It seemed a simple enough task: Which Minnesota burgers should you eat before you die? Granted, to the less food-obsessed, this might seem like a peculiar question, and to a health-care professional, perhaps even a suicidal one. But to me, the question seemed urgent. Critical. Life-defining, even.
Toward the end of my journey, nothing about it seemed simple. After two months of trying every cult burger, every rumored-to-be-great burger, every once-great burger, and every potentially great burger in the state, my quest began to border on the ridiculous. “Are you trying each individual McDonald’s in Minnesota?” asked a co-worker. “What is taking so long?” I looked up from the pile of menus and receipts on my desk and sighed.
It seemed important to get this right. Maybe it was just something in the air: The year had seen movies like The Bucket List, in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman decide what must be done before they kick the bucket. Bookstores are crammed with titles like A Thousand Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler’s Life List, Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die, and 1001 Historic Sites You Must See Before You Die, which suggests that life isn’t complete without a visit to Mozart’s birthplace. Well, pick your poison, I guess. I’m certain I will go happily to my eternal rest without having glimpsed the spot where Mozart first contemplated milk and daylight, but I do feel very sad that Mozart will never know the singular pleasure of a $2.75 hamburger consumed at the counter of the Tender Maid in Austin, Minnesota.
Yes, I drove to Austin for a burger. I also went to Waconia, Waseca, Cloquet, and plenty of points in between. Because who could say where the best, the very best, the must-try-before-you-die burgers in Minnesota could be found? I had promised myself that this story wasn’t going to be a kindergarten award ceremony: Not everyone was going to get a gold star. If there wasn’t a burger in St. Paul that you would regret your whole life for having missed it, then so be it (there is). Past performance was not taken as a predictor of future behavior. And no one got a second chance. It was a sudden-death, one-shot challenge. If I experienced a once-great burger on a lackluster day, then that was it—it was out. No mulligans. No mercy.
But still, the drive to Tender Maid seemed indicative of mental illness. It was a 206-mile trip (at $3.50 a gallon for gas) to experience a $2.75 burger.
But oh, the Tender Maid. You should see it. I mean, really, you should. It’s in downtown Austin, in a white clapboard building with red-and-white awnings—one of those places that is so thriftily built that there are no vestibules to keep the winter out, no bathrooms, no nothing. It’s a shack, really. But a shack is all they need. Inside, there’s a gold-flecked counter ringed by a dozen chrome-edged barstools, and a big trough where they steam the beef for “loose-meat” burgers, something that was big during the Depression (and in Iowa), but has lived on in Austin ever since Tender Maid opened 1938.
Yes, 1938. For 70 years, these loose-meat hamburgers have been a classic of Minnesota cuisine. An unheralded classic, perhaps a completely unknown classic, but a classic nonetheless. Why a classic? Because the Tender Maid burger is just so American. You walk in. You sit at the counter. A hard-working woman in an unironic T-shirt asks you what you want. The most popular options? A burger with everything or a burger with cheese (and everything).
Upon hearing your preference, the woman behind the counter reaches into a steamer box, grabs a warm bun, and places it on a sheet of wax paper. She slathers one side with a spatula-full of ketchup, the other with a spatula-full of mustard, sprinkles finely cut onions on the mustard side, and ladles a scoop of meat between the two. She shakes a bit of salt on the meat, wraps it all together in the wax paper, and presents it to you—with a spoon. Yes, a spoon. If you order a cheeseburger, the process is slightly delayed: the woman will throw a classic slice of American cheese in the meat bin first, flip it back and forth, submerge it in the meat, unearth it, and assemble the burger with a slice of cheese in the middle.
How does that loose-meat burger taste? Good. Iconic. A little meaty. A little sweet. A little salty. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever eaten, but it is quite likely the most American. The most Minnesotan. The most Minnesotan-American edible icon we have. In short, it’s something you should experience before you die.
