains solid and relatively moist.  

For those who think that “veggie burger” is synonymous with “boring,” prepare to have your expectations shattered, Birchwood-style. First of all, there’s an astonishing level of detail that goes into the (all-organic, naturally) bun, which is baked on the premises each morning. Paulsen calls it a “birdseed” bun, because it’s sprinkled with ingredients typically associated with birdseed: flax, millet sunflowers. \

But the bread itself is a far cry from the vacuous, one-note white-bread burger buns that seem to norm, its wheat flour base fortified with barley and molasses. It’s no wonder that Paulsen is justifiably proud of it (and if you’re a fan of the B’wood’s turkey salad sandwich — and if you’re not, you should be — it’s served on a loaf version of “birdseed” bun). And if you didn’t think there was room for improvement, Paulsen finds it, buttering the inside surfaces of each bun giving them a light toast on the kitchen’s flap top grill.

From there, Paulsen piles on the flavors, and doesn’t hestiate to step outside the burger garnish comfort zone. The combinations change about eight times a year, depending upon what’s seasonally available. Right now, it’s a cool, crunchy cumin-kissed apple-cabbage slaw, a thin slice of sharp Cheddar, a healthy swipe of honey-jalapeno-mustard mayonnaise and a crown of flavorful microgreens, some sweet, some bitter.

Did I miss my weekly beef burger? Not for a second. The same cannot be said for the vast majority of veggie burgers I encounter.

Price: $12.

Fries: Oh, the fries. One of the many benefits of the Birchwood’s recent remake is that the kitchen has the room for a deep fryer. In the old days, Paulsen would occasionally offer fries, but it was a huge hassle. “We would fill a stock pot with oil and use a candy thermometer,” he said. “We only had a six-burner stove, and so that would take a burner, and it was so messy.”

No longer. The B’wood’s much roomier facility also makes space for the time-consuming pre-frying process. Potatoes are sliced, skin-on, then soaked in water overnight (“To get rid of some of the starches, so they’re not so sticky,” said Paulsen). They’re pulled from the water and refrigerated for a day, then blanched in 325 degree rice bran oil (a non-allergen, non-GMO product), then chilled again and then fried to order, this time with the rice bran oil at 400 degrees.

They’re pulled from the fryer just as they reach a deep golden brown, then dusted with a fine-grain sea salt, and the results are fantastic. Of course, it helps that Paulsen starts with organic russets sourced from Heartbeet Farm in Zumbro Falls, Minn., and they boast a pronounced root vegetable flavor, a quality often lost on Planet French Fry.

“If you start with good ingredients, you’ll have a good outcome, as long you don’t screw it up,” said Paulsen.

Each order comes with a terrific house-made ketchup, noteworthy for its bright, slightly sweet tomato punch and thick, fries-clinging consistency. It’s the result of a lot of experimentation on the part of the B’wood’s kitchen crew.

“A lot of people are anti-house ketchup, because the general feeling is that Heinz does it best already,” said Paulsen. “So we modeled ours on Heinz, what goes into it, and how it’s made, only we use organic tomato paste and organic corn syrup. It’s still traditional ketchup, but it is made with better ingredients, and it doesn’t have those generic added flavorings.”

Along with ketchup, the fries are also served with a second dipping sauce, and the formula changes frequently. Right now it’s a delightfully garlicky mayonnaise seasoned with roasted fennel.

Here’s a tip that will keep fries-seekers’ devastation to a minimum: They’re available at dinner only. Right now, lunch is a fries-free zone, and it’s strictly a logistical puzzle: How to serve the restaurant’s popular breakfast while also going through the prep necessary prep details.

“I’ll make sure that it’s on my next creative team meeting agenda,” said Paulsen. “We’ll figure it out.”

The price is right. Buy a black bean burger at dinner, and a handful of fries is just an additional buck. Better yet, splurge ($5) on a highly sharable appetizer-size order (again, dinner only). You won’t regret it.

Where the chefs eat: When Paulsen craves a (non-Birchwood) burger, he goes to the Nook (formal name: Casper's & Runyon's Shamrocks Irish Nook). “That’ll always be my place, I’ve been going there since I was 12, so that might have something to do with it,” he said. “It’s the perfect example of the perfect burger. If I go out once a week for a burger, it’s going to be at the Nook.”

