Burger related

The Greatest Burger That Never Was

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You only turn 50 once.

I think it was the great philosopher Fred (Mr.) Rogers who first uttered those famous words.

So when my IPA drinking friend asked me what I wanted for my 50th birthday, I said “A great beer and a great burger in a great place.”

The last part was the easiest. We were sitting at a pub in Chicago, perhaps our favorite city in the entire United States. We’ve both been to Chicago numerous times. Why not? We’ve both lived in Illinois — she in Carbondale, and me in Champaign-Urbana — and would visit Chicagoland whenever possible. In fact, I’ve always told people that, because I lived just 100 miles south of Chicago, I could easily get there in an hour.

So there we sat, at a pub, in Chicago, about half a block from where Michigan Avenue crosses the Chicago River. A great city? Check.

Great beer was pretty easy also. Of course, Howells & Hood has 100+ beers on tap, so it’s hard to go wrong. I’d already enjoyed a Eugene Porter from Revolution Brewing, while my drinking buddy had downed an Anti-Hero IPA from the same Chicago-based brewery. Both were delicious.

The Eugene Porter, named after famous railroad union leader Eugene Debs, is a dark, dark beer with a ton of malt flavor and hints of chocolate. An excellent porter. Checking in at 70 IBUs, the Anti-Hero IPA has a nice hope bite that is complimented by lots of citrus aromas and flavors. It’s one my IPA slurping friend had in the past, which means it’s a go-to IPA whenever she has the chance.

And now I was on to my second malty beverage, and one that I’d never tried before — a White Stout.

The White Stout from James Page Brewery tasted like a combination of Pilsner and chocolate.
The White Stout from James Page Brewery tasted like a combination of Pilsner and chocolate.

What is a white stout, you ask. Well, it tastes like a Pilsner up front and nutty chocolate at the end. Who knew? The one I had was called Casper White Stout from James Page Brewery in Wisconsin, and is a two-time gold medal winner. So before you cast aspersions toward the white stout by claiming that merely adding coffee to a pale ale is BS, know that this beer has been approved by the judges at two pretty good competitions.

Good beer? Check.

The final piece of the birthday trifecta was a great burger. And where to find that, we didn’t know. So my IPA chugging companion polled the staff by asking two bartenders, a waiter, and a busboy.

Both bartenders (one male and one female in an effort to avoid any data collection bias) responded the same: Au Cheval. The waiter was asked. His answer? Au Cheval. Well, you can predict what the busboy said. That’s right … Wataburger. No, not really. He said Au Cheval, too.

The problem, the female bartender said, is that the wait to get a table can be a couple hours long. Two reasons: 1) the space is pretty small, and 2) the burgers are the best in Chicago. The good news is that diagonally across the corner from Au Cheval is Haymarket Pub & Brewery.

We checked out the menu online and found the restaurant had two bugers — a hamburger, and a cheeseburger. Wow, they’ve really gone all out in the creativity department.

It was 5:30 p.m., so we grabbed a cab and headed to Au Cheval. Twenty minutes later we were inside the front door putting our name on the waiting list. And the wait? Well, it wasn’t the two hours the bartender had predicted. It was three and a half. Yikes. This burger had better be damn good.

We added our name anyway, and after walking around the area taking an inventory of all the cool restaurants, bars and brownstones, we ended up at Haymarket, where we found plenty of ways to occupy our time waiting for the summons from the burger gods over yonder.

I started my now three-hour wait with the Defender American Stout, a big, bold beer (7.5% ABV) with a powerful malt kick that perfectly balanced a brewing process that included hops and then dry hops, and earned it numerous gold medals. My IPA sipping friend tried the Toonces #six IPA, the sixth version of Haymarket’s single-hop IPA that the IPAer said was “light and crispy.”

The Toonces IPA and the Defender American Stout, both from Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago.
The Toonces IPA and the Defender American Stout, both from Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago.

After taking our time with those two, and having a delightful conversation with the bar staff, I moved on to the Woot Stout, an impressive Imperial Stout that tasted of roasted caramel and a hint of pecans, one of my favorite beer ingredients.

More delightful conversation with the bar staff ensued. And by the time I’d finished off the stout, my IPA drinking buddy had found a table for us outside in the warm summer evening. But before I could make my way outside, the bartender poured the Cuppa Joe Hill Coffee Porter and gave it to me as a birthday gift. Aww.

This porter is made with lots of chocolate malt and 10 pounds of fresh coffee. You could definitely taste both. But even though each was in-your-face flavor, neither overpowered the other. The perfect present.

Two hours had passed, and we were starting to get hungry when my IPA chugging pal remembered there was a Tex-Mex restaurant on the next block. Perfect. We’ll go there for some chips and salsa, maybe even guacamole or queso, and have that as an appetizer before we, hopefully, eat at Au Cheval.

