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Burger Friday: JL Beers

Posted by: Rick Nelson 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.

Burger Friday: Digby's Burgers-Pizza-Beer

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 25, 2014 - 5:23 PM

The burger: Even though it has been in the mainstream for a few years, adding a fried egg to the list of socially acceptable burger garnishes is a practice that we can all enthusiastically endorse.

It has certainly been embraced at the new Digby’s Burgers-Pizza-Beer in Rosedale, where a fried egg is the centerpiece of what owner Michael Larson dubs his Kitchen Burger. It’s a tasty – and messy --- touch. The runny yolk seeps everywhere, boosting the patty's juiciness, and it also plays well against the spicy kick of a Sriracha-based hot sauce.

The thick patty is an 80/20 chuck/sirloin grind, generously seasoned and cooked to order (two options: “pink” or “no pink”). Along with that egg (I loved how the browned egg white added a subtle flavor boost to the proceedings), the patty is topped with a slim, agreeably melty slice of Cheddar and a few mild pickled pepper slices. A lettuce leaf feels as if it's about color other than anything else. A soft bun (from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery), generously buttered and lightly toasted, its gleaming top studded with bits of savory browned onion, pulls it all together. Nicely done.

Price: $11.99.

Fries: Included, and terrific. They’re long, skinny and lightly golden, with a barely crispy exterior and plenty of salt.

Why Rosedale?: “I drive by it all the time,” said Larson, who also owns Eat Shop Kitchen & Bar in Plymouth. “I live in Orono, my parents live in White Bear Lake, and when I'm driving on Highway 36 I couldn't help but notice the amount of people in the parking lot, all the activity and the action."

That there's a decided lack of locally-owned dining options didn't hurt.

"Other than Flame, Rosedale is chain-restaurant hell," said Larson. "That's not to say that there aren’t good chains. Big Bowl, for one. Rosedale gets 12 million visitors a year, it’s its own little city. What's missing is pizza, there's nothing good in the immediate area. And when I say 'nearby,' I mean the mall. I love burgers. I wanted to take a pizza joint and a burger joint and smack them together. It’s risky, because everyone knows what a perfect burger is, and none of those opinions are wrong. I wanted to show what my idea of a perfect burger is.”

Eye-grabbing touch:  Larson commissioned a dining room mural from Minneapolis artist Adam Turman, and it certainly helps wipe away the memory of the space's former tenant, a California Pizza Kitchen outlet. Butcher & the Boar fans will recognize Turman's work, and Larson fell for the artist's distinctive style at 612Brew. Turman incorporated Digby's three menu tentpoles -- burgers, pizza and beer -- into his composition, and also tossed in subtle visual nods to Larson's children. The results are a hit with diners, said Larson. "It's amazing the number of people who see it and say, 'We collect Adam's work,'" he said.

Who is Digby? “It was my neighbor’s dog’s name,” said Larson with a laugh. “It was a cute little thing, and it hit me that it would be a decent restaurant name.”

Address book: 854 Rosedale Center #1010 (on the mall's exterior, near the AMC Theatres), 651-330-8619. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

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

Burger Friday: Mona Restaurant

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 11, 2014 - 8:53 AM

The burger: “I hate the term ‘slider,’” said Lisa Hanson, chef/owner of Mona Restaurant. That nomenclature-driven aversion may play a role in the demise of the pair of diminutive burgers that once graced the small plates-focused lunch menu at her downtown Minneapolis restaurant. I don’t have a memory of those burgers, but having had a crack at their replacement, I’m not missing them.

What a burger. Its vast appeal is rooted in Hanson’s daily bread-making ritual. “It’s just a basic brioche dough, very simple, with lots of butter,” she said. Butter, the miracle worker, right? It's a hamburger bun for the ages. Not that they need it, but after they're split, Hanson hits them with a little extra butter before giving them a faint flavor-enhancing toast.

The patty is similarly impressive. The grass-fed beef hails from Thousand Hills Cattle Co., and Hanson enriches it with egg and several judiciously applied goodness-boosters, including onion, garlic “and a couple of other mysterious things,” said Hanson with a laugh but not revealing her secrets. From there, the meat is loosely pressed into thick patties that are wide enough to meet the bun’s edges, and grilled to a just-above medium rare.

