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The 5 best Twin Cities burgers of the year ... so far

To be clear, this isn’t one of those best-burgers-in-the-Twin Cities compilations (find that here). Instead, Burger Friday – which places a weekly spotlight on a gotta-have burger – is marking the year’s midpoint by revisiting the five burgers that made the most favorable impressions so far in 2018. They’re listed here in no particular order (translation: there’s no hidden agenda in the sequence), just know that they’re all worth seeking out. And then some.

Monello (pictured above)Not content to already produce one of the Twin Cities most remarkable burgers, chef Mike DeCamp is at it again. This time, DeCamp has borrowed elements of the popular burger he serves at Constantine, then adds a few uncomplicated twists, including a second patty. Say hello to the “Dirty Double.” 

Those two thin, small-ish patties will never be described as "bruisers," but they pretty much embody all that is good about the word "decadence," at least from a burger standpoint. DeCamp starts with the same over-the-top chuck-brisket-butter formula (the ratio is six parts beef to four parts Minnesota-made Hope Creamery butter) that he uses for his Constantine burger. Then, because that's not enough, he incorporates bacon to the grind.

Next up: DeCamp lavishes plenty of soft, sweetly caramelized onions over the patties.

“I think beef and onions is a great combination, one that’s hard to top,” he said. “My favorite burger in the Twin Cities is at Lions Tap, and in my mind, this burger is a little similar to what they do there. They do griddled onions, although to be honest, they never have enough.”

DeCamp buys the sesame seed-topped buns at Cub. I know: Cub. And this is where this hamburger-bun snob learned a major lesson: one of the Twin Cities’ top chefs shops at Cub (“Chefs — They’re just like us!” would be the Us Weekly headline), then applies his know-how to flip a perfectly serviceable supermarket product into an occasion. The secret? Butter (and plenty of it, of course), and heat. Warming the bun softens it (and subtly enhances its yeasty flavor), and when all that butter comes in contact with the stove’s heat, it transforms the bun’s inner flat surfaces, giving them a elicate and delectable toastiness.  Follow this practice at home, folks. Your burgers will improve, without question.

DeCamp also doesn’t skimp on the cheese. Final touches include a layer of crunchy, tangy pickles —along with a chopped pickle relish — tucked under the bottom patty.

“It’s just all the familiar flavors, you know what I mean?” said DeCamp. Totally.

Price: $14.

Address book: 1115 2nd Av. S., Mpls., 612-353-6207. Patio open 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The “Dirty Double” burger is also available at Constantine (located on the lower level), which opens daily at 5 p.m.

Shantytown Bar & GrillTo my everlasting regret, I had been stupidly unaware of this dive bar's existence until Burger Friday reader Kim Whalen of Lakeville recommended it. Thanks, Kim.

“It’s Bloomington’s little secret,” said co-owner Peter Taykalo. “It’s such a small place that, if you drive by and blink, you’ll miss it.”

Nothing about the modest building's exterior indicates that it's the purveyor of a classic – the argument could be made for standard-setting– dive bar burger, sold at a barely-more-than-Five Guys price.

The third-pound, free-form patties (“It’s angus, always fresh, never frozen,” said Taykalo) are seared on a well-worn flattop grill until the beef skirts past a no-nonsense medium, allowing tasty bits of sizzled char to form on the outer edges.

The bun – a soft-yet-sturdy specimen that's baked at the nearby Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery – gets brushed in butter before getting a dark, crispy toast on the grill. Cheese? It’s salty, gooey American, although Cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella and pepper Jack are also available. The sole garnish is a standard-issue pickle spear. 

That’s it, just the three basic, well-handled burger food groups: beef, cheese and buttered-up bun. No pretense, no complications. Exactly what a dive bar cheeseburger should be.

Price: $6.25 for a basic burger, $6.50 for a cheeseburger (pictured, above), $7.25 for a bacon-cheeseburger and up to $8.50 for a specialty burger. Fries included.

Address book: 8512 Pillsbury Av. S., Bloomington, 952-881-7223. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday.

