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Burger Friday: New burger makes the grade at 128 Cafe

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: November 7, 2014 - 8:20 AM

The burger: In all the years that I’ve been dining at the 128 Cafe – and that goes back to (gulp)  the late 1990s -- I don’t recall ever encountering a burger. Until now. To chef/owner Max Thompson -- he bought the place about a year ago -- its appearance on the menu is something of a no-brainer.

“We’re sitting here surrounded by a bunch of college students,” he said.

He's referring to the University of St. Thomas, which spreads out across the street from the restaurant's dimly lit, knotty pine-paneled coziness (conditions I'll use as my explanation for that poorly illuminated photo, above; a more plausible interpretation is my skill-free use of the photo function on my iPhone. In any event, apologies). 

Count me a fan of the 128’s Thompson era (see my review here), and this burger is no exception. One bite into it, and I was consumed with nostalgia-tinted envy, something along the lines of, “If only the burgers were this good when I was an undergraduate.” 

Thompson builds the goodness from the ground up, starting with a blue-ribbon grind. As with so many gotta-have burgers across the Twin Cities, Thompson turns to Peterson Limousin Beef, and his formula is primarily chuck, supplemented by premium scraps from the menu's New York strip, as well as the brisket that Thompson channels into his category-killing Reuben.

Seasoning is kept to a minimum, just salt and pepper, allowing the meat’s quality to speak for itself. “I’m not big on messing around too much with that beef,” he said. “I feel very strongly about that.”

The kitchen forms that flavorful beef into thick, loosely packed, hug-the-edge-of-the-bun patties, and grills them to a tantalizing medium-rare on a charbroiler (“I sure wish it was a wood-burning stove,” said Thompson) until the outer edges take on a slight crispness; inside, it's all about pink, juicy tenderness. It's the kind of well-reasoned patty that separates the professionals from the Five Guys.

As far as toppings go, it’s a few basics – a decent tomato slice, lively lettuce, nicely vinegar-ey cucumber pickle chips – and a Wisconsin white Cheddar with a slightly nutty bite. Oh, and a generous swipe of what Thompson calls his “fry sauce,” a blend of aioli, those zingy pickles and hot sauce – all prepared on the premises – whisked with onions, Dijon and ketchup (“It’s Heinz, because I can’t best Heinz,” he said), a condiment he has been making “since I was a young man,” he said. It’s a keeper – Thompson should consider bottling the stuff – and it adds all kinds of subtle flavor dimensions to an already delicious burger.

The final compoment, a brioche-style bun (from Main Street Bakery), with its buttered-and-toasted treatment, fulfills all requirements. Yes, this a habit-forming burger that you'd hope to encounter in your neighborhood restaurant. Fortunately for me, the 128 is my neighborhood restaurant, and forging that habit over the coming winter months is exactly my plan.

There's more. Thompson has recently expanded into lunch, serving Tuesday through Friday. Naturally, the burger – along with a changes-frequently burger special – is a menu mainstay.

Price: $12 dinner, $10 lunch.

Fries: None. Instead, potato chips.

Bargain hunters: For his happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday), Thompson offers a burger-related doozy. Two of them, actually. Diners can pick up a burger and any bottled beer for $10, or choose to knock 50 percent off the price of a burger.

Address book: 128 Cleveland Av. N., St. Paul, 651-645-4218. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

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

Burger Friday: Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: October 31, 2014 - 1:06 PM

The burger: Welcome to the Duluth Road Trip version of Burger Friday. I recently spent a few hours in the Minnesota half of the Twin Ports – a noon-hour layover on an Apostle Islands-St. Paul trek – and once we crossed the Blatnik Bridge (the Bong Bridge, my favorite infrastructure name, ever, was out of commission) we made a beeline for the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace for a quick sandwich stop at my Canal Park culinary go-to, Northern Waters Smokehaus.

Wouldn't you know it? The line was out the door – as always. Fidgety with hunger, we turned to the right and opted for a table inside the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar.

Although momentarily disappointed -- goodbye bison pastrami! – but we were not disappointed.

That’s because chef Tony Beran – who counts J.D. Fratzke of the Strip Club and Jack Riebel (during his Dakota Restaurant & Jazz Club days) as mentors – turns out a top-notch burger.

It’s anchored by a patty with a sterling grass-fed beef pedigree, hailing from Thousand Hills Cattle Co. The kitchen takes it to a deep, almost crispy exterior char, grilling it until there are just trace elements of pink in the patty’s center.

