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Burger Friday: Devil of a burger at Hell's Kitchen

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: May 16, 2014 - 8:08 AM

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. 

Price: $13.95.

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.

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

Burger Friday: An NYC vacation

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: May 9, 2014 - 10:07 AM

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 rick.nelson@startribune.com. Burger Friday's regularly scheduled programming will return next week.

Burger Friday: JL Beers

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: May 2, 2014 - 4:23 PM

The burger: Let other foods have their annual day on the calendar (National Orange Juice Day, for example, which is observed -- and I'm using that term generously -- on May 4th). Given its place at the pinnacle of the American food chain, the hamburger is rightly feted for an entire month. That month has arrived, and I suggest you find sometime between now and the end of May to celebrate at JL Beers.

Fresh from its blazing success in North Dakota, where it operates five outlets, the fast-growing chain (it also has outposts in Moorhead, Minn., and Sioux Falls, S.D.) has just kicked open its first Twin Cities outlet in northeast Minneapolis, and for burger lovers, it's definitely worth checking out.

Talk about straightforward: The only alcohol in the joint is beer -- nearly four dozen ever-changing options -- and the menu is nothing more than burgers and fried potatoes. Oh, and root beer floats. That's it.

Not surprisingly, this particular devotion to specialization yields a more-than-decent bar burger, one that melts in your mouth in a kind of steaming-hot cloud of beef, cheese and bread (toss in the pickles and you've covered four of the five basic food groups, an efficiency that might explain the eternal popularity of the burger in our the-business-of-America-is-business culture). So unpretentious, and so delicious. 

Sure, the menu includes a dozen or so add-ons, everything from a fried egg to coleslaw, although their inclusion doesn't seem particularly sincere (and the "special sauce," a mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup, is anything but). To me, the true essence of JL Beers registers little more than a blip on the bells-and-whistles gauge.

Which is why I elected to stick to the basics. My cheeseburger was ketchup, a few skimpy factory-made pickle chips and a double layer of good-old American cheese on a plainly seasoned and evenly seared patty. It totally worked. I inhaled it.

As for the bun, those expecting to see the words "brioche," "pretzel roll" or "onion roll" should look elsewhere. This bar burger's bun is just what it should be: soft, slightly yeasty, lightly toasted.

Like all true burger-making beer joints, the grill at JL Beers is right where it should be: directly behind the bar. Take a nearby seat and watch the burger production in action, because it's quite a show. Each patty starts as a fist-size meatball. They're placed on the flattop grill and pressed into a semi-thin – maybe ½-inch thick – disk. Then the cook pulls a hinged, brick-like grill down to meet the patty, a sizzlefest that fries top and bottom simultaneously. For all I know, this contraption is a key component to every Wendy's, Hardy's and McDonald's franchise on the planet (which might spell the end of "burger flipper" from the job-title lexicon, a depressing prospect), but it's new to me, and its genius is in the way it cuts cooking time in half while grilling every patty to a uniform medium. Which explains why the burger I ordered seemed to materialize within minutes.

Price: $3.79, a tremendous bargain. For a cheeseburger, add 50 cents.

Fries: Not included (it's an extra $2.99 for an order of basic fries, and up to $4.99 for the whole bacon bits-cheese sauce-jalapenos enchilada). They’re fresh-cut, deeply golden and rushed-from-the-fryer hot, with plenty of sea salt. Their limp greasiness wasn’t terribly impressive, at least at first bite. Oddly, they improved as they cooled slightly.

Keep in touch: My (super-friendly) server handed me a pen and a postcard. “Is there anyone you want to say hello to?” she asked. “We’ll mail it.” Ok, sure. I immediately thought of my beer-loving mother. I scrawled a quick note and handed it back. She held it aloft and yelled “Beer mail!” which was echoed by a thundering choral “beer mail!” response from the staff. Hilarious. Mom received her sudsy missive in today’s snail mail, and now she wants to visit JL Beers, which pretty much proves the efficacy of this particular marketing ploy.

Address book: 24 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-208-0400. Open 11 a.m. to midnight daily.

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

Burger Friday: Digby's Burgers-Pizza-Beer

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 25, 2014 - 5:23 PM

The burger: Even though it has been in the mainstream for a few years, adding a fried egg to the list of socially acceptable burger garnishes is a practice that we can all enthusiastically endorse.

It has certainly been embraced at the new Digby’s Burgers-Pizza-Beer in Rosedale, where a fried egg is the centerpiece of what owner Michael Larson dubs his Kitchen Burger. It’s a tasty – and messy --- touch. The runny yolk seeps everywhere, boosting the patty's juiciness, and it also plays well against the spicy kick of a Sriracha-based hot sauce.

The thick patty is an 80/20 chuck/sirloin grind, generously seasoned and cooked to order (two options: “pink” or “no pink”). Along with that egg (I loved how the browned egg white added a subtle flavor boost to the proceedings), the patty is topped with a slim, agreeably melty slice of Cheddar and a few mild pickled pepper slices. A lettuce leaf feels as if it's about color other than anything else. A soft bun (from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery), generously buttered and lightly toasted, its gleaming top studded with bits of savory browned onion, pulls it all together. Nicely done.

