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Burger Friday: JL Beers

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: May 2, 2014 - 4:23 PM

The burger: Let other foods have their annual day on the calendar (National Orange Juice Day, for example, which is observed -- and I'm using that term generously -- on May 4th). Given its place at the pinnacle of the American food chain, the hamburger is rightly feted for an entire month. That month has arrived, and I suggest you find sometime between now and the end of May to celebrate at JL Beers.

Fresh from its blazing success in North Dakota, where it operates five outlets, the fast-growing chain (it also has outposts in Moorhead, Minn., and Sioux Falls, S.D.) has just kicked open its first Twin Cities outlet in northeast Minneapolis, and for burger lovers, it's definitely worth checking out.

Talk about straightforward: The only alcohol in the joint is beer -- nearly four dozen ever-changing options -- and the menu is nothing more than burgers and fried potatoes. Oh, and root beer floats. That's it.

Not surprisingly, this particular devotion to specialization yields a more-than-decent bar burger, one that melts in your mouth in a kind of steaming-hot cloud of beef, cheese and bread (toss in the pickles and you've covered four of the five basic food groups, an efficiency that might explain the eternal popularity of the burger in our the-business-of-America-is-business culture). So unpretentious, and so delicious. 

Sure, the menu includes a dozen or so add-ons, everything from a fried egg to coleslaw, although their inclusion doesn't seem particularly sincere (and the "special sauce," a mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup, is anything but). To me, the true essence of JL Beers registers little more than a blip on the bells-and-whistles gauge.

Which is why I elected to stick to the basics. My cheeseburger was ketchup, a few skimpy factory-made pickle chips and a double layer of good-old American cheese on a plainly seasoned and evenly seared patty. It totally worked. I inhaled it.

As for the bun, those expecting to see the words "brioche," "pretzel roll" or "onion roll" should look elsewhere. This bar burger's bun is just what it should be: soft, slightly yeasty, lightly toasted.

Like all true burger-making beer joints, the grill at JL Beers is right where it should be: directly behind the bar. Take a nearby seat and watch the burger production in action, because it's quite a show. Each patty starts as a fist-size meatball. They're placed on the flattop grill and pressed into a semi-thin – maybe ½-inch thick – disk. Then the cook pulls a hinged, brick-like grill down to meet the patty, a sizzlefest that fries top and bottom simultaneously. For all I know, this contraption is a key component to every Wendy's, Hardy's and McDonald's franchise on the planet (which might spell the end of "burger flipper" from the job-title lexicon, a depressing prospect), but it's new to me, and its genius is in the way it cuts cooking time in half while grilling every patty to a uniform medium. Which explains why the burger I ordered seemed to materialize within minutes.

Price: $3.79, a tremendous bargain. For a cheeseburger, add 50 cents.

Fries: Not included (it's an extra $2.99 for an order of basic fries, and up to $4.99 for the whole bacon bits-cheese sauce-jalapenos enchilada). They’re fresh-cut, deeply golden and rushed-from-the-fryer hot, with plenty of sea salt. Their limp greasiness wasn’t terribly impressive, at least at first bite. Oddly, they improved as they cooled slightly.

Keep in touch: My (super-friendly) server handed me a pen and a postcard. “Is there anyone you want to say hello to?” she asked. “We’ll mail it.” Ok, sure. I immediately thought of my beer-loving mother. I scrawled a quick note and handed it back. She held it aloft and yelled “Beer mail!” which was echoed by a thundering choral “beer mail!” response from the staff. Hilarious. Mom received her sudsy missive in today’s snail mail, and now she wants to visit JL Beers, which pretty much proves the efficacy of this particular marketing ploy.

Address book: 24 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-208-0400. Open 11 a.m. to midnight daily.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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