The Uptown Burger at Uptown Diner: “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”

Uptown Diner Uptown BurgerI’m worried.

I just posted the second story in a row of a burger I didn’t dig that other people raved about. I wanted this blog to be cheeky and dickish in tone, but at the end of the day burger-positive, and it fully sucks when I don’t like a burger. I want to like every burger. But I don’t. I hope I’m not overanalyzing things, or that I’m creating unrealistic expectations and standards. I’m literally trying to eat and talk about as many burgers as I can fit in my mouth — not at the same time — and I don’t think I’ve hit the wall yet but I’m worried I’m becoming a burger snob, when I really wanna be a burger slut.

So upon completion of writing my last post on the eve of publishing it, i went for a bike ride. I remembered a great article I saw on Thrillist and I locked up my bike and sat down to re-read it. David Blend gives a fantastic analysis of the unapologetic lack of pretense to be found in a diner burger. And that’s what I needed. With burgers getting too complicated and my brain going with it, I needed to simplify my brain with a simpler burger. But due to geography and time restrictions, I went to Uptown Diner.

There’s no chef to speak of, and its history can’t be found. It isn’t strictly a diner in the greasy spoon sense as much as a family restaurant whose bread and butter is the weekend brunch crowd, and whose 24-hour status on weekends has led me to stuff my drunk face post bar-close amongst likeminded Uptown Minneapolitans. I’ve literally seen someone puke here. They have a few other locations with the exact same menu and logo design under different names and no overt association between them for no apparent reason. I think they’re trying to establish each location as its own independent thing, but they’re lazy about any other aspect of branding or menu design. Their main “spin” on traditional diner fare is a few cajun-lite breakfast dishes — mostly the addition of cayenne pepper and andouille sausage to hollandaise-drenched hashbrowns and eggs. But I wasn’t there for breakfast.

At the Grandview Grill (don’t click this link unless you loooove when websites autoplay shitty music), it’s the Grandview Burger, at the Louisiana Cafe (don’t click here, either), it’s the Louisiana Burger, and at the Uptown Diner, it’s the Uptown Burger, but they’re all the same: half-pound patty with American and Swiss, applewood smoked bacon, tomato, lettuce, and mayo on sliced sourdough.

It’s a hot mess. The burger is very clearly obviously a prepackaged preformed perfectly round patty that was decently seasoned and seared, and they didn’t ask how I wanted it cooked — which I like — and it came out medium well — which I don’t. Swiss cheese was basically nonexistent under the dominant American, but double cheese means double-cheesiness. Bacon was nice and crispy and smoky. Mayo’s probably my favorite sauce option: smooth and creamy, fatty, mostly tasteless except for a slight egginess. It doesn’t overwhelm anything, and makes things saucy, which is all it needs to do. Romaine lettuce for crispiness, tomato slice for tomatoiness, and it came together to make a fairly tasty if basic burger except for the stupid sourdough.

Let’s talk about the bread for a second, because it’s second only to a well-seasoned patty in importance. Its role is to hold the burger together and sop up the juices and balance the meatiness with carbiness, and sliced sourdough is such a dumbshit choice. I mean, come on. Look at it! The surface area of the sourdough is roughly twice the size of the burger, and upon picking it up, the patty broke through the flimsy untoasted surface. Like, come the fuck on! What did you think would happen? It’s far too much bread hanging off the sides. Toasting the bun is all you can do to it, increasing flavor and texture and butter. It could have used a piece of lettuce between the bun and the patty to keep the bun dry so the damn thing didn’t fall through, and they could have toasted it — are you fucking kidding me right now? — but when it comes down to it, it really fucking needed a more properly-fitted, heartier bread choice, like Texas toast if you’re going for sliced bread, or — I don’t know — a fucking bun.

