The burger: The Modern Cafe is pushing 20 -- in restaurant years, that's practically septuagenarian territory -- and we should all age so well. It feels as fresh and energetic as the day it opened in the mid-1990s.
For most of its busy lifetime, the northeast Minneapolis restaurant has not had a burger on its menu. Until a few years ago, anyway.
"It felt like the neighborhood was changing a bit, and people didn't seem to want to invest in a full-on meal as much as they used to," explained co-owner Jim Grell. "And we're willing to give people what they want."
Clearly. It's fitting that one of the city's great casual restaurants is the place for one of the city's great burgers. So many -- too many -- burgers have an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality, but not the Modern's. Each well-selected component feels like an integral part of a team effort.
For starters, there's the patty, a generous double-grind of top-shelf chuck and brisket -- not too lean, not too fatty -- brought to a mouth-watering char on the grill. A crinkly lettuce leaf adds color and crunch, but more importantly acts as a protective layer, preventing the patty's considerable juices from wreaking havoc on the bottom half of a toasted New French Bakery bun.
Meanwhile, the top towers with a sympathetic riot of flavors and textures: a robust, teetering-towards-gooey slab of aged Cheddar (from Widmer's, Wisconsin's Cheddar go-to), a splash of a fermented garlic-infused barbecue sauce and a delicate tiara of crispy fried onions.
Oh, I almost forgot the piece de resistance: a pudgy wedge of house-cured pork belly, its outer shell nudged to bacon-like crispiness on the tiny kitchen's cast-iron griddle, its insides a paragon of mouth-melting pork-fat excess. For good measure, Grell and sous chef Ella Wessenberg garnish the plate with a few of their fabulous bread-and-butter pickle slices.
Price: The dinner-only burger goes for $12, although Grell knocks it down to $8 after 9 p.m., a bargain of major proportions (the kitchen is open to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, and to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday). There's a burger at lunch ($10.50), but it's a straight-up affair, just lettuce, pickles, an herb mayo and cheese (a $2 upcharge).
Fries: Included, and outstanding. "They're a Sysco product," said Grell, totally kidding. Each expertly seasoned, please-don't-let-this-be-the-last-one fry reveals the careful care and feeding that go into making them, a three-day process that includes a vinegar-sea salt brine, a low-temperature blanch and then a quick return to the fryer just prior to serving.
Bonus round: The Modern is justifiably famous for its pot roast and meat loaf, and it's difficult to ignore their allure; trust me, they're better than any version your mom -- or any mom in your acquaintance -- has ever prepared. But here's a tip: Check out the daily soup, because Grell & Co. have a flair for creative soup-making.
Freebie: The bright, geometric work of painter Ellen Richman currently adorn the walls of the Modern's 1940s-era dining room, and they're worth a look.
Address book: 337 13th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-378-9882.
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