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Burger Friday: Nicollet Diner

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: September 19, 2014 - 3:35 PM

The burger: For 75 years, Mickey’s Diner has been short-ordering its way into the lives of St. Paul downtowners on a 24/7/365 basis. What a track record! That we-never-close mentality is a priceless urban amenity that’s sorely lacking in downtown Minneapolis, although that deficiency might come to an end, soon.

The Nicollet Diner, a newcomer now lighting up the corner of 15th St. and Nicollet Av. on the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis, is applying for a 24-hour license. There’s a hearing at Minneapolis City Hall on Sept. 23 at 1:30 p.m.; here’s hoping it passes.

In the meantime, there are burgers to be had. Many, many burgers. “They are infinitely customizable,” said my enthusiastic server, pointing out the nearly two-dozen available mix-and-match add-ons to the basic burger structure. Some of those embellishments are gratis (lettuce, onions, dill pickles), others invoke a 75-cent surcharge (fried egg, sour cream, avocado, basil pesto, tomato, and, in what is perhaps a first for me, pineapple).

I asked my server what he prefers. “Avocado, bacon and a fried egg is my personal favorite,” he replied. Sounds delicious, but my cheapskate self stuck with the freebies,which included thin-sliced red onions that had spent some time mellowing on the stove, a crisp lettuce leaf and dill pickles, cut lengthwise along the cucumber, rather than as chips.

There’s a choice of six cheeses, and while the menu isn’t clear on this front, they aren’t free; you’ll be hit with a 75-cent surcharge. Fine. But perhaps the Powers That Be could be up front about that; maybe Muenster, smoked Cheddar, Swiss, American and their ilk belong under the menu's “Not Free Stuff” section (note: the menu on the restaurant’s website does note the 75-cent cheese fee).

Anyway. Here’s what’s great about a diner: My burger arrived in six minutes. The bun (again, there are choices, wheat or white; I opted for the latter, because, apparently, I’m as white bread as they come) was pleasantly soft and lightly toasted, a fine vehicle for delivering the remaining burger basics.

The patty is obviously hand-formed, and big enough so that it hugs the bun's outer edges. It's fairly thick, cooked to a uniform, slightly pink medium and allowed to developed a gentle exterior char, and it’s got enough juice to demonstrate that it did not hail from frozen ground beef. It’s not promising more than exactly what it is: a straightforward diner burger, thoughtfully treated and sold at a commensurate price. I’ll be back.  

Price: $5.95 for a basic, a more-than decent deal.

Fries: Extra ($3.95 and $4.95), and a miss; mine arrived noticeably greasy and over-fried. The chocolate malt ($4.95), however, was right on the money, its plentiful leftovers served, just as they should be, in their frost-covered can. More reasons to admire: The kitchen seems blissfully unaware of the existance of Reddi-wip and those verging-on-plastic maraschino cherries that send far too many malts and shakes into ruination. Hurrah. Like the burger, my malt was not trying to be anything it’s not – no frozen custard, no designer ice cream (it’s Kemps), no molecular gastronomy-inspired flavors – just a soda fountain-style favorite, mixed in a flash and wonderfully cold and creamy and easily consumed with a straw. By comparison, why do people put up with those soft-serve so-called “malts” at fast-food joints?

Good morning: The kitchen just lifted its 11 a.m. closing curtain on breakfast, and is now serving its pancakes-omelets-French toast menu all day. And, hopefully, if all goes well on at that hearing on the 23rd, all night, too.

Address book: 1428 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-339-6258 (that's 339-MALT, naturally). Open 6 am. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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

Burger Friday: Crema Cafe

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: September 12, 2014 - 7:57 AM

The burger: There’s no question that Crema Cafe, the home of Sonny's Ice Cream, serves a fine burger. But in a step-away-from-the-script moment here at Burger Friday, let’s pay homage to the menu’s Sloppy Ron.

The name is a nod to chef/co-owner Ron Siron. His version of the Sloppy Joe is a joy to behold, a 50/50 mix of premium ground beef (hailing, as so many top-notch burgers do, from Peterson Limousin Farms in Osceola, Wis.) and pork (from that shining star of all things pork, Fischer Family Farms Pork in Waseca, Minn.), a rich composition held together by a thickly simmered tomato sauce that Siron seasons with a secret spice combination.

Unlike the Sloppy Joe of your high school cafeteria, the Sloppy Ron boasts a nuanced bit of heat at the back of each bite, and that robust tomato-based sauce hits just the right consistency: not so thick that it isn’t sloppy, but not so runny that it doesn’t keep all that delicious ground beef and pork together.

