The Whiskey BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger at VFW Post 246: “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”

VFW Whiskey BBQ Burger

This is a tough one for me.

The James Ballentine VFW Post 246 is my hang. I’m not a veteran, but from what I can tell, the Uptown VFW is a bit more inclusive than other veteran halls, mixing local culture with the veteran scene rather seamlessly. I’ve danced my ass off there on many an occasion, I’ve drank countless pints of Grain Belt Premium, I’ve sung my fair share of karaoke, and I’ve met a lot of my best friends there. My crew heads there by default to meet up and drink a little too much, then stumble a few blocks homeward. But the only thing they had for my drunk ass to eat was Heggies and popcorn.

Last year, they started renovating, and more than tripled in size, adding a huge-screen TV, a bunch of dartboards, and a Big Buck Hunter machine. The old bar is still intact, they still do karaoke, my favorite bartenders still know I’m about to order a Premium, but the rest of the place isn’t mine anymore, and all of a sudden, they’ve got a full kitchen. And I wouldn’t be real, true burger blogger if my favorite hang didn’t end up in the crucible. And, hey, even if their food sucks the Premo’s still $2.75 a pint.

They’ve got seven burgers on the menu, but only one is starred as a “Post 246 Specialty”, so I went with the Whiskey BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger, which is fairly self-explanatory: barbecue sauce, bacon, a whiskey-battered onion ring, and cheddar.

VFW Whiskey BBQ cross section

It isn’t going to end up on anyone’s best burger list, but–oh, sweet relief–it’s pretty damn good. It’s a hefty half-pound patty cooked accurately to a solid medium-rare, the sear was lacking, and it could have used more salt. While underseasoning a burger is historically my number one criticism, in a casual mass-appeal bar food setting, I can forgive erring on the side of you-can-add-more-salt-at-the-table, which I did, but it isn’t the same. By the same measure, barbecue sauce can mask underseasoned beef, but–to their credit–they didn’t drench the thing, allowing all of the flavors some presence. The sauce itself was sweet and nicely peppery. The onion ring was initially omitted, and a few bites in, I asked my bartender and he came back from the kitchen with two onion rings to make up for the mistake. Not mad about that! But even doubling up, the whiskey flavor in the batter was lost, but it’s still a nicely crispy onion ring whose batter holds up but gives way enough that it doesn’t do that thing where the onion slides out on your first bite and you’re left with an onionless crispy shell. Bacon was nicely cooked, crispy, smokey, and bacony. Cheddar’s necessary on this type of burger. Against a bunch of other bold flavors the sharpness balances everything else out. Holding it together is a buttery toasted bun with that essential squish I love so much.

I’ll be back regardless ’cause I love this place, but I’m pleased to dig the new grub offerings, because it’s usually a good idea to eat something when you’re drinking, and I drink here a lot.

 

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The Cheeseburger at Saint Dinette: “Perfection is perfected so I’mma let ’em understand”

Saint Dinette Cheeseburger

Beef. Cheese. Bun. That’s it. Do you really need anything else if all three are amazing?

Saint Dinette opened in the summer or 2015 in the increasingly awesome Lowertown Saint Paul. It’s owned by the team behind the Strip Club, J.D. Fratzke and Tim Niver, along with Brad Tetzloff, and helmed by Chef de Cuisine Adam Eaton and general manager Laurel Elm, both La Belle Vie alums. It’s part of the downscaling of upscale, serving meticulously executed distinctly pan-North American food in a comfy-classy environment.

I went in hungry and got a bunch of stuff: ricotta dumplings were crispy, delicate, sweet, and wonderful with a tingly-not-lingery spiciness. Smelt fries were texturally marvelous zesty umami bombs, served with a tangy remoulade. I finished off my meal with some delightful churros, warm from the fryer tossed in cinnamon sugar with a cocoa dipping sauce that I really wanted to drink straight from the cup when I was done, but I managed to restrain myself–I ate it with a spoon like a damn grown-up. But before dessert, I had the burger.

Saint Dinette cross section

The trick here is the cheese, because there’s otherwise no sauce, and that’s usually a dealbreaker for me. Although the menu just says “cheddar” and that’s definitely the strongest ingredient, I’m calling foul, because it certainly doesn’t melt like cheddar, and there’s something bigger going on here, leading me to believe Saint Dinette has a masterfully homemade American cheese, and it’s absolutely transcendant. I’ve looked into making American cheese (here’s a recipe, if you’re curious), and theirs seems to fit the formula: slight wine flavor, melts right, but tastes really really good. Any smoothness and moisture that a mayo or ketchup traditionally contributes was more than made up for via this cheese, which I’d eat with nearly anything.