Address book: 3311 E. 25th St., Mpls., 612-722-4474. Open 7 am. to 9 p.m. weedays, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekends.

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

16 Twin Cities chefs, restaurants, bakers are James Beard Foundation semifinalists

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: February 18, 2015 - 11:55 AM


This weekend’s 87th-annual Academy Awards crowns Hollywood’s endless so-called awards season, but in the food world, the accolades are just beginning. On Wednesday, the James Beard Foundation kicked off its 2015 awards by announcing semifinalists in categories honoring restaurants, bars, chefs, restaurateurs, pastry chefs, bakers, and wine, beer and spirits professionals.

Spoon and Stable is up for Best New Restaurant.

La Belle Vie is in the running for Outstanding Restaurant.

Restaurant Alma  is on the Outstanding Service list.

Kim Bartmann, owner of Barbette, Bryant-Lake Bowl and six other Minneapolis restaurants, is one of 20 candidates for Outstanding Restaurateur.

The foundation is debuting a new awards category in 2015: Outstanding Baker, honoring the creative forces behind retail bakeries. Two Minneapolis bakers are in the running: John Kraus of Patisserie 46 and Steve Horton of Rustica.

Eric Seed, owner of importer Haus Alpenz in Edina (www.alpenz.com), made the cut in Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional.

Nine Twin Citians occupy seven berths in the Best Chef: Midwest category, which honors chefs who “set new or consistent standards of excellence” in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. (The Beards split the country into 10 regions and bestows a Best Chef award in each of them.)

Local semifinalists include Paul Berglund of the Bachelor Farmer, James Winberg, Bob Gerken and Mike Brown of Travail Kitchen and Amusements, Jim Christiansen of Heyday, Doug Flicker of Piccolo, Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart, Russell Klein of Meritage and Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant.

Find the complete list of semifinalists here.

The Beards, named for author and culinarian James Beard, began in 1990 and are frequently shorthanded to the “Oscars of the food world.”

Semifinalists are the first step in the Beard awards process. On March 24, following a round of balloting (voters including critics, food writers and past chef winners), the foundation will announce nominees (that’s Beard-speak for “finalists,” which translates into the top five vote-getters among semifinalists) in the restaurant and chef categories, along with nominees in the Beard’s cookbook, design and journalism divisions.

A second round of voting follows, and winners in the restaurant and chef categories will be presented their medalions at a gala ceremony on May 4 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the first time in the awards’ 25-year history that the event has taken place outside New York City.   
 

Burger Friday: Steve O's grills a bar burger for the ages

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: February 13, 2015 - 1:30 PM

The burger: For owner Greg Beckey, the appeal of the burger at his Steve O’s Bar & Grill springs from the kitchen’s 25-year-old char-broil grill.

Think about that for a moment: A quarter century of burger flavor, burnished, day after day after day, into the surface of that hard-working grill. Let’s do the numbers: That's more than 9,000 days of firing up that burger-maker, which translates into hundreds of thousands of burgers. So, yeah, it’s easy to see what he's talking about.

“That’s really what gives the burgers their great flavor,” Beckey said. “Any restaurant owner would tell you that that’s why the burgers come out as good as they do.”

He asked if I remembered the old Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale. Who doesn't? The downtown Minneapolis restaurant has been gone for more than 30 years, but scratch a native Twin Citian of a certain age, and you’ll find a Charlie’s story. Here’s Beckey’s: 

“Well, when the restaurant closed, they sold their grill to someone,” he said. “Someone bought that grill specifically because they wanted that same famous Charlie’s flavor.” 

I love that. (Oh, and does anyone know where the Charlie’s char-broiler ended up?)

Back to the burger. It’s a bar burger, so it’s nothing fancy. But that simplicity is a major draw. The centerpiece is of course the patty, eight heaving ounces of tightly packed, lightly seasoned and obviously fresh ground beef that takes on the tease of smoke as it gets seared on that grill.

Six minutes after I ordered, I heard the creak of the kitchen door, and lunch was served. My burger arrived medium rare, and it was glorious, the center of the patty deeply pink, the patty’s surfaces lightly, tantalizingly charred. That half pound of beef goes a long way: It’s a thick-ish patty, yet it still stretches wide across the entire bun, embracing an ideal beef/bread ratio.

