The Double Cheeseburger at Au Cheval: “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

Au Cheval cheeseburger

“Hi, there’s three of us. What’s the wait?”

“It’ll be three to three-and-a-half hours.”

“Three to three-and-a-half hours.”



I’d never been to Chicago, which is appalling, I realize. But as an East Coast native who has driven through Chicago no less than seven times in the twelve or so years I’ve considered Minnesota my home, Chicago appears more a shitstain on my journey than a lovely place to visit. Driving through Illinois is a mess of randomly-placed tollbooths, and the city proper is a parking lot masquerading as an interstate highway.

But as my culinary indulgences get the best of me, and with multiple trips to other cities awakening a desire to seek out not only the best the Twin Cities have to offer, but the rest of the damn world, the closest gourmand-baiting destination became increasingly appealing.

Outside of my obvious predeliction, I like eating a variety of things, and I wasn’t about to treat Chicago like the burger-slinging conveyor belt I continue to consider New York. Again: it’s my first time there, and I’d like to take a nice cross-section of what the greater Chicagoland area has to offer. Big Star for tacos, Parson’s Chicken & Fish because fried chicken, Berkshire Room for fancy cocktails, Lost Lake for tiki drinks, MingHin for Dim Sum, Fat Rice for spirit-awakening Macanese, Lem’s for barbecue, Portillo’s for hotdogs and Italian beef sandwiches, Isla Pilipina for Filipino. The Museum of Science and Industry had us running around like little kids, amongst little kids. For you “readers” out there, Myopic Books might be my favorite bookstore in the country. (And, yes, I’ve been to Powell’s. Also, I said “might be”.)

I did many things on this trip, but it all happened for a burger. One burger, in particular, is what pushed me over the edge onto the “gotta go” side of the fence. I went to Chicago to eat the Au Cheval cheeseburger.

Au Cheval opened in 2012 in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, from star restauranteur Brendan Sodikoff. The room is an extremely sexy bistro-pub overlaid on a diner, featuring an open kitchen with bar-hight (rather than diner-height) seating. They fancy themselves “diner-style with European Influences”, with eggy breakfast items available all day, a house-made bologna sandwich, fried chicken, and matzo ball soup, alongside a foie gras terrine and bone marrow. They have a full bar and their cocktail list cites the sources of their takes on classic cocktails, alongside a few originals.

But the wait. The burger’s been a hit here since they opened, but Bon Appetit really tore the lid off, and the people came flocking to the no reservation 50-seater. This is why I had to eat here, why I was willing to wait. I’ve never heard of such wait times, and damn near everyone was just there for the burger. We downloaded an app that showed 45 parties in front of us whittle down to 4 from a bar across the street before we got the call. Then we closed out our tab and ran to Au Cheval.

Au Cheval presentation

The burger comes as a single (two patties) or a double (three patties), with two slices of American cheese, diced red onions, and homemade dijonnaise on a toasted locally-made bun. And, of course, you can add bacon (I did) or get it with a fried egg (I also did). The thing’s simply beautiful. It’s everything I already love in a burger, and a few touches I don’t typically go for that worked marvelously. First and foremost, the sear is as perfect as one can achieve with a flattop (The best sears I’ve had came from a cast iron skillet, which is inefficient if everyone is ordering a burger). Au Cheval cranks their griddle up to 500 degrees, and gets an awesome near-crust while cooking to a perfect warm, moist, pink medium. The American cheese coalesced the three patties into a monolith of cheese and beef. And though I was initially dubious of the lack of a third slice of cheese, leaving it off pushed the cheese-beef ratio into an equilibrium that really makes the beef stand out among the other wonderful things going on. I was thrown off by the dijonnaise. I’ve panned burgers for their inclusion of mustard, which is too strong of a condiment in the presence of beef. But in this case, it served more to season the mayo than play a dominant role. Diced onion for a crisp, biting sweetness, and house-made pickles provided those acid high notes to really round out the experience. The bacon is amazing, thick, and black peppery; crispy outside, chewy inside. Just good-ass bacon that’s thick enough to make sure you can taste it, providing a lovely harmony to the beef’s melody.