Waffle fries were frozen and fried and perfect in that overprocessed, properly seasoned, battered and spiced way. I’m not a french fry dude. If given the option, I usually go with option b, but waffle fries or curly fries are my goddamn well-seasoned mealy chewy battered-fry jam. A little ketchup for dipping and I’m set.

This burger did the job. It helped me get over the dumb feels I had about this blog by kind of sucking in a way that was pretty fun to talk about. It’s a burger I had just the lowest expectations for, and it did not disappoint on that front. It certainly isn’t redefining the burger, and in direct opposition to the article that inspired its consumption, it is nowhere near being better than “fancy” burgers that are redefining themselves already and becoming simpler and better in ways that bring them even closer to nostalgic ideals of burgers that keep us eating burgers. I didn’t learn anything new from this burger, but maybe I’m not supposed to. Maybe sometimes I just eat a shitty burger and it doesn’t have to mean something, and I carry on with a meaningful wonderful relationship with burgers at large that’s sometimes great and sometimes rough, but we’re working on it, and trying to do right by the other.

And unfortunately, that’s what love is to me.

The Cheeseburger at Lake & Irving: “And if you want beef then bring the ruckus”

Lake & Irving Cheeseburger.2I used my ten-cup Chemex to brew one, single goddamn 5-oz cup of coffee, which is ridiculous, but that’s all the beans I had, and no other way of brewing a small amount of coffee. And I needed fucking coffee.

I drink coffee every day, mostly because I drink coffee every fucking day and don’t take away my fucking coffee. Since I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t bat an eyelash at $14 burgers, I get excellent fucking coffee from Dogwood at Calhoun Square.

There’s two burger spots on the list at Calhoun Square, and I was literally walking toward one, then stopping and turning around and walking toward the other, then going back, then going forth, mumbling to myself the entire time, still wearing my bike helmet to complete the psychopath pastiche until I ditched Calhoun Square entirely and went to Lake & Irving.

Executive Chef Chris Ikeda trained at the CIA (the food one, not the spy one), before cooking in Hawaii for a few years. He brought Hawaiian influences back to Minnesota when he opened his modern American restaurant with his brother, Andrew — also a non-spy CIA alum. Lake & Irving has been open since Fall 2013 in Uptown Minneapolis at [joke about the name of the restaurant and the intersection].

I got a Rush River Bubblejack IPA, because I’m transitioning out of shitty cheap beer season, and I hadn’t noticed that Bells Two Hearted is $4 all the time. Bubblejack is a fantastic beer, but $4 for Two Hearted is the kind of dumb on their part that I’m surprised that they’re able to sell any other beer to people other than inattentive burger bloggers. And I ordered the cheeseburger. It’s two Pat LaFrieda patties on a Patisserie 46 brioche bun with Wisconsin Cheddar and a “secret sauce”, and for $2 I, obviously, got it with Duroc bacon, because bacon, obviously.

This burger, though, is all about the beef — to their credit — but not without issues. First and foremost, this is good fucking beef. To my knowledge, by which I mean since I gave a shit and since I knew a damn thing, this is my first LaFrieda burger, and the famous butcher knows how to blend a patty. It had an unexpected sweetness on top of excellent beef flavor with fat content that kept it juicy. Unfortunately, it was underseasoned, and I really had to seek that flavor out. You really gotta salt the fuck out of a burger, people. It was super-well cooked, though: excellent sear, hot pink center. Two patties means twice the sear, which was good, but if you’re gonna use awesome beef, showcase that shit! Big fat patty, keep up the good sear, but beef beef beef. Double patties also means double cheese, but I’m not sure about cheddar. I’m trying not to be too evangelical about my religious devotion to American cheese, but I just love the way it feels, and how it pairs with beef with an excellent not overwhelming cheesiness. Cheddar’s too sharp, and it melts, but congeals too quickly so it sits on the patty rather than enveloping it. And the brioche bun was just too much. I want a bun to carry the flavors, but not be a flavor. I like a bit of butter on the bun, and, fuck, I love a butter burger, but having a butter-based bread makes it stand out where it shouldn’t. The bacon was crispy, and tasty, and I liked how it contributed in both flavor and texture. Secret sauce was a nice hint of flavor, not too strong, that lent just a little sauciness. It had me wishing the rest of the flavors were as subtle and complementary. It’s such good beef, I wished this burger was even more beef-forward.

