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A dining guide to the Minneapolis Holiday Market

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: December 5, 2014 - 4:48 PM

Should you visit the new Minneapolis Holiday Market?

I’ll answer that with a qualified yes, because there are a number of payoffs, food-and-drink-wise, when braving the chill at this new Holidazzle replacement, on Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis.

First things first: The potato pancakes are outstanding. Kartpffelhaus Potato Pancakes partners Christine and Nick Burbach and Steven and Karin Vanzyl are first-time food vendors, although you’d never know it, given their prowess with potatoes and griddles, cranking out a rustic delicacy that hits all the right winter street-fare grace notes: hot, crispy, carb-ey.

Every morning, the crew finely shreds untold amounts of waxy Yukon Gold spuds, fortifying them with chopped onions. The mixture (bound by a bit of egg and semolina flour) is formed into thick-ish cakes and fried on a flattop grill in a thin layer of oil they achieve a deep brown outer shell – the outer edges are wonderfully crunchy -- that gives way to an almost creamy interior. The recipe even boasts a bit of street cred, hailing from a stand at a Weinachtsmarkt in Thune, Germany, that sells potato pancakes as a fundraiser supporting a youth training program for the town’s fire department.

After one bite of this fried delicacy (pictured, above), my overactive brain was consumed with two words: state fair. Even in the heat of August, these things would be a fairgrounds hit. Somehow get them on a stick, and they’d be a runaway sensation.

Unlike most other market prices -- which tend to feel 15 to 20 percent too much -- the stand's $6-for-two and $8-for-three seems about right. Oh, I almost forgot: When asked if you’d prefer sour cream, applesauce, “or a little bit of both,” definitely go with the last option.

Steven Vanzyl, a former chef at the Lexington, offered an invaluable piece of advice for market visitors: Pick up a pair of alpaca socks from the Winterbourne Alpaca stand. Oh, and his German-born spouse was destined for a life in latkes: her maiden name is Pfannkuch. That’s German for pancake. What are the odds?

The Black Forest Inn is on the premises -- hurrah -- and the Eat Street landmark is flexing its fluency in the sausage-making arts with a trio of house-made lovelies.

There’s the superb pork-veal bratwurst (pictured, right, $6), a recipe that co-owner Erich Christ has been making -- and perfecting -- for more than a half-century. Germans standing on ceremony might object to the consumption of Christ’s exceptional weisswurst (pictured, left, $6) for lunch and dinner, because its traditional place is at the breakfast table. But this is the New World, and we make our own rules, right?   Besides, it’s delicious, heavier on the veal than the bratwurst (and ground twice, yielding a more refined bite), and flecked with plenty of parsley.

For the pork-averse, Christ cranks out a tasty chicken sausage ($5), funneling the restaurant kitchen’s abundant chicken scraps (seasoned with a sweet-hot curry blend) into a lamb casing.

All three deserve high praise, particularly since they're served in excellent house-baked, sesame-studded buns, made tender with butter from Hope Creamery in tiny Hope, Minn. Even the condiments are spot on: a grainy, teasingly sweet honey mustard, and Christ’s feisty curry ketchup. Such goodness begs the question: When will we see the Black Forest Inn name on a food truck?

A second sausage vendor, Deutschland Meats in Lindstrom, Minn., also turns out a brat ($6, pictured, above), and it's fine. But the real attention grabber is what they’ve dubbed their Christmas sausage ($8), a rustic pork monster – it’s nearly a foot long – seasonally seasoned with cranberries and red wine. An offbeat combination, sure, but it works. If only the rest of the package were as well-executed; the forgettable bun could have come from a convenience store, and I suspect that the cranberry sauce condiment came right out of a can.

Naturally, there’s a pretzel stand, and its output is just what a German pretzel should be: chewy, salty, filling. But the total talker is the pretzel bread bowl filled with beer-cheese soup ($8, pictured, above). The "bowl" cleverly revitalizes one of Chainrestaurantland’s dreariest inventions, and fills it with a rich and silky homage to the Midwest that’s occasionally peppered with snips of carrot and onion. I love it.

Another must-have is another soup. Maybe it's because it was my preferred post-sledding childhood lunch -- and it certainly helps that owner Leslie Vadnais knows what she’s doing -- but either way, I flipped for the tomato soup-grilled cheese combo (pictured, above) at Venus Spaetzle Haus.

Vadnais knows her soups, having launched a line of them for Kowalski’s Markets. At the market, she’s showing everyone how chunky tomato is done; it's perfectly seasoned, and the pieces of tomato really retain the stove’s heat, warming you from the inside out. I wish I’d grown up consuming Vadnais’ version of the grilled cheese sandwich. She piles mozzarella and Cheddar between slices of mustard-dill bread, frying them in scandalous amounts of butter until the cheese hits just the right level of meltiness and the bread arrives at a delicate toastiness ($10 for both, $6 for bisque alone, $6 for sandwich alone). Comfort-food bliss, in a nutshell.

Vadnais is also doctoring German-imported spaetzle with plenty Parmesan and Swiss cheeses, serving the tender noodles straight up with butter and parsley ($9) or dousing it in a robust mushroom stroganoff ($10). Either way, both have a marvelous stick-to-your-ribs hotdish quality that feels simultaneously Midwestern and German, in a really lovely way.

Sweets? Yes. Solomon's Bakery is hawking an ever-changing array of well-prepared pastries, including their popular chocolate croissants (pictured, above). Knoke’s -- my favorite excuse to jump in the Jetta and head to Hudson, Wis. -- is selling all manner of chocolate and nut goodies, but the treat to beat is the paper cone filled with warm, sugar- and cinnamon-coated almonds or pecans ($6 and $10). Candy Meister fills a counter with colorful imported German hard candies.

But for those looking to hurl headlong into the holiday spirit, then it's all about the lebkuchen ($5.25), a skillfully and lovingly prepared cookie-cake hybrid produced by New York City-based Leckerlee. It's impressively complicated, a crisp oblatan wafer that's topped with a low dome of ground almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts. That tender mix bears a slight gingerbready cast, one that is accented by pops of candied citron and orange peel. One version is finished with a light sugar glaze, the other is blanketed in dark chocolate; both are superb, and easily big enough to share.

On the beverage side, there’s a trio of mainstream Bavarian beers ($7, 16-oz. pours), imported for the occasion from Paulaner, and they’re fine. But did it occur to anyone to tap the skilled brewmasters behind the two dozen or so craft breweries that have popped up in the metro area in the past few years? A few Minnesota-brewed Christmas beers would really hit the spot.  

Fortunately, there's an impressive Minnesota connection at the booths pouring the terrific gluehwein (mulled wine), a robust custom blend of Marechal Foch and Fredonia grapes produced specifically for the market by Millner Heritage Vineyard & Winery in Kimball, Minn.

It’s a don’t-miss libation for anyone of legal drinking age (you’ll need a wristband – which requires a photo ID – in order to purchase; trust me, if this old coot was asked to produce a drivers license, they're clearly screening everyone), and a near-necessity as the temperature dips. Each steaming mug is bursting with alluring nose appeal, thanks to a fragrant blend of cinnamon, allspice, cloves and orange, a kind of Proustian trigger that will launch a thousand Christmas carols in your brain as you sip.

Kudos also should be heaped upon the sweeter and more potent variation that’s steeped with rum-infused caramelized sugar. There’s a hard cider version, too. It’s also produced by Millner, using Honeycrisp, Haralson and Zestar apples harvested from a Faribault, Minn., orchard, and it possesses antifreeze properties similar to that of the gluehwein, but with sweet-floral apple notes.

The mulled wine (pictured, above) is not an inexpensive repast: $10.15, with refills running $6.83. A big chunk of that cost is surely caught up in my one quibble: the mug. Yes, drinking from a mug is preferable to sipping from a paper cup; it certainly retains the wine’s heat better than any throwaway vessel (and bonus points for keeping the market Styrofoam-free). But once you’ve finished, another issue arises, and that’s what the heck do you do with the mug? Schlepping the empty around the market wasn’t my idea of a good time, and really, does my kitchen need another semi-tacky keepsake mug? Um, no. (And don't get me started on the raging controversy that is Muggate).

There’s a non-alcoholic hot apple cider version as well, overpriced at $7.87 (again with the upcharge for the keepsake mug), with $4.55 refills. Still, hearing the staffs’ heavily German-accented English is worth some of that upcharge, amirite?