Two baskets of chips, a plate of guacamole, three servings of salsa, and a giant bowl of queso filled with chorizo later, there was no room for anything else. So much for Au Cheval. So, being full, and having our craving for grease-ladended Mexican food fulfilled for another year, we wandered toward the El to catch a train back downtown.

As we stood on the platform and the train approached, I received a text … from Au Cheval.

“Your name has moved into the top five on our waiting list. Please have your FULL party at the hostess stand in the next 10 minutes if you still want to eat at Au Cheval.”

I wrote back:

“No thanks. The wait was too long so decided to eat elsewhere. Too bad, because we’re really good tippers.”

Guess I won’t be getting a table at Au Cheval anytime soon.

So if you’re ever in Chicago and want a great burger, apparently Au Cheval is the place to go. And if you do go, please do me a favor … tell me how it was.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Drinking from Different Pages

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Trip completed. Check. Plants survived. Check. Didn’t kill each other. Check. Tried the local beer immediately upon arrival. You betcha.

The trek across the country from Appalachians to Rockies is over. For those of you scoring at home, the numbers look like this:

  • Miles traveled – 2,676
  • Days traveled – 10
  • Days arrived in advance of our furniture – 4 (and counting)
  • Hotels slept in – 5
  • Tents slept in – 1
  • New beers tasted – 21
  • New burgers tried – 5
  • Breweries visited – 7
  • States entered and/or exited – 9
  • States crossed without stopping – 1
  • Different state license plates seen and recorded – 48
  • Most number of states visited in one day – 4
  • Times crossed the continental divide – 5
  • Former grad school colleagues visited – 2
  • Former grad school colleagues not visited who commented on my posts – 2
  • Former grad school colleagues not visited who did not comment on my posts – 17.4285 (rounded up)
  • Times visited the gym – 0
  • Weight gained – 8.17

So, yes, the pants are a little tighter than when we began this little odyssey. But that didn’t stop us from waddling down the street to the neighborhood restaurant the first night in town.

There the waitron took our drink orders – the Hopzone IPA from Bozeman Brewing Co. for my hop-headed little friend and the Cold Smoke Scotch Ale by Kettle House Brewing Co. out of Missoula for me. She then

It took some searching, but after two days we found some breweries in the Grand Tetons.
It took serious searching, but we found some breweries in the Grand Tetons.

proceeded to inform us that the evening’s special was a basket of 20 spicy buffalo wings (aside: calling chicken wings buffalo wings is dumb because everyone knows buffalos can’t fly) and a pitcher of beer.

“But that won’t work for you,” she said, “since you two are drinking from different pages.”

Ah, yes, drinking from different pages. Ranks right up there on the list of mixed metaphors I’ve actually heard individuals utter in my presence, along with such classics as:

  • “I’ve got something right up your ballpark”
  • “We’re just scratching the iceberg”
  • “This isn’t rocket surgery”

and the all-time winner:

  • “The ink is in the pudding.”

The best thing is, our waitron was exactly correct. We’ve been drinking from different pages for 15 years now, and expect to until one of us drops dead. As I’ve said numerous times, we’re like left hand / right hand. Each one works well independently, but both work better together.

Why should we expect our beer drinking, and burger eating, to be any different? I like malty and sweet, she likes hoppy and bitter. I like ground beef medium rare, she likes chicken sandwiches marinated in teriyaki.

Yet somehow it works, and is probably how we survived 10 days in constant company with one another trapped in a Mini Cooper and surrounded by plants.

I did get a break from IPA-lapping traveling companion the two times I went to baseball games. Or, a more accurate way to say it, she got a break from me.

But we all made it to Bozeman, Montana in one piece – people, plants, and Mini included. Not sure I’ll be able to say the same for the furniture, which is, according to the moving company, still in Virginia.

Nothing quite like sitting a a brewery and enjoying the mountains that are less than 30 minutes away.
There’s nothing quite like sitting at a brewery and enjoying the mountains that are less than 30 minutes away.

Upon arrival, we did try a few new beers. She has sampled two IPAs, the Deschutes Pinedrops and the Horse Thief from Sheriff Harry Plummer’s Outlaw Brewing. I, on the other hand, have enjoyed the Madison River Oatmeal Stout and Outlaw’s Pugilist Chocolate Porter.

At the same time, we’re taking in the dry air and cool nights, along with the 360-degree view of mountains. And even though we know we’re in for a long, cold winter, there’s something comforting knowing that a town of just under 40,000 residents has four local breweries, and perhaps up to three more on the way.

Perfect fodder for plenty of posts by the entire staff at Beer-and-Burgers.com. You can definitely count on more to come. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them all, no matter which page you are drinking from.

— Eric Van Steenburg

A New Contender for “Best in Burger”

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Few burgers have challenged the supremacy of The Idiot Burger in Lexington, KY, since the start of this cross-country odyssey began more than a week ago. But now, we have a new contender for the coveted Beer-and-Burgers.com “Best in Burger” award.

Say hello to the Nacho-Cheese Burger at the Library Sports Grille & Brewery in Laramie, Wyoming.

The Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) is a family friendly sports bar in the downtown area, just a mile from the University of Wyoming campus. But hey, it’s Laramie. Everything is within a mile of campus.

Honest, mom, I'm at the Library. Here I am studying the Steamboat Oats & Cream Stout.
Honest, mom, I’m at the Library. Here I am studying the Steamboat Oats & Cream Stout.

The Nacho-Cheese Burger is just like the Cowboy Burger, of course, which means it’s the traditional burger with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. Except that the Library Gille (don’t forget the “e”) throws jalapenos, bacon, and cheddar cheese on top. Delicioso.

Most importantly, the chefs at Library Grille (don’t forget the “e”) know how to cook a burger. When you ask for it medium rare, you get it medium rare.

It has been amazingly difficult on this trip to get a burger cooked with enough pink in the middle that there’s still some moisture and flavor left in the meat. One restaurant we tried had an extensive list of tantalizing burger options. But when I ordered the Samba Burger and asked for it medium rare, the barkeep informed me that “all our burgers are cooked well done.” Oh good. I like my burgers burnt and tasteless. Yum. Looks like a turkey sandwich for me.

But the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) made it right. And the chefs were also generous with the amount of jalapenos. Nothing worse than asking for the “jalapeno burger” and getting something with only one or two slices of that pesky pepper.

If the burger wasn’t enough, the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e”) is also a brewery, and had several of their locally made options on tap. I enjoyed the Steamboat Oats and Cream Stout, which was full of body and creaminess, as its name implies. It also had a touch of chocolate and roasted hazelnuts in the taste. Nicely done.

Finally, the cool thing for the students who attend the University of Wyoming is that when they go to the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) they can tell their folks they spent the evening at the library, and they won’t be lying.

I’m not lying when I say the Nacho-Cheese Burger is giving The Idiot Burger a challenge for Best in Burger. And with just a few more days until we reach Bozeman, Montana, it may boil down to a two-burger race.

In sum, if you find yourself in Laramie, Wyoming, I recommend a burger and beer at the Library Grill. Oh crap, I forgot the “e”

— Eric Van Steenburg

The Beer Doth Floweth Like a Stream from the Mountains

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Two days in Denver, and haven’t even scratched the surface of trying all the craft beer available within walking distance of our hotel. So here’s a day-by-day rundown of our efforts to sample them all.

Friday:

  • Arrive in town late in the day and in desperate need of something to erase the endless hours of travel across Nebraska. So we headed to Wynkoop Brewery for a beer (or two) and a burger.Wynkoop is one of the first breweries to open in Denver, so they’ve had lots of practice making quality craft beer.
    The first brew pub in Denver, Wynkoop has made its share of beer.
    The first brew pub in Denver, Wynkoop has made its share of beer.

    In fact, the Barrel-o-Meter sign on the wall says they’ve made almost 1,700 barrels of beer, and a bartender named Al said that sign what in desperate need of updating. I started with the Cowtown Milk Stout, a nitro-infused traditional stout with a thick head and a semi-sweet taste. My IPA swilling road pal sipped on a Belgorado Belgian-IPA, a combination of Colorado-grown malt and lots of Belgian yeast. But at only 48 IBUs, it didn’t quit hit her bitter spot. Mine, on the other hand, was quite easy to drink, and I was therefore encouraged to try another local malty brew — the Real Big Stout. This Imperial effort, made in conjunction with Ska Brewing Co., was chocolaty with lots of caramel flavor. And at 10% ABV, they weren’t foolin’ around. It was quite tasty. So was the burger I had, though I wish it was more pink in the middle. Seems to be a challenge to get a real medium-rare burger in these parts.

Saturday:

  • Met some relatives for lunch and headed to the Mellow Mushroom, a touristy pizza joint but with good beer options, as most restaurants in Denver seem to have. There our beer-loving waitron, Kate, had fun letting us try numerous options from the bar. Ultimately, I enjoyed the New Belgium Portage Porter, which I’ve tasted from the bottle before, but not from the tap. It was, as are most New Belgium products, nicely done. This porter has a malty feel but isn’t overly sweetened. I convinced one of the fam to try the Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide Brewing Co., which has an outpost just a few blocks away. He liked it, and who wouldn’t. This multi-award winning brew is coffee meets toffee. As he was sipping his 9.5% ABV beverage, I ordered the Boulder Shake. Again, I’ve had this previously. But this was a nitro version, and it went down smooth as … well … something that goes down smooth. Meanwhile, my hop-loving friend was at the other end of the table sampling numerousIPAs, thanks to Kate. No clue what she ended up drinking.

