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Burger Friday: Summertime nostalgia reigns at Minnetonka Drive In

 

 

The burger: Let’s time-travel back to 1961, shall we? John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn into office as the nation’s 35th president. Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Television audiences were glued to “Wagon Train,” “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.” Pillsbury introduced its Poppin’ Fresh Dough Boy spokesman. And Gordon Bennyhoff opened his A&W drive-in franchise in Spring Park, not far from the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

It’s still there, 54 years later, and a delightfully preserved-in-amber experience. Sure, the name has changed: it’s now the Minnetonka Drive In. But it’s still owned by the hard-working Bennyhoff family. And it continues to specialize in a gotta-try burger.

A&W devotees will remember the chain’s vaunted Family of Burgers: Papa Burger, Mama Burger, Teen Burger and Baby Burger. When I was a kid, my family spent a fair amount of time under the carports at the A&W near Osseo Road and 69th Street in Brooklyn Center -- this was the late 1960s and early 1970s -- so you’d think I’d recall the details that made a Teen Burger a Teen Burger. But I don’t. Mostly, I remember how much I loved the heavy, and heavily frosted glass mugs that were used to serve the drive-in’s sweet, frothy root beer. Oh, and how we all tried, somewhat desperately, to keep from spilling ketchup and mustard on the upholstery of my father’s prized Vauxhall station wagon.

The specifics of A&W corporate-speak are a little foggy for co-owner Dave Bennyhoff, too, but he does recall that the Minnetonka Twin Burger – its name is drawn from a pair of patties -- is a direct descendent of the A&W Papa Burger.

In keeping with the midcentury matriarchy of it all, the Papa Burger – sorry, the Minnetonka Twin – remains the menu’s signature item, and with good reason. It’s the kind of first-rate burger that reinforces exactly why the grilled beef sandwich became an American culinary icon.

This classic approach to burger-making  arrives, via a friendly carhop, just as it should -- piping hot -- and wrapped in a brown paper bag. It starts out with a bang, in the form of a toasted and notably well-made bun, from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery. It’s a promising salutation. After all, how many fast-food burgers make a point of seeking out such a carefully produced bun? Not many, at least in my experience.

“You have to have a good bun, otherwise it takes away from the sandwich,” said Bennyhoff. Agreed.

The patties – diner-style slender and fashioned from fresh, well-seasoned ground beef – are grilled to a uniform medium, and they epitomize the two-is-better-than-one rule. Think about it: The beef’s flavor blossoms under the grill’s heat, infusing all kinds of sizzling caramelized tastiness on the patty’s surface. It’s simple arithmetic: A single patty has two sides. Throw in a second patty (which, at the Minnetonka, adds up to a 1/3-pound burger), and you’ve doubled the flavor potential.

The embellishments are classic Americana: Crisp shredded lettuce, pungent dill pickle chips, a tomato slice (that, it must be said, is there strictly for color, as it offers next to nothing in terms of flavor and texture), and ooze-ey (and decidedly salty, in a totally appealing way) American cheese.

The crowning touch is prodigious amounts of what the menu dubs “dressing,” a fat-boosting blend of salad dressing, mustard, pickle relish and lemon juice. “We still run a scratch kitchen here,” said Bennyhoff. “That’s Dad’s recipe, and it’s really good.”

It sure is, and all the components sloppily add up to a remarkable burger experience. No wonder it has been a top seller for all of these years.

Price: $5.99. “It’s basically our specialty burger,” said Bennyhoff. “If someone comes in and says, ‘Dave, what’s the best burger you’ve got?’ I’m going to tell them it’s the Twin, and not because it’s the most expensive one.”

Expensive is not a word I would associate with the Minnetonka Drive In, but it's all relative, right? In measures of both quality and quantity, I thought six bucks was something of a steal. By the way, an extra cheese slice is 59 cents, and it’s totally worth the splurge. It’s placed between the two hot-off-the-grill patties, and like all good American cheeses, it melts in a flash, turning each bite into a gooey, Jucy Lucy-like delight.

Fries: Extra ($2.59). They’re crinkle cuts, meaning they’re pudgy, slightly crispy, barely greasy and pretty swell. Still, think about diverting your deep-fried appetite into the onion rings. The Bennyhoffs have been making them the same way for 54 years, so it’s safe to say that they know what they’re doing.

 

 

Family affair: Dave Bennyhoff and his seven siblings all grew up working at their dad’s drive-in. Bennyhoff’s first job was after-school washing duty, cleaning the returnable gallon-size glass jugs that customers would buy and fill with A&W root beer. At the time, it was the only way consumers could purchase the company’s fabled draft root beer. By the mid-1970s, the company had licensed the formula to soda bottlers. With the root beer conveniently available in supermarkets, sales at A&W drive-ins began to shrink.

Dave took over the family business in 1985 (Gordon passed away four years later), and that’s when he dropped the A&W affiliation. “I remember sitting and talking to the president of A&W and he said that we would be gone in two years,” said Bennyhoff. “Well, it’s 2015, and we’re still here.” I think I can speak for drive-in lovers everywhere when I say, "thank goodness."