Beran’s formula blends brisket, chuck and tri-tip sirloin, and the combination tastes as good as that sounds. For added richness, he freezes butter, runs it through an electric shredder and folds it into that richly beefy mix. “I remember reading that Erick Harcey [chef/co-owner of Victory 44, home to one of the Twin Cities’ blue ribbon-worthiest burgers] was throwing butter into his burgers,” said Beran.

Smart call. Each patty starts as a hand-formed ball, and it’s fried in a hot cast-iron pan. “We shmush them to order – it’s like the Smashburger idea, only better – using a large spatula and giving it a single press,” said Beran. Seasonings? Just salt and pepper.  

From there, Beran sticks to the tried-and-true: wonderfully crunchy (and welcomingly acidic) cucumber pickle chips, crisp chopped lettuce and red onion, a juicy tomato slice and a swipe of mayo fortified with fish sauce, sweet onions and ketchup.

As for the cheese, it’s a doozy, a teasingly salty and appealingly melty slab of white Cheddar with a fascinating background story.

“We go through one of those molecular processes,” said Beran. Here’s how it works: After nudging a mix of beer, vinegar and sodium citrate – an emulsifier – to a boil, Beran whisks in white Cheddar. The fondue-style results are cooled into a sliceable (and flavor-boosted) format that melts with reliable grace, not unlike a good-old piece of individually-wrapped Kraft American.  

The bun hails from the Red Mug Bake Shop in Superior, Wis., a favorite stop of mine in the Twin Ports. It was billed as a challah bun, and while I wasn’t feeling the traditional egginess, it was a fine bun all the same: soft, golden, lightly toasted, lovely.

In short, a burger anyone would hope to encounter on a road trip. A quick glance around the dining room confirmed my hypothesis; a hefty percentage of my fellow diners were also in relishing burgers.

“Duluth is a burger-loving town,” said Beran with a laugh, which probably explains some of the high sales figures. But I have to think that Beran’s prowess is a primary reason behind those big numbers.

Price: $15.

Fries: Included. They’re great: Thick-ish, deeply golden, admirably crisp and generously seasoned.

Address book: 394 S. Lake Av., Duluth, 218-722-2355. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 am. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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

Recipe bonus round: The restaurant’s new-ish cookbook (those thinking of grabbing one for a souvenir might reasonably be taken aback by the stratospheric $34.95 price tag) contains nearly four dozen appealing recipes, including what to me reads as this quintessential Duluth formula.  

LAKE SUPERIOR FISH CAKES

Serves 4.

Note: Adapted from “Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar Cookbook” (Heirloom Industry, 2013). “Substitute whitefish with herring, walleye, perch, sunfish or our favorite, Victus Farm tilapia from Silver Bay, Minn.,” writes Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar chef Tony Beran. “Most white flaky fish will work well.” For julienned carrot and radish, cut vegetables then place them into an ice bath for at least 2 hours prior to serving (“to achieve a curl,” writes Beran). When ready to serve, remove vegetables from water by hand and place them on a paper towel to remove excess water.

1 lb. whitefish, skinned and deboned

½ yellow onion, minced

½ jalapeno, minced

1 stalk celery, minced

Zest from 1 lemon

1 tbsp. fish sauce

1 1/2 c. panko bread crumbs

2 eggs, beaten

1 tsp. black pepper

2 tsp. salt

Directions

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and carefully add whitefish. Cook for about 5 minutes. Remove pot from heat, strain fish from water using a fine colander and allow fish to cool.

In a large bowl, toss cooled fish with onion, jalapeno, celery, lemon zest, fish sauce, bread crumbs, eggs, pepper and salt.

Using your hands, form mixture into 8 2-ounce patties (roughly 1/4 cup portions).

Fill a heavy skillet or fryer with enough vegetable or canola oil to cover the cakes (only up to half the height of the pan) and bring the oil to 375 degrees. Fry cakes until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spatula, remove cakes from oil and transfer to a paper towel-covered plate.  

To serve, 1/4 cup Tomatillo Yogurt (see Recipe, below) across each of four plates. Place 2 cakes on top of each plate. In a medium bowl, toss pickled beets (see Recipe, below), julienned carrot and julienned Daikon radish (see Note) and sprinkle over cakes.  

TOMATILLO YOGURT

Makes 1 cup.

2 1/2 tomatillos, thinly sliced

3/4 tsp. salt

 1 c. plain yogurt

1 1/2 tsp. soy sauce

1 1/2 tsp. honey

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, toss tomatillos with salt then arrange in a single layer on prepared baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer tomatillos to a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse until well-blended. Line a medium bowl with a paper towel, transfer pureed tomatillos to bowl, then squeeze out excess liquid. Place tomatillos back in food processor, add yogurt, soy sauce and honey and pulse until well-combined.