I don’t know if the bun is homemade or not but it pulls off that oft-impossible task of being essentially squishy. Look at the cross section above. The bread’s less than half its original height, and that bottom bun is flush to the patty. This is what bread should be doing: carrying the meat. They skip the illusions of grandeur that come with putting a burger on brioche, full of the knowledge that if you’re going to serve up an inappropriate amount of butter it should be slathered onto the bun and flattop grilled alongside the patty. It fuses an extra layer of Maillard the carbs couldn’t achieve on their own, but keeps the focus elsewhere while making its presence known.

And the beef. It’s a tasty well-seasoned beef blend that managed to stay miraculously moist despite employing the smashing method. It had a nice sear, just crispy enough, but the meat was a good pink; it’s tough to find that balance, but they nail it. Texturally, there was just enough chew to keep it in my mouth long enough to make sure I enjoyed every second of it.

And to top it all off, there’s a small stack of pickles on the side to cut through some of the fat with acid.

But the masterpieciness comes from how well all three parts play together. Skipping sauce has the added effect of placing the beef and cheese center stage, while the bun is the stage–you aren’t looking at it, but without it the main characters would fall through. Since they opened, the burger at Saint Dinette has been one of the most hyped food items in town, and since I started Burger Fetish, people have been asking if I’ve had it. Well, now I have. And I can definitely see what everyone’s talking about.

The Nightingale Burger: “I feel so cold and I long for your embrace”

Nightingale Burger

I don’t have a car. I mostly bike, but in the winter I bus. Which usually works fine, but every few years there’s a snow storm so fucked that even Minnesota gives up, and goes to bed early to shovel in the morning. I, of course, had this past Tuesday off and wild, outlandish plans to go far and away to get a burger, having been chastised by my housemate Dane on nary venturing outside of South Minneapolis. But then the storm.

Luckily, there’s a tasty burger I’ve been saving for an emergency. It’s by no means inferior, and this situation perfectly illustrates my relationship with this establishment: it’s getting late, I’m hungry, and I want an actual real-deal tasty fucking meal within four blocks from my house. Nightingale is the best chef-driven restaurant in my neighborhood that serves its full menu until 1am.

Chef-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnson earned her stripes working for Alex Roberts at Alma and Brassa before opening Nightingale with her husband Jasha Johnson in 2012, in the former location of a bodega that had the best damn gyros in town. I was actually kind of spiteful about the loss of the gyros (seriously) and avoided Nightingale for a while, but when I finally came around there was some definite serious self-kicking. They do a lot of small plates, which is the way I love to eat (a burger is a small plate). Their menu is super comfortable–nothing outlandish, mostly standards, but done very, very well. I rarely leave the place without sucking down a few oysters.

Madeleine and I met up in the mid-afternoon to get ice cream at the already consistently incredible Milkjam Creamery when we realized we could easily dip on over to Nightingale and rescue my storm-ruined burger plans, because after ice cream is totally when you should eat a burger. As an added bonus we hit their afternoon happy hour, where the burger is discounted (it isn’t on the late night happy hour).

Nightingale cross section

First I should mention that halfway through, we both realized we’d been given the wrong burgers–I go med-rare, and Madeleine gets medium–and that it was too late to switch, but she gave me her pink middle bites, and they were lovely and silky and everything I want in a burger, but I was somewhat disappointed with my medium-cooked patty. It could definitely have used a bit deeper of a sear, but the seasoning was good, and complemented by the aged cheddar. The tomato was forgettable and romaine gave a good crunch, but the main attraction is the decadence of the brioche bun and the herb aioli. The homemade bun did the seemingly impossible task of hitting that essential squishiness with a just noticeable chew, but was also supremely buttery. Butter’s baked in and spread on before toasting. The aioli is awesomely fragrant, and did an excellent job of highlighting the herbs while the oil carried the flavors forward. Together, they were reminiscent of focaccia, in all of its herby-oily goodness, and really presented the gourmet quality of this burger. I tried a couple of pickle slices on the burger but they got lost amongst the other flavors and were better off on the side. Besides the doneness mishap, my only downside is that the beef isn’t as dominant a flavor. A thicker, bistro-style burger would push the decadence through the roof and tweak the balance just enough to make this excellent burger legendary. It would certainly justify a couple bucks over its $13 price tag ($9 on happy hour).

The fries are excellently crispy, skin-on, and served with a magically delicious malt vinegar aioli.

Nightingale is a spot I already irregularly infrequent, and I’m sure this burger will find its way down my gullet time and time again. On top of their excellent bar program, they have Hamms on tap, and if you make it to their afternoon happy hour (4-6pm), you can add a pint of Hamms to your burger for a buck. A buck.

The McGangbang at McDonald’s: “Control yourself, take only what you need from it”

McGangbang cross sectionUp until this point, the concept of “Burger Porn” has rested cheekily in the realm of tasteful erotica, presenting images of oozy cheese and juicy patties, but easily staying PG-13. Titillating? Sure. Mouth-watering? Obviously. Tongue-in-cheek, grain-of-salt guiltless fun. But I haven’t reached full-on smut.

