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Burger Friday: Channeling In-N-Out inspiration in the North Loop

The burger: There are several reasons why Nolo’s Kitchen & Bar 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. When you’re making thin, two- to three-ounce patties, you want more fat in the grind, because you want the patties to be 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.

“It’s an awesome product,” said Hoff. “I’d worked with Harvey [McLain, the bakery’s owner] before, so I knew that I should start there. He went through a 10-minute interview with me before he would commit to even providing a sample. When you’re being that thoroughly vetted, you know that you’re in good hands.”

The cheese? Two semi-melted slices of American.

“I know, it’s controversial, using straight-up American cheese,” said Hoff with a laugh. “I offend people on a daily basis. But gooey, processed cheese on a burger is absolutely fantastic. A nice, aged Cheddar just never gets that ooh-ey gooey-ness, you know?

This is a well-sauced burger. When Hoff was living – and cooking – in California, he became a card-carrying member of the In-N-Out Burger nation.

“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.”

The Thousand Island-like formula includes mustard, tomato paste and mayonnaise, to which Hoff adds grated cornichons and hard-cooked egg. It’s an umami-booster, one that really helps make this burger stand out. 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.”

As a point of comparison, the next-most popular equivalent, a walleye sandwich, hovers in the 80-a-week ranks. Down in the restaurant’s basement bar, Hoff serves a stripped-down, quarter-pound version of the burger for seven bucks.

“It’s still got the cheese, the caramelized onions, the pickles and the spread,” said Hoff. “It’s all the ooh-ey-gooey you want when you’re three or four drinks in.”

Price: $15.

Fries: Included, and impressive. “The deal with the restaurant is that I wanted to make simple, classic food from scratch,” said Hoff. The fries embody this straightforward, labor-intensive philosophy. He holds the potatoes for about a week (“To keep them from getting too high in starch,” he said), then they’re cut and soaked in water, overnight. They’re drained, blanched in hot oil and cooled. Once ordered, they’re fried; not once, but twice. It’s a multi-step process that yields super-crispy-on-the-outside fries that still manage to stay fluffy and mashed-potato-like on the inside. They’re liberally seasoned in a flavor-boosting blend of kosher salt, sugar, vinegar powder, rosemary, thyme and parsley.

Where he burgers: “I like the standards,” said Hoff. “I love Matt’s, and when I’m not looking for a stuffed burger, Lions Tap is always great. I love restaurants where, if you ask for something different – a change to the burger, or extra-crispy fries – and the response is, ‘Nope.’ I like going places and being told ‘No,’ because that says that they have a system, they have a way of doing things. It’s their way, and, god bless them, they feel comfortable saying ‘No, this is what we do and how we do it, and if you don’t like it, have a good day.’”

Friday fish: For those on the lookout for a Friday fish sandwich, check out my recent rankings of nine fast-food versions here

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.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at

80-year-old Minnesota State Fair fixture has served its last pancake

And then there were two.

When the Minnesota State Fair opens on Aug. 23, the fairgrounds will be minus one of its few remaining historic dining halls. The Robbinsdale chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization that has operated their state fair staple for 80 years, has quietly called it quits.

“It was not a hasty decision to close the dining hall,” said OES member Michael Powles. “For a lot of people, who have an emotional attachment to the dining hall, it has been a struggle. But we’ve tried to face it as a business decision.”

Labor challenges and rising costs are the main factors behind the hall's demise. Following in the tradition of other fairgrounds dining halls, Robbinsdale OES has relied upon volunteers, and lots of them, to keep the operation running.

“Our membership is aging, and it’s difficult to staff the facility,” said Powles. “In the end, we decided that it was more of an effort than it was really worth.”

In addition, the building (pictured, above, in a provided photo) requires significant capital improvements, an investment that the group was ultimately unwilling to make.

“It didn’t make sense to keep the place going,” said Powles. “The returns for our efforts have diminished over the years, making it more work for less profit.”

Changing tastes also play a role. Wholesome dining halls once dominated the fair’s food-and-drink scene, but the genre has slowly evaporated as flashier, attention-seeking fare has captured fairgoers’ wallets. It's tough to compete with comfort food when fairgoers are Instagram-ing the heck out of the latest deep-fried, on-a-stick delicacy. 

In the early 1900s, the fairgrounds were dotted with dozens of dining halls, where families and groups congregated around long tables and dug into three affordable squares a day. Sixteen survived the Great Depression. By 1989, there were 10, and a decade later the numbers had dwindled to five.

The fairground’s two remaining dining halls are run by local churches: Salem Lutheran Church, which is approaching its 70th birthday, and Hamline Church Dining Hall, which celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2017.

Robbinsdale OES had operated on the same site since 1937, starting in a large tent. In recent years, the group had become known for its pancakes: buttermilks with blueberries (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo), and a flapjack fashioned from North Star State-appropriate wild rice flour. Variations on French toast were also crowd-pleasers, and pulled pork sandwiches were the top sellers at lunch..  

Like many fairgoers, tradition runs deep at the Robbinsdale OES dining hall; some OES members volunteered for more than 50 years. Powles has been pitching in for 15 years.

“It was fun,” he said. “I’ll probably go back sometime in the near future. I’ll be curious to see who replaces us. And going back will be a different experience. I won’t be going to the fair to work, I’ll be going for my own entertainment.”

Robbinsdale OES will sell the building back to the fair.

“That’s basically the only option,” said Powles. “Then the fair decides who is going to take over the space.”

Based on past experience, the building, located on Underwood Street between Carnes Avenue and Dan Patch Avenue, probably won’t remain vacant for long. The last two dining halls to close were quickly replaced. After St. Bernard’s dining hall departed in 2009, beer-friendly O’Gara’s at the Fair took over. And when Epiphany Diner closed after the 2011 fair, the building re-emerged the following summer as Minnesota Wine Country.

“No plans have been finalized for the site,” said state fair marketing and communications supervisor Lara Hughes. “But we anticipate some ideas in the coming weeks.” 

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