“Au Cheval” literally translates to “on horseback” but culinarily means “with egg”. Confession time: I don’t love an egg on my burger. I’ll take one if it’s what the chef intends, but I genuinely dislike a crispy fried egg on my burger. It’s texturally incorrect and difficult to bite through so it slides around and ruins the structural integrity, making a mess of everything. And after ordering the egg, I considered hailing down our server and taking it back, but I’m glad I stuck to my rash decision, because the egg was wonderful. Not crispy. Fried, yes, runny yolk, yes, white completely set, but without an iota of crispiness, to a bewildering extent. It was a textural feat that added both yolky sauciness and a wonderful velvety white that’s exactly what I want in an egg on a burger.

Au Cheval cross section

Upon first picking up the burger, I was dismayed by the heft of the bun. I’m into squishy buns, and if your bun does anything besides flatten and hold everything together, I don’t fuck with you. But the bun from local bakery Z baking masters both tasks. Midway through, the bun was as flat as it should be, but that density I detected initially did the literal heavy lifting here, holding the entire experience together, only succumbing to my teeth. The real beauty behind this masterpiece of a burger is how perfectly it held together the whole time I was eating it. No component fell out of step, ensuring that just about every bite tasted as fucking delicious as the last. It isn’t something I’ve ever asked for, and finishing a burger with sauce and grease all over my hands and toppings on the paper-lined basket, belly full, is part of the Great American Experience. But this “clean” experience was unexpected and fantastic. From the patties themselves to the diced onion, the thing’s designed to hold form until you bite it. Don’t get me wrong: this thing’s greasy and cheesy and yolky and saucy as all hell, as my plate full of grease drippings will attest. But the structure is sound.

In the end, what matters most is whether or not the burger works, and this guy’s making overtime. Squishy bun, tasty pickles, diced onions, really good bacon…all things I love. Dijonnaise and a fried egg aren’t choices I’d make, but I’m really glad Au Cheval made them. But it’s all there to support expertly executed beef patties with American cheese. Everything is tuned and balanced to make a really damn tasty burger.

As I’ll explain time and time again, there’s no such thing as a perfect burger. But in my journey to eat all the fucking burgers, I’ve rarely come across one that comes so close. Shake shack, in its mass-produced masterpieces, Revival in its refined craft, Brindle Room, Haute dish, Parlour, Saint Dinette…all places I turn to for their absolute understanding of what a burger can and should be, in their own interpretation of my most preferred food item. Au Cheval has skillfully earned their place on this list.

The Camel Burger at Safari Express: “My Hump My Hump My Hump”


Safari Express Camel Burger Assembled

The Midtown Global Market is one of Minneapolis’ Seven Wonders (I just made that up, so don’t ask me what the other six are). It’s an open air market placed inside of the Midtown Exchange building, a mixed commercial space in a former Sears warehouse and retail shop. The Market is houses a ton of craft and clothing stands, a grocer, pallindromic Tex-Mex cyclepunks Tacocat, the Eastlake Brewery, James Beard-nominated bakery Salty Tart, Korean gastropub the Rabbit Hole, and too-many-to-roll-call eclectic ethnic food stalls doing quality, focused street food.

Holding down East African cuisine is Safari Express. Owned and run by Jamal Hashi as a spinoff of his brother Sade Hashi’s Safari Restaurant down Lake Street. Safari Express slings buffet style rice-and-protein meals featuring East African spiced chicken and beef, sambusas, sandwiches, and wraps. The dish they’ve come to be known for is the Camel Burger.