Just like the loose-meat burger, the other burgers I selected for this story are also amazing and eternal bits of essential Minnesotan character. And yes, they are eternal (or as close as you get to eternity with restaurants). In Edina, the Convention Grill has been serving those same burgers since 1934. At Matt’s Bar, in south Minneapolis, they’ve been making Jucy Lucys the way they do since 1954. Up in Cloquet, Gordy’s Hi-Hat has been making their burgers the exact same way since 1960. And at the Black Forest Inn, they’ve been doing their near-perfect burger since 1965. The youngsters in this field are places like the Lions Tap (the current incarnation dates back to 1977) or Newt’s in Rochester (opened in 1980).
You might find it odd that our longest-lived restaurants in Minnesota are all burger joints, but the longevity of all these places becomes less puzzling when you realize Minnesota’s iconic food is, in fact, the hamburger.
I mean it: Minnesota is burger country. It’s our defining fare. Like Chicago hot dogs, New York pastrami, Texas brisket, Memphis ribs, California tacos, and Maine lobster rolls. Our core food is not hotdish. It is not meatloaf. It is not wild-rice soup. A Prairie Home Companion to the contrary, Minnesota has always been more than farm-based Lutherans. It’s plant workers in small towns. It’s Catholics in St. Paul. It’s truck drivers on the Iron Range. It’s third-generation lawyers in Minneapolis. It’s the entirety of the North and South Dakota brain-drain who find San Francisco to be too much, and Minot too little. It’s also a whole lot of people from the coasts, Asia, and Mexico, who stumble across this little crossroads of forest and prairie and call it heaven. And the one thing we all have in common is that we love burgers. We argue about them. We eat them with friends, with loved ones, and alone in the car. We wait for an hour, two hours, for our favorites at places like the Nook in St. Paul or Matt’s in Minneapolis. We don’t wait outside in the cold for hotdish. We wait outside in the cold for burgers.
This epiphany came upon me several years ago when I was trying to determine what was the Most Minnesotan Food. Was it fried walleye? No, get far enough south or west, and the fish fry is as much of an import as mandarin oranges. Was it hotdish? No. Get into the urban centers, where most Minnesotans actually live, and hotdish becomes something like urban crime: You think about it, you know about it, you fear it, and you almost never are in the same room with it.
But burgers? Burgers are the only thing which readers have written to me about detailing their epistemological bar debates, some of which revolve around ideas like: Are burgers actually purely situational? Eating one while you’re falling in love, after seeing a great show, being hungry—is that what makes a great burger? To which I answer: No, no, a thousand times no.
Great burgers are quantifiable, knowable, definable, and inarguable (see Best Burger Methodology). And the following are all great burgers. These are the burgers you must try before you shuffle off this mortal coil. For the sheer joy of it—and because they will help you understand something new and important about what it truly means to be Minnesotan.
Best Burger Methodology
Introducing the Burger Inherent Awesomeness Quotient™
BIAQ = M(3F + T + Ch)2 + Co + CfE + [A + U + B/F]
Behold the BIAQ, the Burger Inherent Awesomeness Quotient. Is it math? Science? It’s math plus science plus truth (minus ketchup). Or rather, it’s my best idea of how to compare a $2 burger in farm country with a $12 burger in the city.
The most important quality of any burger is the flavor of the meat. It should be beefy, clean, rich, and robust. And this: There must be no flaws. No freezer-burn aftertaste, no pallid wet-dog notes. So, give the flavor a score from 1 to 10, multiplied by three. It’s that important.
Texture is critical. A gritty, chewy, dry, wet, gloppy, or gummy texture can ruin an otherwise pleasant burger. 1 to 10 points.
A great burger should juxtapose exterior caramelized char with interior tenderness. If a burger doesn’t have an exterior/interior contrast, it’s meatloaf. Meatloaf is fine, but it ain’t a burger. Award 1 to 10 points. Now square
it (math!), divide by 100, and round off: You now have your basic meat score, the highest possible value of which is 25.
There are two kinds of burgers: Those that are improved and/or made notable by the use of condiments, and those that are perfect without condiments. There has to be some way of factoring these differences. So, award both the condiment-topped burger and condiment-free burger 1 to 10 points, add together and divide by two.