PICKLED BEETS

Makes about 1 cup.

1/2 c. balsamic vinegar

1/4 c. red wine vinegar

1/4 c. water

1 star anise pod

1/4 cinnamon stick

1 tbsp. plus 1 1/2 tsp. sugar

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 large red beet, peeled and julienned

Directions

In a medium pot over medium-high heat, combine balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, water, star anise, cinnamon stick, sugar and salt and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar and salt. Remove from heat and bring to room temperature. Place beets in a glass jar and strain mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into the jar. Allow beets to sit, uncovered, for 24 hours, and use as desired. Store in a tightly sealed jar for 3 to 4 weeks.

Burger Friday: Vacation thoughts

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: October 10, 2014 - 6:44 AM

Burger Friday is on vacation, soaking up some fall color. On that note, here's some burger color, from Burger King in Japan. Behold two variations on the "Kuro" burger, featuring black buns, black sauce and black cheese (kuro is black in Japanese).

The ingredients are tinted with bamboo charcoal and squid ink, and prices start at the equivalent of $4. 

According to Forbes, Burger King is offering the novelty burger to celebrate its five-year anniversary in Japan, and the response has been huge. "As many as half the customers are ordering the trendy new item off the menu at Burger King outlets," notes Forbes.

Naturally, McDonald's is getting in on the action, offering a Halloween-themed "Spooky" burger. "Some customers, however have termed the imitation 'niban senji,' the popular Japanese expression denoting second-best," writes Forbes. 

(Photo: Burger King employee Rumi Sekine with the Kuro Pearl burger on the left, and the Kurl Diamond burger on the right, from the Associated Press). 

Burger Friday returns Oct. 24.

Burger Friday: Cocoa Loco

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: October 3, 2014 - 7:19 AM

The burger: At first glance, newcomer Cocoa Loco (it opened in July) might come off as a coffeehouse, right down to the pastry case. But there’s a kitchen behind that counter (and table service, too), and in the post-breakfast hours, it focuses on burgers, of all stripes. Burgers weighed down with thin-sliced brisket, onion rings and bacon. Burgers seasoned to resemble meat loaf. Burgers made to resemble Reuben sandwiches.

That’s just the designer versions. The menu also has a giant mix-and-match thing going on, with a choice of patty (beef, black bean, turkey or grilled portabella), grilled bread (sesame seed bun, pretzel bun, gluten-free bun, ciabatta), six cheeses (each $1), seven 40-cents-extra toppings (from caramelized onions, chipotle-infused mayonnaise) and five $1 potential add-ons (avocado, grilled pineapple, fried egg).

Me? I went old-school and opted for the single third-pound beef patty, From there, I went with Cheddar, and  a sesame seed bun, sticking with the freebie garnishes: pickle chips, shredded iceberg lettuce, a decently juicy tomato slice and a few raw onions.

My first impression was a favorable one, and it was all about the bun, a light and lightly toasted beauty. It’s from Mainstreet Bakery, a wholesale operation in Edina, and it hit all the right burger requirements.

The other key element, the patty, is an obviously not-frozen mix, pressed relatively thin but wide, hanging over the bun’s edges. While it was crying out for salt, it was cooked precisely to order, with an easygoing char that revealed a slightly pink interior. Nice.

I paid an extra $1 for a thin, bubbled slice of forgettable Cheddar; I should have gone for the American, which would have probably had a more agreeable melt and more salt. Still, for a basic burger? Not bad. Not bad at all. If I lived in the neighborhood, I’d be a regular.

Price: $6.99 for a single patty, $8.99 for a double patty.

Fries: Included. I have to admit that I’m powerless over this style of thin-cut, lightly salted, just-shy-of-golden fries. My one quibble – ok, two – is that the ones I tried were bordering on being over-fried. And under-salted. But otherwise, lovely.

Ice cream treats: The restaurant’s owners – they also operate the Lone Spur Bar & Grill, a few doors down in the same strip mall – are obviously tapping into the huge audience from nearby Hopkins High School, with 14 flavors of shakes and malts in two sizes: big ($3.99) and bigger ($4.99), the latter served with the overflow from the iced-up malt can. I tried a banana-hot fudge malt, which was creamy and occasionally (in a good way) lumpy, with a just-barely malt-ey aura.

