The Thai Superstar at Blackbird: Thai one on

Blackbird Thai Superstar

Being sick is the fucking worst.

My nose is stuffed up, my throat is sore, and I have a headache. I have a routine that involves zinc and pho and constant hydration and peeing all the time, followed by giving up and eating whatever I want because I can only care about my health for so long before the siren song of the burger is too alluring to resist.

Mmmmmmmmm.

In 2007, husband-wife team Chris Stevens and Gail Mollner opened the upscale casual Blackbird Cafe in the Southwest Minneapolis’ Lynnhurst neighborhood, only to lose it to a fire in February 2010. It only seemed a minor setback, though, as they were able to quickly reopen in November of the same year at 38th & Nicollet, and have been going strong since. They have a widely diverse menu with small plates, sandwiches, entrees, and snacks with modern American, Italian, and Asian influences throughout their scratch house-made comfort food. The dining room has just as varied of decor as the menu, with a hodgepodge of thrift store finds, a collection of antlers, and a spinning disco ball. It was one of the first chef-driven restaurants to open on South Nicollet, paving the way for places like last week’s Nighthawks and longtime favorite, Revival.

Blackbird postcardBut they seemed to have mysteriously omitted a burger from their menu, so they were off my radar until I caught word that they correct this egregious error on Tuesdays, serving fancy chef’d up burgers once a week. I hollered at Teresa and she picked my sick ass up.

If I hadn’t been sick, I’d take full advantage of their ridiculously-priced $12 pitchers of one of my favorite local everyday go-to brews, Surly Hell, as part of their Tuesday night Burgers & Beer special, but I had to refrain in the interest of I hate being sick.

They had three options: the Brian Wilson–avocado, grilled pickled red onion, romaine & special sauce, the Thai Superstar–braised oyster mushrooms, grilled tomato nam prik & Kewpie mayo, and the Pineapple Express–grilled tomatillo salsa, pineapple, cilantro, cucumber, jalapeño & smoked paprika aioli. Teresa failed to disclose that she’d already eaten dinner and only wanted dessert, but I convinced her to split an order of their chicken lemongrass potstickers in a ginger garlic broth. The broth alone was incredibly salty but balanced the succulent dumplings supremely, giving a full-bodied flavor that coated my mouth in a stocky richness. But it meant I only got to try one of the burgers. But I now pretty much have to go back for more. Which is a total win-win because it was delicious.

The Thai Superstar had me at “Kewpie mayo”. Or “Oyster Mushrooms”. Or “Roasted Tomato”. Ah, hell, it was the entire stack of Umami-laden toppings. Braising the mushrooms removes the chewiness you get from the usual cooking methods, creating tenderness that didn’t dominate the texture, and brings out a fantastic subdued earthy flavor. Nam prik is Thai for “hot sauce” in the same sense that any “hot sauce” isn’t easily defined, but in Blackbird’s iteration it’s a Thai-inflected pico de gallo with–I’m mostly guessing, here–roasted tomato, cilantro, lime, chilis and fish sauce. It fills a lot of roles in this burger: acid, mostly, but the cilantro pops freshness, and I wouldn’t call it spicy, but it spikes a mild heat every so often that doesn’t linger. It’s fucking delicious and I’d try it on anything. There isn’t a better mayo than Kewpie. It does the heavy lifting of American mayo–that whipped fatty creaminess–but it’s smoother and less eggy, and it’s got MSG! Blackbird really slathers it on, and it balances and completes this burger. The toasted house-made bun is squishy and buttery and crisp around the edges. Damn near everything I’m looking for in a bun.

Blackbird Thai Superstar - InteriorLest we forget the patty, which was a perfectly pink medium rare, but rather lacking in sear. Most places that aren’t necessarily burger-centric but put a lot of craft into their burgers have a flat-top griddle cranked the fuck up to sear the shit out of their beef on contact, and Blackbird isn’t one of those places. I’m not mad about it! Sure, I love a sear, but the patty was certainly well-cooked, well-seasoned, and a tasty burger that stands on its own. It’s complete and well-thought-out. There’s unique masterly-executed flavors here. And no cheese! I think it’s the first Burger Fetish entry with no cheese. And I’m still not mad about it!

And this is what Burger Fetish is all about. If I were eating similar permutations of the same damn burger over and over, we’d all be getting bored. Great burgers don’t need to adhere to some mythological standard. They just have to be great.

All three burgers are $10 each and come as-is. They seem to rotate the variations periodically without warning, but I doubt they’d sell a burger that didn’t meet their quality standards or match their unique compositions.

