Most weeks, restaurant critic Rick Nelson dives into a praiseworthy burger on his Burger Friday blog. Here's a recap of some recent posts.
A McTribute from Constantine
Nostalgia is a powerful force, because a hefty part of the appeal of the burger at Constantine is the way it skillfully touches — correction, reaches out and bear-hugs — the happy memory that many of us have of the single-patty McDonald’s cheeseburger.
That’s certainly the case with chef Mike DeCamp.
“I just liked how you could eat a bunch of them,” he said. “It’s such a good memory of when I was a kid.”
Fun fact: As a teenager, DeCamp, who oversees the dining operations at the Hotel Ivy — which includes Monello and its speakeasy-esque basement bar, Constantine — punched the time clock at a McDonald’s outlet in Wayzata. Aside from gaining an appreciation for kitchen organization, the job’s most lasting takeaway was an abiding affection for that basic-as-can-be burger, and all the components that go into it: skinny patty, white onions, pickle chips and a specific, semi-elusive style of bun.
“The bun is everything,” said DeCamp, which explains why he and his crew laboriously taste-tested several models, a Goldilocks-like search for just the right one. They found it at a bakery, labeled “kid’s bun.”
For what DeCamp is going for, it’s perfect, at least by the time the wrapped-in-paper burger arrives at the table. That’s because the insides of the top and bottom halves of the buns are treated to a prodigious swipe of butter (from Minnesota’s own Hope Creamery) and a lingering toast on the flat-top. The result? The bun’s browned insides exude that wonderfully modest crinkle that comes from butter-slathered, warm-from-the-toaster toast, while the rest of the barely warmed bun remains soft, even slightly squishy.
The patty is a near parody of flavor and richness. McDonald’s, it ain’t.
“It’s just chuck and brisket; there’s no fancy ribeye in there,” DeCamp said.
“And we don’t work it too much. It’s a loose burger; it’s kind of spongy.”
The beef is formed by hand into orbs, and smashed into skinniness with a spatula on the flat-top grill. Size-wise, think slider; in no way do patty and bun achieve a kind of real estate parity. Not that it matters, because, small as it is, this is a patty that radiates a bigger-than-life flavor.
The secret ingredient? Butter. Scandalous levels of Hope Creamery butter.
“For every six parts meat, there’s four parts butter,” said DeCamp, and although we were talking over the phone, I could almost see him smiling, maniacally, at the prospect of such shameless caloric overkill. “We’ll grind a 40-pound case of butter into 60 pounds of beef.”
The excess doesn’t end there. The patties are cooked in butter, too. The finished product may look fairly modest, but appearances are deceiving. This burger packs a dietary wallop.
“You can’t eat too many of them, because they’re so rich,” DeCamp said.
Clearly. I ordered two, and shortly after I’d inhaled the first one, my circulatory system was ready to cry “uncle.” In a good way. Not bad for $5. In fact, it’s one of the city’s great burger deals.
As for the condiments, DeCamp maintains a strict adherence to McDonald’s protocol. Well, mostly. The cheese is a slice of white American, a switch-up from the chain’s caution-sign-tinted American.
“It seems a little fancier than the yellow cheese,” said DeCamp, noting that it’s also a healthier choice: Refraining from the yellow dye means one fewer processed ingredient. Because eating this burger is such a health-conscious choice. Sure.
Anyway, it’s delicious, and the straight-up white onions and vinegary pickles insert a bracing (and welcome) contrast to all that fat.
“Melt in your mouth” is one of the most overused expressions in the food-writing lexicon, but it applies to this burger, and how. The chef who spent most of his career in the hallowed halls of La Belle Vie has more than proven that he is capable of making a top-rated burger.
“We’re not trying to start a burger joint,” DeCamp said. “But this style of burger is a memory that we all have. I hate to give McDonald’s so much credit, but they’re definitely the inspiration for this burger. I guess they did something right.”
1115 2nd Av. S., Mpls., 612-886-1297, constantinempls.com. Burger at dinner daily.
The beauty of bison
When Eastside chef Remy Pettus set out to create a burger, turning to leaner-than-beef bison was the obvious choice.
Here’s the thing: Bison is no second-best, Burger Lite alternative. The opposite, actually. The Minnesota-raised buffalo — for this grind, Pettus chooses sirloin — is bursting with clean, robust flavor, and the thickly formed patty, skillfully cooked on a flat-top to a spot-on medium-rare, is heavy with mouthwatering juices.
More flavor comes in the form of slab bacon (from Nueske’s, the third-generation-owned pride of Wittenberg, Wis.) that’s sliced prosciutto-thin and taken to delectable crispiness. Cheese is aged Mahon, a buttery, aromatic cow’s milk variety from Spain that’s not often encountered in Burgerland.
“It’s a bit drier, which gives it a kind of crustiness that you won’t get from a soft, creamy American cheese,” Pettus said.
Instead of cucumbers, he pickles baby sweet peppers, then tosses in a swipe of shallots cooked, ever so slowly, in bacon fat. The house-baked potato bun provides much needed foundational support.
The price is $15, well worth it especially when factoring in the outstanding fries, glistening with a heavy hit of Maldon sea salt.
305 Washington Av. S., Mpls., 612-208-1638, eastsidempls.com. Burger at dinner daily and at weekend brunch.
Becker’s instant classic
At $10, it remains something of a steal. “I try to keep the prices down,” said Becker with a laugh. “We’ve got to keep people coming in the door.”
112 N. 3rd St., Mpls., 612-343-7696, 112eatery.com. Burger served at dinner daily.
A prodigiously juicy patty of ground chuck is draped in a double-whammy of American cheese and sits on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce.
Two major pluses come in the form of a “special sauce” (the secret ingredient is a dash of preserving liquid from jarred peppers) and a glorious house-baked bun infused with hints of koji, a key ingredient in sake production. Brilliance, at $14 a pop.
806 S. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-225-6499, seachangempls.com. Burger at lunch (Tuesday through Friday) and weekend brunch.
A better veggie burger
The well-composed patty of the black bean burger at the
3311 E. 25th St., Mpls., 612-722-4474, birchwoodcafe.com. Burger at lunch and dinner daily.
Reviving a tradition
It’s become difficult to remember a time when the thin-pattied, double-decker cheeseburger wasn’t all the rage. Its appeal is universal.
Especially at Revival, where tradition reigns supreme. “We’re kind of losing touch with great American food,” said chef/co-owner Thomas Boemer. “We’re losing that lure of traditional cooking.”
The cheese is strictly American, a good and salty specimen. The clove-scented bread-and-butter pickles could not be improved upon. The bun, baked to Boemer’s specifications at Saint Agnes Baking Co. in St. Paul, gets a light toast on the grill. Toss in the weighty slab of house-cured bacon, and Boemer has built a burger ($13) for the ages.
4257 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-345-4516, revivalmpls.com. Burger at lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.
Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib