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Burger Friday: Goat, in all of its glory, and on wheels

The burger: After a supply chain-mandated hiatus, the goat burger is back at the Curious Goat. Cue the fireworks.

The bright orange truck is a fixture outside Sociable Cider Werks in northeast Minneapolis, and while chef/owner Ian Gray knows his way around beef sliders -- so juicy, so onion-packed, so life-affirmingly delicious -- he’s made something of a career out of singing the praises of a goat burger, starting back when he had it on the menu at his marvelous, but depressingly short-lived restaurant, the Gray House.

Not long after closing his Lyn-Lake gastropub in 2014, Gray announced that he was getting back into the business with a food truck, and the news was even better: he was going to continue to feature a goat burger, made from the lean, pristine meat that he had been sourcing from cheesemaker Lynne Reeck and her Singing Hills Goat Dairy in Nerstrand, Minn.

What is it about goat meat?

“I found that it has this robust flavor,” he said. “But the meat from Lynne is even better. It’s sweeter and leaner, and it takes on flavors really well. I’ve gained this reputation for working with it, and I’ve found that people really enjoy it.”

Present company definitely included. Anyone who appreciates a well-prepared lamb burger will flip for Gray’s goat version. Compared to its lamb counterpart, the meat’s barnyard bite is more of a whisper than a shout.

By the way, Gray is right; it was seemingly born to embrace burger-friendly flavors. For seasoning, he turns to salt and a hefty dose of red pepper flakes, and once growing season jumps into full swing, Gray, a devoted farmers market shopper, will also be tossing in a garden-fresh mix of herbs, from favorite purveyor Dehn’s Garden.

Young goat (we’re talking 9- to 12-month-old animals) is an exceedingly lean meat, so Gray ingeniously bumps up the fat factor by cutting in some of Reeck’s chevre. It’s not unlike those crazy-rich beef burgers enriched with butter (yes, Constantine, I'm talking to you), only this time it’s front-loaded with terroir-suggesting flavor properties. You want to get a hint of what the rolling grasslands near Northfield taste like? Order this burger.

The patties weigh in somewhere in between five and six ounces (Gray originally started at seven ounces, but the thick patties were taking 12 to 15 minutes to cook, “and that’s too long for people to have to wait,” he said) and they get fried on a flattop grill. The grill’s heat melts the cheese, and that moisture helps to crisp the meat’s outer shell; when it’s pulled off the stove, the patty’s interior remains slightly pink and creamy.

Toppings are simple, and flavor-enhancing, just a generous handful of peppery arugula and a thick, slightly melted slab of Reeck’s no-frills farmer cheese.

The bun? It’s whole wheat.

“I loved the buttery brioche bun from Patisserie 46 that we used on the goat burger at the Gray House,” he said. “But that’s a rich bun, and this is a rich patty. Eighty percent of our menu is regularly gluten-free, and as a result we get a lot of health-conscious customers. I think they appreciate the whole-wheat bun, and I think the flavor works well.”

Yes, it does. And toasting only accentuates those hearty, nutty flavor notes.

This is a first-rate burger experience (no surprise, since Gray operates a first-rate food truck), and a happy excursion off the well-worn beef trail. One caveat: the Gray’s goat burger goes on and off the menu as supply dictates, so expectations should be set accordingly.

“We’re moving towards having it on at least two of the four days per week that we’re at Sociable Cider Werks,” said Gray. “It’s such a great product. We sold more in six months at the Curious Goat than we did during two years at the Gray House. I just want to see Lynne succeed and prosper, and I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

Price: $13.

Fries: None. Instead, Gray applies his deep-frying virtuousity to cheese. When he pulls Reeck’s delicate, teasingly tangy and obviously fresh goat cheese curds (“I picked them up this morning at Singing Hills, that’s how fresh they are,” he said when I ordered them) from the fryer, the results are nothing short of spectacular.

Still, if you've dropped in on one of the rare days when Gray is dabbling in a different kind of fried-cheese splendor, by all means, order it.

“They’re the misshapen ends of the Lone Grazer’s string cheese,” he said. “Lone Grazer calls them ‘Ugz,’ but I’m not sure if they would sell if we called them that, so we call them ‘House-made mozzarella sticks.’”