Toppings are restrained, just a fragrant pile of caramelized onions, their natural sugars coaxed out into the open after a low-and-slow stint on the stove, and a silky, barely melted slice of smoked Gouda. Hanson also includes a side of chile mayonnaise that tiptoes around spiciness, although the beef’s rich bite doesn’t need the extra heft. Instead, save it for the fries.  

As burgers go, it may not sound like a lot, but it all adds up. “I wish that there was something more exciting to tell you about,” said Hanson. “But if you do all of the components correctly, that’s what will really make a burger stand out.” How right she is.

Price: $12, and served only at lunch.

Fries: Included, a huge portion of generously garnished skin-on spuds.

Ticking clock: Hanson changes her menu every few months, and this iteration isn’t long for this world; a few weeks, tops. Next up? “I’m thinking about a turkey burger,” she said. “A lighter meat, for spring. With basil. I’m not sure about the cheese, but maybe a slab of Canadian bacon, and a fried egg on top. We haven’t done a turkey burger yet, so I’m excited about it.”

Hurry, summer: The 2-year-old restaurant doesn't have much of a street presence (Ok, it has zilch street presence), which ushers it into a semi-permanent berth in the out-of-sight-out-of-mind file. That's a shame, because Hanson's place is both an excellent (and skyway-connected) business lunch venue and a serene, conversation-friendly dinner destination. While burgers aren't a part of the dinner menu -- a shame for anyone with a post-work burger-and-beer hankering -- Hanson does kick in free parking after 4 p.m. in the building's underground ramp (which is accessed from 8th Street). Another perk: When it opens for the season, the restaurant's patio has the advantage of being located away from busy downtown streets.

Address book: 333 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-259-8636. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 5 to 10 pm. Saturday.

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

Burger Friday: BoneYard Kitchen & Bar

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 4, 2014 - 7:46 AM

The burger: So this is how my mind operates. One bite into the burger at BoneYard Kitchen & Bar, and my brain immediately went flying to the 1966 novelty pop hit, “I Love Onions,” kazoos and all. Yeah, I know. Anyway. My point is that onion lovers will flip over this bruiser of a burger.

“It’s my grandmother’s hamburger secret,” said chef Jason Bush. “Growing up, she was the one who taught me how to make the hamburger meat. She'd finely mince the onions until they were really mushy. She’d squeeze the juice out of them, then add that onion pulp to the burger meat, ending with a splash of Worcestershire sauce.”

The flavor of those carefully chopped onions really comes to life under the grill’s heat. The patty is taken to a straight-up medium, bordering on medium-well, without sacrificing juiciness.

“My grandmother was old school,” said Bush with a laugh. “She came from the generation that cooked their burgers to well done, and if they were thick, they’d turn out like hockey pucks.”

Which explains why, under close examination, you’ll see that the single, noticeably thick patty is actually two quarter-pound patties, stacked together, with a slice of white Cheddar draped over the top of each. That format turns the cheese between the two patties into a kind of stroll down Juicy Lucy Lane.

More onions come in the form of a garnish, a cap of thick-cut red onions that Bush rubs in olive oil and dresses with his fried chicken's spice blend, grilling them until they take on a smoky goodness. The final touch, onion-wise, is channeled via a sturdy, lightly toasted onion bun, baked at Breadsmith. Add crunchy iceberg lettuce and a few generous dollops of housemade mayonnaise, and you've got yourself one terrific burger. 

Price: $10.95 at lunch and late-night, $11.95 at dinner.

Fries: Included. They're cottage fries, and I can’t endorse the greasy, overtly garlicky and over-fried results.

On the side: The impressive baked beans are fortified with smoky brisket, sweetened with molasses and punched with garlic and vinegar. Even better is the potato salad. Here’s my theory on potato salad: the one you grew up eating is the one that becomes your lifelong standard. The BoneYard version bears a remarkable similarity to my mother’s, which means that I was tempted to order a second helping.

Ok, Mom’s preparation swerves off into a few slight deviations. Judy prefers peeled russets vs. skin-ons, and she’s prone to reaching for the Miracle Whip – yes, I was raised Lutheran – rather than the mayonnaise jar. Still, the uncomplicated BoneYard version is remarkable similar and equally delicious, just lots of firm, bite-sized potato chunks dressed in a mustard-blended mayonnaise and tossed with plenty of celery and hard-cooked egg. 

