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Burger Friday: Chef Shack Ranch

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: May 26, 2014 - 7:17 AM

The burger: Can we all take a moment and pay our respects to the demise of the phenomenal brioche hamburger bun -- a.k.a. the "milk-bread bun" -- from the Salty Tart? Michelle Gayer, the bakery’s James Beard-nominated owner, is getting out of the wholesale bun business, which may be the single most depressing news on the local dining front since chef Peter Ireland turned out the lights at the Lynn on Bryant.

It’s tough enough getting out of bed in the morning knowing that we live in a world without the Lynn on Bryant’s magnificent apple cider doughnuts; that those insanely buttery brioche buns will no longer be gracing burgers at select Twin Cities restaurants is almost too much for my psyche to absorb.

“It’s devastating,” said Chef Shack co-owner Lisa Carlson. She speaks from experience. Between her various food truck and restaurant operations, Chef Shack customers can consume 300 Salty Tart buns over the span of a week.

I was enjoying the bison burger at Carlson’s Chef Shack Ranch on Thursday night, and thanking my lucky stars that Carlson and co-Shack-er Carrie Summer now have a Minneapolis bricks-and-mortar setup to complement their mobile fleet. Gazing at that gleaming, absurdly golden bun was both joyous and heartbreaking. The former because, well, just look at it. And the latter because I knew that it was probably my last. Cue “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Carlson said that when she heard that Gayer was pulling the brioche plug, she ordered as many as she could get her hands on. “And I’m down to the last of them,” she said. Job one on her to-do list: Find a replacement, as if one exists. “I’m open to suggestions,” she said with a laugh.

At least I my last shot at the soft, rich-tasting, egg-washed goodness of the Salty Tart milk-bread bun came as a part of a tops-in-its-class burger.  

Carlson subs out bison – naturally lean and surprisingly juicy -- for beef, forming thick, knobbly-edged patties. The meat, super-seasoned, is taken to a just-right, flavorful char. What also makes this burger stand out is Carlson's gifted way with garnishes. For starters, there’s a cautiously fried egg, its near-creamy white a vivid contrast to an oozy yolk so vividly caution-sign yellow that it’s obvious it came from a lovingly-tended chicken.  

McDonald’s should recruit Carlson for a stint at the company’s Hamburger U, because she could teach the world’s largest burger operation a thing or two about refining ketchup, pickles and the kind of Thousand Island-inspired sauce that the Golden Arches has been using on its Big Macs for forever. Oh, and she could conduct a master class on the importance of crisp, ultra-fresh lettuce, as well as a tutorial on rooting out off-season tomatoes that still manage to form a semblance of their in-season counterparts.

Yes, the payoff is in the details, and this is one expertly detailed burger. Next up: Convincing Carlson and Summer to open their doors more than three nights a week. This is a burger that needs -- correction, demands -- a wider audience.

Price: $15, and worth it.

Fries: Included, and outstanding, another example of the goodness that happens when a skilled chef embraces a humble, all-American icon.  

Hope for the future: If you’re thinking that you’ll run to the Midtown Global Market and pick up a six-pack of Salty Tart milk-bread buns for your Memorial Day weekend burgers-on-the-grill-fest, lose that thought. Both wholesale and retail milk-bread bun sales are history.

“They’re gone for good,” said Gayer. “That is, until Michelle starts up her own burger concept. There’s a plan for the milk-bread bun, and it’s all mine.”

Their demise is primarily an operations issue. “We’re just not set up to be a production bakery,” said Gayer. But there's another factor at play.

“I don’t love making them,” she said. "And I’m not interested in doing anything I don’t love, not anymore.”

Breads will remain in the bakery’s rotation. “We’ll still have the baguette, the beer bread, all those breads that we do for the farmers market, and we’ll be making breads for our sandwiches,” Gayer said.

Meanwhile, goodbye milk-bread buns, and a big-old hello to fruit pies. At least at the Salty Tart’s new stand at the Tuesday and Saturday iterations of the Midtown Farmers Market. “I’m trying to build a pie culture,”  said Gayer. “Yeah, pie culture. Doesn’t that sound great?”

It sure does, especially when it also involves the word rhubarb, which is the theme of this Saturday’s market. Rhubarb is also the featured attraction at the bakery’s Saturday morning stand at the Mill City Farmers Market, in the form of galettes. Don’t miss them.

Back at the Ranch: Don’t feel like a burger? Consider Carlson’s “Big Boy Ranch Plate,” a comes-in-two-sizes platter ($15 for gigantic and $25 for a Fred Flintstone-like portion) weighed down by sublime pulled pork, slabs of smoky, fall-apart beef brisket, a zinger of a sausage and a parade of sides, including knobbly-on-the-oustide, beyond-tender-on-the-inside biscuits, and practically-perfect-in-every-way baked beans.

Address book: 3025 E. Franklin Av., Minneapolis, 612-354-2575. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

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

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