Siron liberally spoons that meaty goodness over a toasted brioche bun that's so expertly made that it could have only come from Rustica. “It’s the same bun we use with our burgers,” said Siron. “It’s kind of weird, because if you get a regular white bun – which I like – they tend to fall apart. But the brioche bun holds the Sloppy Ron and the burgers better. It’s nice and buttery, and they toast really well.”

Yes, they do. As for garnishes, there’s a garden-fresh lettuce leaf and a few nicely vinegar-ey pickles, and that’s it. Not that this meal-in-a-bun needs anything else.

Price: $7.95, a bargain.

Fries: None. Splurge and order the side salad, a thoughtful pile of just-picked organic greens, expertly dressed in a basic and utterly satisfying vinaigrette. It’s well worth the $2.95 investment.

More than ice cream: Siren started serving food at his ice cream shop nearly a decade ago. “We want to make it like a European cafe, with wine and beer and good local food,” he said. “That’s a big buzz word, local, but that’s the way we eat. And when you come in, that’s the way you’ll eat. It’s just good, honest, wholesome food. I’m not Thomas Keller. I’m all about comfort food. Carrie [Gustafson, Siron’s business and life partner] calls me an Italian grandma, because I want to feed everybody and get them fat.”

Coming soon: Siron is going to introduce a vegetarian version of the Sloppy Ron. “We’ll probably start it this fall,” he said.

Meanwhile, at the scoop case: Siron recently began producing gelato: chocolate-hazelnut, brown butter-cashew, vanilla bean and other, gotta-try excursions into frozen creaminess. “The techniques are very different from making ice cream,” he said. “Our old ice cream machines are like bulldozers, really heavy duty. Our gelato machine is like a Ferrari. It doesn’t even sound like a machine. It hums and whistles. It’s fun, and the freshness of the milk and the cream reminds me of the old days, when Sonny [Siron’s late father, and the Sonny of Sonny’s Ice Cream] and I used to make our own bases. I’m turning 60 on Sunday – I thought I’d die before I got old – but I have literally been making ice cream for 50 years.”

One last thought: The cafe's alley-like patio is the epitome of romantic. Take advantage while the weather still cooperates.

Address book: 3403 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls. The Sloppy Ron is available 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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

Burger Friday: The Third Bird

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: September 5, 2014 - 3:19 PM

The burger: What a pleasure to find chef Lucas Almendinger at the helm of the Third Bird, the Loring Park newcomer that opened in late August in the former (and more enchanting than ever) home of Cafe Maude at Loring (and, before that, Nick and Eddie). He’s a huge talent who made the short-lived Union Fish Market a notable new-in-2013 endeavor.

For the burger on his lunch, dinner and brunch menus, Almendinger is skipping beef in favor of grass-fed bison. “The focus of what I want to do here is be a Midwestern restaurant,” he said. "Bison is a little healthier than beef, and it’s unique. I’m from South Dakota, and I sort of love bison. There are bison burgers all over South Dakota, and they’re not good, so I wanted to do a good one."

Mission accomplished. Almendinger wisely exercises restraint, allowing the meat's gentle, pristine flavor to speak for itself. The only (well-calibrated) seasoning is salt and pepper, and then the thick, hand-formed patties are fried on a flattop. In butter, a welcome fat injection for the naturally lean meat.

"How do you like it cooked?" asked my gracious and well-schooled server, music to my ears. When I told her I'd prefer it the way the kitchen prefers to prepare it, she came back with "medium-rare," and that's precisely the way it arrived. (And thoughtfully cut in half; my friend and I were sharing courses).

Composition-wise, Almendinger is offering a kind-of tribute to fast-food burgers, and the muted, scrupulously attended-to details bear that out.

A Thousand Island-style dressing serves as a shout-out to the Big Mac, but Almendinger’s far more flavorful aioli-based version isn’t exactly Golden Arches territory, what with its Sriracha (for subtle heat) and cornichons (for brief acidic flashes) touches.

White onions are sliced thin and coaxed on the griddle to sweet, near-black caramelization, then finished with a splash of mustard oil. A stack of pale, crisp iceberg adds just-right crunch.

As for the bun, it's a soft, milk-laced beauty, its golden top studded with sesame seeds and its interior toasted on the grill. They're baked on the premises, and they're terrific. 

There’s a story behind the choice of cheese, a Wisconsin white Cheddar. “Cheddars have the best flavor for a burger,” said Almendinger. “But a lot of the sharp Cheddars don’t melt well, so we went through this long process to find a good white Cheddar that would melt appropriately.”

Its Wisconsin roots are also a shout-out to owner Kim Bartmann’s heritage. “And we want to keep it in the Midwestern ballpark,” said Almendinger.

Would I return for a second? Absolutely, and as soon as possible. I can hear the voice of Mr. Gerlach, my high school English teacher, ringing through my brain. "A for the day," he would say.

Price: $11, and so very worth it.

