The burger: Jeff Burstein has always had a burger on his menu at his 22-year-old Brothers Deli, but lately he has been (no pun intended) beefing up the burger selection. “We’re selling more burgers than ever,” he said. “I guess everything comes around.”
Last month, he and his crew started a burger-of-the-month special, and their first outing has been such a success that they’ve kept it on the menu. (Be on the lookout for the next iteration, what Burstein is labeling his “steakhouse” burger. Translation: A patty seasoned with a house-made steak sauce.)
All Brothers burgers start the same way: 51/2 oz. of loosely formed ground chuck that dashed with that lifelong friend of the backyard grill, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt. The patties are cooked on flattop, retaining a fairly soft, pink interior and a barely charred exterior surface and plenty of juice. It’s one of those patties that kind of melts in your mouth.
The bun is a soft, eggy thing from Main Street Bakery, buttered and slightly toasted.
Where this month’s special – dubbed the Shack Burger – diverges from its plain-Jane compatriots is in its toppings.
The combination is basically a heart attack waiting to happen, and utterly irresistible to a junk-food fanatic like yours truly. Nothing is skimped upon, either: sautéed mushrooms, thick-cut (and teasingly smoky) bacon and a crispy flurry of battered and fried onions, a blanket of Cheddar cheese, they all get the pile-on treatment. What’s not to love, right? (True confessions: While I was eating it, with a knife and fork because it was beyond sloppy, I made myself stop at the halfway point, as I could hear the voice of every doctor on every TV show saying, everything, in moderation).
The sauce hits all the proper sweet-salty-tangy notes. Like everything at the Brothers, it’s steeped in history, dating to a mid-1960s visit that Burstein’s father Leonard made to southern California, and a sauce he encountered at the famous Hamburger Hamlet chain. Burstein calls it “Shack Sauce,” and it’s a tasty blend of mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, garlic powder and coarsely chopped pickles.
Oh, I almost forgot. When it comes to the noon hour, Burstein & Co. understand that time is of the essence. My burger arrived in four minutes flat, and piping hot. Perfect.
Price: $8.99. That includes a trip to the first-rate salad bar, heaped with potato salad, coleslaw, pickled herring, bread pudding and more. Truly, a deal.
Fries: Included. They’re thick, skin-on, house-cut things, and my only complaint is that they landed just this side of greasy.
Dessert: As in, save room for. Nothing comes even close to fancy, but for skyway denizens bored senseless by the drab sweets sold in second-story fast-food establishments, the homey, butter-drenched cookies and bars at the Brothers are a revelation. Of particular note are the brownies, a marvel of dense, cakey, chocolaty goodness topped with a generous swipe of creamy cocoa frosting (Burstein said that the recipe hails from a long-ago Sears catalog). Oh, and the popovers are not to be missed.
Love thy neighbor: In the you’ve-gotta-love-this department, what’s great about the Brothers is its caution-to-the-wind (and highly un-Minnesotan) sense of personal space. During the busy lunch rush, diners – and these are people who, shock of shocks, may not know one another -- are crowded together, elbow to elbow. And they live to tell the tale. It’s the original community table, and in this cramped, animated setting, it works.
A taste of Minneapolis: It may not be readily apparent – the restaurant’s current location opened in 2000 – but grabbing a quick-service breakfast or lunch at the Brothers Deli is also indulging in a big, flaky kolache of Minneapolis history.
I’m old enough (and, frankly, peculiar enough) to remember not one but two jingles from old Brothers Deli commercials, or a reasonable facsimile of them, anyway: “Kibitz means talk, nosh means eat, nosh at the Brothers, a true deli treat." And, “The Brothers’ coffee and pie. The Brothers’ pastrami on rye. When you’re downtown or you’re in the Dales a Brothers dinner never fails to brighten up your day. The Brothers brighten your day.”
The Star Tribune is moving from its 95-year-old building next month, and the thought of leaving this sprawling, inefficient and beloved dump is making me very nostalgic. One of my favorite rooms in this crazy old structure is the clip morgue. You practically need a Sherpa guide to find it, tucked into a barely-trafficked chunk of the gloomy basement (where the presses were once housed), a dusty and little-used haven piled high with shelf after shelf of little green and gold envelopes, each one containing carefully snipped, labeled, dated and archived newspaper clippings, filed under thousands and thousands of subject headings. The earliest seem to date from the 1950s, and they all pretty much end in the mid-1980s, when the process went digital.
Grabbing a burger at the Brothers sent me straight to the morgue. It took a while – the filing system is something of a mystery to me – but I persevered, and discovered clips. Many fragile clips, all neatly folded into 3x5 paper envelopes. I’m guessing they haven’t been opened since the clips were filed, decades ago.
Here’s what I found:
The Burstein family – starting with Mike and Dora -- got into the restaurant business in 1939. Dora Sudit and Mike Burstein met in 1914, onboard a ship from Russia bound for the United States. A friendship grew into love, and they married in Minneapolis.
“‘Mike shoveled coal first,’ recalled Dora Burstein, explaining how her young husband earned his living while he learned English,” wrote Minneapolis Star staff writer Ann Burckhardt in a July 5, 1978 story.
