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Burger Friday: Surly brews up a worthy remake of its double-patty cheeseburger

The burger: Wait a second, there’s a new burger at Surly Brewing Co.? What was wrong with the old one?

“Nothing,” said chef Jorge Guzman with a laugh. “It was delicious.”

Agreed, as witnessed by this early installment of Burger Friday. So why change?

“It was two years of the same thing,” said Guzman. “You know how some chefs get stuck serving the same thing, over and over, forever, because they think it’s what customers want? We wanted to stir the pot.”

Translation: Guzman and his crew are adding new dishes, tinkering or outright eliminating old ones (more on that in a moment) and organizing the menu into a new format.

“We decided that we’d start with the burger,” said Guzman.

For fans of the Surly double-patty wonder, here’s the good news: this is not a radical, 100 percent makeover. The patties — both of them — are unchanged. They're the same skinny, 3-ounce portion, served in the same duo-patty format. Ditto the toasted, sweet potato-enriched bun. It’s as spot-on as ever.

The terrific, made-on-the-premises bread-and-butter pickles — a key component in the previous incarnation’s success — , still performing the same vital palate-cleansing duties. (If only they were sold by the jar in the brewery’s gift shop.)

What’s different? It starts with what’s no longer there. The shredded lettuce is history, as is the “Fancy Sauce,” a delectable blend of mayonnaise, ketchup and cornichons. Ditto the snips of raw red onion.

“We simplified,” said Guzman.

You know what? I didn’t miss the special sauce one bit (it's a less sloppy experience, for starters), and I didn’t notice that the lettuce had disappeared. As for the onions, the absence of those sharp red onions is entirely cloaked by the addition of a ton of grilled onions, slipped in between the bottom bun and the lower patty. They’re softened on the stove but not mushy, and while they’ve got some smokiness to them, they’re still sweet. What a fantastic idea.

“It’s the White Castle treatment,” said Guzman, but even he realizes that it’s an unfair comparison. “Yeah, White Castle are probably the worst hamburgers, ever,” he said. “Although I probably shouldn’t say ‘worst,’ because I’ve had some bad burgers in my day. But it’s that onion taste. It’s so good.”

Yes, it is, and it’s a dominant flavor, and texture. But it’s not an overwhelming one.

The cheese is another switch. Gone is the yellow American, although its replacement isn’t exactly radical. It’s white American. Same salty bite and same melts-on-command texture, minus that attention-seeking color. The same amount, too: lots, and lots, and lots of cheese.

“I like white American,” said Guzman. “It’s cheaper, for one thing. And our sous chef worked in Boston, where he said that white American is the only cheese that gets used on burgers. We wanted him to feel at home.”

By streamlining their original formula, Guzman & Co. have improved upon it, hurrah. Oh, and the menu thoughtfully recommends pairing Burger 2.0 with the Furious, the brewery’s citrusy, amber-tinted ale. I firmly endorse their choice.

Price: $13.

Fries: Included, a gigantic handful of them, so crisped, darkly golden and liberally seasoned. Perfect with beer.

Say it isn't so: I asked Guzman if he was tinkering with a sterling Surly menu item, the farro salad with smoked salmon. The tone in my voice? Let’s just say it might have suggested, “You’re not going to break my heart and tell me that you’re changing the farro salad with smoked salmon, right?”

Wrong. My favorite grain salad — such a nuanced assortment of textures and flavors — has headed to the departure lounge. It'll be history, shortly. Color me bummed.

“We’ve got to shake things up a little,” said Guzman with a laugh. “We’ve got to give you guys something to write about.”

Fair enough. The good news is that the smoked salmon isn’t going anywhere. It’s being repurposed, as the centerpiece of a tartine, and the components all sound promising: whole grain sourdough and a cream cheese-mayonnaise spread that’s enriched with honey and roasted shallots. Dill, arugula and a bit of “everything” bagel seasonings constitute the finishing touches. I can't wait to try it.