Fries: None. Instead, excellent house-made potato chips that adhere to the simple-is-best mantra, just thin-sliced russets, hit with smoked sea salt and malt vinegar powder. I wanted to ask for an extra helping.

Busted: When Bill Summerville gave the contents of our table a sharp-eyed once-over, my diner's intuition guessed his question before he asked it. "Why aren't you having a glass of wine?" he teased. And really, why wasn't I? For Third Bird, Summerville has composed a dream of a list, at prices that support constant if not enthusiastic exploration. My tragic response: There was work to be done back at the office, post-lunch, and I was being a prudent, nose-to-the-grindstone Midwesterner, ergo my (delicious) non-alcoholic cocktail. But if I needed a reason to return to the restaurant -- beyond that burger, of course -- Summerville's list is definitely that. 

Friendly shout-out: When tapped for a burger recommendation – one that’s not on his own menu, anyway -- Almendinger had an immediate response. “Landon’s burger is my favorite,” he said, referring to North Loop-er Landon Schoenefeld, chef/co-owner of HauteDish. “It presents simply but every element is done super-well. It’s a great burger.” I agree.

Address book: 1612 Harmon Place, Mpls., 612-767-9495. Open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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

Burger Friday: Lyn 65 Kitchen & Bar

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: August 15, 2014 - 3:00 PM

The burger: After logging nearly six years in the kitchen at Restaurant Alma, chef Benjamin Rients has set out on his own. After what appeared to be an endless construction process, his Lyn 65 Kitchen & Bar quietly opened last week.

At the menu’s center is something far outside Rient’s Alma orbit: a burger. Scratch that. A phenomenal burger.

“I want to set us apart from Alma,” he said. “I want this to be a neighborhood place, and a burger is important to a neighborhood place. Besides, I absolutely love cheeseburgers. We’re approaching it the way you would at a fine-dining restaurant. Why not take some craft and put that into a burger? ”

Why not, indeed. The unseen mechanics are suitably impressive. And elaborate. The patty owes its ultra-rich aura to fat-laced short ribs, cured for 48 hours in salt, peppercorns, garlic, red onion, parsley and thyme. A grind blended with chuck and sirloin – the arithmetic is roughly 50 percent short rib, 25 percent chuck and 25 percent sirloin – is hand-formed into patties and grilled on a flattop. “That way, the patty sits in its own fat and caramelizes,” said Rients. “It’s using the fat that’s already there.”

When the patty comes off the grill, it gets a brief respite in, yes, more fat. Butter, specifically. “It’s the way we were taught at Alma, to rest our proteins,” said Rients. “If you have that fat underneath, it acts as a natural barrier, and the patty might not release as much of its juices.”

It works. When I cut into the patty, its gently crusted char revealed a velvety, unabashedly pink, tantalizingly juicy center. “We’re shooting for medium to medium-rare,” said Rients. “But we’ll take it to well-done if that’s what people want. I respect that. People should be able to get what they want to get.”

The burger was inspired by a trip Rients and his wife made to Chicago a number of years ago, which included a meal at Bandera. The experience obviously made an impression.

“It was right when I started cooking, and the only thing we could afford was the burger,” he said with a laugh. “It was amazing, and really the first time I had a burger that I’d been shocked by. They borrowed elements of the classic Chicago hot dog. I’ve been thinking about that flavor profile for a long time.”

Naturally, a fine-dining level of care and feeding goes into the garnishes. The top of the lower bun gets a generous swipe of coarse mustard. That's covered with a layer of dill pickles, which serves as a protective barrier between doughy bun and juice-laden patty.

A second pickle treatment -- this time, a sweet pickle relish blended with chopped raw onions -- is spooned over the patty. Both add a much-needed acidic note to counter the beef’s powerful voluptuousness, as does the slice of an obviously well-raised tomato. Rounding out the equation is a crinkled lettuce leaf and a well-composed house-made mayonnaise. As with all classic formulas, this one works. And how.

From the get-go, Rients planned to call upon American cheese. “I love American on a cheeseburger,” he said. “It’s what belongs on a cheeseburger. It melts the best, it’s salty, and it’s perfect in a hipster-ish kind of way, you know? The ‘Ah, who cares, let’s put American on this thing.’”  

As for the bun, it’s ok. Not bad – more than serviceable, actually -- but it doesn’t measure up to the fellow  components. Rients is on it, already toying with switching it out for a pretzel bun. “We’re going to be constantly changing things,” he said.

From a profit-and-loss standpoint, Is a cheeseburger worth all of this effort? “I’m going to say ‘Yes,’” said Rients. “At least until I can’t stand it any longer.”

Price: $13.

Fries: Included. Although they’re well-seasoned and obviously fresh, their pale color and forgettable texture makes them a bit of a shoulder shrug.  

