The burger: There’s a burger chain hiding in plain sight in the Twin Cities. It’s called LifeCafe, and it’s part of the Lifetime Fitness empire. Here’s the thing: You don’t need to be a gym bag-carrying member to dine in the restaurants. 

OK, calling LifeCafe a burger chain is an exaggeration. The focus of its 100-plus outlets (including 19 in the Twin Cities metro area) is on health-conscious fare. That’s a rarity in the quick-service world of fast food.

“The rest of the fast-casual industry is starting to acknowledge that they need to get the junk out of their food,” said executive chef Ryan Dodge. “We’re light years ahead in that regard.”

Even with burgers. Dodge, a six-year LifeCafe vet, features a pair of them on his menu at most locations; one is made with ground turkey, the other features ground beef.

Since we’ve all got Thanksgiving on the brain, I decided to go the turkey route. It’s a When-in-Rome situation: The super-lean meat is a natural for a fitness-focused restaurant.

“We think about food as nourishment, as fuel,” said Dodge. “Someone may have just burned off 800 calories, and they need to refuel, and we want to be able to meet those nutrition demands.”

Not that he’s ignoring other, more sensory requirements. Let’s face it, ground turkey (in this case, all-natural, antibiotic- and hormone-free turkey) isn’t exactly brimming with flavor. Which is why Dodge wisely infuses each bite with hints of paprika, cumin and ground chilies. The patty is par-baked, then finished on a flattop grill, a technique that adds a lightly browned, gently crispy outer edge.

Dodge boosts the meat’s inherent leanness by adding in a few tantalizing fats. In other words, calories. There’s a thin slice of Swiss cheese, and both the top and the bottom bun receive generous swipes of a vibrant, colorful pesto.

“They’re healthy calories,” said Dodge, rattling off the pesto’s Mediterranean diet ingredients, including almonds, basil, extra-virgin olive oil and garlic. Oh, and a bit of Grana Padano, a high-protein Italian cheese that brims with a hefty portion of unsaturated fats.

A tomato slice adds much-needed moisture (the patty isn’t dry, but, like the vast majority of turkey burgers, it doesn’t exactly run with juices, not in the way that its all-beef counterparts often do), but not a lot of flavor; yep, tomato season is definitely over. Lettuce is chopped Romaine, and it’s a smart choice, adding all kinds of welcome crunch and texture.

As for the bun, the menu described it as toasted, seed-topped and gluten-free. What arrived was decidedly different: a terrific ciabatta roll, with just enough chewy, crusty strength to stand up to all that pesto (I later learned this was a mistake on the kitchen’s part; as part of a new menu rollout, the ciabatta roll has been replaced by that seeded bun). It’s baked at Faces Mears Park.

The St. Paul restaurant/bakery is also the source of that gluten-free bun, which is a key component in the cafe’s (recommended) grass-fed beef burger. By the way, here’s how good that seeded bun is: I didn’t realize that it was gluten-free until I spied that detail on the menu. The taste – and, more importantly, the texture – did not give it away. With most gluten-free breads, that never happens.

Did I feel virtuous eating this burger? Yes. It’s not the gut-bomb that has become the fat- and calorie-laden beef burger standard. But you know what? It’s also delicious.

Price: $8.29. For those wanting to bulk up on the protein, add a second patty; that sends the cost up to $12.29.

Fries: None. Please, you’re in a gym, remember? No hablo deep-fried. Instead, there’s a spinach salad, the fresh greens tossed with small yellow tomatoes (notably juicier and tastier than the red tomato in the burger) and a tangy vinaigrette.

Following the numbers: Naturally, Dodge’s menu supplies all kinds of nutritional information. For the turkey burger – single patty version, on the gluten-free bun – expect to hit 692 calories (of which 352 are from fat). Total fat is 40.2 grams (saturated fat chimes in at 7.4 grams). Other key figures include 24 grams of cholesterol, and 424 milligrams of sodium. Protein weighs in at 46 grams, and each burger contains 79 percent of the minimum daily requirement of Vitamin A (along with 61 percent of the MDR of Vitamin C and 31 percent of the MDR of calcium). Not bad, right?

Address book: Find the closest LifeCafe here.

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