Ok, “sticks” is something of a misnomer.

“The size variations are a lot of fun,” said Gray. “Some look like a shoestring, others look like a massive cow’s tongue. When they stretch them out at Lone Grazer, they cut them nice and pretty, but these are the ends, the leftovers. We soak them in cider, bread them and fry them. They’re just another fried cheese item that Minnesotans gobble up.”

No wonder. They’re dangerously addictive, with a thin, delicately crunch coating that gives way to wonderfully fresh and clean-tasting cheese. Each calorie-laden basket ($9) is served with a gutsy, chile-fueled marinara dipping sauce. The only downside? Once again, limited supply.

“We get their scraps every other week,” said Gray. “But they’re a lot of fun to play around with. That’s what we love to do.”

A second truck: Gray is getting ready to inaugurate his second roving restaurant, the Smoking Cow.

“It was going to be either pig or cow,” he said. “But we love Andy Peterson at Peterson Limousin Beef, so we went with cow.” It’s making its debut next weekend: find it May 5 at Badger Hill Brewing and May 6 at Bad Weather Brewing Co.

The plan is to have the truck spend most of June and July at Tattersall Distilling. Next week’s menu will include a smoked brisket sandwich and tacos with Red Table pancetta and Lone Grazer cheese curds. Oh, and cow’s milk cheese curds, from Lone Grazer. Gray will also be serving his version of the Pronto Pup, which features Red Dog all-pork hot dogs from Red Table Meat Co., and a gluten-free batter.

“I’m building a small cult,” he said. “People say, ‘Holy cow,’ I haven’t had a Pronto Pup in a million years, but it’s gluten-free, so I’ve got to get it.”

Where he burgers: “I go to Blue Door a lot,” said Gray. “There’s so much creativity there, and I really enjoy the burger of the month. They’ve got a good beer list, too. Parlour is killer. If Revival wasn’t so damn busy and my schedule wasn’t so crazy, I’d have that one all the time.”

For home cooks: Want to prepare your own goat burger? Seward Co-op carries a limited supply of ground goat meat from Peters Family Farm in Fountain, Minn.

Address book: Gray parks the truck (yes, technically it’s a trailer) outside Sociable Cider Werks, 1500 Fillmore St. NE., Mpls., 612-758-0105. Find it there Thursday through Sunday. “We mirror their hours,” said Gray, so that means 4 to 11 p.m. Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday, noon to midnight Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Follow Gray on Twitter: @CuriousGoatMN.

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

Burger Friday: Flavor at the Depot in Savage keeps it 'eclectic'

The burger: “The menu is a little eclectic,” said Flavor at the Depot owner Cindy Hurley. “Actually, the whole place is a little eclectic.”

She’s right. But I’ll take eclectic over formulaic any day. Not to generalize too much here, but in the suburbs — and I’m talking Scott County here, so we’re not exactly in the North Loop — formulaic is often the dining scene’s default position. Which is why this cute, well-run cafe/coffeehouse is such a find.

Breakfast (and Sunday brunch) is popular, and Hurley and her husband Paul also serve dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings, and the offerings do run the gamut, from house-cured pastrami on pumpernickel to biscuits smothered in sausage gravy to a wild rice salad with chicken and avocado. Me? I was there for the burger.

There are five on the menu, including a Minnesota rarity: a green chile cheeseburger. Still, I chose the house specialty, a white Cheddar cheeseburger topped with sauteed onions and horseradish sauce. I was not disappointed.

First off, the patty is a thing of beauty. It weighs in at 7 hefty ounces, and thanks to its chuck/short rib blend (ground on the premises), it radiates a big, beefy bite. Hurley forms the ground beef into thick patties, adding only salt and pepper to accentuate that clean beef flavor. They’re cooked on a flattop grill, seared until there’s just barely any pink remaining. It’s one of those juicy, flavor-saturated patties that’s so good that it could be enjoyed without all the other burger add-ons. But don’t let that stop you.

For example, even the most carb-phobic won’t want to give up on this bun. Rich and eggy, it hails from Franklin Street Bakery, and it’s liberally — one might even say “prodigiously” — brushed in butter (“A little clarified butter never hurt anyone,” said Hurley with a laugh) before it gets a firm toast on the flattop.