I need to do something about that.

Immediately after eating the Big Mac-inspired cheeseburger at Scena Tavern, the only obvious place to go was literally across the street to the McDonalds for a Big Mac. On my way in, however, I came across the “McPick 2” deal, and remembered something bigger, and bolder than a Big Mac for half the price, and a vile grin spread across my face.

“Fuck the Big Mac,” I told my companions. “I’m getting a McGangbang*.”

This is the post I don’t want my mother to see. Hi, Mom.

Secret menus are a simple way to get the most out of your favorite fast food restaurant by taking ingredients they already have to turn their regular menu items into unique masterpieces. Some are so ubiquitous they get their own names. The “Quesarito“, for instance, is a Chipotle burrito on a quesadilla in stead of a boring tortilla. The secret menu is so well known at In-N-Out Burger, that they list some of the most popular menu variations on their website. Did you know you can swap in grilled onions on any McDonald’s sandwich at no extra charge? Now you do.

Its origin is unclear, but the McGangbang first appeared on the internet in 2006 and gained popularity in 2008. The premise is simple: you take one McChicken and put it in the middle of a McDouble. I’d never had one before. Feeling extra frisky, I ordered both sandwiches with extra Special Sauce. I meant in stead of the ketchup and mustard on the McDouble and the mayo on the McChicken but didn’t make this clear and got charged for the sauce, but this was fine. Very, very fine.

I pulled up to a table and unwrapped both sandwiches. The McDouble I peeled apart at the cheese, right between the two patties, and laid the McChicken–in full–on the bottom half, and replaced the top half of the burger on top. Voila.

McDonald's McGangbang

The sear’s weak, the seasoning’s good, not enough cheese, essential bun-squish, nice crunch on the chicken, kind of a fantastic amount of total sauce, to be honest, a bit of crisp from the lettuce, nice acid from the pickles, zip from the special sauce, but mostly it tasted like McDonald’s, which is exactly what it needed to taste like. This sandwich is so elemental it’s ridiculous. It’s a literal mashup of two of the most iconic sandwiches in the world, and that’s exactly what it fucking tastes like, and I’m totally extremely happily “Loving It” for all of the chemicals, additives, preservatives, GMOs, and passive voice that go along with that trademarked phrase.

Nostalgia-wise, McDonalds is my ultimate platonic ideal of a cheeseburger, for the simple fact that I can walk into any McDonalds in the entire world and it’ll taste exactly how it’s supposed to, every single time. You cannot fake that. It’s what they do best. They drilled the concept into me via shitty toys, and I shall continue to drink that Kool-Aid so long as I shall live. I’ve eaten far superior burgers than McDonalds, but when I get that specific itch, there’s only one scratch for it.

Right now, Mom’s regretting every Happy Meal she ever bought me.

Each sandwich was $1 and the extra sauce was $.25 each, for a total of $2.50. A Big Mac is $3.99. Math.

I don’t think I’ve eaten at McDonald’s since Burger Fetish started, but I really liked this carnival sideshow act because I really like McDonalds. I’m not going to recommend it–you either want one or you don’t–and while reading this might be fun, I don’t think I’ve swayed anyone in either direction. No one’s taking another chance on McDonald’s after reading this either; you’ve made your mind up on the restaurant before you started reading this. So what am I doing here? Why’d I write this? Why’d I eat a McGangbang?

Because I eat fucking burgers and talk about them. This is my life.


*A word on the awkward name, just in case. A “gangbang” is a group performing sex acts on one consenting person, simultaneously or in turn. Not to be confused with an orgy in which a group of participants engages freely in sexual acts with one another. My consumption of a sandwich named after this act is neither endorsement nor disapproval; what consenting adults do with a group of other consenting adults is their business. “Gang rape” is a nonconsensual act that’s absolutely wrong, should never be done, is never funny, and I’d never eat a sandwich named after it. Clear? Good.

 

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.

 

Matt’s Bar vs. The 5-8 Club: “Two households, alike in dignity”

Matt's vs. 5-8 header

Matt’s Bar (l), the 5-8 Club (r)

After my whirlwind trip to New York, the best way to come home and kick off the 2016 season (season? sure) of Burger Fetish is with the biggest Minneapolis burger question of them all.

There’s no Minneapolis food item more iconic than the Juicy Lucy*, and no greater rivalry than that between Matt’s Bar and the 5-8 Club. Both bars claim invention of the cheese-stuffed burger, but every Minneapolite has an opinion on which Lucy is best. Luckily, I am a Minneapolite, full of both opinions and, at the moment, a lot of beef and cheese.