    Enjoying the 90 Shilling Ale while watching the Rockies and Brewers.
    Enjoying the 90 Shilling Ale while watching the Rockies and Brewers.
  • In the afternoon, it was off to another ballpark. This time, Coors Field. Fortunately, Coors is not the only beer available in the stadium. I was able to enjoy a 90 Shilling Ale from Odell Brewing Co., another Colorado-based craft brewery. There were several other options for the crafty beer drinker, but none that really hit my malty sweet spot. So the 90 Shilling, with its combination of Scotch ale malt and Amber ale ruddiness, was perfect for a warm summer day at the ballpark.
  • Breckenridge beckoned, so we complied and went to Breckenridge Colorado Craft, a taproom one block from the stadium featuring, as one would expect, mostly Breckenridge Brewing Co. beers, and a few others as well. But why wander off the trail? So I enjoyed their Oatmeal Stout while the hop-head had the Fresh Hop Pale Ale followed by the Breck IPA. And, of course, I had to have the NVP — Nitro Vanilla Porter. The non-nitro bottle version of this beer has been a staple in my fridge for years. Having it on tap, in Denver, infused with nitro, made for a perfect ending to a beer-filled day.

Sunday:

  • Next stop, Fort Collins. The only question is whether to stop at the New Belgium brewery, or the Odell brewery. Or both?

Stay tuned.

— Eric Van Steenburg

The Idiot Among Us

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I believe it was Aristotle who first said “When in Kentucky, do as the Kentuckians.” Or is it Kentuckionians? Kentuckites? Oh well, who am I to argue with the inventor of the riding lawn mower.

So when we arrived in the metropolis known as Lexington, we knew we needed to fin it. That meant dining at a local establishment and sipping some of the finest Kentucky brews.

To start, we were presented with numerous opportunities. Patty’s son, who lives in Lexington, was kind enough to offer his two favorite burger places. I’d also seen a “top 5 burger joints in Lexington” post online that increased our options to seven. Then, as we drove downtown, past the legendary Rupp Arena where the University of Kentucky’s professional basketball team plays, people were hanging out of every restaurant and parking spaces were suddenly at a premium. This was clearly the place to be.

To be more precise, the intersection of Broadway and Market was loaded with restaurants. Too many options.

But then there it stood, like a shining light acting as a beacon in a sea of darkness … The Village Idiot.

Which one of the Village People was the Idiot?
Which member of the Village People was the Idiot?

I was home.

I’d read about the place online. The beer selection and burger choices sounded tempting. And, like all of the best “burger joints,” it had more options on the menu than just burgers. That’s a necessity for my IPA chugging traveling companion, who prefers a chicken sandwich of some kind over the beauty of the burger.

We went inside and saw all the draft beers listed on a giant chalkboard. But the bar, where we usually prefer to sit, was packed. Fortunately the hotron (that’s the gender-neutral way to say host/hostess) informed us there was an upstairs bar. And so to second floor we ascended.

There we found a seat at the bar, and the most attentive and informative bartender. Sam made several beer suggestions, and was happy to accommodate our wishes, including getting the Korean Chicken Sandwich without the sandwich.

I was thrilled with Sam’s recommendation of the 35K milk stout from Against the Grain brewery out of Louisville. For the IPAer, he suggested the West Sixth IPA or the Heller Heaven Double IPA, both from West Sixth Brewing. After sampling each (she’s big into samples), she chose the former because of its stronger hop bite. My 35K, by the way, was a perfect blend of dry and creamy. Not much of a head, but easy to drink with very subtle hints of cocoa and coffee.

Burger time. While she ordered the previously mentioned bun-less sandwich, which was chicken topped with a spicy gochujang sauce, I got the signature burger – the Idiot.

You don't have to be an idiot to order this burger, but it helps.
You don’t have to be an idiot to order this burger, but it helps.

This delicious mound of meat featured an almost pink burger topped with cheddar and a huge onion ring, in which the chef chose to put pulled pork. All of this is on a pretzel bun, which I could have done without. Still, the burger was wonderful, and one I would highly recommend.

As for my IPA slurping road buddy, while the West Sixth IPA was fine, Sam then poured her the Stone Enjoy By IPA, which right now is the 07.04.15. This one really hit her sweet spot. Bitter hops in the nose and the back end. An excellent balance of bitter at malt, which for her means more bitter and less malt. And hey, we know it’s fresh.

So maybe the Stone beer wasn’t Kentucky. But everything else was. And for one night, we were Kentuckiers. Aristotle would be proud.

Three thumbs up to The Village Idiot.

— Eric Van Steenburg

I Hit Rock Bottom – Twice

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This one’s off my 83rd album …

“Oh, I’ve been everywhere, man.”

“I’ve been everywhere.”

“I’ve tried a lot of beers, man.”

“I’ve tried a lot of beers.”

“Of beers I’ve had my share, man.”

“I’ve been everywhere.”

“I been to Chicago, Seattle, Scranton, San Antonio,”

“Washington, Grand Forks, Raleigh-Durham,”

“North Carolina, South Carolina, North Dakota,”

 “Myrtle Beach, Montana, Minneapolis (four times)”

“Oh, I’ve been everywhere, man.”

“I’ve been everywhere.”

Thank ya. Thank ya very much.