Based on the patty alone, Steve O’s serves a mouth-watering tavern burger for the ages. The rest? Eh. I know it’s February, I know that Steve O’s is a roadhouse in Crystal and not some James Beard award-winning temple of gastronomy, but there’s no excuse for serving such lame tomatoes. Can we all agree to ignore such pale, juiceless, ice-cold and mealy excuses for one of nature’s most extraordinary gifts, and pledge to enjoy them only when they are meant to be enjoyed? These sad imitations contribute exactly nothing to the burger experience, so why bother?

Other add-ons left a far more favorable impression, and certainly do nothing to upstage the beef’s stellar performance. There’s a perfectly fine lettuce leaf, all color and crunch. Raw white onions contributed a much-needed punch (and helped cover — slightly — the tomato’s glaring inadequacies), and as for the cheese, I followed my server’s advice and went with American (other options include pepperjack, Cheddar and Swiss), and its salty, melty, bubbled attributes performed just as expected. The soft white bun (from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery) didn’t exactly stand out, but it wasn’t bad, and was improved by a light toasting and a thick swipe of fatty mayonnaise.

Shortcomings aside, I’ll repeat myself: This is a bar burger for the ages.

Price: Visit at lunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily), when nearly every burger on the Steve O’s menu is $5.50 (cheese, a single -- and I might add, stingy -- slice was an extra 50 cents). Otherwise, expect to pay $8.99 for this California-style burger. For the menu’s eight or so other burgers, you'll pay anywhere from $7.99 for a straight-up version to $9.99 for a half-pounder buried under chili, cheese and sour cream.

Fries: Extra, and worth the $1.25 surcharge. They’re cut wide and fried to a light golden crispiness and for a frozen, commercially-packaged product, they boast plenty of tender potato-ey flavor. Lots of black pepper seasoning, too.

Steeped in history: It was basically love at first sight between Steve O’s Bar & Grill and yours truly. Here’s why: When I walked in, there were exactly four people populating the nearly empty bar and dining room (I wasn’t surprised; roads were in C-minus condition – it was snowing – and there weren’t a lot of drivers out and about; plus, it was well after the noon hour, and early afternoon doesn’t exactly feel like prime time for a roadhouse in the Steve O’s mode).

Two were customers, both nursing beers at the end of the bar. The other two were working: One was the beyond-friendly woman who took my order, the other was seated behind the — wait for it — pulltabs counter.

Now, I don’t encounter a lot of charitable gambling scenarios while I’m on the job, but that's looking like a grievous error on my part. I’m thinking that I need to hit the pulltab circuit with more frequency, in hopes that I’ll encounter more Steve O’s-level burgers.

The restaurant has been around forever, in various forms. Beckey says the building dates to the late 1920s. He’s been on the premises for more than 30 years, working for previous owner Steve Weisman until Beckey bought the place 15 years ago.

When I pulled into the parking lot, my brain was sparked by a vague memory of visiting the place with my father and my uncle Hub in the mid-1970s, when it was called the Cabin Bar. That foggy reminiscence (literally: given that date, the place was probably shrouded in secondhand smoke) sent me to the Strib’s creepy basement morgue and its bookshelf of battle-scarred city directories.

The oldest volume dates to 1956, and after much searching (it wasn't under "B" for "Broadway" but "W" for "West Broadway," go figure) I found the address listed with the name Louie’s Log Cabin. By 1967, the restaurant was going by the Log Cabin Restaurant and Cabin Bar. Thirteen years later, it was operating as the Crystal Lounge. Weisman bought it shortly thereafter and changed the name to Steve O’s, and when Beckey took possession, he maintained the status quo. “I was not going to call it Greg O’s,” he said with a laugh.

The exterior has seen better days, but go inside and you’ll find yourself embraced in the vintage warmth of honey-tinted knotty pine paneling. “It’s got that ‘Up North’ feel,’” said Beckey. It does indeed.

Recently, Beckey has been sprucing the place up, and his efforts show, including the addition of 14 taps, widely and wisely expanded the bar’s craft IPA offerings. Unfortunately, the room’s most remarkable feature, a handsome river rock fireplace, wasn’t crackling with a rowdy fire — which is just what the doctor would have ordered on that particularly wintry afternoon. No, its beauty was obscured by a pinball machine. Huh?