Safari Express Camel BurgerIt’s a patty of actual camel meat, a slice of griddled pineapple, onions and peppers, white American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and seasoned mayo on a bun from the nearby Salty Tart. Camel is a lean meat, akin taste-wise to bison. They season it well with the distinct East African berbere spice blend. It was griddled unevenly, with a really solid, but not quite crispy sear on one side and not so much on the other. It was noticeably tough, leading me to believe they left it on one side for too long, flipped it for a moment and took it off the heat after it had been too far gone. The grilled peppers on top were unevenly cut, leaving textural and structural inconsistencies. But despite its flaws, it come together really nicely. American cheese — as we all know by now — is the best textural pairing for a beef patty. Their mayo sauce provided a Safari Express Camel Burger cross sectiongood lubricant and heightened the berbere-ness. Despite the rough chop, the grilled onions and peppers added a softened sweet to the experience, and the griddled pineapple was a real treat with a bold sweetness that didn’t overwhelm. Tomatoes and lettuce gave a balance of freshness. And Salty Tart really nailed the squishy white bun, toasted on both the inside and on the top for an extra layer of crispiness. I wasn’t even mad about the tough patty because there was just so much else going on, and it wasn’t so tough that it got in the way.  In the end, camel isn’t a really crazy out there flavor, though it is an exotic oddity, but the burger stands on its own as a real delight.

Safari Express SambusaSo I liked it! But I really want to go back and try some of their other stuff. I also got a sambusa on the side — a fried flaky-crusted pie stuffed with seasoned beef. The stuffing was less saucy than I’m accustomed to, in a way I really appreciated insofar as mess mitigation, and it came with a surprisingly quite spicy sauce. I’m always down to try new East African spots, and they don’t need a bizarre burger to attract my attention, but it helps, because this is a burger blog.

The Whopperito at Burger King: “Que Onda Guero?”

BK Whopperito/Whopper

I’m trying to take this seriously, but this entry pretty much writes itself.

When I was in college, my friends and I would look at the website This is Why You’re Fat, which post pictures of all things bacon-wrapped and cheese-stuffed; excessively decadent food monstrosities that people would make and submit pictures. While being interviewed on the podcast Lea and the Internet, I recalled the website and we noted that most of its current posts are no longer homemade concoctions, but readily available for purchase, which demonstrates a general shift in our culture toward over-the-top Instagrammable food excesses.

Burger King has been embracing this food trend, producing the Mac ‘n Cheetos, the Cheetos Chicken Fries they introduced just this week, and the Whopperito: a hybrid between their Whopper cheeseburger and a burrito. As an established fan of the Whopper, I optimistically anticipated the Whopperito to simply be a Whopper in a tortilla.

Which would have been good. If that’s what they’d done.

BK Whopperito

Who taught them how to wrap burritos?

I want to tell you it was simply disgusting, but it mostly just doesn’t work. To their credit, there’s plenty of beef in it, but it’s beef that’s been ruined. They start with their chargrilled burger patties, which is a very good place to start, because they’re central to the BK taste. They hack ’em into chunks and then immediately take a nosedive by adding some kind of Tex-Mex sauce. It makes it taste like Wendy’s chili — which I should note I also really like — but WHY DID THEY DO THAT? They cover up most of that Flame Grilled™ flavor. Is the Whopper not good enough? They have a good thing going here, and they’re using the Whopper name in vain because they clearly don’t have faith in their own top-selling product. BK Whopperito cross sectionThey wrap it up — poorly — in a tortilla with sliced tomatoes, diced onions, pickles, and iceberg lettuce. It’s all clearly pulled directly from the same bins they use to make burgers so they wouldn’t need, like, twenty ingredients on the line for one stupid hype beast, but they all just taste fucking bizarre, texturally. Diced tomatoes in a burrito, people. Standard burger pickles are out of place in this Tex-Mex wasteland. Jalapeños are an obvious choice in the bastardization they’ve created, but I’d probably be bitching about them, too, in this heathenistic abomination. And then there’s some kind of queso sauce that tastes more of the plasticine movie theater nacho cheese than the American cheese that’s a burger’s best friend, just in case you thought all processed cheeses were created equal. And it was painfully missing the mayo and ketchup that round out the Whopper flavor. But I guess that’s what the Tex-Mex sauce and plastic cheese are there for: to make you wish there was mayo and ketchup on it. And American cheese. And a bun. And it was an actual Whopper.