As you can tell, I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately, which is why the number of posts on the Beer-and-Burgers blog has slowed considerably. But I really did go to all of those places – and all in the last five weeks. Can you say hectic? I thought you could.

The good news is I did get to sample a nice variety of craft beers in these locations. Here are the highlights:

  • Surly Brewing Company (Brooklyn Center, MN) – On a trip to North Dakota, I tasted the Bender and the Coffee Bender in Minnesota (which is just across the river from where I was staying). The Bender is a brown ale made with oatmeal that created a taste similar to a stout. Although it was somewhat dry, I liked the creaminess of the beer, and noticed a little caramel flavor at the end. The Coffee Bender is the sister beer. The addition of coffee to the Bender made it even creamier, making it feel like a coffee stout but with enough caramel sweetness to balance out the bitter coffee flavor. Delicious.
  • Two Beers Brewing (Seattle, WA) – Tried the excellent Sodo Brown Ale during a visit to Seattle in February. Heavy on the malt, this beer had a bit of cocoa flavor that wasn’t overpowering, but enough to make it semi-sweet and exceptionally smooth.
  • 406 Brewing Company (Bozeman, MT) – The Brown Porter is outstanding. It rivals the Pecan Porter from 512 Brewing Co. in Austin, TX. Obviously naming your brewery after the area code where you live means you can make an excellent porter. Lots of caramel flavor and malty goodness to counterbalance the smokiness at the beginning of the taste.
  • Tröegs Brewing Company (Hershey, PA) – The Mad Elf Ale may look like an everyday Amber in the glass, but this Winter ale is the perfect conclusion to anyone’s holiday season. I tasted a hint of chocolate and cherry, but lots of malt from start to finish. At 11% ABV, you probably only need one of these to kick off a celebration. Usually only available through February, so I was lucky to find one during a trip to Scranton, PA in March.

Of course, all the travel meant flight delays, missed connections, and plenty of time spent in airports.

So there I sat, in the Minneapolis airport for the second time, waiting for the same flight going to the same place leaving from the same gate. And both times, I had a four-hour layover. What to do, what to do?

Fortunately, there is a Rock Bottom Brewery in the airport. And even better, it’s right around the corner from the gate where the flight leaves at 8 p.m. for D.C.

Now, I’m not a fan of chain restaurants … nor chain letters or chain link fences, for that matter. (I’m OK with chainmail, if worn correctly.) But I’ve had several good meals and beers at Rock Bottom Brewery in the past. Took some friends to the one in downtown Chicago and had a great time. Used to visit the one in Dallas when it was open. And so I was OK with spending a few hours at Rock Bottom in the Minneapolis airport.

The first time, I was able to enjoy the Winter Warmer and the Chocolate Porter. Both were pretty good. The warmer tasted of molasses and nutmeg, while the porter was exactly as advertised – very chocolatey and sweet. The warmer was perfect with my Laredo burger, which featured a little spice in the cheese and toppings, and was cooked a perfect medium rare.

The second visit exactly one week later wasn’t quite as good on the beer or burger front. The Warmer was gone, and the Porter didn’t go well with that spicy burger. And I think this time the cook let it sit too long on the grill because there wasn’t any pinkness left in the meat.

Still, sitting there wasn’t exactly the worst way to kill four hours waiting for an airplane. So who cares if all I could get was an airporter. If you find yourself hitting Rock Bottom, this is the way to do it.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Does Your Burger Joint Make the Grade?

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Just got finished grading 19 projects, 19 presentations, and the semester-long participation efforts of 79 students. You would think I’d be sick of grading. But no. Because now I get to grade what I really want … the world’s greatest burger joint.

OK, the Katy Trail Ice House might not be the best burger joint in the world. But it’s pretty darn good. And I was fortunate enough to be there two days before Thanksgiving, sitting outside on their huge backyard space, eating a delicious burger, drinking a delicious beer, basking in 68-degree sunshine, and watching the beautiful people of Dallas getting their mid-day exercise on the Katy Trail.

The view from my table at the Katy Trail Ice House in Dallas. Note the perfectly pink color of the burger, the beautiful amber hue of the beer, and the glorious sunshine on the backyard adjacent to the Katy Trail in the near distance.
The view from my table at the Katy Trail Ice House in Dallas. Note the perfectly pink color of the burger, the beautiful amber hue of the 512 Pecan Porter, the sprinkles of glorious sunshine in the backyard, and the very damn wildly popular Katy Trail in the near distance.

I have to admit feeling a twinge of nostalgic remorse as I sat there enjoying myself and watching the world go by. Two reasons for this: 1) I helped build the Katy Trail when I was its executive director from 2002-2009; and 2) restaurants with backyards adjacent to the Trail was an idea I’d pushed on every developer during my tenure, but none would ever support my vision.