The most confusing part of the burger was that old-school inclusion of the lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle on the side. It’s a carry-over from a bygone era of burgers put on a menu as a formality rather than a chance to shine. I don’t know what to do with them at this point; put ’em on or leave ’em out, but don’t leave it up to me. I ended up putting a pickle on halfway through, but it was too sweet of a pickle and threw off the balance. I want a show-me-what-you-got burger. If they want me to eat tomato, they should put a fucking tomato on it.

In the past couple of years, chefs have applied all of their skills, their experience, techniques to making very straightforward, but precisely designed burgers, and Lake & Irving is part of that movement. I appreciate and respect how much thought they put into it, even if I don’t agree with all of their choices. It wasn’t bad, it just felt like it was trying too hard. It seemed overthought, combining elements I dig with ones I don’t with ones I usually dig but didn’t in this case. It was ahead of its time two years ago. Double patties were revolutionary; everyone’s doubling up now. But in today’s burger culture it mostly just tastes like a pretty good burger.

The 60/40 at Red Cow: “Colonel Mustard, in the Kitchen, with the Knife”

Red Cow 60/40April had a gift card to Red Cow, so she invited her favorite burger blogger to join her. When he couldn’t go, she invited me.

[Pause for laughter.]

I’ve been meaning to check out Red Cow, but hadn’t for no fucking reason than I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. They first opened in 2013 near 50th & France in Minneapolis, and have since opened locations in Cathedral Hill in St. Paul, and the North Loop in Downtown Minneapolis. They’ve made their mark as an upscale burger joint, slinging eight different Certified Angus Beef burgers, two with local grass-fed beef, and one burger with the legendary Pat Lafrieda burger blend. If beef isn’t your thing, they’ve got a bison, a turkey, an ahi tuna, a lamb and a curried chickpea burger. In short, they’ve got 15 reasons for me to go back, which they’re gonna need.

We hit up their original location, ’cause we were feeling classic, and arrived right smack dab in the middle of their happy hour. April got Red Cow’s “cowlaboration” beer with Lift Bridge Brewery, a Red Rye IPA, and I got a Surly Hell at a goddamn steal for $3 on happy hour, and we split an order of poutine, which was fries topped with your choice or beef brisket and Summit beer cheese, or apples, blue cheese, and bacon ($6 for happy hour, $10.50 regular price).

And here’s where the problems start: HOW IN THE FUCK DO YOU CALL THAT POUTINE???

Poutine, children, is Canada’s greatest export, and it necessarily contains three fucking ingredients: fries, cheese curds, and gravy. In either of Red Cow’s options, they’re 1 for 3. I’d classify them more as “loaded fries”, of which poutine is a subset, but it should not be implied that any old fries with some shit on them can be deemed poutine. Only poutine is poutine, the beer-cheese-brisket-fries we got isn’t fucking poutine. Ô Canada. Terre de nos aïeux.

Red Cow 'poutine'

“poutine” with quotation marks

It was hit-and-miss. Hit: the fries were hand-cut and maintained crispiness, despite being well-coated in wonderfully cheesy and flavorful beer cheese sauce. Miss: the brisket was appallingly dry, even drenched in that great cheesy goodness.

I’d heard rumblings from a variety of sources about the 60/40 burger. Its patty is 60% Angus beef and 40% ground bacon. If that isn’t enough bacon, they add candied bacon on top, along with a slice of Wisconsin cheddar, served on a wonderfully soft bun.