By the way, Bennyhoff is still making root beer – foamy, with a pronounced vanilla-caramel aura -- following the same recipe his father used in the 1960s.

Next generation: Dave and his wife Deb have three kids, and all of them have worked at the 50-car drive-in; one still pitches in during the early-spring and late-fall stretches. Three of the couple’s six grandchildren are also on the payroll.

The property is as tidy as a military base waiting for a general's inspection, and it's remarkably well-preserved (the family resisted the temptation to add indoor seating, preferring to maintain the restaurant’s seasonal business model), making for a fairly authentic journey back to the world of 1960s drive-ins. “We’ve kept up with the demands of the health department, but otherwise everything is the same as it has always been,” said Bennyhoff. Right down to the recent paint job, which replicates the way it looked when it opened in 1961. Don't let the summer pass without a visit.

Address book: 4658 Shoreline Dr., Spring Park, 952-471-9383. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

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

Burger Friday: Falling for an oldie (and big-time goodie) at Flameburger

 

 

The burger: The no-frills patties coming off the charbroiler at Flameburger have restored my faith in the much-imitated but rarely improved-upon diner-style burger.

The namesake item at this 39-year-old Little Canada institution -- located down the street from another east metro icon, Hoggsbreath Bar -- is sold in quarter- and half-pound variations, and while the more modest of the two easily satisfies any standard-issue burger craving, the weightier version has the kind of sigh-inducing heft rarely elicited in a fast-food burger joint. In other words, "the Flame" is great, but the "Super Flame" is better.

Don’t expect frills. I’m having a hard time picturing anyone in the kitchen folding duck fat, uncured bacon, 85-percent-butterfat French butter or any other chef-induced flavor booster into the patty’s ground beef. Frankly, I’d be shocked to learn that this beef was seasoned with anything beyond a cursory shake of salt and pepper.

Instead, you’ll get an obviously hand-formed beef patty (“Fresh, never frozen,” said co-owner Adam Elazab) that’s expertly cooked on that flame-shooting charbroiler until there’s a barely pink but gently juicy interior and a gingerly charred exterior.

Garnishes continue along the ascetic route. A few vinegar-ey dill pickle chips insert a welcome acidic bite, and grilled onions (which could have been grilled a bit longer) hit the sweet spot right where it counts. Kudos to the crisp lettuce leaf, but the lifeless tomato slices did little more than add a dash of color.

Not that a cottony, flavorless tomato came as a surprise. After all, I was seated in a restaurant with its own ATM machine; in this hash (brown)-slinging venue, no one in their right mind would expect to encounter a big-old slice of a juicy, lovingly raised heirloom tomato. (But a guy can dream, can’t he?).

But when it comes to the bun, there’s no skimping. As it does for so many top-flight burger-makers, St. Agnes Baking Co. supplies the sesame seed-freckled bun, which gets a light toast on the flattop grill. Elazab described the technique as “steamed,” with the buns placed over an onion slice. It’s a clever touch, one I’m going to remember the next time I make a burger at home.

The add-ons don’t stray too far afield. There’s bacon, and it’s fine. Cheese, however is a must, a gooey slice of American that injects all the right salt notes.

Here's my shorthand-ed summary: Fancy? Not in the least. Consumed every morsel? Yep.

Price: Quarter-pound burgers run $4.75 to $7 (a tremendous value), half-pound burgers fall in the $7.10 to $9.45 range.

 

 

Fries: Extra ($2.10), and worth it. They’re the crinkle variety, a frozen product that’s fried to order (the sound of gurgling grease add an animated background noise to the wide-open diner) until they’re slightly golden, barely crunchy and utterly addictive. The prodigious portion would appear right at home at a truck stop. “We usually pile them on until they fall off the plate,” said Elazab. Works for me.

 

 

Be prepared: Spend more than two minutes within the confines of this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it establishment (be on the lookout for the yellow sign), and every fiber of clothing on your back is going to absorb the scent of Eau de Greasy Spoon.  

24/7/365: Flameburger is that rare Twin Cities eatery that welcomes customers around the clock.

“We love being open 24 hours,” said Elazab. “A lot of our business comes in the middle of the night – we’re really busy, all night -- which makes us wonder why other restaurants don’t do it.”

(The restaurant, which dates to 1976, was once connected to several other Twin Cities Flameburger outlets, including the one remaining outpost in Columbia Heights. Today, the two remaining Flameburgers share little more than a name).  

Elazab, who co-owns the restaurant with his sister Amanda, sells a lot of burgers during the hours between last call and dawn.

The No. 1 seller? That’s easy. “It’s the Sunrise Flame,” said Elazab. “It’s a bacon cheeseburger with an over-easy egg on top.”

But other popular choices include the Mega ($14.95) and Double-Mega ($26.50), bacon-topped bruisers that tip the scales at 1 and 2 pounds, respectively.

“The bar crowd loves them,” he said.

Me? I’m picturing one of those 2-lb. hamburger family packs at Cub – done up as a single burger -- and wondering how anyone can possibly consume that much beef. But, hey, mine is not to reason why.

Address book: 2534 Rice St., Little Canada, 651-483-8444. Open 24 hours.

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

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