Parting shot: Just as I don’t encounter a lot of pulltabs in my line of work, I was also delighted by a (rare, for me, anyway) gift from the kitchen: A moist towelette. After destroying two gigantic paper napkins during my lunch-hour burger-and-fries-a-thon, all I could think was, “How thoughtful.”

Address book: 4900 W. Broadway Av., Crystal, 763-537-5970. Open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? (A tip clued me into Steve O’s, and I’m grateful). Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

Burger Friday: New Freddy's serves up fantastic fries

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: February 6, 2015 - 1:25 PM

The burger: The proliferation of burger chains continues. This time, it’s Freddy’s, a cheery and spotless Wichita, Kan.-based outlet that recently established a fast-food beachhead in the Twin Cities.

Freddy’s slaps the “steakburger” label on its output, and that might stretch credulity. If there’s a steak flavor, I couldn’t detect it, although what was there, beef-wise, was crying out, at the very least, for salt and pepper.

But the good news is that the patties are prepared fresh, starting out as a free-form lump of ground beef that gets pressed with a spatula, fairly thin (the thickness of a crispy oatmeal cookie; sorry, I have cookies on the brain), against a hot flattop and grilled until the results are uniformly medium-well.

Where the Freddy’s patty stands out primarily for its hanging-over-the-edge-of-the-bun stature, which gives it an aura of plenty. And that skinny profile becomes much less noticeable when the patties are doubled up.

Add-ons don’t stray from the expected: a slice of American cheese, a few traces of raw onion, a swipe of drab mustard and a pair of cut-lengthwise dill pickles. The cottony, standard-issue bun is greatly improved by a light toasting.

Not bad, but not terribly remarkable, either, particularly in this age of next-generation burger chains.

Is Freddy's an improvement over McDonald’s, Burger King, Hardee’s and Wendy’s? I’d say so. But would I rather turn to the burgers at Five Guys? Probably. Smashburger? Yes.

Price: $4.39 (or $7.19 with fries and a soda).

Fries: Extra ($1.79 and $1.99) and a reason to visit. They’re fantastic, really. The skinny cuts aren’t so thin that they come off as those harshly crispy canned Durkee shoestring potatoes that my mother used as a hot dish garnish back in the 1970s. Instead, they materialize hot out of the fryer, a gorgeous golden brown, with traces of still-tender, baked potato-like insides enveloped in tantalizing crispiness. The heaping helping that landed next to my burger was seasoned exactly right, with hints of the chain’s “famous” seasoning (a basic mix of garlic, salt and paprika), just enough to tickle the taste buds but not so much as to overpower. After a few fries I had to push them out of reach, otherwise I would have scarfed every last one of them. That almost never happens at a fast-food joint.

“And since you’ve never been here, you should try our fry sauce,” said the outgoing employee behind the counter (everyone on the staff has their Friendly-O-Meter set to a uniform high). “It’s a mix of mayonnaise, ketchup and pickle juice.” Who could resist that? It tasted exactly as promised, and I kind of loved it; the pickle juice adds a welcome tanginess to the standard, too-sweet Heinz.

Cool down: As for my custard malt ($3.79), I wasn’t impressed. It was runny and the chocolate had a fake, low-quality flavor. Go to Culver’s instead.

 

 

Yes, there is a Freddy: Company co-founders Scott Redler and brothers Bill Simon and Randy Simon cloak the restaurant in a vague 1950s nostalgia – picture a burger chain on the set of “Happy Days” – naming their fast-growing, 13-year-old company after the Simons’ father Fred. The place is papered with images and tales of lore connected to the patriotic, hard-working Fred, and it’s a sweetly sepia-toned if formulaic tribute, one that gives an otherwise anonymous chain a stab at a personality. To quote Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in “Gypsy,” “You gotta have a gimmick,” right?

Noses up: I’m not sure if it’s a design flaw (the kitchen is open to the dining room) or a lack of venting firepower, but I discovered that, following my 20-minute lunch in the Freddy’s dining room, my jacket, scarf, stocking cap, sweater, shirt, jeans and what little hair I have left on my head were all reeking of Eau de Freddy’s. And it wasn't just scent-sensitive me, overreacting. Once back to the office, a colleague walked by, stopped and noted, “You smell like a restaurant.” Lovely.

Address book: 14165 Hwy. 13, Savage, 952-440-2222 (and opening Feb. 10 at 11600 Fountains Dr., Maple Grove, 763-600-6713). Open 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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

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