Now the Katy Trail Ice House is so popular, the City of Dallas features it several times in its official promo video (look for it around 2:02 and 2:27). It’s location along the incredibly successful Katy Trail is part of the reason. The other is that the place has great beer and great burgers. How great? Let’s find out by putting my How to Rate a Burger Joint grading scale to work. Here we go:

Burger Measures

  1. Can you get it cooked to order? – My preference is medium rare. I want quite a bit of pink in the middle of that slab of meat. Most places are either afraid to serve it that way, or have cooks who don’t know how to do anything but burn it to a crisp. The Katy Trail Ice House delivers. Perfectly. Score: 10.
  2. Can you get it made to order? – I will never want mustard on my burger, so we’ll always need to 86 that. And if I order the jalapeno burger, it had better not come with sour cream. What Mexican do you know who eats anything with sour cream? Again, the Ice House met my demands. Score: 10.
  3. Appearance – You can’t just slap down a burger on a plate and expect people to eat it. Presentation does count for something, even at a burger joint. Katy Trail Ice House puts your food on a small tray covered in aluminum foil, chips on the side. It’s probably not what they teach at Le Cordon Bleu, but it works. Score: 7.
  4. Bun quality – Outstanding bun-to-burger ratio here. Not much else to consider in this bun, however. It’s more or less there to keep you from looking like an animal if you were to simply hold charred beef between your fingers. Score: 7.
  5. Does it taste good? – Yes, my taste buds were in heaven. It always helps when the burger is cooked to order. But the combination of goodies on top made the whole thing a mouth-watering delight. Score: 10.

Non-burger Measures

  1. Are there other items on the menu? – My lunch companion often prefers a chicken something to a burger. The Ice House has a grilled chicken Swiss sandwich, a chicken salad sandwich, and a chicken salad salad. A few other options sprinkle the menu, but this place caters to the burger lover. Score: 7.
  2. How’s the beer list? – In a word, excellent. There are about 50 taps with a range of craft and mass-produced beers. Most are Texas beers or others in the region. I was able to get the 512 Pecan Porter, and my IPA-chugging friend got the Lakewood Hopp Trapp. Would love to see the list expanded to great beer-making states like Colorado, Oregon, and Virginia. Score: 9.
  3. Is there outside seating? – Holy crap, yes. And the Ice House did it the way I’d recommended to many a developer – throw some gravel on the ground, put out some picnic tables, and serve coffee, water, and beer. In addition to glorious outdoor seating, the Ice House has garage doors that can be opened or closed based on the weather, and lead to the inside seating with a dozen or so TVs filled with every game being played that day. The place even keeps water jugs next to the Trail for the exerciser in need of refreshment. Score: 10.
  4. What side dishes are available? – Katy Trail Ice House has a few options for chips and dips. We started with the jalapeno bottle caps, which are simply jalapeno slices dipped in batter and deep-fried. Yes, I had jalapenos as an appetizer and the jalapeno burger. I believe it was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who first said “You can never have enough jalapenos.” Grade: 7
  5. Ambiance – Well, the music is mostly country, which is a demerit in my book. But at least it was classic country and not the pop-country-crap that Nashville has been pushing on us for the last 20 years. The servers are usually quite nice. And the whole thing reeks of casual chic. Excellent place to hang out for a while. Score: 10.

Now we add simply it up. And the Katy Trail Ice House burger joint score is … 87.

That’s pretty good. But hey, I’m a tough grader. Just ask 79 students.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Always Trust a Burger Chef

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My mom is a burger Luddite. Well, sort of. That doesn’t mean she prefers to eat burgers by candlelight. That would make her burger Amish.

No, she’s more Luddite. You know, that leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age. At least that’s what their manifesto says they are.

Yes, mom wants her burgers plain and simple. Basically, meat and bun. I’m not even sure if she goes for the L-TOP, my shorthand for lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle. Though the last time we had a burger together – which is, of course, the most special of mother-son bonding moments – I think she went LT-O, as in lettuce, tomato only. And definitely no cheese. Cheese is right out.

What to put on your burger might be one of the only things my mom and I don’t just naturally agree on. After all, great minds do think alike.

The grill at Jack Brown's lights up with its variety of burger options.
The grill at Jack Brown’s gets crowded with its variety of burger concoctions.

But when it comes to enjoying a burger, I’ve learned to trust the chef, no matter what they plan to put between the buns. (Pause here as some might want to enjoy a “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” flashback to “Those aren’t pillows!”)

Case in point: I’ve corrupted my partner in crime so much that she craves a good burger about once a month. Comparatively, my burger requirements are typically one every two weeks, so she’s not quite at my level … yet. In terms of being a burger aficionado, let’s say she’s a burger yellow belt.

So when we went to Jack Brown’s – a burger joint in Harrisonburg that is well-known up and down Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley – she told the watron that she wanted the day’s special, The Greg Brady burger, which comes with mac ‘n’ cheese and potato chips on top. But, she wanted (gasp!) the chips on the side. Being a burger black belt, I, of course, knew to trust the burger chef and ordered mine with the chips on top.

