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.”

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

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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?

 

The Cheeseburger at Scena Tavern: “Return of the Mac”

 

Scena, three burgers, by Kyle

Photo by Kyle Coughlin, but that’s me with my phone back there!

Minnesotans reach a point every winter where we must ask ourselves, “why do we live here?” This past Sunday, it was 26 below zero including windchill, and as Netflix beckoned us to our couches, we with our lofty goals ventured into the near-tundra to the heart of Uptown to get the cheeseburger at our town’s latest modern Italian crudo and noodle spot, Scena Tavern.

Paul Dzunbar may be the Twin Cities’ biggest restaurant mogul. Besides his role as CEO of locally-based and originated Green Mill chain, Dzunbar owns the various Crooked Pints, the Town Hall group, and a handful of other standalone spots, while currently developing a few more places around town. Dude’s busy. But, while he seems to have mastered the lucrative pub game, Scena is his go-big-or-go-back-to-pubs attempt at more upscale fare, and he’s recruited an all-star team to help launch.

Behind the drink list (and frequently the bar) is the team from Bittercube, the Milwaukee-based masters of all things cocktail who consult internationally developing bar programs, though they’re probably best known for their delicious hand-crafted line of bitters. Wine guru Bill Summerville, former general manager and master sommelier at both La Belle Vie and Spoon and Stable, assembled the wine list. And consulting on the menu are unmatched local chef duo Erik Anderson and Jamie Malone.

The chefs’ collective resumé is a local where’s-where of top notch restaurants. La Belle Vie, Porter & Frye, Sea Change, Auriga; this pair’s been kicking culinary ass for years. Anderson left town a few years ago to run the Catbird Seat in Nashville, and earned him and partner Josh Habiger Food & Wine’s Best New Chef Award in 2012. Malone would win the following year helming Sea Change. Anderson returned to Minneapolis two years ago to partner up with Malone to open the upcoming Brut in the North Loop, and in the meantime have been hosting pop-ups, traveling, and helping Executive Chef Marc Paavola develop the menu at Scena.

On top of it all, Anderson’s a fellow cheeseburger fanatic, and I had to see what a chef of his caliber would do with a patty and a bun.

At 3pm on a Sunday, Scena was vacant, having completed brunch service and gearing up for dinner. But it was also happy hour, the only time the cheeseburger appears on the menu outside of weekend brunch, but my sources tell me it’s always available to order. As a big fan of drinks Bittercube did at Eat Street Social, I was excited to sample their latest concoctions and ordered a non-happy-hour Scena Sling, an aquavit-lemon-sweet vermouth cocktail because I adore aquavit, but not surprisingly found it more citrus and sweet than I prefer in a cocktail, though the aquavit had a great presence and the drink was overall complementary to itself. It was good, but not my bag.

I don’t need to say I ordered the burger anymore, do I? This is Burger Fetish. But am I skipping an important plot point if I omit it from now on? Like, “how did Matty get this burger? Did it appear as if out of nowhere? Did they see him coming and start making his burger upon arrival? I don’t understand!” We’re all here for the same reason. Let’s agree that I ordered the burger and move on.

Scena Tavern cheeseburgerThe cheeseburger came out and on appearance immediately gave away its inspiration: the Big Mac. All together now: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. Props on the iceberg lettuce. It holds up well to the heat of the patty and gives a great crunch. The onions were raw and diced perfectly. They use a note-perfect replica of McD’s Special Sauce, and I greatly appreciated just how much was on this monster: a swipe on all four cut surfaces of bun. My biggest gripe about the fairly standard use of most “special sauce” is that you can barely taste it. Here, you couldn’t miss it, but it definitely did not overwhelm. The beef was a definite dominant flavor with the gobs of cheese singing harmonies right on the patty’s heels. The glorious sear screams smashed patty, but unfortunately so did the overdoneness. It was too tough, and lacked moisture. I can’t help but think this was an intentional side-effect of the smash technique, but smashing to get that sear doesn’t necessarily mean losing moisture if properly executed. Scena cross sectionThe beef’s well-seasoned and the flavor is definitely good, but there was too much chew. I admire the effort of a house-made bun, but always find myself disappointed. No restaurant can make a squishy enough bun, and if you’re trying to recreate a classic, you need a squishy bun, and this was simply too much bread. Three quarters of the way through, the bread should be reduced to a near-tortilla, but it remained intact and bready as fuck. Flavor-wise, the burger’s an on-point facsimile, but texturally, it misses the mark. Between the overwhelming bun and the too-tough patty, I’m not a fan of this burger.

This is, of course, an Italian-inspired modern place with an emphasis on crudo and steak and pasta, and the rest of the menu that I completely ignored sounds real tasty.

The crew agreed the obvious next stop was to the McDonald’s across the street for Big Macs, and that’s where we went. But I did not end up getting a Big Mac.

TO BE CONTINUED, sort of. This entry’s about the Scena cheeseburger, and the next one’s about McDonald’s, and they stand on their own, but they’re connected, but only kind of. I’m probably overthinking this.

 

Welcome to the Burgerdome!

Burgers are pretty much the best food.

I hate thinking that way. I don’t want there to be a “best food,” I don’t want a “favorite food,” I want any art, any trade, any passion to be a thing that grows and changes, and develops, and tries harder and harder to be better than itself. I love being blown away by a meal, but I don’t want to taste the best version of something, because I want the trajectory of cuisine to be upward.

And that’s why burgers are the best food.

Because there’s no such thing as a perfect burger (well, there’s one, but that’s kind of like giving yourself a nickname, you know?). A burger just needs to work. There’s no best cut of beef, ground a certain way, there’s no ideal cheese, bun, sauce, or any other toppings that make the ideal burger. The parts need to not just add up, but complement and balance each other, and highlight one another’s strengths, and just taste fucking good.

Which is true of any dish, really, but burgers are bigger than that. They’re ubiquitous! A burger is a well-defined thing (usually. You can dissect it, but they tend to fall under the “I know it when I see it” category of well-defined things), and all over town, across various levels of dining and cuisines, you can find some kind of patty on some kind of bread. Everyone gets to contribute to the conversation and put their stamp on their burger.

The best thing about burgers is that they’re hard to fuck up, but even harder to make amazing. So as I set out to eat a bunch of them and talk about them on here, I probably won’t have a bad one, and a few might actually change my life.