A soft, basic bun is important to a great burger. The bun should mostly serve as a vehicle for the rest of the experience. It should hold together, then yield when bitten. The only thing you want to be chewing on is the patty. And the flavor shouldn’t do much — just a small amount of breadiness to carry the rest of the burger.

A fatty salty patty, sweet bacon, sharp cheese, an awesome bun, then they go and ruin it all with a smear of beer mustard on the bottom bun.

Do you love mustard, but hate any other flavor? Then this burger’s for you, because it absolutely murders all of the other flavors, which was exceedingly disappointing. The one bite I had of the patty hanging off the bun was fantastic — well-seasoned, great sear, and noticeable bacon flavor — but the rest of it was entirely mustard. And I like mustard, but on pungent salty charcuterie that’ll hold up to the spice. Burgers have a calm, delicate, but bold flavor that needs to be coaxed out with a combination of seasoning and cooking technique. You need to complement flavors, you need balance. But none of that matters if you kill it all with mustard.

My first trip to Red Cow didn’t go as well as I expected, but there’s a bunch of other burgers on the menu that sound great. They’re big on cheddar, which you’d think would be averse to my American cheese obsession, but I admire their commitment to the varietal, cheddar is in fact my favorite standalone cheese, and I’m curious how they’ll utilize its sharpness. Sure, their use of the word “poutine” is bullshit and potentially offensive, but I like their creativity in upscaling bar snacks, and I tend to hope something like dry brisket is an error, and not a poor choice. I’d even get the 60/40 burger again — hold the mustard.

Lamb Sandoozles at Saffron: I’ve been Sandoozled!

Saffron SandoozlesLast Wednesday I was flipping through the Instagram (I’m on Instagram. Did you know I was on Instagram? Follow me on Instagram.) when I came across these sexy-looking devils, and magically had plans the following afternoon.

Saffron is one of those shouldn’t-be-but-is stories. It’s a testament to how believing in your own boldness is the key to making it. Upon graduation from culinary school Chef Sameh Wadi decided he was ready to open a restaurant (don’t do that!), serving fine dining Mediterranean food (no one knows what that even means!) at the height of the recession (welcome to Mistaketown!). But I’d credit the improbability, the curiosity, and the confidence with its success — plus the food is fucking delicious. I’m lucky enough to live a few blocks from Chef Wadi’s World Street Kitchen, where they cross street food from all over the world (obviously) into accessible unexpected cross-cultural mindfucks. I’ve got their stuffed falafel burger on my list.

Saffron, however, wasn’t on the list, and I didn’t know they had a burger ’til I saw it on Instagram, and fuck the list — I’m gonna eat that. I had to work Thursday morning, and text-made plans with Teresa to meet up for happy hour. We got seats at the bar and ordered cocktails. Saffron, it should be noted, has an excellent bar program. I got their Southside, a sweet refreshing gin drink that’s $6 on the happy hour menu, and Teresa got the Saffron Rose, a gin cocktail with rosé, rose water, and saffron in a champagne flute (not happy hour, but crafty cocktaillian excellent).

Teresa got a lamb bacon “BLT” with tomato jam and arugula on sexy vanilla egg bread that I immediately wanted to try in French toast form, and I got the roasted lamb “Sandoozles”, which came as a pair of sliders. This now requires discussion, as they aren’t strictly burgers in the strict burger sense. It’s roasted lamb, shredded and formed into patties, so I can’t analyze them in the usual fashion, but I can say “LAMB” because they’re so fucking lamby. I love lamb. It’s a distinct intense flavor that nearly guarantees it’ll stand out, and here it definitely does. The patties were mostly tender but chewy enough that you’ve got to spend some time nourishing that goddamn lamb flavor on your tongue. They’ve got chewy-crisp-crusted sesame seed buns that’re burger-perfect soft on the inside and a smooth spicy feta spread that gives them a sharp creaminess, and simple slightly sweet cucumber pickles for acidic bite — nah, bite’s too strong; it’s more of a nibble. They’re fantastically balanced sandwiches that highlight the lamb, and are immensely satisfying for two mini sliders.

