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

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews 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.

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