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.

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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.”

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 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 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.