Ambience covers the pleasantness of the room, parking lot, or other space the burger is in. 1 to 5 points.
Ultra-Minnesotanness: because being Minnesotan is a good thing, and should be rewarded when found. Otherwise, why don’t we all just eat at Boston Market? 1 to 5 points.
A great bun and great fries make a great burger even greater, and if you disagree you must be addlepated. Award the bun and/or fries from 1 to 5 points.
The highest possible score for non-meat related points is 25. The highest possible score for meat-related points is 25. So the highest possible BIAQ could be 50. This is right, good, and true. And that’s why they call it science.
18 – Monte Carlo Bar & Cafe
Inherent Awesomeness: 23
One of the most distinct variants of the Great American Burger is urban, mid-century, and sexy, but battle-scarred, in a very Edward-Hopper-meets-Death-of-a-Salesman way. Nowhere is this variant more in evidence than at the Monte Carlo, the classic businessman’s steak house in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis. Settle in at the copper-topped bar and contemplate the majesty of the dining room—the rows and rows of glittering, glamorous bottles that back the bar. Then settle in for one beautiful burger: The meat is tender and simple, and it comes inside a grilled, slightly sweet, vaporous bun that squishes away to nothing in the hands. You’re left to contemplate an elegiac grandeur. Romantic? Very, so be sure to have this burger with a Manhattan, if not straight whisky. Monte Carlo, 319 Third Ave. N., Minneapolis, 612-333-5900
17 – House of Coates
Inherent Awesomeness: 25
Once a stop for the Chicago Great Western Railroad, the town of Coates still has a rural, middle-of-nowhere feel, despite being not all that far from the Twin Cities. Maybe it’s the well-worn plywood booths. Or the church-basement chairs. Or the pull-tabs. No matter. Order a burger and you’ll see why the parking lot here is always full. The fried onions on the Sewanee burger are soft as butter, the bun is big and bready and makes you feel like you’re eating a whole platter’s worth of meat. The burger itself is gorgeously charred, but tender as tears. The fries aren’t much to speak of, but if you’re taking Highway 52 anywhere, the House of Coates will forever fix in your mind that the middle of nowhere can be somewhere worthwhile. House of Coates, Highway 52 and County Road 46, Coates, 651-437-2232
16 – Newt’s
Inherent Awesomeness: 29
Newt’s is not easy to find. It’s down an alley, then up a steep staircase. But this doesn’t seem to stop every person in Rochester from going there. Stop by on a Friday night and you’re likely to wait an hour for a table. The draw? Great burgers and a strange ju-ju that makes it feel like you’re drinking in Vermont circa 1978. There’s tragic, sepia-and-milk-chocolate colored stained-glass lighting, darkness everywhere, and—on the floor—popcorn thick as wet snow. There’s also a lot of 1920s-feeling black-and-white photos on the wall and a jukebox pumping out the Who and Neil Young. There are loads of microbrews available, and the fries arrive by the pound, in a perfect pale-golden mound: not too crisp, not too soft, lightly seasoned and okey-dokey in every possible way. And the burgers? They’re the lightest big burger in the state, which may seem like an odd compliment if you haven’t actually tasted one. The buns are white, fluffy, and almost a bit dry. They serve as the perfect foil for the beefy, airy, not overly seasoned, half-pound patties that seem to be held together by nothing but the thinnest veil of exterior char. The hardest things to do well are always the simplest. The elegant, juicy, gorgeously plain Newt’s burger proves that rule—and is worth the hunt. Newt’s, 216 ½ First Ave. SW, Rochester, 507-289-0577, cccrmg.com
15 – Gordy’s Hi Hat Restaurant
Inherent Awesomeness: 29
Since 1960, the folks at Gordy’s Hi Hat have been doing things the same way: Hand-pattying beef that was ground that day (and has never been frozen); cutting fresh onions for their signature half-battered, half-breaded onion rings; and blending their shakes and malts with nothing but real strawberries, real raspberries, and real bananas. And that’s why, for almost 50 years, city folk have made the Hi Hat a destination stop on the way to cabins Up North. “Consistency is the key here,” explains owner (and son of Gordy) Dan Lundquist. “People say, ‘I want a cheeseburger,’ and it better taste the way it did last fall. So we do everything the same way we’ve done it for the past 48 years.” Well, except that last year they started taking credit cards. Gordy’s Hi Hat Restaurant, 411 Sunnyside Dr., Cloquet, 218-879-6125