Nolo's Kitchen & Bar: There are several reasons why chef Peter Hoff adheres to the diner-style, double-patty format for his gotta-have cheeseburger.

“Two patties means more surface for caramelization, more of that beefy, beefy flavor,” he said. “And in my opinion, when you get those 6- and 7-ounce patties, they’re harder to eat. They’re a real commitment, managing those things. You can’t keep picking them up and putting them down, you have to go head-first into them.”

Like many other first-rate Twin Cites burgers, this one wisely relies upon ground beef from Peterson Craftsman Meats in Osceola, Wis.

“It’s what Andy [Peterson] calls his ‘Chuckwagon’ blend,” said Hoff. “It’s really rich, probably close to a 70/30 [meat/fat] ratio, nice and juicy. That higher fat ratio keeps them from drying out. And, I like supporting Andy, it’s great to know that they’re just an hour or so away.”

The golden, challah-style bun – soft, with a subtly sweet after-bite, its interior crisply toasted -- plays a key role in this burger’s success. It’s baked at Turtle Bread Co.

The cheese? Two semi-melted slices of American. As for the umami-boosting, Thousand Island-like sauce, it’s Hoff’s homage to his beloved In-N-Out Burger, his burger go-to when he was living in California. 

“I’ll just blatantly call myself a rip-off artist,” Hoff said with a laugh. “The In-N-Out Double-Double is the best burger there is, and this sauce is a riff on that. We slather it on everything here.”

Given this attention to detail, it should come as no surprise to learn that Hoff sells a lot of burgers.

“A ton,” he said. “In a given week, we’ll sell a couple of hundred.”

Price: $15, fries included.

Address book: 511 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-800-6033. Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to midnight Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Burger available at lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.

Lowry Hill Meats: Yes, this is the burger that I declared the best I’d tasted in 2016, the year that butcher/owner Erik Sather introduced it into his weekly specials rotation. (Find my original Burger Friday entry here). And yes, it continues to reside in the upper echelons of the Twin Cities burger pantheon. I’m including it in this mid-year roundup because Sather used the Super Bowl as an opportunity to expand the burger from its Wednesday-only schedule into an available-daily commodity. The early Februrary test run was so successful that Sather made the experiment a permanent gig. 

The version that Sather is serving closely follows the same format as the burger I first raved about in 2016: deeply flavorful quarter-pound patties made with ground beef sourced from single steers. Other components include house-made American cheese, tangy house-made pickles and caramelized onions.

Rather than import buns from elsewhere, Sather taps the considerable skill set of colleague Gabe Carlson, who bakes a brioche-style bun with a butcher shop twist: instead of milk, this soft, golden beauty is fortified with fat from the shop’s hogs. They're fantastic. As is this burger.

Price: $10. Make it a double for $13. Add an egg for a buck.

Address book: 1934 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-999-4200. Burger is available during the shop’s hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends. There's a small (free) parking lot; enter on Colfax Av.

Simply Steve's: Owner Steve Ramlow has always placed a burger — make that, burgers— at the forefront of the menu at his eight-year-old food truck.

“Personally, I just like them,” he said. For his popular California burger, the formula is, yes, simple: A nicely fatty beef that’s fresh, never frozen, well-seasoned and cooked on the flat top grill in its own considerable juices. A gooey slice of American cheese injects another jolt of saltiness.

Onions are fried in butter, their sweetness accentuated by the grill’s heat, with the butter laying on another layer of decadence. Butter also plays a role with the bun, which gets a generous swipe of the stuff before it’s toasted on the grill. By the way, that bun? It’s a doozy, a brioche-like beauty that comes from the ovens at Franklin Street Bakery.

“It’s just so soft and luxurious,” said Ramlow. “It melts in your mouth.”

Indeed. It’s also larger than the basic-issue burger bun, a two-handed whopper that knocks the essential bread-to-beef ratio slightly off kilter. Still, with a bun this good, who cares?

