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.

 

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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.”

wp-1457660172798.jpg

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 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.

 

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.