It didn’t cure my cold, though.

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Double Cheeseburger at Nighthawks: “You Look Smashing, Darling.”

Nighthawks CheeseburgerAfter a long-ass day cooking for other people, the last thing I want to do is cook for myself. A solid half of my shifts I don’t end up eating because I’m tired, I don’t want to cook anymore, and slapping together a crappy meal for myself feels like a waste of time when I mostly want to get the fuck out of there. But late night dining options in Minneapolis are often lacking. Yeah, there’s diners, taquerias, pizza shops, and typical bar food for post-10pm noshing, and I’m definitely not knocking the stupid-tasty late-night options, but sometimes more than a midnight sandwich, I want a damn good meal.

And sometimes you get the best of both worlds, and sometimes that’s a burger.

I got off work around 10 on Friday and headed straight to Madeleine’s for a beer before biking to Minneapolis’ poppingest restaurant corridor, South Nicollet. Home to Blackbird, Kyatchi, Hola Arepa, Ramen Kazama–its newest entry, and of course, Revival, Nicollet Avenue is leading the wave of chef-driven comfort food.

Chef-owner Landon Schoenefeld loves fucking with the traditional, cheffing things up at Haute Dish by twisting cuisine into chimeric concoctions that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, like his take Tater Tot Hot Dish and General Tso Sweetbreads. He’s actually behind a bunch of burgers around town from stints at many, many restaurants over the years. I’ve already covered the Haute Dish burger, his outstanding take on a California style. At Nighthawks, opened spring of this year, Schoenefeld takes an approach perpendicular to that of Haute Dish, using advanced technique and months of research to craft excellent consistent versions of standard diner fare.

Madeleine got a single patty and I got a double ($10 and $15, respectively). It comes with potato salad or coleslaw, or you can upgrade to french fries for $2…which I did!

At my request, we got seats at the kitchen bar, overlooking their diner-style open kitchen because even after a long day of it, I still love cooking so much I have to watch other people do it, and I really wanted to see the magic technique behind this burger. Conventional wisdom dictates that smashing a patty is strictly verboten because it squeezes the fat out, losing that all-important juiciness. But smashing a patty maximizes contact with a griddle to attain an excellent fucking sear. BUT at Nighthawks, we watched the cook masterfully smash the patty within seconds of contact with the griddle, guaranteeing an imperial sear without moisture loss because the fat hasn’t had a chance to melt yet. After a couple of minutes, she flipped the patty, but absolutely did not smash again because at that point the now-liquid fat would squeeze out. I’ve heard about this method, but it was a pleasure to observe.

I don’t know if I enjoy actual burger geekery itself as much as I enjoy geeking out over burgers. And I don’t actually know if there’s a difference.

The patty didn’t have as ungodly of a sear as its older brother at Haute Dish, but it was as supremely seared as you get by conventional methods. It was well-seasoned, damn near verging on being oversalted, with a very strong black pepper flavor. Smashed burgers naturally end up on the more done side of medium-well, but what was missing in pink juiciness was more than made up for in retained fat and a fucked up amount of cheese. American cheese enveloped each patty in goopiness that rolled off onto the griddle for a touch of literal grilled cheesiness around the edges. Topped with freshly grilled red onions, giving it a sweet just-fried-enough outside with a still-firm crispy center. Pickles–acid, tasty, wonderful, and thankfully not too sweet paired with the onions. I’m never going to stop talking about how fantastic pickles are, and they make–and their absence breaks–a damn good burger. And a very tasty burger sauce, featuring all of the standard burger toppings blendered along with–according to my sources–a bit of bun and patty. It’s saucy, tangy, and what else would you want on a burger but more burger? The bun was a perfect squishy and it went by mostly unnoticed, just how I like.

You know when there’s, like, two overcooked fries in your McDonald’s fry sleeve, and they’re crispier and browner and have a deeper flavor? Nighthawks managed to capture that fry and figured out how to make a full order of them. They’re glorious and well-seasoned, and oh so crispy.

Double-patty American Cheese burgers are a hot trend, with David Chang claiming it’s the only way to do it, there’s enough of them in the Twin Cities to do a burger crawl (and they missed a few), and it’s reached the point where places are actually trying not to make them. It makes a great burger without too much fuss, though getting fussy with ’em pays off, like at Nighthawks. I’ll admit that overanalyzing burgers as I do leaves me wanting more variety and I seek out burgers that don’t just pile on the American, but it’s a treat to go back and eat damn good straight-up cheeseburger that’s trying really hard to be a damn good straight-up cheeseburger.