Ramlow isn’t shy when it comes to laying on all the appropriate California-style embellishments. A juicy tomato slice. Crunchy chopped lettuce. Vinegar-laced dill pickle chips. Plenty of mayo. The combination has endured as a burger classic for a reason; it works. No fancy bells-and-whistles, just honest-to-goodness burger deliciousness. Which certainly resides well within the Simply half of the Simply Steve’s brand.

Price: $10.

Address book: Track the truck’s whereabouts on Twitter and Facebook.

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

Stillwater's new boutique hotel will feature three distinct dining and drinking destinations

When developer Corey Burstad opens Lora on June 18, the 40-room hotel promises to be a transformative project for downtown Stillwater.

Located on the southern edge of downtown, the ambitious undertaking features three stylish (thanks to ESG, the Minneapolis architectural firm) food-and-drink operations.

Feller, the hotel’s 100-seat restaurant, will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily. The adjacent bar, the Long Goodbye will focus on craft cocktails, wines and local beers (the name is a droll reference to bundled-up Minnesotans, clutching their CorningWare casseroles and unable to end conversation and walk out the door). Made is the hotel’s coffee and organic juice bar.

All three are under the tutelage of chef Sam Collins. A native of the Ham Lake area, Collins was bit by the restaurant bug at age 14 when he landed a line cook job at a local pizzeria. His studies at Le Cordon Bleu concluded with an internship at the Ritz-Carleton in Naples, Fla., and a brief stint in the kitchens at the top-ranked Wheatleigh hotel in Lennox, Mass.

Eight instructive years at Murray’s (“They were wonderful to me, and I never would have left but I wanted to do my own thing,” said Collins) led to Burstad’s Evelage Management Group, which operates T-Box Bar & Grill in Ham Lake, the Village Pub in St. Anthony Village and Blaine’s Bricks Kitchen & Pub and the Roadside.

Feller — a feller is a person who cuts trees, a nod to Stillwater’s illustrious lumber milling past — will start with a fairly small menu, said Collins.

“We want to grow into our pants,” he said. “Besides, I’m a fan of smaller menus. I like focus.”

Collins is a lifelong hunter, and he plans to incorporate that interest and skill set into his cooking.

“I haven’t purchased any meat for my household for a decade,” he said, rattling off venison, wild boar, duck, rabbit, quail, mourning dove, grouse and other favorites. There won’t be wild game on the Feller menu.

“But we’ll feature anything that’s in season and grows here,” said Collins. That means quail brined with Surly Furious ale and lacquered with a honey reduction, a bison carpaccio, pork-venison knockwurst (“My family has been making venison knockwurst for generations,” he said), smoked chicken liver mousse on rustic bread, grilled sturgeon (“Because that’s what’s in the river,” he said), a smoked trout BLT, grass-fed beef cheeseburgers, a spread of local cheeses, and more, including an emphasis on foraged ingredients.

“I’m looking forward to getting into the kitchen and turning on that first pilot light,” he said.

The site, still enveloped in a flurry of last-minute construction details, is the former Joseph Wolf Brewery, a four-building collection of brick and stone buildings — the earliest dating to the late 1880s — that’s tucked into the side of one of Stillwater's many steep hills.

How steep? One of the city’s most popular (and recently remade) public stairways is adjacent to Made (and its Main Street patio), a 115-foot vertical climb that draws hundreds of climbers and runners on a daily basis.

“We hope to cater to those thirsty people,” said Burstad.

Deferred maintenance was the theme of the historic complex, which required a substantial renovation.

“All the floors are level now,” said Burstad. “Every time I walked through the place, all I could think was that it could be so much more than what it was.”

The brewery’s caves, accessible through doors on the hotel’s first floor, will be incorporated into the project in a later phase.

The new St. Croix River bridge proved to be a catalyst for Lora, since it routes bothersome heavy traffic off downtown’s Main Street.

“I don’t believe we could have pulled off the project without it,” said Burstad. “No one wanted to sit in line with a bunch of semi-trucks at the top of the hill for 45 minutes, waiting to come into town.”

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