Bargains: Every Wednesday, the basic burger -- and a small shake or malt -- is available for $8, a $3 savings. Oh, and the deal includes fries. There’s also a kids-eat-free setup on Monday and Thursday: with every adult entrée, the kitchen will send out a free kid’s entrée.

Address book: 11056 Cedar Lake Rd., Minnetonka, 952-322-7395. Open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends.

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

Burger Friday: Brasserie Zentral

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: September 26, 2014 - 12:41 PM

The burger: I’ll admit that I detected the barest, faintest whiff of a sellout when I spied a burger on the lunch menu at the otherwise rigorously disciplined Brasserie Zentral. After all, this all-American staple doesn’t really have a profile among the gathering places of Vienna,  Budapest, Munich and other sources of inspiration for this remarkable newcomer.

But Zentral finds itself in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, and chef/co-owner Russell Klein is nothing if not a realist. He has a clientele to serve, and some of them are probably going to want to spend their lunch break cozied up to a burger rather than a schnitzel or corned veal tongue salad. “Part of being a brasserie is being accessible,” said Klein. “Our concept might be challenging for some people, although I don’t think that it is. People see German, they think it’s weird. A burger, however, is straightforward, it’s easy to understand. Besides, who doesn’t like a good burger?”

Ok, sold. And it’s not as if Klein doesn’t incorporate regional gestures into the Zentral burger. The opposite, actually, making it something of a novelty burger, and an excellent one, at that.

Naturally, the ground beef is seasoned with paprika, that mainstay of Hungarian cuisine. Zentral's house-made version is a special point of pride for the restaurant. Klein has hundreds of pounds of organic red bell peppers – harvested at Riverbend Farm in Delano – dehydrating in the restaurant’s vast basement workrooms. They’re ground on an as-needed basis, to create vivaciously fresh paprika. “It’s an every-day process,” said Klein. “They hit the spice grinder, releasing oils and aromas, and the flavor is a night-and-day comparison over all the other paprikas that we looked at. I still haven’t found any that compares, even the stuff that we brought home from Hungary.”

Klein folds just enough of that pungent paprika into the lean, flavorful, grass-fed beef to lend it a hint of a punch. The patties themselves are heavyweights, portion-wise, and the kitchen takes them to the point where their exteriors boast a rustic char but their interiors are pink, velvety and juicy.

The toppings continue the travelogue-on-the-Danube vibe. Cheese is a gooey, gruyere-like raclette. Granted, it’s not the same premium raclette that takes center stage next door at Foreign Legion. That’s the Kleins’ cheese-obsessed wine bar, where raclette – the dish – is one of the menu’s must-order specialties (be sure and get the version with salty, herb-seasoned Italian ham). Opting for a perfectly servicable raclette – the cheese – for the Zentral burger is strictly a cost-cutting move. “Otherwise, we’d have to charge $20 for the burger,” said Klein with a laugh.

There’s also a generous swipe of aioli that’s fortified with horseradish and vinegar-ey gherkins. More much-needed acid comes from a juicy tomato slice, and a pile of soft caramelized onions adds just-right sweet notes.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. “Yeah, it’s a messy burger,” said Klein, in total understatement mode. Even the sturdy pretzel bun (Klein is obsessed with pretzels; if you’re visiting on a weekday, scoot upstairs to the skyway-level Cafe Zentral and pick up one of the kitchen’s marvelously chewy ones for the road) isn’t enough to hold this monster together, so, yes, you’ll be reaching for a knife and fork. Trust me, those utensils won’t leave your hands until you’ve relished every morsel.

Price: $14.50 ($15.50 with cheese, and that’s a must), and worth it.

Fries: Included. The menu hails “Belgian frites,” but I opted for a salad instead. What was I thinking? At the time, leafy greens felt like the health-conscious thing to do. It was a decision fostered by observation: diners at an adjacent table were enjoying burgers, and the sight of their sheer heft sent a shiver through my cholesterol level, enough to take my appetite off deep-fried potatoes. Of course, now I’m consumed with regret, because the fries at the Kleins’ Meritage are one of the primary reasons to visit downtown St. Paul. Next time.

Nighttime note: For those who can't make Zentral for lunch, Klein has recently added the burger to his dinner menu. The move almost – note, almost -- makes up for his decision to remove the not-to-be-believed semolina dumplings, served in an emerald-green tomato water-herb consommé. It was one of the loveliest dishes I’ve tasted this year, and I’m draping my cubicle in black crepe at this very moment as I mourn its demise.

Address book: 505 Marquette Av., Mpls., 612-333-0505. Lunch served Tuesday through Friday, dinner served Tuesday through Sunday.

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

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