The Cheeseburger at Tongue In Cheek: “Movin’ On Up to the East Side”

Tongue in Cheek CheeseburgerWhen an affluent turn-of-the-century — a term that’s bothered me since we turned yet another one — neighborhood loses the industry that built it, it has a tendency to go downhill rather quickly. The Twin Cities have an absolute grip of areas that tanked in the 1970’s, due in part to interstate construction, factory closings, and disgustingly erroneous placement of Kmarts. Both cities are working to turn empty storefronts into businesses, and get white people hard-working higher-income earners moved back in. You might call it gentrification, but in my opinion, it’s an overall positive to attempt to build communities where higher- and lower-income earners live alongside each other, serving one another’s needs. It’s a utopian pipe dream, but anything’s better than letting neighborhoods go to shit, tearing them down and building condos.

The Payne Phalen neighborhood in St. Paul’s east side is undergoing such a revitalization, starting in recent years with the opening of a handful of upscale chef-driven casual restaurants like Ward 6, Cook St. Paul, and today’s burger provider in question, Tongue In Cheek. They’re comfy neighborhood joints that are attracting attention from all over the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro thanks to the quality of cuisine everyone’s come to expect from any contributor to our local food scene.

Tongue in Cheek opened in 2014 with not just a focus, but a commitment to only using animals raised in humane, sustainable ways. Chef Leonard Anderson worked for several years at fine dining restaurant Aquavit in Minneapolis under James Beard award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson before it closed. He moved on to W.A. Frost for a few years where he met General Manager Ryan Huseby, and together they opened Tongue In Cheek, along with Chef Anderson’s wife, Ashleigh Newman.

They close at 10, and I met up with Madeleine and her crew around 9 o’clock, but everyone didn’t make it until 9:30, making us “that guy”. Working as a cook, you naturally hate “that guy”; he’s the reason you aren’t leaving early. But after many years of hating “that guy,” you give up. Your shop’s got posted hours and you can’t be mad that people want your damn food so damn much that they rush over to get in before you close. I stopped worrying about being “that guy” a while ago when I stopped hating “that guy”.

We split some appetizers and got a burger. I was a bit thrown off by the cherry tomatoes and burrata. I expected a big lump of mozzarella wrapped around creamier mozzarella, but they left out the outer shell in favor of a creamy ass mozz spread. Regardless it was a damn tasty twist on a caprese. The pork rillettes was also creamy, but made of pork, which is one of the greatest concepts in the history of food. You basically confit pork until it’s the most tender pork can possibly be, then you chop it all up — fat included — into a paste and then serve it on toast and allow the foodgasm to unfold naturally. This version included a solid amount of latin flavors for a tex-mex take on the traditional spread. Unfortunately, both of these apps have since departed from their seasonal menu, but they indicate fantastic things for the menu at large.

In any case, Burger Fetish is about burgers, and Tongue In Cheek has a good one, which I knew before I had my first bite. There were only a handful of guests at that late hour, but all of them appeared to be there for the same thing, as we watched trays of burgers arrive at each table while we waited for our dining companions, increasing anticipation, and we weren’t disappointed. The patty was cooked medium to order, and tasted a bit dry. If you’re a longtime reader, you may recall my entry from last week describing the values and drawbacks of grilled burgers, and moisture loss is an unfortunate side-effect that was apparent here, though the grill provided a great flavor, and the patty was well-seasoned. A simple lettuce was placed in the proper location between the bottom bun and the patty, but a heartier green wouldn’t have wilted. A young cheddar didn’t kill the beef flavor with too much sharpness. Aioli worked spectacularly as a simple fatty sauce with just enough garlic, keeping things just smooth enough, and the bun well-moistened. Speaking of the bun, it was grilled, giving a distinct toastiness you can only get on a grill, though it was just a bit too bready. The real clincher was some quick-pickled cucumbers for a spectacular acid crisp. Sure, parts of it weren’t perfect but it came together nicely, with elements balancing each other well, uniting like Voltron to make a very tasty burger.

It’s $12 and comes with fries, and you can get it with a fried egg for $14 (total. The egg does not cost $14). Fries were tasty, a battery crunchiness, soft inside, tossed in herbs and salt. They accompanied the burger well.

It was a good night out. The space is very chill, and our crew had a nice time. Payne Phalen is well on the way to being one of the Cities’ top eating destinations, and Tongue In Cheek is a huge part of that. Driving through the neighborhood, it looks like there’s a lot of work to be done, but it feels more like opportunity than despair. I can’t wait to eat all the burgers that are sure to come from that part of town. And, I guess, other food they might make there. I don’t know.