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 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 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.