Two minutes after the burgers arrived, she tasted mine and realized the error of her ways. I immediately gave her a field promotion. She’s now a burger brown belt.

Now, some restaurants try to put too many things on top of their burgers. These are simply efforts to try to “trick up” the burger, and are usually just a ploy by a chain restaurant to make a tasteless burger taste better. A real burger joint – not a chain restaurant – doesn’t need to trick up its burgers. They’re simply making delicious burger concoctions.

To put it another way, efforts to trick up a burger are akin to what today’s college football teams are doing to their uniforms. Just because you “candie up” your uniform – to quote my friend Gaylon as he channels his inner Darryl Royal, the legendary Texas football coach – doesn’t make you a better team, nor a better university. You can’t buy class.

So the chain restaurants found in Generica with their “Double Wheezy Fresh and Cheesy” burger don’t cut it. You’ve got to go to a real burger joint, order a real burger, and eat it however it’s prepared. I’ll say it again – always trust a burger chef.

Here’s another example. Both Jack Brown’s and Local Chop & Grill House – the excellent restaurant and bar that is literally (and unlike most people under the age of 20 I’m using that word correctly) 210 feet from our front door – have burgers dedicated to those who like their mouth lit up like an Aggie bonfire. (For those of you who don’t know, the Aggie bonfire is a pile of logs about 12 stories high that would be torched the week Texas A&M played Texas in football.) In other words, the burgers are a bit on the spicy hot side. But both have drastically different ingredients.

A buger with a donut for the bun. Yes, you canfind that at Jack Brown's too.
A burger with a donut for the bun. Yes, you can find that at Jack Brown’s too.

Local Chop has the Inferno Burger, for which you get to choose ground chuck or bison that will be topped with habanero pickle relish, cheddar cheese, cayenne bacon, and chipotle remoulade. Cayenne bacon? I don’t know whether to say “yikes!” or “yum!”

Jack Brown’s has the Shocker, ground beef topped with fresh jalapenos, fresh habaneros, pepper jack cheese, and shocker sauce, a closely held secret in-house creation that is guaranteed to set your mouth (and later your pants) on fire.

I’ve had them both. Each is outstanding. And even though the toppings are different, the results are the same – an enjoyable, delicious burger that makes you appreciate that God had a sense of humor when she gave us edible things like habaneros. These burgers were so spicy, this transplanted Texan loses 5 pounds in sweat each time I have one. Each is so hot that my friend Melanie, who drinks the hottest sauces in the world like the rest of us drink water, might even release a bead of sweat. But they’re also so delicious, it’s worth it. And hey, it’s better than going to the gym, right?

Most importantly, they taste great because the burger chef knew what he was doing. He picked the ingredients that he knew would taste great together, and cooked the burger with that in mind.

And my point is, that’s what we all need to keep in mind. Whether you’re a purist or an adventurer, always trust the burger chef.

— Eric Van Steenburg

CODA: My hot sauce slurping friend Melanie has a great blog on wine. If you’re into that sort of thing, check her out at DallasWineChick.com.

CODA CODA: Thanks to Lisa at Jack Brown’s for the burger photos.

In a Burger Drought

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Just like most of the Western U.S., I’m in a drought. It’s not water that I’m missing, though, it’s the void of a really great burger that I’m feeling. I can’t remember the last time I had a delicious mound of ground round that was perfectly pink and placed between bountiful bread.

OK, that was a lot of alliteration from an anxious author. But see what a dearth of burger goodness does to someone?

I tried to solve my burger drought by flying to … wait for it … California. That’s right. I spent last weekend in San Francisco searching for a great burger. Well, it was actually a business trip. But who says one can’t be part of the other.

The initial attempt came the first night I was there when I was joined at Thirsty Bear Brewing Company by friends Iman Naderi and Bob Fabrize. After a pint of the house beers – the Kozlov Stout for me and the Howard Street IPA for them – we each ordered the thirstyburger. I was diligent in pointing out to the waitron that mine should be put on the grill last since I ordered medium-rare, while my colleagues chose medium and medium-well. No burnt food for me, please.

According to the menu, the thirstyburger was 100 percent grass-feed beef topped with hook’s five-year cheddar and a special garlic-tomato sauce as well as a garlic aioli. Mmm, garlic. Sounded promising.

When mine showed up, the thick chunk of meat was closer to medium than medium-rare (probably was still cooking after it came off the grill, but a good cook should account for that).  The burger overall was piled high with the standard lettuce-tomato-pickle toppings, while the brioche bread buns made it even taller. Looked promising.

But as I worked my way through the mountain of a meal, I was not overwhelmed. The fact that the burger was cooked more than it should be was definitely a factor that negatively affected the taste. The double shot of garlic didn’t give it the bite I think it should have. And while the French bread was quite good, it made the filling in between almost disappear. I eventually removed the top half and just ate the burger with the bottom piece.