Mike’s Cafe specialized in Jewish home cooking and catered to the theater crowd. Mike had also been a chef at the Minneapolis Athletic Club when he opened his first place at 21 N. 6th St. (now Mayo Clinic Square, formerly known as Block E) in 1938. The restaurant moved a block away -- 11 N. 7th St. -- in 1939, and it catered to the garment workers in the surrounding buildings, as well as the area’s theatrical crowd.
“It was across the street from the old Alvin Theater, a strip joint, and I can remember people like Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand coming in for meals,” said Leonard Burstein in a Minneapolis Star story from the 1970s. “It was a very simple place with a counter, a few booths and some tables.
Mike served in World War II in France, and after the war, the two continued a partnership that lasted until Mike died in 1953. “‘He cooked, I baked,’ Dora Burstein told Burkhardt. He cooked meats and vegetables and sauces; she baked breads and fancy European pastries. The rich knishes and the hefty soups of their Russian Jewish past were daily fare.
“Dora Burstein maintains that it was she who decided they should open their own restaurant,” wrote Burkhardt. “She was counting on the experience they had gained working together at the Standard Club, a private club atop the then Nicollet Hotel. Though Burstein was reluctant to give up a regular paycheck, his wife was persuasive.”
Burckhardt wrote that downtown’s only deli was a hit with visitors and celebrities, but locals were hesitant to try Jewish specialties. “Corned beef sandwiches? Sure. But borscht? Cabbage soup?” she wrote.
Dora’s response: “I educated them with borscht. I talked them into it. Now they love it.”
Dora’s favorite meal? “A good hamburger with a little mustard,” wrote Burkhardt. How fitting for Burger Friday.
Like most (if not all) restaurant-owning families, Mike and Dora’s sons Sam and Leonard – the brothers of the Brothers – got their start early.
“Sam and I started out working there when were about 7 or 8,” recalled Leonard in a 1979 Minneapolis Star profile. “First we did dishes and kitchen prep like washing vegetables. Later on we waited on tables. I was a wonderful waiter. And we learned to cook from our dad and bake from our mother.”
In 1959, six years after Sam and Leonard took over the business, they moved the restaurant a block away, into the arcade in then-new Dayton-Radisson parking ramp. Dayton’s management wasn’t keen on the Mike’s Cafe name, so the Bursteins renamed the business the Brothers. The new 80-seat place was smaller than the old Mike’s, but it did more business on its first day than Mike’s averaged in a week.
"The menu included potted oxtails and cold, pickeled mackerel, items 'that are lost these days,' said Sam, recalling the old days in a 1979 Minneapolis Star story. "'People don't even know what they are anymore.'"
Will Jones, the Tribune’s man about town, made the restaurant the subject of his Nov. 9, 1959 column, and so much of what he has to say still rings true today.
“The chances of finding something imaginative in the way of breakfast downtown have improved with the opening of the Brothers new delicatessen and restaurant in the Dayton Radisson arcade,” he wrote.
“I stopped in there the other morning for my favorite delicatessen breakfast, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, and toasted bagels. Visitors from the east have asked for and got – although it isn’t on the breakfast menu – smoked whitefish and soft-boiled eggs, and schmalz herring.
“Just having a place that will toast a bagel for breakfast in downtown Minneapolis is a real step forward. Working girls in the area have discovered the toasted bagel at coffee-break time, too.
“The Brothers – Leonard and Sam Burstein – are overwhelmed at what has happened to them in the few weeks they have been open.
“‘We used to serve a barrel and half of corned beef a week,’ said Leonard. “Now we’re serving a barrel a day. People come in and say, ‘I’m glad somebody finally has opened a place like this downtown.’ I tell them, ‘But we’ve downtown for 20 years – just a block away.’ It’s amazing what a difference one block makes.”
Jones was all over the desserts: Whipped-cream cakes, chocolate cream pies – “real cream pies, not custard,” he wrote – banana cream pies (“with real whipped cream”), seven-layer cakes.
“‘I’m flabbergasted the way some of these women put away desserts, and I’m flabbergasted that they’ll pay 40 cents for them,’ Leonard said.”
Business boomed. A second restaurant (and bakery), the Brothers Too, opened on the first floor of the Northwestern National Bank building in 1965. A spectacular fire on Thanksgiving Day 1982 closed that restaurant for good.
By 1968, long before Jimmy John’s and Au Bon Pan ruled the downtown skyways, the two Brothers outlets were serving about 4,000 diners a day. A Southdale outlet opened that year. Rosedale soon followed, and a third downtown outlet, in the Midwest Plaza building, appeared in 1971.
Fast-forward to 1979. Sam Leonard and brother Fred were presiding over 11 full-service restaurants, a quick-service counter, four carryout bakery-delis and a commissary kitchen. Annual revenues were roughly $10 million, according to an April 24, 1979 story in the Minneapolis Star. That’s about $33 million in 2015 dollars.
By the late 1970s, the family had opened restaurants in Maplewood Mall and Burnsville Center (a restaurant I recall with great affection; this Burnsville native and his mother and I dined there with some frequency), and was expanding into the West Acres shopping center in Fargo, N.D.
The family sold the business in the early 1980s, and it sputtered to a close under new ownership.
In 1993, with the restaurant business DNA swirling in his bloodstream, Leonard’s son Mike Burstein revived the family business’ name, but tweaked the business into a different format: a counter-service spot on the downtown skyway. It has occupied the same lively Nicollet-and-6th location for the past 15 years.
Address book: 50 S. 6th St., Mpls., 612-341-8007. Open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
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