I’ve never actually been to the 5-8 Club, having accepted on hearsay that Matt’s Jucy Lucy was the better. I recruited my favorite native Southsider, Kyle, to join me, partly because he’s the only person I know who prefers the 5-8 Lucy, partly because he loves burgers enough to go eat two of them with me, and partly because he’s one of my best buds in the whole wide world. AWWWWWWW. Shut up.

According to legend, soon after Matt’s Bar opened in 1954, a customer asked proprietor Matt Bristol to make two patties with cheese in the middle, causing him to declare, “that’s one juicy lucy!” and a sensation was born. The 5-8 Club opened in 1928 as a speakeasy and went legit following the repeal of prohibition. Originally called the 58th St. Club, patrons began referring to it as the 5-8 and eventually the name stuck. It has no cute origin story for its Juicy Lucy, but say they invented it “in the 1950’s,” which sounds dubious, but I’m not here to quibble on undocumented history.

5-8 Club cross sectionAt the 5-8, you can get your Lucy stuffed with American, blue, Swiss, or pepperjack. I, obviously, went American. I misunderstood the server’s question and ordered mine without fried onions, which I’ll admit is a misstep, especially when it comes to a fair comparison. Otherwise, the only topping was pickles on a notably less-than-squishy bun. The patty arrived relatively medium-well, still pretty juicy with basically no sear, but well-seasoned. This leads me to believe they don’t keep their griddle cranked the fuck up like most burger joints. Lucys are traditionally cooked through to ensure the cheese melts thoroughly, and keeping the griddle at a more moderate temperature makes sure the meat doesn’t dry out, which I respect, but as I learned in New York at Whitman’s, this isn’t actually necessary. They stuff an incredible stack of three slices of cheese between two quarter-pound patties, and it came out looking like a beef patty that got pregnant. The solid quantity delivers an awesome mouthful of meat and a grip of cheese in every bite. They season their grill daily with bacon and onions, and despite my embarrassing omission, there was a definite subtle oniony taste to it reminiscent of a White Mana slider. I squirted some ketchup on the side for strategically acrobatic–so as not to spill that precious cheese–dipping, and I was pretty damn impressed with what I’d heard was the lesser Lucy.

Then on to Matt’s.

First of all, vibe-wise, Matt’s was on point. It’s a total dive, as opposed to the 5-8’s updated family restaurant, near-Applebees feel. Everything from the music to the attitude of the servers just screamed we-care-but-only-barely. You walk in and know where you are, and I frankly felt at home. I’m a dive bar dude.

Matt's cross section

The Jucy Lucy, on the other hand, could use some work. They pride themselves on having a griddle seasoned with over 60 years of Lucys and onions, but it mostly gave it an overcharred taste with added bitter notes of burgers past. The onions completely overwhelm the patty, which is not something I typically frown upon, but it was too much. And the pickles were weirdly overpowering. Not so much sour, they were over-seasoned, and they had way too much influence on the overall taste of the burger so I took them off, which is an enormous deal for a pickle fiend like me. Most egregiously, Matt’s puts a single slice of cheese between two 3oz. patties, which is not an awesome amount of cheese to have with six ounces of meat. The sear was wonderful, and the patty was seasoned respectably, the bun perfectly squished itself to the meat, but it plainly just wanted more cheese. I could respect the ratio if the meat was better and cooked less well, but for fairly standard well-done beef, you need to get fucked in the face with cheese.

In the end the 5-8 Juicy Lucy wins for me, on the basis of cheese. If you’re literally putting cheese at the heart of your burger, it needs to be amazing, and Matt’s American turns to a hot cheese grease that mostly just burns your mouth. The 5-8’s cheese-beef ratio has too much cheese, which is actually just enough, and it stays gooey and flavorful.

Again, I don’t do rankings and I don’t do ratings, but the next time someone asks which Juicy Lucy is better, I’ll tell them the 5-8. Then I’ll send them to the Blue Door for what I consider the best Juicy Lucy in town. Both bars stick to  methods that might have been novel in the 1950’s, and good on them for keeping people interested for 60 years, but burgers have gotten better since then. The rivalry will never go away, die-hard adherents will maintain their allegiances, but I’m honored to add fuel to this ongoing fire.


*A word on spelling, because it matters. The 5-8 Club calls it a “Juicy Lucy”. Due to a spelling error they decided to run with, Matt’s calls it a “Jucy Lucy.” Because writer [sic], I consider “Juicy Lucy” to be the “correct” spelling of the category of cheese-stuffed burgers, but a restaurant can name their burger anything they want; at the Nook, it’s a “Juicy Nookie”, and at the Blue Door it’s a “Blucy“. I will use appropriate spelling when discussing each bar, but use “Juicy Lucy” in reference to all cheese-stuffed burgers, without specific allegiance to either Juicy Lucy**.

**See what I did there?