14 – Tender Maid Sandwich Shop
Inherent Awesomeness: 32
“You want a spoon with that?” asks the nice lady behind the counter at Tender Maid. If you’ve never been here before, you’ll think she’s asking if you want a spoon with your milk shake. No, she means with the burger. It’s loose meat, meaning that it’s filled with steamed crumbles of beef, kind of like a Sloppy Joe without the sauce. Of course, you can pick up the whole burger in its wax-paper wrapper and shove it in your mouth without the spoon. If you do, you’ll experience the simple, unadorned taste that people have been wild about since 1938. But, really: Put the burger down and use the spoon. Why? When else in life are you going to get the chance to eat a burger with a spoon? Tender Maid Sandwich Shop, 217 Fourth Ave. NE, Austin, 507-437-7907
13 – Salut Bar American
Inherent Awesomeness: 33
To the uninitiated, Salut might seem like a French restaurant. After all, they offer glimmering fresh seafood, a fat French wine list, and distinctly Gallic dishes like escargot and tarte tatin. But to Salut regulars, the place is actually a big old burger joint with lots of benefits. Name another French restaurant that serves 120 burgers each weekday, and some 200 each day on weekends. The Salut burgers are just delicious. They’re made with fresh meat, ground daily and laced with a top-secret spice blend that lends a zesty liveliness, and are served on crusty ciabatta buns made at the restaurant’s own bakery. In fact, these burgers have a balance to them that makes them seem inevitable and necessary. The homemade, hand-cut fries don’t hurt either. But you know what’s weird? This is the one burger on this list that goes better with red wine than a beer. Must be a French thing. Salut Bar Americain, 5034 France Ave. S., Edina, 952-929-3764, salutbaramericain.com
12 – The Lions Tap
Inherent Awesomeness: 33
The magnificence of the modest, eat-it-with-one-hand Lions Tap burger really comes into focus only after you’ve sampled a couple dozen of the best burgers in the state. Why? Because the Lions Tap stands out for what it is not: It’s not over-seasoned, not over-garnished. You get a thin patty, seared just right so that it’s crispy at the absolute edges and tender within—a perfect counterpart to the simple, white old-school bun. It is no less than the absolute essence of the perfect American roadside burger. There’s not much point to the lame crinkle-cut fries, so feel free to skip them. And feel free to skip ketchup on the burger, too: The Lions Tap offers one of the few burgers in the state that is so good that it seems sacrilegious to put ketchup on it. The Lions Tap, 16180 Flying Cloud Dr., Eden Prairie, 952-934-5299, lionstap.com
11- King’s Place
Inherent Awesomeness: 33
Miesville is on the highway between Red Wing and Hastings, and some days it seems the entire town, population 135, is doing one thing: Eating all-American burgers at King’s Place. Seriously all-American. Located across the highway from the Miesville Mudhens stadium, King’s is as American as baseball, if not more so. Picture an original turn-of-the-century carriage stop unrecognizably updated with a knotty-pine-paneled bar surmounted with an odd, roof-shingled overhang, a hodgepodge of contemporary beer signs, and mirrors resplendent with scenes of pheasant–hunting. Guys in construction vests split pitchers of beer, bartenders insist one television stays tuned to the Rachael Ray Show to make sure the church ladies at the big table stay comfortable, and a roll of paper towels sits on every table. Those paper towels are necessary, at least if you want to dig into any of King’s 37 burgers, the best of which are the most elaborate. The awesome Triple Play, for example, is topped with bacon, Cheddar, Swiss and pepper-jack cheese, green olives, and sour cream—yeah, there are four separate kinds of dairy on that burger. Take a gander at all the dark blue Harvestore