Burger Madness 2009

Rating the new crop of burger joints

I just ran a brief back-of-the-envelope calculation: I’m guessing I’ve had 1,000 burgers in Minnesota as a restaurant critic. (I’ve been doing this since 1995, so that’s something like 10,000 restaurants, plus there’s last year’s effort to make a sort of Life List of the very best burgers in Minnesota you must try before you die, which involved a lot of burger-eating.) All of which means that I’m pretty qualified to judge the newest crop of Big-Deal Burger Joints that have opened in recent months in the Twin Cities.

So, how did these much-hyped new burger places stack up?
 

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Five Guys is an award-winning burger chain that started in the Washington, D.C., area in 1986. The line is that it’s the In-and-Out Burger of the East Coast. I’ve been to In-and-Out Burger, and I say: nope, not even close. The burgers here are totally roadside generic: good, but not a heck of a lot better than those at Hardee’s. The fries are very good. They taste real, and kudos to Five Guys for putting out malt vinegar to eat with them (it really brings out the potato flavor). Other than the fries, though, Five Guys mostly made me feel really sad for the people standing in the long line there. Are Edina residents really so burger-starved? Psssst, people of Edina: You’ll find far, far better burgers at the Convention Grill or Salut Bar Americain.
 

Smashburger

Smashburger is another chain, this one based in Denver, which is also the home base of another locally prominent chain, Noodles & Co. The similarities are many. Both chains are stylish, contemporary, upscale fast-casual restaurants with wine and beer licenses, and a price point half-way between fast and fancy food. How are the burgers? Darn good! Flavorful meat, well-enhanced by fresh toppings, and hooray for big leaves of fresh Romaine. This is by far the best-tasting burger of the new crop, and I even liked their whisper-thin onion rings and well-flavored vanilla malt. And yet, it’s still not in my top 200 of local burger experiences.

Why? Do you have any idea how many excellent local burger spots did not make my Life List of great burger joints last year? Adrian’s, in south Minneapolis, for instance, didn’t even make that list, and it serves a well-charred, perfectly homey burger (one that puts me in a real and valuable universe, that of preschoolers and tee-ball practice and beetles captured in jars with holes punched in the lids).

Yes, I’d be thrilled to find a Smashburger at any airport I found myself stranded in. But when it comes down to a choice between a good burger and a good burger offering an emotional connection to a real place, I’d rather go to Adrian’s. Or the 5-8 Club. Or The Drive-In Restaurant in Taylors Falls. But let’s say you don’t care about that stuff. If you’re just talking burgers, irrespective of ambience, there are better ones than those at Smashburger. The excellent burgers at Ciao Bella, Zelo, and Bacio, for instance. Smashburger is really very good, but it’s not really very great.
 

Burger Jones

Burger Jones is the most disappointing of all the new burger joints. Parasole, the people behind one of my favorite local burgers, Salut, opened Burger Jones this spring, and on paper it looked phenomenal. It’s a gastropub of enormous burger indulgence, with upscale versions of all the foods Minnesotans love to love: cheese curds, French fries, hamburgers, cheese curds on French fries, and cheese curds on a hamburger! Yet somewhere between Salut and here, Parasole’s burger knowledge seems to have fallen off the truck—to which I say: Pull over and look for it! Burger Jones burgers lack flavor, seasoning, char, distinctiveness, and, most of all, any sense that people eat with their taste buds, not their brains.

The place still looks fantastic on paper: They make poutine, the Montreal work of genius fusing French fries, gravy, and cheese curds—with bacon? Fantastic! Or it would be if the gravy didn’t taste canned. The “chicken-fried bacon” (yes, that is battered, fried bacon), which appears on the “White Trash Burger,” sounds amazing, but tastes as if the coating somehow removed all the flavor from the bacon. The fried cheese curds are indeed fantastic, the crisp exterior is lacy and distinct, the flavor fresh, sweet, and gooey. Even better—truly phenomenal—are Burger Jones’s shakes, made with local Liberty Custard. The salted caramel shake, infused with tangy dulce de leche caramel, is actually worth driving across the state for. It’s rich, salty, and tangy, taking the goodness of Liberty’s great frozen custard and gilding it in a perfect restaurant sort of way. Equally excellent are the “hard shakes,” in which Liberty Custard keeps company with Maker’s Mark, frozen peaches, and a few Nilla wafers. Yum. My advice: If you go to Burger Jones, gorge on cheese curds and get everyone at your table a different shake—but don’t expect much from the burgers.

All in all, this season of burger frenzy has taught me two things: One, we really do live in a burger paradise; two, never underestimate the complexity of simplicity.
 

Smashburger
3900 Silver Lake Rd.,
St. Anthony
612-252-0412
mysmashburger.com
Five Guys
Burger and Fries
3871 Gallagher Dr., Edina
952-893-5489
fiveguys.com
Burger Jones
3200 W. Lake St., Mpls.
612-746-0800
burgerjones.com

 

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