In the end, it’s much more a product of our culture than a strong attempt at making a tasty burrito. They either should have directly translated the Whopper to a burrito, literally swapping out the bun for a tortilla, or gone all the way making a Tex-Mex burger-burrito, with sour cream, jalapeños, and all the Tex-Mex sauce and queso their little hearts desire. They appear to have been going for the easiest way to execute a zany food item without interrupting their usual operation. At $2.99, I’d rather pay $4.99 for the Whopper with cheese that I also ate for unneeded comparison, and to wash the taste out of my mouth as the King intended.

The Double Hi-Lo Burger: “To the Windows, to the Walls”

Hi-Lo Plated

We didn’t have to wait too long for a table for the eight of us, but it could have been a lot worse. They were clearly coming down from an insane Labor Day rush, and when our party-last-night revelers rolled in at 1:30pm there was no one loitering outside the Hi-Lo Diner, as is a typical sight for a Sunday brunch service. Smaller parties came and went within minutes while we waited for a patio table large enough to fit all of us–their inside booths would fit a snug six, max. After thirty minutes hungrily half-seriously making alternate brunch plans we were sitting around a picnic table, poring over their very sexy drink menu.

Hi-Lo is a collaboration between the proprietors of local home design goods gurus, Forage Modern Workshop across the street and the blucy maestros at Blue Door Pub whose Longfellow location is a few blocks away. So it looks incredible and runs like a tight ship. The dining room is an actual prefabricated diner from 1957 they found and shipped to Minneapolis to install on the front of an old Taco Bell. They moved the cooking space behind the scenes while the tradition open kitchen (from before that was a thing) was transformed into a full bar with cocktails designed by top-notch barman & Tattersall mastermind Dan Oskey. Helming the kitchen is Heidi Marsh, formerly of the Chillkoot Cafe in Stillwater, MN and the Aster Cafe.

The drinks are playful, both in name and flavor. The Fjord Fiesta is an unexpected harmony of clashing flavors, featuring Tattersall Aquavit, Cocchi Americano, Blue Curacao, served Tiki-style over crushed ice. The Oaxacan in Memphis is a deep, smoky Tennessee Whiskey-Mezcal cocktail with a nose of herbs from a thyme tincture and a rosemary sprig garnish. The drink menu features an entire section of ice cream drinks, made with Sebastian Joe’s vanilla. I tried the Periscope Down, which blends Fernet Branca, root beer, and cold press with ice cream, and it was a smooth, tasty, spiced-not-spicy mishmash of some of my favorite flavors. The cocktail list is reason enough to make a return visit, but so is the food.

Hi-Lo Gary Cooper'd

The Gary Cooper’d Hi-Top, and the Periscope Down Ice Cream Cocktail

They’re making really great scratch diner fare, with an extensive breakfast selection, classic entrees, sandwiches and Hi-Lo’s original concept signature item, the Hi-Top. It’s kind of like a doughnut, but not really. There’s no hole, it’s not as sweet, and a bit more dense than–well–than the kind of doughnuts I like. They’re fried to order then topped with a variety of things like short ribs and apple bacon slaw, pulled pork and black bean sweet corn salsa, or a duck confit benedict-style arrangement. I got the Gary Cooper’d: fried chicken strips and country gravy with maple-bourbon syrup, and it balances the sweet, the savory, the crispy, the creamy, and tops them with arugula microgreens for a pop of freshness. It’s a fantastic dish, and the Hi-Tops alone are reason to come back. But also: the burger.

