The burger: It’s become difficult to remember a time when the thin-pattied, double-decker cheeseburger wasn’t all the rage. You know the type. It’s flying out of the kitchens at Revival, Nighthawks, Surly Brewing Co., Il Foro, Saint Dinette and Lake & Irving, and others. With good reason. Its appeal is universal.
But way back in 2005 — think of it as the Pre-Instagram Era — burger lovers were obsessed by a completely different standard-setter: the 112 Eatery cheeseburger. In 2015, the 112's stab at burger immortality may not enjoy the same causing-a-sensation celebrity that it once did, but this brie-topped, stuffed-in-an-English muffin monster most definitely continues to merit a spot on any credible Best Burger compilation.
Its origin is a tasty piece of local burger lore, reaching back to the French chopped beef sandwich known as Biftek Hache, a skillet-fried beef patty topped with a red wine-onion sauce. Isaac Becker, the restaurant's chef/co-owner, used that classic preparation as a starting-off point for the mini-burger he made famous at Bar Lurcat in the early aughts (that particular iteration is still going strong, by the way).
“I love that burger,” said Becker. “So when I opened 112, I used the same mix. It seems really simple, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.”
I’ll say. The lean ground beef (a blend that’s heavy on top round and hails from Grass Run Farms, a collective of Midwestern grass-fed family farms) appears to be your basic ground beef patty, but it's “chock full of butter, raw egg, sauteed onions, thyme and salt,” said Becker. “Instead of two little burgers — that’s the style we used at Lurcat — we made one big burger for 112.”
Then he added brie. Lots and lots of brie. Probably more brie than a person should consume on their own. It's cut into pieces and tumbles over the top of that sizzling, grilled-precisely-to-order patty, blatant in its sumptuousness. The notion of piling on the brie — a far cry from the American cheese that is the contemporary burger standard — just kind of happened.
“At Lurcat, I must have made it with brie once, as a little snack,” said Becker. “I liked it a lot, so that’s where that came from.” It helps that Becker uses a top-quality, ultra-creamy brie de Meaux, with its delicate white-ish rind and soft, golden interior. It's one of those situations where a person's first thought is, 'I'm never going to be able to eat all of that cheese, let alone want to," and then they find themselves powerless to resist.
Becker can’t take credit for the English muffin. “That was Landon’s idea,” he said, referring to Landon Schoenefeld, now chef/co-owner of HauteDish and Nighthawks. “He was one of the original cooks when we opened 112. The burger was originally on a French roll, but he was the one who said, ‘We should try it with an English muffin.’ It was unique at the time.” (Side note: It's no coincidence that HauteDish and Nighthawks are both home to gotta-have burgers; Schoenefeld is a burger virtuoso).
Of course, the muffins get treated to plenty of butter before being toasted on the griddle, where they're placed next to the patties; some of the patties' released fats and juices inevitably (and deliciously) end up being drawn into the muffins.
“That’s a very important step,” said Becker. “The muffins get crispy on the griddled side, but stay soft on the inside.”
While it may not appear as if restraint is in Becker's vocabulary, it is. At least when it comes to condiments. In this instance, the sole add-on is a small ramekin stacked with crunchy and colorful bread-and-butter pickles, their pronounced vinegar bite a welcome palate cleanser to the burger’s prodigious richness. That's it, and Becker's judgment is, once again, spot on. Frankly, anything more would feel superfluous.
What's the minimum time required for imparting "classic" status? Is 10 years too soon? Because this burger is clealry one for the history books. Unfortunately, it's not exactly a nosh for waist watchers, Becker included.
“I have it maybe once a year,” he said with a laugh. “I just can’t eat like that any more.”
Price: $10, a deal, and hardly an outlier on the 112's reasonably priced menu. “I try to keep the prices down," said Becker. "We’ve got to keep people coming in the door."
Fries: Not included. The kitchen is famously skilled with fries. I visited on a Tuesday, and I was not expecting to encounter Becker; with three restaurants demanding his attention, what are the odds? (Becker co-owns 112 and Bar La Grassa with his spouse and hospitality expert Nancy St. Pierre, and the couple share ownership of Bar La Grassa and Burch Steak and Pizza Bar with business partner Ryan Burnet, owner of Barrio and the soon-to-open Eastside). But it turns out that Becker works in the runs-like-clockwork restaurant every Tuesday night, so I took the opportunity to ask him what I should order with my burger. When he pointed out a new addition to the sides menu, I immediately 86-ed the notion of deep-fried potatoes and went straight for the creamed corn ($9).
It’s sublime, and full of so many great ideas that I'm going try to replicate it at home. Executive chef Kevin Manley shucks the kernels off the ears, cooks them in corn stock, then fattens up all that sweet golden goodness with butter and cream cheese. For finishing flourishes, it’s all about cool cilantro and flashes of lime, and then Manley scatters his own crunchy, spicy version of Corn Nuts over the top. Hurry in, because it’s only going to last as long as local sweet corn remains available.
Smooth sailing: The 112 may be entering its second decade — in restaurant years, that’s practically middle age — but you’d never know it, because Becker and his crew (starting with Manley, chef de cuisine Kyual Cribben and pastry chef Shawn Mckenzie) manage to keep the menu feeling fresh, despite having developed an usually large number of evergreens.
“I don’t have a lot of good dishes, so when I get one, I keep it for a long time,” said Becker with a laugh. Don’t believe that self-modesty for a second. At all three of his restaurants — the 112, Bar La Grassa and Burch Steak and Pizza Bar — Becker’s menus are stacked with nothing but distinctive, imaginative and sharply executed dishes, and he’s got the James Beard award to prove it. Take, for example, the wildly popular eggs-with-lobster bruschetta at Bar La Grassa.
“I’d love to take that off the menu, but I can’t,” said Becker. “We sell 125 of them on a Saturday night.”
Maybe because it's the oldest of the three restaurants and therefore has the longest track record, because there’s something of a hall of fame brewing on the 112's menu.
Becker estimating that 40 percent of the four dozen or so dishes on the 112's current menu can be traced back to the restaurant’s January 2005 opening, including lamb scottadito with goat’s milk yogurt, fried bread with proscuitto, bibb salad and tres leches cake. They're all must-haves, along with my personal 112 favorite, the sweet-and-sour crab salad.
I’m fairly certain that I’ve ordered this ingenius, delicately refreshing appetizer every time that I’ve dined at the 112, and it has never lost its capacity to impress. When I taste-tested it earlier this week, it was as appealing as I’d remembered (that's a half-order, below; my husband and I ordered one to share, and the kitchen thoughtfully split it into two plates) and, like the 112's burger, epitomizes everything that I admire about Becker's brilliant, repositioning-the-familiar cooking.
Given the restaurant's lengthy menu, I asked Becker for ordering advice aimed at 112 newbies. “I like the old, bistro-ey stuff, you know what I mean?" he said. "I love the frog’s legs, I think they’re great. The bacon-egg-harissa sandwich is always good, and so is what we call the ‘Unprepared steak tartare.' It’s the meat with an egg on it, and you get the condiments on the side. It’s how I had it in Paris once, a long time ago, and I loved it. I don’t know that you can get it like that anywhere else in town.”
Address book: 112 N. 3rd St., Mpls., 612-343-7696. Open 5 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Reservations suggested.
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