The burger: Last year, when Ken Johnson and Brett Johnson converted their Eden Avenue Grill into the Hilltop, the father-and-son ownership team took a radical turn, burger-wise.
“We used to have three or four different burgers -- mushroom-Swiss, bacon-blue cheese, that kind of thing – but people were always modifying them,” said Brett Johnson. “No matter what, they were getting creative on their own.”
All those customer-driven substitions triggered a classic light-bulb moment. Which explains why the burger section of the Hilltop's menu (overseen by chefs Bruce Bjorkman and James Nielsen) follows a strict do-it-yourself format.
(As a depressing indicator of my age, one look at the menu triggered the memory of a long-ago earworm of a Burger King jingle: “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.” Watch it here, in all of its glory; this one is even better. Oh, and kudos to the jingle writer for rhyming “on top, or” with “proper.” Sondheim would be proud.)
Here’s how it works: Choose a patty (beef, turkey or bison) and a bun (whole-wheat, soft pretzel, egg or “gluten-friendly), then the kitchen throws in a lettuce leaf and a few tomato slices.
From there, each add-on adds to the tab. Eleven “basic” toppings -- seven varieties of cheese, mushrooms and three styles of onions – come in at 50 cents a pop, and bacon, avocado and a fried egg can be had for $1 each.
The switch-up was an immediate hit. “It’s hands-down the most popular part of the menu,” said Brett Johnson. “It’s also a much fairer way to charge people. You want avocado, and bacon, and Cheddar? That’s what you get charged for, and nothing more.”
Nice. I stuck to the basics: beef patty ("The No. 1 seller, by far," said Brett Johnson), egg bun, no add-ons. The bare-bones results were impressive.
The bruiser of an all-chuck patty -- thick, loosely packed and muffin-topped over the bun's edges -- must weigh in at just under a half-pound. It's a total doggie bag-ready portion. The cooking process begins on the flat top stove, then transitions to the grill, which explains the patty's criss-crossed (and highly flavorful) char markings. It arrived exactly as requested (medium rare), with juices still intact, and plenty of salt.
The egg bun – it hails from Mainstreet Bakery in Edina – nailed it: substantial yet tender, with a rich, tender bite and a browned, crisped-up interior toast that clearly blossoms under a generous swipe of butter.
(Demerits for the wilted, browned lettuce leaf, and the woody, dry, flavorless tomatoes. If I noticed these deficiencies, why didn’t someone in the kitchen?).
Next time (and they’ll definitely be a next time, maybe on Tuesday, when prices on select bottles of wine are slashed in half, and definitely when the weather cooperates, because that patio looks pretty swell) I’ll pile on the extras. Avocado, caramelized red onions, bacon and smoked Gouda, on a big-old burger? So good.
Price: $11 for the straight-up model. Add-ons extra. (Note to vegetarians: There’s a black bean burger, too, although the house-made patty isn’t a part of the build-it-yourself menu.)
Fries: Included. They’re cut at a thicker width than, say, a McDonald’s fry, and their crisped-up exteriors mask a fluffy, baked potato-like interior. Not bad.
Since 1977: Diners of a certain age may recall the Johnson family's initial restaurant iteration. It was called the Pantry, and the first of three appeared 40 years ago (on the current Hilltop site), eventually growing into branches in Richfield and St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. By 1998, Ken Johnson was focusing his energies on the Edina location, remaking it into the Eden Avenue Grill. That knack for reinvention took root again last year, when he and Brett gave their business yet another top-to-bottom refresh.
Smart idea. Casual and comfortable, the Hilltop is the kind of approachable and affordable restaurant that would improve any neighborhood.
“It has been a great transition,” said Brett Johnson, who grew up in the family business (“I got sucked in,” he said with a laugh). “It’ll be a year next week, that’s hard to believe.”
Address book: 5101 Arcadia Av., Edina, 952-925-5628. Open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to midnight Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
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