silos that mark the location of prosperous dairy farms nearby and you’ll get the connection. This is a dairy burger in dairy country. How does it taste? Perfect. The thin burger patty has a slight, yet important gloss of char to it, though it’s still tender as anything. The bun is buttery and well-grilled. And the whole thing comes together in a way that’s so cute, lovable, and devourable that the burger may as well stand up and tap dance across the table. Sure, the fries are forgettable, but even the plain old hamburger is scrumptious, and if you want to know what the sweet, sweet taste of America is, look no further. Build your visit around a Mudhens game, and you’ll see why those 135 residents of Miesville are some of the luckiest people on earth. King’s Place, 14460 240th St. (Hwy. 61), Hastings, 651-437-1418
10 – Casper & Runyon’s Nook
Inherent Awesomeness: 34
The Nook is St. Paul’s cult burger. People queue up outside for an hour, sometimes even two, to wait for a table to get the thing. They do this on happy, sunny days, of course, but they also do it on gruesome, blustery, rainy, and downright cold and nasty days. What could make people do such things? Because the Nook is home to the definitive bar burger: Well-charred, meaty but tender, wrapped in a soft white bun, and served with a mess of fresh-cut fries in a plastic basket. This thing just hits the sweet spot of what it means to live a real, unpretentious Midwestern life full of friends, family, community, and cold beer (when the time is right). And that’s worth standing in line for. Even in the rain. Casper & Runyon’s Nook, 492 Hamline Ave. S., St. Paul, 651-698-4347, myspace.com/crnook
9 – Buster’s on 28th
Inherent Awesomeness: 34
You worry sometimes about the changing of the guard: Will the new generation maintain the traditions of their elders? When it comes to burgers, the answer is a resounding yes! Opened only since last year, Buster’s is a great, already-classic burger joint by and for the microbrew generation. Slip into a dark, cozy wooden booth and order one of the 100 or so microbrews—or one of the more than two dozen tap-beer offerings (including all of the local Surly beers)—and prepare to be dazzled. The burgers here have a deep, well-charred, truly steak flavor, and are complemented by fresh, substantial buns from the notable A Baker’s Wife’s Pastry Shop, which happens to be around the corner. Bite into a Buster’s burger and you find the implicit promise of so many burgers made real: It’s a steak—for cheap (if you call $9 for a half-pound burger cheap, which I do in this case because the gorgeous burger comes with a robust pile of truly gorgeous French fries). Nice work, Buster’s. The hipsters are doing it for themselves. Buster’s, 4204 28th Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612-729-0911, busterson28.com
8 – Vincent: A Restaurant
Inherent Awesomeness: 34
The Vincent burger was Minnesota’s first really great gourmet burger, arriving in Minneapolis at the same time chef David Bouley was making national news with his foie-gras stuffed version in New York. Well, Vincent’s burger is still worthy of national news: Stuffed with braised short ribs and smoked Gouda, the Vincent burger takes the idea of the classic Jucy Lucy and gilds, refines, and stiffens the spine of the thing until it’s a lunch entrée worthy of a great chef. Oh, what a beauty this thing is. It’s seared till glossy bits of char speckle the rich beef, which burble inside with that particular savory, rich meatiness that food types call umami (a Japanese word meaning something like “a rainbow of glorious, indescribable ultra-meat,” which is exactly what this burger is). It comes with crisp, McDonald’s-style fries and is nothing short of an absolute must for any self-respecting food nut in this state. Vincent, 1100 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612-630-1189, vincentarestaurant.com
7 – Capitol Grille
Inherent Awesomeness: 34
