The burger: Which arrived first, the lilacs, or the food trucks? Probably the latter, but spring has indeed sprung, with both blossoms and mobile restaurants visible at seemingly every turn. Hungry for a burger, my mind immediately flashed to a summer-of-2014 encounter with the sliders at Butcher Salt, so I took to Twitter and tracked the vehicle's whereabouts. Turns out, it was parked across the street from my office. Kismet, right?
It’s easy to appreciate the underlying simplicity of owner Jean Hutar’s operation, which boils down to a single thematic ingredient: salt. Specifically, a sea salt infused with rosemary, sage, thyme and marjoram. Hutar sneaks it into dishes up and down the menu, and like all bedrock building blocks, it pretty much improves everything it touches.
Starting with sliders. Hutar isn’t relying upon a premium beef -- no rattling off the name of a local, family-owned, grass-fed operation -- and she doesn't grind her own tailor-made blend of cuts. “We use an ordinary ground beef, and we make it extraordinary,” she said. Her secret? That aromatic salt, of course.
Prior to creating each hand-formed patty, the salt is sprinkled into a lean ground beef, along with a little butter (to fatten up the beef's 90/10 meat/fat ratio) and fresh thyme. Why thyme? “It really plays best with a burger,” said Hutar. “And it’s an ingredient in the butcher salt, so it calls back to it.” (That happens a lot: order the truck's hash browns -- which, by the way, you should -- and you’ll encounter a quiet rosemary finish). The patties are hand-formed, pressed relatively thin and compact and fried to order on the truck’s flattop grill.
“I’m a huge fan of the flattop burger,” said Hutar. “It reminds me of growing up in my parent’s restaurant, which was near Ely. I started eating burgers there, and that’s how they made them.”
As sliders go, they’re a generous size, weighing in at 3 ounces and cooked to a no-pink, no-nonsense medium. Their diner-style attributes are more flavorful than textural; the grill draws out all kinds of sizzling, caramelized tastiness, but don’t leave a ton of juices in its wake. And yes, this is one well-seasoned patty.
Although it may appear otherwise, the minimalist add-ons manage to add a lot. Hefty strings of slow-cooked red onion, splashed with balsamic vinegar, lend plenty of sweet-tangy kick. Kudos to the thick-cut bacon, which is smoky enough to alert the senses yet doesn’t overpower every other flavor component. Even the cheese, a thin strip of Monterey Jack, doesn't call much attention to itself, allowing the beef to remain in the forefront.
The buns are definitely this burger’s crowning touch. Here’s a secret: They’re not buns, they’re dinner rolls, and fairly yeasty ones at that. “I tried so many slider buns and hamburger buns, and there was just too much to them,” Hutar said. “These hold the patty nicely, but they don’t take over the taste of the burger.” Agreed. That’s often a problem with sliders: they’re all bun, and it makes for an off-kilter burger experience. Not here. Hutar seems to have struck the just-right balance between beef and bread.
She’s not revealing the baker behind the buns – sorry, rolls – but Hutar takes them one step further with a smear of butter and a long, tasty toast on the grill.
Hutar serves her sliders two-fer style, and that’s a definite bonus: they’re highly shareable. For those who can’t face a third-pound burger, Butcher Salt splits the difference. The moral of this story? Two really is better than one. No wonder these sliders are the truck’s No. 1 seller.
Bite-size sweet: Sometimes (ok, pretty much 24/7) I crave a little dessert, especially after scarfing down a rich, salty burger. Nothing significant, just a meal-capping nibble or two, and preferably one with a similarly low profile in the cost department, you know what I mean?
Fortunately, Hutar is on it, offering, for a dollar, handmade caramels. “I have this sweet tooth, like nobody’s business,” she said. “And I love caramels.”
She taught herself to make them, a homemade repayment for sneaking the last one from her nephew’s stash while on a road trip. “They were so good that, boom, I decided that the world needed to have them,” she said with a laugh. Which is why the truck features a wildly buttery, house-made caramel (two, actually), twinkling with that herb-scented sea salt. As desserts go, it starts off chewy and then ends up melting in your mouth. Perfect, right?
The life of a food trucker: “It’s awesome, and amazing” said Hutar, who is now in her second summer as a restaurateur on wheels. “It’s a little tiring at times, when it’s midnight, and you’re doing dishes at the commissary kitchen. But I look up and smile all the time. And the guys and gals on the street are fantastic, there’s such a tight-knit world among the food trucks, it’s so welcoming. I share the commissary [Kindred Kitchen in north Minneapolis] with Hibachi Daruma, MidNord Empanada, Nate Dogs and Sandy’s, and this great friendship has arisen among us. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Off topic, yet not: A recent online poll (translation: an unscientific popularity contest) conducted by ranker.com placed the following question in front of burger lovers: How would you rank the following 46 fast-food burgers? Forty-two thousand responses later, a consensus emerged. Here are the top 10 vote-getters:
1: Double Double at In-N-Out
2: Hamburger at Five Guys
3: Bacon Cheeseburger at Five Guys
4: Original Whataburger at Whataburger
5: Whopper at Burger King
6: Baconator at Wendy’s
7: Original Fudds at Fuddruckers
8: ¼-lb. Single at Wendy’s
9: Double ‘n Cheese Steakburger at Steak ‘n Shake
10: Burger at Fatburger
Others that made it on the list were Culver’s ButterBurger (No. 11), McDonald’s Big Mac (No. 12), White Castle Sliders (No. 13), Hardee’s Original Thickburger (No. 21) and the Classic Smash at Smashburger (No. 23). Find the full results here.
Ranker also noted two burger-related factoids worth mentioning: May is National Burger Month (By presidential fiat? Popular demand? The accolade's origin is not made clear), and Americans are obviously celebrating, because burger consumption continues to grow; nine billion burgers were served in 2014.
Address book: Track Butcher Salt’s whereabouts on Twitter. Hutar also posts her weekly schedule on the home page of the truck's website. Hutar and her crew will be out in full force this weekend during Art-a-Whirl, at the Northrop King building on Friday, and at Bauhaus Brew Labs on Saturday and Sunday.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.