Hi-Lo Cross SectionI’ve been getting tired of the smashed patty with American cheese schtick. It’s great, but everybody’s doing it, and lately I’ve been more drawn to pub-style thick-ass patties cooked medium rare. When I heard Hi-Lo was taking the smash route, I rolled my eyes. To their credit, given their concept, they pretty much had to, but it was right when I was getting sick of ’em. So it took me kind of a while to make it to Hi-Lo to check on their offering, and damned if I didn’t instantly fall back off the anti-smash wagon. Their secret sauce is standard fare secret sauce, which is great–I love it. Their “Hi-Lo pickles” are not-sickly-sweet bread-and-butter -like pickled cucumbers. The beef had something else to it I couldn’t place. It was seasoned with something fragrant I really liked, but will most likely keep me guessing on future visits, but otherwise it’s a truly fantastically balanced beef flavor. But the saltiness was perfect, and the sear was a textbook-perfect smash, with just a hint of pink in the center. Gobs of American cheese were fantastically creamy. The bread–from Turtle Bread Co.–is pretty much what I look for in a burger bun: squishy but holds up. Overall, it’s a well-balanced beef-forward burger. You can get it in a single or a double, and I’d highly recommend the double, as it really highlights the beefiness–I had the single on a previous visit and while it was good, there’s something about doubling the surface area that amplifies the flavor.

The Hi-Lo Diner has infiltrated my list of places-I-like-a-lot-but-don’t-live-close-enough-to-be-a-regular-at-but-will-make-an-effort-to-visit-on-occasion-that-are-reasonably-priced. They get bonus points for being open late enough for me to eat after work, for consolidating diner food and cocktails, and for Hi-Tops, which are inspired and delicious. And, dammit, I really like that burger.


The Cubana “Frita” Burger at Victor’s 1959 Cafe: “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx”

Victor's Fritas BurgerVictor’s is my favorite brunch spot in town. Hands down. It’s my go-to place to bring out-of-towners, my go-to for a simple satisfying weekday solo brunch, and my occasional weekend worth-the-wait hangover brunch. I can’t get around how much I love going to Victor’s for brunch, and I love going out for brunch.

But I just love it so damn much it’s the only thing I’ve gotten there. I haven’t even had their Cuban sandwich! I don’t even know if I’d properly looked at the rest of the menu, until this exchange on twitter:

So, basically, I have to now, right? Struggle is real, folks.

A quick bit of research tells me a “Frita Cubana” is a burger with origins in Cuba popular in southern Florida, consisting of a beef and pork patty topped with shoestring potatoes. Victor’s variation omits the taters and adds chorizo to the meat blend, served on a potato roll.

Victor's cross section

Due to the pork and chorizo, the patty’s safely cooked throughout, but to the peak of doneness where it’s wonderfully tender and juicy with an awesome sear. The chorizo really shines, wonderfully spiced, full of flavor, but not at all spicy. I’m always wary of greens that aren’t iceberg lettuce, but the mesclun Victor’s uses wilts just slightly in contact with the warm patty, and paired with the grilled onion and tomato, gives it a touch of familiarity amid the wild-child patty. The potato bun–the first, I should note, that I’ve encountered in Minnesota since discovering the sheer ubiquity of the Martin’s Potato Roll in NYC–has that essential squish, hardly any flavor, and gracefully performs its #1 job of carrying the burger. I wasn’t sure if the ramekin of the house creole sauce was meant for the burger or the accompanying black beans and rice. It certainly didn’t need sauce–the patty did a fantastic job being the primary flavor component–but adding a dollop on the burger gave it an extra zip, a slight acid, a hint more moisture, and really brought this burger home for me.

One of my goals with Burger Fetish is to get out there and try new places, but sometimes new “places” are entire sections of the menu I haven’t explored yet at some of my absolute favorites. I’ve been loving Victor’s for all 10 years I’ve been living in Minneapolis, and I’m totally kicking myself right now for not enjoying all of Victor’s. After the burger, sitting at the bar sipping coffee, feeling not full but totally satisfied, I watched the servers who seemed to genuinely love their job flutter about bopping to lively Latin tunes, and thought to myself, “I’m really happy. I need to come here more often.”

The Surly Burger: “You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry.”


In the Spring of 2006, and I’d recently moved to Minneapolis. I went to visit a friend working at the old Acadia on Nicollet and Franklin (now Reverie; the Acadia lives on at Cedar & Riverside). She asked if I wanted to try a new beer. It was intense, and delicious, and I’d never had anything like it before. I asked her what it was called.