If the meat had been a little bloodier, the garlic a little stronger, and the bread a little thinner, this would have been a great burger. Instead, it was B– effort. The stout, with some hints of roasted coffee and unsweetened chocolate, got a slightly higher grade of B.

Got a nice Brekle's Brown Ale by anchor Brewing Co. at Maggie McGarry's in S.F. while watching an Arsenal game.
Got a nice Brekle’s Brown Ale by Anchor Brewing Co. at Maggie McGarry’s in S.F. while watching an Arsenal game.

The burger drought extended the rest of the weekend as pizza and Persian were the dining choices made by my colleagues the next two nights. That was followed by an airport food lunch and an airplane food dinner. It seems I’m not lacking for air travel cuisine.

Returning to the ‘Burg I attempted to remedy the situation by trying a restaurant on Thursday that my roommate insists makes good burgers. So off to Union Station we went, quickly finding a seat at the bar. Things started well when I tasted, and then ordered a pint, of the Jeffersons Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout made by Bluegrass Brewing Company. Too often, the bourbon and rum barrel aged beers are overpowered by the bourbon and rum. Hey, if I want liquor, I’d order liquor. When I order beer, I want beer. And this stout was definitely the latter. The full-bodied, dark dark beer had a mocha coffee flavor that balanced nicely with the bourbon to create a smooth, partakeable brew.

The burger, on the other hand, was a no-frills slab of meat covered with cheddar cheese and some onions (which I had to order as “extra” and became the most flavorful part of the experience). In spite of asking for it to be cooked medium rare, it came out medium-well. Certainly not a memorable burger. That said, I will go back to Union Station to try a burger off the full menu because the place has almost half a dozen from which to choose.

Thinking back, now, I believe the last great burger I had was at Jack Brown’s in Harrisonburg sometime in March when we slogged our way through mountains of snow. Perhaps that’s the key – make the quest a challenging one and the result is a better burger. If that’s the case, then I’d love to be in Hawaii right now.

— Eric Van Steenburg

What Makes a Good Burger Joint?

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My quest for the best burger joint started more than 10 years ago when my go-to place in Dallas (my hometown) changed its burger recipe. And if messing up the best tasting burger in the city wasn’t enough, the restaurant also changed its queso, salsa and guacamole. What used to be a slam dunk order – Swiss burger medium rare with chips all three, please – was forever quashed. It cut me to the bun.

So the quest began. But first, I had to determine what makes a great burger joint. Keep in mind I’m looking for the best place to eat burgers, not necessarily the place with the best burgers. In fact, burger quality is only half of the grading system to determine the best burger joint. But it is 50 percent.

For those interested in starting your own quest, or want to join me in mine, here’s how to rate a burger joint. Just remember that eating at a great burger joint should be a holistic experience.

Burger Measures

  1. Can you get it cooked to order? In other words, can you get it medium rare, and does it show up medium rare. Most places will allow you to request it cooked any way you want. Few actually deliver.
  2. Can you get it made to order? That is, can you order it with or without cheese, toppings, sauces, condiments, etc.? For me, I always need the option to ixnay the mustard.
  3. Appearance – Any top chef will tell you that presentation is key to a good meal. And while top chefs don’t typically work the kitchen at a burger joint, how the burger looks when it arrives does matter. A cook who takes pride in his work will want the burger to look great.
  4. Bun quality. Consider the following: Is it too hard or soft? How does it taste? What’s the bun-to-burger ratio? If it has seeds (sesame, poppy, etc.) do they serve a purpose beyond getting stuck between your teeth? Too many burger places overlook the importance of the bun.
  5. Does it taste good – do you get good burger flavor? Your taste buds should be in heaven. And in the future, your mouth should start to salivate every time you think of it.

Non-Burger Measures

  1. Are there other items on the menu besides burgers, and are they any good? Not everyone in your group may like or want a burger. Check for a marinated chicken breast sandwich or something similar.
  2. How’s the beer list? Variety and quality of beer makes for a better burger experience. Good frozen margaritas can work in a pinch, and will probably be the favorite of the non-burger eater in your party.
  3. Is there outside seating? Americans love to eat burgers outside. That’s why we stand over a 250-degree grill on a 110-degree day every 4th of July. But there’s nothing better than a burger joint with a patio or deck. A cool bar to at which to sit is a good substitute.
  4. What side dishes are available? Fries are a staple, and therefore a must-have. But top-notch homemade chips can make a good burger experience a great one. Perhaps the restaurant has a signature side, like mac ‘n’ cheese, baked beans, or pig knuckles.
  5. Ambiance – this includes everything from the music (‘70s and ‘80s pop seem to work well in burger joints), to the table comfort, to cleanliness, to service. If all are strong, give at least a 20 percent tip. The reason? If you ever go back, the staff remembers the good tippers, and you’ll get an even better experience.

Rate each item on a 10-point scale, then add it up. Any place that scores more than 90 is an A-level burger joint. Just let me know where it is so I can meet you there next time.

— Eric Van Steenburg