Price: $11.99.

Fries: Included, and terrific. They’re long, skinny and lightly golden, with a barely crispy exterior and plenty of salt.

Why Rosedale?: “I drive by it all the time,” said Larson, who also owns Eat Shop Kitchen & Bar in Plymouth. “I live in Orono, my parents live in White Bear Lake, and when I'm driving on Highway 36 I couldn't help but notice the amount of people in the parking lot, all the activity and the action."

That there's a decided lack of locally-owned dining options didn't hurt.

"Other than Flame, Rosedale is chain-restaurant hell," said Larson. "That's not to say that there aren’t good chains. Big Bowl, for one. Rosedale gets 12 million visitors a year, it’s its own little city. What's missing is pizza, there's nothing good in the immediate area. And when I say 'nearby,' I mean the mall. I love burgers. I wanted to take a pizza joint and a burger joint and smack them together. It’s risky, because everyone knows what a perfect burger is, and none of those opinions are wrong. I wanted to show what my idea of a perfect burger is.”

Eye-grabbing touch:  Larson commissioned a dining room mural from Minneapolis artist Adam Turman, and it certainly helps wipe away the memory of the space's former tenant, a California Pizza Kitchen outlet. Butcher & the Boar fans will recognize Turman's work, and Larson fell for the artist's distinctive style at 612Brew. Turman incorporated Digby's three menu tentpoles -- burgers, pizza and beer -- into his composition, and also tossed in subtle visual nods to Larson's children. The results are a hit with diners, said Larson. "It's amazing the number of people who see it and say, 'We collect Adam's work,'" he said.

Who is Digby? “It was my neighbor’s dog’s name,” said Larson with a laugh. “It was a cute little thing, and it hit me that it would be a decent restaurant name.”

Address book: 854 Rosedale Center #1010 (on the mall's exterior, near the AMC Theatres), 651-330-8619. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

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

Burger Friday: Mona Restaurant

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 11, 2014 - 8:53 AM

The burger: “I hate the term ‘slider,’” said Lisa Hanson, chef/owner of Mona Restaurant. That nomenclature-driven aversion may play a role in the demise of the pair of diminutive burgers that once graced the small plates-focused lunch menu at her downtown Minneapolis restaurant. I don’t have a memory of those burgers, but having had a crack at their replacement, I’m not missing them.

What a burger. Its vast appeal is rooted in Hanson’s daily bread-making ritual. “It’s just a basic brioche dough, very simple, with lots of butter,” she said. Butter, the miracle worker, right? It's a hamburger bun for the ages. Not that they need it, but after they're split, Hanson hits them with a little extra butter before giving them a faint flavor-enhancing toast.

The patty is similarly impressive. The grass-fed beef hails from Thousand Hills Cattle Co., and Hanson enriches it with egg and several judiciously applied goodness-boosters, including onion, garlic “and a couple of other mysterious things,” said Hanson with a laugh but not revealing her secrets. From there, the meat is loosely pressed into thick patties that are wide enough to meet the bun’s edges, and grilled to a just-above medium rare.

Toppings are restrained, just a fragrant pile of caramelized onions, their natural sugars coaxed out into the open after a low-and-slow stint on the stove, and a silky, barely melted slice of smoked Gouda. Hanson also includes a side of chile mayonnaise that tiptoes around spiciness, although the beef’s rich bite doesn’t need the extra heft. Instead, save it for the fries.  

As burgers go, it may not sound like a lot, but it all adds up. “I wish that there was something more exciting to tell you about,” said Hanson. “But if you do all of the components correctly, that’s what will really make a burger stand out.” How right she is.

Price: $12, and served only at lunch.

Fries: Included, a huge portion of generously garnished skin-on spuds.

Ticking clock: Hanson changes her menu every few months, and this iteration isn’t long for this world; a few weeks, tops. Next up? “I’m thinking about a turkey burger,” she said. “A lighter meat, for spring. With basil. I’m not sure about the cheese, but maybe a slab of Canadian bacon, and a fried egg on top. We haven’t done a turkey burger yet, so I’m excited about it.”

Hurry, summer: The 2-year-old restaurant doesn't have much of a street presence (Ok, it has zilch street presence), which ushers it into a semi-permanent berth in the out-of-sight-out-of-mind file. That's a shame, because Hanson's place is both an excellent (and skyway-connected) business lunch venue and a serene, conversation-friendly dinner destination. While burgers aren't a part of the dinner menu -- a shame for anyone with a post-work burger-and-beer hankering -- Hanson does kick in free parking after 4 p.m. in the building's underground ramp (which is accessed from 8th Street). Another perk: When it opens for the season, the restaurant's patio has the advantage of being located away from busy downtown streets.

Address book: 333 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-259-8636. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 5 to 10 pm. Saturday.

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

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