Working for the weekend: It had been a few months since my last visit, and a big surprise greeted me at the door. It was a sign heralding the arrival of brunch. “Omar [Ansari, the brewery’s founder] has wanted it for forever,” said Guzman. “I sat down with the team and asked, ‘What do you want to do?’”

Not an easy answer, because brunch service can’t add a lot of complications to the already booked-to-the-limit kitchen (For those who haven't been to Surly, know this: the gigantic beer hall is seemingly packed into perpetuity). The solution: A basics-filled menu underscored by a strict no-substitutions rule, one that can fit into the kitchen’s framework. “If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other nice places for having brunch in the city,” said Guzman with a laugh.

Selections ($8 to $16) include fried chicken with country gravy over biscuits, Toad in the Hollow with shaved bologna, cinnamon rolls (“They’re huge,” said Guzman), chilaquiles and a bfast platter heaped with scrambled eggs and toast with pepper jelly, sausage links from Lowry Hill Meats and the kitchen’s own thick-cut and grilled bacon. Some breakfast cocktails, too. Brunch is served 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Address book: 520 Malcolm Av. SE., Mpls., 763-999-4040. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. No reservations.

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

Bittercube cocktails and mini golf: Can Can Wonderland set to open in St. Paul

If you’re the type of person who needs to be entertained while you drink, well, your dream bar is about to descend upon the Twin Cities.

Can Can Wonderland will open to the public on Thursday, unveiling its wild labyrinth of art-inspired mini golf, stage-top shows and Bittercube cocktails – including boozy versions of slushies, snow cones and malts.

The building, near Hamline University in St. Paul, originated in the 1800s with several uses, but the longest tenant was the American Can Company – thus the name Can Can. Now, it holds various businesses including trailer manufacturers, coffee roasters, furniture makers and artist studios.

The newest addition, Can Can, has been six years in the making by founders Christi Atkinson, Rob Clapp, Chris Pennington and Jennifer Pennington – the folks behind the former haunted basement in the Soap Factory and the Walker Art Center’s artist designed mini-golf course.

“I got some gray hair in the meantime,” Jennifer said. “Literally.”

The result is a sprawling 20,000-foot space featuring 1980s arcade games and a winding interactive mini-golf course through and around giant structures in the warehouse-style expanse. Don’t try too hard to decipher it all.

“It is a dream or it is drugs, whatever you take that day,” joked Zoran Mojsilov, one of the artists who created much of the work.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the massive room, red velvet curtains open, revealing a stage where the owners plan to hold a weekly variety show with live acts and a house band. The area will also host DJs for a 1980s new wave DJ night, some daytime kids programming and amateur wrestling tournaments or ping-pong bashes.

Yeah, you won’t be bored.

“We’re hoping every time you come, you have a different experience,” Jennifer said.

And now for what some might argue is Can Can’s biggest draw: a mouth-watering lineup of Bittercube cocktails that are unlike anything they’ve done so far.

For starters, expect liquor-infused slushies, malts and snow cones, as well as sober varieties for  underage drinkers and a list of creative housemade sodas. There are malts made by blending the drinker’s choice of cereal and another featuring Fig Newtons. There is Cheddar cheese ice cream. There is a cocktail celebrating wild rice. There is a drink that arrives with a beach scene and another that is served in a flower pot topped with edible dirt and actual carrots. Then there is the Happy Birthday cocktail, which can be ordered regardless of whether it’s one’s birthday, and a drink that mimics confetti cake that will arrive with song and a popper. And of course there are other, less adventurous concoctions, wine and beer.

“This is the craziest drink list we’ve ever done,” Bittercube guru Nick Kosevich said of their latest project.

Food, meanwhile, sticks to Circus-inspired snacks – pizza, cotton candy, pop corn and toasties, among other items.

(Cocktails above, from top to bottom: The Carrot Drink [rum, sherry, pineapple, carrot, Corozon bitters and edible dirt]; Beach Life [tequila, coconut water, agave, blackstrap bitters and edible sand]; Orange Dream [Vanilla orange syrup, cream and orange bitters])

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