The most accurate economic barometer isn't the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the latest unemployment figures. It's the wait for a table at Burger Jones. "Right now, it's about two and a half hours," said the polite hostess to me on the restaurant's opening night last week, and if she hadn't said it with such obvious sincerity I would have thought she was pulling my leg.
Yes, we're living in a hamburger economy right now, a fact that has not escaped the planners of Burger Jones. They've conjured up a well-defined burger concept tailor-made for our $15-a-check times.
Co-owner Phil Roberts took his crew on a taste-test through Manhattan's myriad upscale burger joints before sitting down and formulating their own product: fresh beef, hand-formed and grilled to one of two finishes: "No pink" or "Some pink." The well-seasoned patties fill out the challah-style toasted sesame seed buns, and they're topped with a selection of locally produced cheeses, as well as onion rings, short rib chili, chicken-fried bacon, cheese curds and other diet-busters, done up in either do-it-yourself fashion or a few kitchen favorites ($7 to $10).
There are also turkey, bison, veggie and meatball options, as well as kosher all-beef hot dogs done up in all the conceivable trimmings.
Fries three ways (hand-sliced russets, sweet potatoes and Parmesan-finished waffle-cuts) are served individually ($2.99 to $3.99) or in a "tasting tower" ($9.99) and paired with 10 different sauces ($1 each). There's a full bar, but I suspect most will opt for the malts and shakes, made with the good stuff from Liberty Frozen Custard in south Minneapolis. Dessert ($5.99) includes a pair of retro classic cakes: a wedge of Tunnel of Fudge or a slab of lemon icebox.
The wide-open dining room, trimmed in barn wood and black-and-orange accents, has just the right amount of snark, including perky employees wearing T-shirts that say, "Don't fight it, bite it," a proud Velveeta cheeseburger option and a chef's table near the kitchen, possibly a first for a burger joint. There are just two clues that the space was once home to an Applebee's. One is a greenhouse-style extension of the dining room that opens to a patio, and the other is the kitchen's gi-normous portions. Oh wait, Burger Jones is a Parasole Restaurant Holdings operation, so scratch that last one. Gleeful overkill is definitely a Parasole trait, even in these recessionary times.
Burger Jones, 3200 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-746-0800, www.burgerjones.com. Open 11 a.m. to midnight daily; bar open to 1 a.m. daily.An Asian Subway
When Sherman Ho called business partner Ted Sayaraj and told him that he had found a Stadium Village location for their planned restaurant, Sayaraj had one thought: Sounds good, as long as it's not that tiny old barbershop.
"It was the barbershop," said Sayaraj with a laugh. Undeterred, the duo -- friends since elementary school -- moved forward, enlisting Sayaraj's fiancée, Christina Idea, as general manager. The trio dived into several months of demolition and construction to transform the spot into Bun Mi, focusing on made-to-order variations on the bahn mi sandwich.
At first glance, concentrating on the Vietnamese grab-and-go staple isn't an obvious path. "I'm Laotian, she's Filipino and he's Chinese," said Sayaraj. "There's zero Vietnamese between us." Maybe so, but from the sound of it, that lack of heritage is compensated by plenty of drive and a fair share of twentysomething business experience -- Ho worked in financial management, Sayaraj was a systems analyst and Idea is a bank account manager. There's also a splash of restaurant DNA in the mix; Ho's parents once owned the Village Wok, the perennially popular Chinese restaurant next door.
Sayaraj and Idea are doing the cooking. "We have no idea what we're doing," Sayaraj said with a laugh. Don't believe it. Given the shop's obviously fresh ingredients, fast service and undergraduate-friendly prices, someone has obviously done their homework. Turns out the couple have been feeding their friends for years, and that at-home experience pays off in the pleasant variety of value-priced sandwiches and salads ($4.75 to $6.95).
Crisp baguettes are dressed with daikon, cucumbers, jalapeño and a forest of cilantro, then generously stuffed with a host of starring attractions, including a well-seasoned curried mock duck, lemongrass-scented chicken, crunchy fried pork meatballs, thin shavings of barbecue-style pork, cooked eggs, fried tofu with grilled onions and peppers and a swell pork-chicken pâté accented with lemongrass, ginger and garlic. Those main-event ingredients are also featured in the salads, which are built with vermicelli noodles and greens and served with a sweet-sour sauce jazzed with roasted peanuts and pickled garlic.
A few simple starters ($3.25 to $3.95) include campus basics such as fries, chicken wings and fried egg rolls, but the more interesting alternatives include a few of those swell meatballs on a skewer and hefty spring rolls, stuffed with tons of herbs and pork, beef or cooked eggs. There's also a decent selection of bubble tea and canned and bottled Asian fruit-based drinks. The setting is bright and cheery, not unlike a college grad's first apartment as furnished by a parentally subsidized Ikea run.
Doors opened quietly about two weeks ago, and business has been booming. "We've been running out of food every day," said Sayaraj. "We're not trained cooks, but food is our passion."
Bun Mi, 604 Washington Av. SE., Mpls., 612-886-3286, www.bunmisandwiches.com. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.Northeast socializing
Scenes from a perfect Minnesota spring evening: Sharing a big bottle of chilled Tiger beer with my friends, fighting over the last piece of fried okra and feeling a warm, lilac-scented breeze coming through the big open windows at the Northeast Social.
Co-owners Joe Wagner and Sam Bonin have fashioned a warmly inviting setting that's part bar, part cafe, and all laid-back comfort. But what sets this newbie apart is chef Edward Hayes Jr.'s single-page menu, which isn't a repeat performance of every other neighborhood hangout. Welsh rarebit (toast topped with melted cheese), crostini topped with hearty lamb sausages and rough stone-ground mustard, thick slices of roasted lamb swiped with a mint-watercress pesto and stacked between toasted bread, a marvelous mushroom stroganoff built with potato gnocchi rather than pasta, trout stuffed with chard and wrapped in proscuitto, a pineapple upside-down cake, the aforementioned tempura-style okra; they're all a refreshing stroll off the same-old, same-old beaten path.
So are the prices, which rarely venture above $15. Wine and beer have a similarly affordable bent. Let the socializing begin.
Northeast Social, 359 13th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-877-8111, www.northeastsocial.com. Open 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to midnight Friday and Saturday.