Other sides include grits, mashed sweet potatoes, collard greens with bacon and other Southern comfort foods, all priced at $3.95 for a single serving and $6.95 for a shareable portion. 

“I’m not trying to be the avant-garde, award-winning guy,” said Bush, who was born in Albany, Ga., and was raised in Punta Gorda, Fla. “I want to be the guy who cooks like you’re coming to Sunday supper at grandma’s house. I’m grateful for this opportunity to bring authentic Southern cooking to Minnesota. A lot of these recipes are my family’s recipes, and they’re older than me."

A question: Politely approaching this gigantic burger from a handheld perspective is a bit of a stretch, which makes me wonder why restaurants insist of serving such challenging-to-handle food items in cramped baskets. Could someone please hand me a plate?

Address book: 2841 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-455-6688. Open 11 a.m. through midnight Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to midnight Sunday.

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

Burger Friday: Lunds & Byerly's Kitchen

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 28, 2014 - 2:14 PM

The burger: Diners have two options for engaging in the ordering process at Lunds & Byerly’s Kitchen, the new dining-supermarket prototype in downtown Wayzata. The high-tech alternative involves tapping the selection into one of the seemingly zillions of iPads affixed to the dining room’s tabletops (mirroring the same setup at the restaurants up and down the G Concourse at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport). It’s quick and relatively intuitive, but every time I resort to the self-checkout setups at Home Depot or Target, I can’t help but think that I’m contributing to the loss of someone’s job. Also, I prefer to deal with an actual human being. An iPad is efficient but not terribly hospitable.

Which explains why I was standing at the counter. The employee taking my order was brimming over with such a prodigious amount of I’m-so-happy-to-here attitude that I couldn’t help but make a mental note: Try to find this kind of enthusiasm in your own work. And straight off, she asked one of my favorite burger-related questions: “Pink, or no pink?” she said.

I chose the latter, she swiped my credit card and I took a seat. As a frequent solo diner, I’m always on the lookout for favorable counter seating. This place has it, to burn, in the form of a handsome, horseshoe-shaped bar, which is curved to maximize conversation and roomy enough to order a slew of plates and spread them out in front of you.

Anyway. The burger arrived in just under eight minutes, and I’m not sure if it’s because I was crazy-hungry or because of the burger, but the aroma that floated up off that plate was intoxicating. The thick third-pound patty had a char that bordered on crusted. One tantalizingly charbroiled bite in and it was obvious – in such a good way -- that the kitchen favors the rare end of the pink spectrum. This was a burger that just ran juices, and that velvety rare beef was imbued with a subtle mineral-ey quality.

It gets better. The toppings were spot-on. The patty was draped in a thin, melty layer of smoky Gouda. What a smart choice, as it totally complements the featured attraction, a chopped onion compote that’s simmered to sweetness in beer and teased with smoky bacon. There’s a generous pool of tangy mustard aioli, served on the side, and it’s also first-rate.

As for the bun, it’s ok: Nicely soft smf gently toasted. Its best attribute is that it’s content to remain in the background rather than compete with that expertly grilled patty, or those clever garnishes. I consumed the whole thing, a rare Burger Friday occurrence. I’ll definitely be back.

Price: $9.

Fries: None. There’s a side of potato chips. They’re fine.

Keeping it local: How great is it that the bar taps into so many Twin Cities-brewed beers? There’s Surly, Excelsior, 612, Summit, Lift Bridge, Harriet, Badger Hill and Fulton, and probably one or two that I'm overlooking. It speaks volumes when a mass-market grocer – even one as savvy as Lunds and Byerly’s – embraces the local craft beer phenomenon. Hurrah.

A copy desk-esque query: Is it Lunds & Byerly’s Kitchen? Lunds and Byerlys Kitchen? Lunds & Byerlys Kitchen? I’ve seen all three, a surprising incongruity from such a brand-conscious company. Here’s my executive decision: I’m going with the first one.

Address book: 250 Superior Blvd., Wayzata, 952-476-1122. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

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

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