We split fries, which were akin to McDonalds fries in texture, size, and appearance — they’re even served in a brown paper bag — but wearing a monocle. They were seasoned well, tossed in salt and parsley and served with a delicious feta fondue. Get at ’em.

So what’s in a name? Here’s Tom Haverford to explain:

The Sandoozles and BLT were $7.50 each, which is a fantastic steal, and fries are $3.50. They’re only available on the happy hour menu, weekdays from 4-6, but honestly if you’re in the mood for an intricate well-spiced splurge, check out Saffron’s full menu.

The Sandoozles might not be called burgers, but they’re fucking burgers ’cause I say they’re fucking burgers, and they’re pretty fucking good.

Two Cheeseburgers from Five Guys: “Love, Peace, and Grease”

Five guys, wideI don’t know what you believe in, but I know you believe that sometimes things just work out. Call it fate, coincidence, kismet, the stars aligning, the hand of God making His presence known to the Universe, call it dumb luck. Whatever it is, sometimes things happen with absolutely no reason, and you get exactly what you want. What I wanted was a greasy fucking cheeseburger.

And, naturally, not just any greasy fucking cheeseburger, but a Five Guys burger.

Five Guys Burgers & Fries opened in 1986 in my home town of Arlington, VA, but I didn’t have one until years later after they moved their first store to the neighboring Alexandria, VA. It’s a company focused on quality and not cutting corners, and making greasy fucking burgers that embody the pinnacle of desirable nastiness. In 2002, they began franchising, which I wouldn’t discover until 2009 when a franchise opened in Edina, MN. I was driving down France Avenue when I saw the name on the side of a strip mall and I pulled over immediately, went in and was asked “have you been here before?” GOOD ONE, YOU DUMB IDIOT, I’LL HAVE A CHEESEBURGER WITH PICKLES, TOMATO, GRILLED ONION, MAYO, KETCHUP, MUSTARD, AND JALAPEÑOS. AND FRIES.

It tasted like home.

And it’s exactly what I wanted this past Friday night. But they closed at 10, and I work at a restaurant. I’m “first cut” on Fridays which means I get to leave first. I don’t get to leave at a predetermined time, just as soon as it’s slow enough that they don’t need me anymore. This means I could go at 8 or I could go when we close — midnight on Fridays –but usually means I leave around 10. And I wanted a greasy fucking cheeseburger.

At around 6, my dream seemed out of reach. We were busy as fuck and would be for the next three hours, but around 9, the clouds parted and sunshine peeked through, and it looked like I would be getting out of there after I got a few things ready for the next day. I got everything in the bag around 9:30, realizing I now had 30 minutes to bike to a place that took 20 minutes to bike to, and checked the Five Guys website to discover a most blessed boon: online ordering. At 9:35 I was out the door with an order placed to be ready before I got there. Straining muscles that hadn’t sat for 12 hours that day, I pedaled like the Devil was at my back and made it to Five Guys in 15 minutes.

But I didn’t get a greasy fucking cheeseburger that day; I got two. One with almost nothing, and one with nearly everything.

Five guys, bagFirst of all, this is what a bag carrying two greasy fucking cheeseburgers should look like. I biked home with it in my bag — because yes, I’ll make you cook my sandwiches 15 minutes before you close, but I’m not gonna be that lollygagger in the dining room that you have to passive-aggress out the door — which may have contributed to the bag’s sexiness. Regardless, the burgers contained sufficient grease to squeeze out into the bag, and I didn’t even get any fries this time. I want a juicy burger, and good fat content is the be-all-end-all, but a there’s a certain amount of straight nastiness that tastes like sweet sin. All together now: greasy fucking cheeseburger.

