The burger: Leave it to the quintessential neighborhood restaurant that is the Highland Grill to feature a quintessential burger.
“We sell a lot of them,” said Francis Gonzalez, culinary director for the restaurant’s parent company, the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. It’s easy to see why: Burger-wise, Gonzalez makes all the right moves.
Starting with selecting a premium grass-fed beef, from an Olivia, Minn., farm. Each thick patty is seven hefty ounces of lean, flavorful ground chuck, seasoned with just salt and pepper (the meat requires nothing else) and seared on a flattop grill until it hits that sweet spot between lightly charred exterior and noticeably juicy interior.
From there, Gonzalez keeps things simple, with just a handful of basic (in a good way) flourishes: a few lettuce leaves (tucked below the patty, to keep the bun from absorbing too many juices and growing soggy), a so-so tomato slice, excellent pickles and a first-rate slab of salty Cheddar. Juicing things up is an obligatory “secret sauce,” a not-so-disguised tartar sauce that includes ketchup, onions and chile sauce. Nice.
The bun? Another wise choice, a buttery, brioche-style beauty from Franklin Street Bakery. The bread-beef ratio is pretty close to ideal (see 7 oz. weight, above) and a quick toast leads to a perfect finish.
Look for the HG3 Burger headlining the menu’s “Handhelds” section. I’ll admit that I started by following orders and picking it up, but with this monster of a burger it’s almost easier to grab a knife and fork. And then scarf down every bite.
Fries: Included. Skin-on and fried to a deep golden, they’re wonderfully salty, if a little greasy. Me? I prefer the kitchen’s crunchy, lively coleslaw.
Going turkey: The Highland’s excellent turkey burger ($11.95) remains unchanged. “That’s David’s recipe,” said Gonzalez, referring to co-owner David Burley. “It has been with the company for 22 years.” With good reason. Most turkey burgers are as dull as a Board of Estimate and Taxation monthly meeting. Not this one, with its personality-plus curry-esque flavor profile, not to mention the poblano aioli and feisty pepper jack cheese.
New look: The restaurant has recently undergone a handsome renovation, a warm and inviting remake supervised by Locus Architecture and designer Cynthia O’Connor. I’m old enough to remember when the Highland appeared, seemingly overnight, within the very nearly unchanged frame of a former Haagen-Dazs scoop shop. Who could forget those garnet (or was it sangria? Currant? Carmine? Burgundy?) tiles, the ones that seemingly lined every flat surface of the joint? I bet Burley and co-owner Stephanie Shimp wish they could. It was their first Twin Cities restaurant (they now have eight), and I have always admired the plucky determination that it took to launch an ambitious breakfast-lunch-dinner restaurant inside a cramped ice cream outlet. That it has remained a neighborhood anchor, 22 years later, is even more admirable.
Address book: 771 Cleveland Av. S., St. Paul, 651-690-1173. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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