Beyond burgers: The fried chicken is a Lyn 65 must-order, a revelation in the opposites-attract formula that is delicately crisp and outrageously juicy. Rooted in a David Chang recipe, the painstakingly labor-intensive process would quickly knock KFC out of business, but then again the Colonel’s fried chicken never tasted like this.

Like the burger, Rients enlists his four-star kitchen know-how to elevate the familiar. The birds are cured for two days, then soaked in buttermilk. Borrowing a technique behind superior-quality French fries, the chicken is cooked twice. First comes a low-temperature poach in duck fat (“We’re huge fans of duck fat over here,” said Rients), followed by a dredge in a (gluten-free!) rice flour- rice panko mixture. Then it’s taken to maximum crispiness in rice bran oil, a chef favorite for all kinds of reasons: a high smoke point, an ability to keep fried food from feeling greasy and a gift for maintaining a neutral flavor profile. 

At the fryer, Rients and his crew take what is clearly destined to become a signature dish to a deep, mouth-watering mahogany, and the meat radiates succulent chicken-ey goodness. The portion – very nearly a whole chicken – could easily feed two, and that’s before considering the highly complementary side dishes, including a crunchy, sneakily spicy coleslaw and wickedly creamy grits. The whole shebang is a steal at $20.

Snap out of it: There’s a reason why Rients’ cramped workspace is presided over by a poster-size image of Nicolas Cage, taken from one of Rients’ favorite movies, “Moonstruck.” “It reminds me of this place,” he said, describing the scene where a sweat-soaked Cage is stoking a wood-burning oven in a stifling basement bakery. “We’ve got this 1,000-degree oven going at all times, it’s hot and sweaty here. [The poster] is our good luck charm.”

Address book: 6439 Lyndale Av. S., Richfield, 612-353-5501. Dinner served 4 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Bar open to midnight Monday through Thursday, to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and to 11 p.m. Sunday.

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

Burger Friday: Tongue in Cheek

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: August 1, 2014 - 1:56 PM

The burger: When chef/co-owner Leonard Anderson opened Tongue in Cheek in late June, the plan was to always include a burger on the menu. “We want to accommodate more than one demographic, he said. "If there are two people at a table of six who aren’t that adventurous, they can get a fried-egg sandwich, or a salad, or a burger. We’re selling a lot more burgers than I ever thought we would.”

I’m not surprised, as it is one fantastic burger. Turns out that the formula is a kind-of happy medium between two burgers from Anderson’s recent professional past: the fully loaded iteration he created for the former Hanger Room, and the minimalist version from his days at W.A. Frost & Co.

At its center is a lean and flavorful grass-fed beef that Anderson fortifies with shallots, garlic, herbs (dill, rosemary, thyme, parsley and chives) and a bit of ketchup. The meatloaf-inspired mix is formed into a thick patty and grilled to a robust char. On the outside, anyway; the kitchen took my medium-rare request exactly where it needed to go, leaving appropriately velvety pinkness and plenty of juice.

Anderson keeps the falderal to a minimum. The bun, a basic beauty baked by the good people at Franklin Street Bakery, gets its blackened stripes from a quick burnish on the grill. In the cheese department, Anderson uses a mild, three-month-old Cheddar (from Castle Rock Organic Farms in Osseo, Wis.) because it boasts all the right soft, meltable qualities, which explains why he also enlists it for the kid’s menu’s mac-and-cheese.

From the garden, Anderson skips over more standard-issue lettuces in favor of arugula. “It’s my favorite green, along with watercress,” he said. “I like it because it has a little more of a bite, and the texture holds up.” House-made cucumber pickles contribute a welcome vinegar tanginess, and the finishing flourish is whatever aioli is being prepared in the kitchen that day.

“Tonight it’s a chipotle aioli,” he said. “Last night it was Sriracha. Sometimes it’s roasted garlic. I have the burger a lot. I want to change it up, so I assume that others want that, too.”

Price: $11, a top-notch value. “There are places that are charging $14, $15, $16, $17 for a cheeseburger, it’s crazy,” said Anderson. Agreed.

Fries: Included, and addictive. They’re hand-cut and fried in rice oil until they’re tantalizingly crisp and deeply golden. Anderson gives them a generous toss in herbs, sea salt and black pepper, and piles a big-old handful of them on every burger plate.

Location, location, location: Tongue in Cheek is on St. Paul’s Payne Avenue for a reason. Anderson and his co-owners – wife Ashleigh Newman and their friend Ryan Huseby (a Happy Gnome and W.A. Frost & Co. vet) all live on the city’s east side. “The neighborhood is going through a renassiance, and we want to be a part of that," said Anderson.

Address book: 989 Payne Av., St. Paul, 651-888-6148. Open 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch is served 10 a.m. to 2 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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