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 firstname.lastname@example.org.