Five Guys, almost nothingFor the first one I went simple: pickles, mustard, ketchup. Five Guys makes their own sesame seed buns, which are nice and squishy — perfect for holding a greasy fucking cheeseburger. The sear’s surprisingly great here for a fast food burger. It’s well-seasoned, and wonderfully greasy for a medium-well. And American cheese, obviously.

Five guys, almost everythingThe second one I went all-out: mayo, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, jalapeños, hot sauce. Honestly, I went too far. There was too much going on, and I should have been going for some kind of specific flavor profile. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. To be completely honest, the first burger would have been better with some onions. It’s all about balance.

Five Guys’ focus on quality shows. They’re picky about ingredients, but it doesn’t mean everything goes super well together. You gotta have a plan, you gotta think about crafting something, and you might fuck it up, but for $6.99 a pop you can afford a little trial and error. The Five Guys empire is built on quality and consistency, so I’m confident that anyone in the country can walk into any of their literally hundreds of locations and get a nasty fucking greasy fucking cheeseburger, and love every sinful second of it.

The Natty at Devil’s Advocate: “You ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”

The Natty at Devil's AdvocateOn Friday morning, I unleashed this little beast into the social medias and went immediately into work for the next 13 hours, like, “I hope people don’t think I’m a butthead.” I don’t recommend working on something for a few months and then launching it and then not being able to check social media or page stats for many hours, because you’ll have a remarkably distracted day at work. But when I finally did get a chance to check, the response was pretty great, and I appreciate the kind words and blah blah blah you aren’t here to read me get sappy. But good or bad, there’s only one way to toast the launch of your burger blog: if you don’t know what goes after that colon, you should leave. Now.

I’ve never been to Devil’s Advocate before, but my anonymous drunkypants friend was on a boat getting drunk all day, and when I got off work she said she was there, so I went to meet her, and she was nowhere to be found. Luckily, her drunk ass led me to a spot with burgers before wandering off into the night.

From what I’d heard, Devil’s Advocate’s focus was initially on meatballs of all shapes and sizes — just kidding! They’re all the same shape: ball. And I’d reckon they’re all the same size, too. They make them of different meats, or not-meat falafel. But the meatball thing didn’t fly so well as they’d hoped so they expanded the menu to include some nonspherical foods. But I wasn’t there to put balls in my mouth.

I ordered the “Schlager Lager”, a house brew. All of their house brews are 6.66% ABV, because they’re hilarious. It was honestly more flavorful than I expected/wanted, which is a weird complaint, but cheap shitty beer tastes like summer to me, and anything else feels like a waste of money and taste buds.

There were a number of burgers on the menu, and I wanted some kind of souped-up classic, so I got the Natty, a simple burger with American cheese, bacon, fried onions, and “Devil’s Sauce”. It came with unremarkable fries and a knife sticking out the top of it. It wasn’t life-changing, but I enjoyed it. The patty was a bit too thin to have asked how I wanted it cooked, but they did, and I asked for a medium rare and it came out a solid medium, which actually worked well, but I wish they just hadn’t asked. The flavor profile here was great, but I think a cheddar would have held up better with the onions and bacon. I love American cheese — it is known, Khaleesi — and it was pretty good on here, but I wanted some sharpness. The fried onions stayed remarkably crispy throughout, the bacon was delightful. The Devil’s sauce could have used more kick, or more sauce, but it might as well have not been there. It was overpriced at $13, which I couldn’t really figure out. It seemed like only a 1/4 pound patty, and seemed to just be pre-ground beef. Was it the bacon? I dunno. It tasted closer to $10, and I eat $14 burgers on the regular. It’s $8 on Happy Hour, though, which sounds about right.

In general, it seems like this burger’s trying too hard but not trying hard enough. They went with American cheese, which is probably because assholes like me talk too much about how good it is on a burger, but balancing flavors is important, too. And the Devil’s sauce could use some work. It was enjoyable, but I probably wouldn’t get it again, but I’d still go back to Devil’s Advocate. The vibe there is a dingy good, even if the low lighting lends itself to shitty photography.