Surly Furious.”

I was hooked, and I wasn’t the only one. They weren’t the first microbrew in Minnesota, but they soon became the biggest, or at very least the biggest game-changer on the scene. They focus on trusting their gut, doing things their own way, making beer they like, because it turns out a lot of other people really like their beer, too. Then they literally changed the game in 2011 when they wanted to build a taproom in Minneapolis, but Minnesota law prohibited on-site pint sales at breweries, so they had the law repealed via what came to be known as the “Surly bill,” and set out to build the brewery of their dreams. In the meantime, the greater Twin Cities swelled with a still-growing number of breweries that we continue to welcome with open arms. Finally, Surly opened their destination brewery in December 2014, looked at the breweries opened in the wake of the bill bearing their name, and said, “Oh, you opened a taproom? That’s cute.”

You roll up and your jaw drops. It’s massive. There’s a 300-seat beer hall, a 100-seat full-service restaurant, an event space, a beer garden, and the guts of their gorgeous custom-made brewing facility on display. All the food falls under the watchful, creative eye of Executive Chef Jorge Guzman, and is designed to go with Surly beer. The upstairs restaurant, the Brewer’s Table, serves chef-driven cuisine, and I’m gonna make it there eventually, but I’m a street food dude, and the beer hall’s grub makes my damn mouth water just thinking about it. It blurs the line between bar food (pretzels! poutine!) and the party side of fine dining (charcuterie! bone marrow!), for what ends up a lot closer to gastropub fare. Lots of careful detail, technique, flavor profiles, but still that sexy, nasty foodporn that makes me really really really happy.

I was there for the burger, obviously, but their smoked brisket is the stuff of legend. It was so tender, it only held together by some misunderstood natural phenomenon. But, delicate, smoky, but unavoidably beefy. We got it with sides of their Thai-influenced brussels sprouts and salsa verde-drenched confit potatoes–both excellent.

But, let’s see that burger, huh?

Surly Burger cross section

They cut it in half for us, so I’ve got a nice, clean cross-section here for you, which shows off some of those chef’d up details Chef Guzman would totally bring to a burger. You’ve got the iceberg lettuce and onion on the bottom, which is where they belong! Iceberg is one of the only greens that’ll hold up to burger grease without wilting to garbage, and as I learned at Roberta’s in Brooklyn, putting onion right under the grill-fresh patty heats it up just enough to take some of the edge off and draw out some sweetness but still deliver that oniony bite.  Speaking of the patty, there’s two of them, and they’re thin, making them mostly surface area that’s expertly seared and very well-seasoned. They’re cooked through but not overcooked. The cheese is quintessentially American, and the bun is squishy as all hell. It’s slathered in what they call “fancy sauce”, which tasted like a fairly standard special sauce: ketchup, mayo, and some other stuff. It was zippy, creamy, but extremely present and not overwhelming, which I appreciate. No pickles in sight, but the tangy sauce provides necessary balance. On the whole, this is a really good burger, but I can’t recommend it.

I know! It feels inappropriate, but if you get the burger, you’re doing it wrong. I obviously love burgers, right? But this is a beer hall at a destination brewery, not your local bar. When you go–and you should–bring a bunch of friends, get the brisket, the charcuterie, some mussels, the hog frites–fries covered in cheese, giardinera and pulled pork (I’ve gotten them before and they’re fucking heavenly)–and a bunch of beer and hang out. Revel in the food, the drink, and the company. Burgers are one, maybe two-person food. You split it in four and it’s unsatisfying, eat it alone you remove yourself from the group. If you’re going on a date, go to Brewer’s Table, but the beer hall is best served with a bunch of people, and burgers just feel wrong to me in this setting. No matter how good they are.*

*Far be it from me to tell anyone exactly what eating style to employ to maximize fun units, even though I totally just told you what eating style to employ at Surly. I don’t know what you’re doing there. Obviously, do what feels right. If you want a burger, eat a damn burger. I’m a blogger. What the hell do I know?