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Charlie Schwandt knows his way around a hamburger.
The chef at Pat's Tap, the latest leading light in restaurateur Kim Bartmann's ever-expanding constellation of hipster establishments, makes them the anchor of his beer-centric menu, and it would be understandable to never sway away from them. So here's my advice: Visit, often, get the burgers out of your system -- that may take a while, they're that good -- and then move on to other (and frequently delicious) corners of his menu.
But first, those burgers. Schwandt isn't satisfied with the status quo. Instead, he formulates a thick 50/50 grind of bacon and ground beef, drops it on the grill and then coaxes out a ridiculously juicy finish. If the results didn't lead to a Lipitor-sponsored intervention, I'd happily make it a daily habit.
Or he blankets an expertly seasoned all-beef version with a thick, salty slab of frozen Cheddar and lets the grill give it a gorgeous caramelized sheen; Bartmann proudly, yet jokingly, refers to it as an "umami bomb," but the description fits. Most turkey burgers taste like the bland, heart-healthier second-best substitutes that they usually are, but not here; Schwandt treats his like a carefully constructed meatloaf. Even the meatless version, a robust blend of black beans and beets, is superb.
Each variation towers off the plate -- seriously, an anaconda's unhinged jaw might have difficulty taking them in -- but the theatrics overshadow a control freak's attention to detail, from the just-right egg-washed potato bun (buttered and grilled into golden brown loveliness) and the thick slices of olive oil-cured heirloom tomatoes to the crunchy fried onions, the spicy arugula, the pickled daikon radishes. The results speak for themselves.
Schwandt, who spent some time behind the fryer at the former Town Talk Diner, demonstrates a savant's sense when it comes to the mysteries of hot oil. He fries up an addictive cheese curd, garnishing each basket with a spicy ketchup that's one of the breed of fancy-schmancy artisanal condiments lining the shelves of Williams-Sonoma. I'm crazy about the fried pickles. Schwandt skips the usual chips in favor of tangier spears, and they have just the right snap. Ditto the marvelous fried green beans, which also retain their just-picked freshness despite being blanketed in a delicate batter and hitting the fryer. Kudos to the fries, too.
Like the burgers, the deep-fried delicacies are well suited to the impressive beer list, which boasts more than five dozen canned selections (the bar's cooler must be the size of my living room) and a long list of tap options. Likewise the graze-worthy cold cuts and charcuterie platters (much of it crafted in-house by Geoff Hausman), the well edited a la carte cheese selection and the chewy pretzels. Heck, even the split-and-slathered baked Russets, an amusing homage to the 1980s' potato-skins phenomenon, impressed.
Diners with a hankering for a meal beyond a burger can select from a half-dozen larger plates, including a fork-tender roast pork, served with creamy mashed potatoes and kale, the kind of weeknight meal I wish I'd grown up eating, or well-embellished and generously portioned salads, or cooked-just-right cauliflower, carrots and zucchini dressed in a rich, sweet-hot curry, one of many dishes that cater rather than pander to vegetarian tastes.
The woman at the top
Bartmann, the impresario behind venues as varied as the Bryant-Lake Bowl, Red Stag Supperclub and Lake Harriet's Bread & Pickle, has an innate gift for placemaking; I imagine if she weren't a player in the hospitality business, she could enjoy a thriving career in the theater. At Pat's, not only do she and her band of merrymakers cleverly re-brand the neighborhood suds-and-spuds hangout, but they make their labors appear effortless.
The former Casey's was a post-broomball hang for Bartmann, and its transformation into a locavore's corner bar has her sustainability commitment all over it, from its elaborate stormwater recapture system to the handsome white-yellow-black tile floor that's fashioned from recycled materials. Also evident: her obsession with palindromes, those words or phrases that share the same spelling when read both forward and backward. You know: Madam, "Rise to vote, Sir" and, yes, Pat's Tap.
Oh, and is it possible to fall for a place based solely upon its wallpaper? During demolition, Bartmann, ever the adaptive/re-use archaeologist, uncovered a battered vintage wallcovering. It was love at first sight, and she enlisted screenprinters Lauren Schuppe and Gilpin Matthews at kick.stand.press in Minneapolis to fashion a replica. One look at the end results and the Etsy.com shopper within immediately went to a single word: "Want." As in, so bad.
A few quibbles
Pat's isn't perfect. It's definitely not a best-foot-forward moment when the server's opening spiel is a lengthy Litany of the Unavailable, beer- and menu-wise. Some dishes -- drab pork belly, flavorless deep-fried zucchini, rubbery beer-steamed mussels, finesse-free chèvre-filled fritters -- have potential on paper, but fall flat at the table.
The room can be punishingly loud, and the bang-pop-crash of Bartmann's understandably beloved vintage Skee-Ball machines contribute another layer of conversation-crushing noise. The depressing black walls make me wonder if Sherwin-Williams has a paint chip titled "Zoloft."
Weekend brunch hits the spot in the hefty-portions/scratch-cooking departments, but it doesn't particularly stand out, nor is it trying to. Desserts are supplied by Bartmann's commissary, and they're nothing if not familiar: a decent cheesecake, an über-chocolatey (albeit oddly grainy) slab o' fudge masquerading as flourless cake. Just when they're about to become as predictable as a plot line on "Smash," the strangest thing happens: That knee-jerk boredom dissipates with each cinnamon-fortified, cream cheese-slathered bite of a decadent, triple-layer carrot cake.
Yeah, Schwandt knows exactly what he's doing. You know what? So does Bartmann.