I tried every single big steak-house burger for this roundup, and the Capital Grille was the absolute shocker: It’s stupendous. The meat was rich, thunderously beefy, and sweet; the brioche bun was the ideal complement, while the savory French fries, graced with truffle-oil and gran padano cheese, were exceptional. Each bite of the burger was more astonishing than the last. It was as good as great carpaccio, as good as great steak tartare: lush as a berry, profound as an exceptional Barolo. Could it seriously be this good? Yes. As I tried burger after burger for this story, the Capital Grill’s only grew in stature: It really was richer, livelier, and sweeter (not in terms of sugar but in terms of an irresistible wealth of flavor). As chef Jeff Ansorge explained, it also may be the purest gourmet locovore burger in town. The grass-fed beef is from Thousand Hills Cattle Company in southern Minnesota, ground-up with a certain amount of bacon from Fischer Farms in Waseca. The meat is mixed with Walla Walla or Vidalia onions, grilled, and served on a housemade brioche bun. “I tried to do a little more—localize it, and highlight every piece of it,” Ansorge told me. Mission accomplished. Capital Grille, 801 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612-692-9000, thecapitalgrille.com
6 – Bar Lurcat
Inherent Awesomeness: 36
There’s a certain chain that makes a claim to serving butter burgers. They know not of what they speak. The real butter burger, the king butter burger, the only butter burger worth eating is the stupendous little slider at Bar Lurcat. To make this adorable little critter, chef Adam King sweats lots of onions in butter with loads of fresh thyme, then combines those onions with a specially ground meat, and forms them into wee little patties which are grilled till they crisp. These patties are then tucked into well-griddled potato rolls graced with a swipe of red-wine-shallot butter. The result is the best techniques of French cooking combined with the best ideas of American fast food. Order two sliders, pair them with some of the state’s best French fries—gold beauties so crisp outside and so tender inside that it’s almost like they’re candy-coated—and know it doesn’t get any better than this. Unless you add fresh, hot doughnut holes. How could a restaurant so French-sounding have achieved this trifecta of American road-food perfection? Bar Lurcat, 1624 Harmon Pl., Minneapolis, 612-486-5500, damico.com
5 – Convention Grill & Fountain
Inherent Awesomeness: 38
Cynics call nostalgia the longing for a time that never was. The neat trick of the Convention Grill is that it makes you nostalgic for an American past of wonderful diners serving perfect fries, malts, burgers, and Happy Days cuisine—and then it actually delivers them as good, if not better, than they were in their heyday. The Convention Grill burger is hand-pattied, never-frozen, and boasts a glorious, flat-grill-given char; the deeply golden, hand-cut fries are super fresh and wholesome; and the Kemp’s ice-cream shakes and malts couldn’t be any thicker or more perfectly encapsulate what’s great about Midwestern living. Convention Grill & Fountain, 3912 Sunnyside Rd., Edina, 952-920-6881
4 – The Black Forest Inn
Inherent Awesomeness: 37
Without question, the Black Forest’s burger is the most underappreciated in Minnesota. It gets no respect. Why? Perhaps it’s a familiarity-breeds-contempt thing: The German restaurant has been there for so long (since 1965) that people have gotten used to taking its food for granted. That should stop. The place has a burger for the ages: beefy as a roundhouse punch, gorgeously well-charred, served in a big, thick, house-baked bun that’s unlike any other in the state. This thing is the king of the heavyweight burgers. The fries aren’t kidding around either: Ultra-crisp, russety-brown, very fresh hand-cut beauties that are just right for sitting alongside such a weighty, earthy, oniony, truly significant burger. The Black Forest Inn, 1 E. 26th St., Minneapolis, 612-872-0812, blackforestinnmpls.com
3 – Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
Inherent Awesomeness: 38