The cheese, soft but not runny, and nicely salty, could best be described as “slab-like.” The thickly sliced onions get a spin on the stove, to the point where they’re lightly browned but still slightly crunchy, and far more tangy than sweet. Texture-wise, they’re nowhere near the usual jam-like consistency of slow-cooked onions, and it’s a welcome change of pace.

Pickles cut a bracing vinegar bite through the beef’s richness. Oh, and that horseradish sauce? Perfection. It doesn’t pack a wallop, but there’s enough of a punch to make a favorable impression.

I haven’t been to Savage in ages (I was passing through, on my way to visit By the Yard, in Jordan). I won’t make that mistake again.

Price: $10.95, an exceptional value.

Fries: Included, and terrific. I told Hurley as much and she paused. “We try to do everything from scratch, but the fries, they’re a product that we buy,” she said. “A really good product, but still, we don’t make them here.” Doesn’t matter, because they’re great, with premium potato flavor and a just-right deep-fried texture.

Sweet eats: Hurley is no stranger to the restaurant business. In the early 1990s, she was the talent behind Mrs. Feldman’s Fineries, a bakery that supplied restaurants around town, including Palomino, Kincaid’s, Pickled Parrot and Dayton’s.

I encountered her work much later, when she and her pals Marcia Herman and Buffy Oesterrich called themselves the Party Girls and operated a stand at the Nicollet Mall branch of the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

The three became friends while working at Williams-Sonoma in the Galleria (which explains why their stand was one giant Apilco display; hello, employee discount), and I can still recall the fabulousness of the cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted doughnut muffins that they would bake in Hurley’s Prior Lake kitchen and then haul downtown.

That background explains the restaurant’s small bakery case, which is usually filled with scones (white chocolate-raspberry, lemon), muffins (blueberry, rhubarb) and cookies. Oh, and gooey, gotta-have caramel rolls. “They’re my mother’s recipe,” said Hurley.

Despite the restaurant's tiny kitchen, Hurley also manages to turn out a dessert of the day. The afternoon I spoke with her, Hurley was serving a pear tart with brown butter custard and a caramel sauce. “I used to do that one for Palomino,” she said.

On farmers market days — the St. Paul Farmers Market operates an outlet in the restaurant’s parking lot on Sunday morning, starting June 5 — Hurley bumps up the selection, adding Morning Glory and banana-chocolate chip muffins, among others; maybe she’ll revive those doughnut muffins? It sounds as if she already has a lot on her plate.

“It gets crazy,” she said. “We probably do quadruple the sales of what we’d normally do.”

Taste of history: The depot was built in 1880; that’s the pre-Col. Marion Savage era, when the town was called Hamilton. The railroad stopped using it in 1970, and three years later the building was moved to Shakopee, to what is now called the Landing. In 2006 it returned to Savage, restored and repurposed. Flavor at the Depot is the building’s third food-related tenant, and here’s hoping that the Hurleys’ strategy of all-American scratch cooking and baking is drawing the crowds that it deserves.

I grew up a few miles away, and have somewhat foggy memories of downtown Savage in the early 1970s. Through my brain's cobwebs, I can recall my mother taking me shopping at the IGA supermarket, and buying stamps at the Savage post office. I have a vague memory of a variety store, too.

And I kind-of remember the depot. It was uprooted when this history-nerd-in-the-making was in junior high school, and I probably tracked its progress in the Dakota County Tribune, the local newspaper that I read with a fervor that I normally reserved for Barbara Flanagan's column in the Minneapolis Star.

I’m probably mistaken here, but I think the depot’s current site was once the home of the Dan Patch Lounge — I’m fairly certain that my parents never set food in "the Patch," let alone took their offspring there — and that the depot’s original location was across the street from its current address. Do I have that right? Anyway, it’s great to see an important part of the town’s history back where it belongs.

Where she burgers: “I love a good burger,” said Hurley. “I grew up on a beef farm, so they have to be good. Since we opened the restaurant, I haven’t been out much. But the 112 Eatery? They have a great burger. (Agreed). That’s probably the last one that I went out for.”

Address book: 4800 W. 123rd St., Savage, 952-882-4729. Open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

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