Another shocker is the mystifying lack of decent hot chocolate. I suspect that the savvy folks behind the Kartpffelhaus Potato Pancakes booth would offer something better than a Nestle’s instant product if they had leased a roomier booth. But as I sipped on that $3 cup of watered-down nothing, all I could think of was how much I missed the spectacularly creamy, caradamom- and nutmeg-kissed hot chocolate that the Chef Shack once served at Holidazzle parades.

Yes, there are freebies. Don’t miss the samples at Brunkow Cheese, hot off the griddle and wonderfully gooey. Think of it as one of those supermarket grazing stations, where free sampling encourages sales; in this case, eight flavored varieties of baked cheese (bacon, cranberry, jalapeno, garlic and more) from Darlington, Wis. I also loved the tiny shots of maple syrup, both pure and flavored (ginger, vanilla, cranberry, habanero), from Three Rivers Farm in Elko, Minn.

And now, complaints. The entrance fee (seriously?) is going to be a justifiable dealbreaker for many. Anyone age 13 and older has to fork over six bucks to walk through the gate (it’s $3 weekdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and $3 for kids ages 7 to 12; kids ages 6 and under are free. And no, there’s no senior discount. Do the math: Two parents with two teenagers? You’re out $24 right off the bat.

True, it’s a one-time only fee; after that, your ticket becomes a season pass. But that’s little comfort for one-time-only visitors. Besides, if you’re like me (and I’m sorry if that’s the case), hanging on to a maybe-I’ll-use-this-again-sometime receipt is next to impossible.

Here’s a tip: Visit on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., when admission is free.

Sure, there are a few perks, including live music (although during my visit we were treated to canned Christmas music – I swear I heard a cut from a New Christy Minstrels album that was part of my parents' holiday album collection), access to port-a-potties (which, in sub-freezing weather, have an entirely different ick factor from their summer counterparts) and entry into a tented dining hall that was a welcome shelter from the cold.

It’s not exactly toasty – I could see my breath – but it’s a heckuva lot warmer than the outdoors (think skating-rink warming house), and a smattering of picnic-style tables and benches (pictured, above) are a welcome alternative to the handy stand-up perches out on the plaza. Another warm-up idea is spending a few minutes browsing through the mammoth – and blessedly heated – Kathe Wohlfarht tent, chock full of every Germanic Christmas decoration imaginable.

The carousel isn't exactly impressive. In my mind I was picturing a more modest, winter-sturdy version of the glorious Cafesjian’s Carousel, but in reality it’s just a few steps up from the pint-size merry-go-rounds I used to see outside Kmart stores, waiting for someone to drop a quarter in the slot to bring it to life. And three dollars for a ride? Come on.

On the day I visited, the live reindeer weren’t in residence (they make their camp across the mall, in front of the YWCA). No one could tell me when they would return, which depressed me to no end because, well, think about it: live reindeer in downtown Minneapolis. How great is that?

Following my noon-hour visit, I returned a few hours later after dusk and my feelings were confirmed: the market is far more enchanting after sunset, when the zillions of holiday lights -- and live music -- crank up the festivity factor.

Finally, much as I love Peavey Plaza, I can't help but wonder if its nooked-and-crannied terrain is ideal for this particular enterprise. A truly blank slate – a parking lot, perhaps? – might be a better solution.

It’s not as if there’s a shortage of paved open space in downtown Minneapolis. There are even two alternatives on Nicollet Mall: one is the block bounded by Nicollet Mall, Marquette Av. and 3rd and 4th streets, the other the block surrounded by Nicollet Mall, Hennepin Av., Washington Av. and 3rd St. A third option is a short walk from Peavey, the half-block on Marquette Av. between 9th and 10th streets.

All three are centrally located, with plenty of real estate spread out across a single, easy-to-navigate level. Something to think about, anyway. In the meantime, go enjoy a potato pancake. Or two.

Ok, one more tip: Carry lots of cash. With a few rare exceptions (Black Forest Inn, for example), cash is king among the market's food vendors.

The Minneapolis Holiday Market is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through Dec. 23, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Dec. 24.

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.

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