If there is one burger in Minnesota that could be called the Chef’s Chef’s burger, it would be the Cobb Salad burger at the Dakota. Jack Riebel is one of those chefs who every chef in town knows and respects, but he doesn’t get a lot of public recognition. He ran the lunch at the dearly departed Goodfellow’s for 10 years, and while there, he created a burger to honor his fellow chefs: The Cobb Salad burger. He would take the trim from various high-end cuts—strip loins, rib eyes, and such—blend those with chuck, and cook it. Then he would top the burger with Goodfellow’s famous pico de gallo tomato relish, a special guacamole created by one of his Latino line cooks, and an onion relish that he credits to Isaac Becker, who is now chef and co-owner at 112 Eatery. He added smoked bacon, hard-cooked egg, and—because it’s a burger—some buttermilk battered onion rings. It became the off-the-menu sensation that every chef in town was clamoring for. “When Tim McKee [of La Belle Vie] was opening Solera, he’d call ahead: ‘I’m bringing in eight cooks, we need eight Cobb burgers. Can you do that?’” Riebel told me. McKee made Riebel promise that if he ever opened his own place he’d put the Cobb burger on the menu. Since Riebel took over the kitchen at the Dakota three years ago, his Cobb burger has been on the menu. It’s magnificent: A sturdy, beefy, gorgeously charred patty is rested on a slab of grilled Pugliese bread and surrounded by everything mentioned above, as well as a chiffonade of thinly cut Bibb lettuce leaves. All the various relishes and toppings come together to make every bite lively, fresh, and vibrant, but they never obscure the basic campfire meatiness of the burger at the core. The Dakota serves a mean basket of fries, too. If you want to know how five-star chefs make burgers for other five-star chefs, look no further. Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612-332-1010, dakotacooks.com
2 – The Bulldog N.E.
Inherent Awesomeness: 38
When the Bulldog opened it’s northeast location, it quickly shot to the top of every burger-hound’s list: Best burgers ever! Achingly tender, gooey almost, but in a delicious, not a repulsive way. The Bulldog’s burgers were buttery, lush, and almost fruity in a particularly sweet, meaty way. Whoa! Then, the place went through various upheavals of chef and meat supplier, and the “whoa” factor vanished. Well, here’s the great news: The Bulldog burger is back! When I visited, the Kobe beef burger was in ideal form: Beefy and tender as a top-dollar steak house’s filet mignon, complemented by all the things you want in a good neighborhood bar: Hand-cut French fries (salty, crisp, and irresistible), scads of microbrews, and—in case you want to take the night into the realm of complete madness—a new line of gourmet cupcakes. The Bulldog N.E., 401 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612-378-2855, thebulldogmpls.com
1 – Matt’s Bar
Inherent Awesomeness: 38
If there was one ringer in this bunch, one place I was absolutely certain would make the final cut, it’s Matt’s, the venerable south Minneapolis bar that either invented the Jucy Lucy—or just perfected it. (If you’re an out-of-towner, the Jucy Lucy—purposefully misspelled—is made by crimping two beef patties around a filling of cheese and cooking it all until the cheese becomes like molten lava. This tastes loads better than it sounds.) Sure, the thought did cross my mind: What if Matt’s was off its game? What if they didn’t make the cut? There was no need to worry—it would have been like going to Paris and finding the Eiffel Tower missing. This place is as critical to the heart of south Minneapolis as Lake Nokomis. A recent visit found Matt’s in all its glory: The guys at the bar were a mix of the old and cowboy-hatted, the young and dreadlocked, and the middle-aged and computer-bag toting. They were all eating Jucy Lucys and half-orders of thin, pale fries. There was even a recent Chicago transplant at the bar: “All the burgers downtown are $10,” he said. “I have a problem with that. My employees told me, ‘Go to Matt’s.’ I’ve been here three times in five days. You put crack in these things or what?” Spoken like a true out-of-towner. Crack? Please. Matt’s Jucy Lucys are bigger than crack. It’s all about the grill. For about 15 minutes, Matt’s Jucy Lucy sits up on the hot, ancient, always-in-service grill and sizzles, sizzles, sizzles until it gets crisp and well-charred on the outside. That makes all the difference. Matt’s has been making these well-charred, unspeakably delicious Jucy Lucys, the best in the state—the best, no doubt, in the world—since, legend has it, 1954. Matt’s Bar, 3500 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612-722-7072, mattsbar.com
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.