Tag Archives: burgers

Seesawing through Seattle eateries

I volunteered to give up eating burgers this summer because I consumed far too many on our last road trip through the US two years ago, and because often, they’re just not that good. They’re overcooked until they resemble hockey pucks, or they’re served with limp lettuce or overly membrane-y onion slices, they’re on Goldilocks-like, ill-fitting buns, and they’re almost never the right temperature. There are a lot of things, it seems, that can go wrong with preparing a burger. And here I thought I was ordering something everyone knew how to make.

So we said we’d forgo the burgers on this go-round, and I found myself eating a lot of chef’s salads, even though one table of manly men in South Dakota looked at me like I was nuts, or on a dare—something. Why is that big guy eating a pile of lettuce, they looked like they wanted to ask. I wasn’t about to elaborate, because really, where does the story end? It would be like unraveling a sweater on a slippy slope way over the line.

August rolled around and our vacation was over, noted with distinction by the piles of boxes we unpacked in our new but temporary digs. Nobody knows what to call this neighborhood. Owners of several real estate developers are trying to establish the “South Lake Union” moniker, but old-looking signs dotting the streets around here call it the “Cascade neighborhood,” and some of the folks who have lived here a while and I’m not talking about the ones who live in the lofts that supposedly promote creativity, they simply call it “Eastlake.” Thus I have no earthy idea where we live, except to say that we’re in Seattle proper. And there is a big highway right next to us, so as a fan of white noise, it’s close to perfect over here.

One of the things I wanted to do when we showed up in la citie grande was find some good places to eat. After all, in Walla Walla, if one craves Indian cuisine, one needs to master cooking it oneself or make friends with a fine lady named Shampa. There may be some Chinese restaurants in town, but locals will tell newcomers right away that they should never, never eat there. Two restaurants of Thai persuasion are available, but neither of them provide good service or, for that matter, great Thai. So now that we have access to places that make belly-filling Ethiopian, luscious and spicy Nepalese, or experimental gastronomy items, we figured we should try them out.

Because Susanne had been there once before, several years ago, we went to Baguette Box on Capitol Hill with a friend from out of town, and it was lovely. A small space, very casual but still in the universe of “bistro,” they proclaimed their love of grass-fed, organic meats but also offered vegetarian sandwiches. Most things except the frites and the beet salad came on fresh, still-warm baguette, so thank god they believe in truth in advertising. Although they were busy we received our sandwiches quickly: lamb with cucumber yogurt sauce, pork belly with cilantro and hoisin, and pork loin with carmelized onions and apricot aioli. All were thoroughly delicious, cooked perfectly, and decadent. We also ordered the beet salad and the frites. As far as French-style, shoestring fries go, these were crispy and tender. The beet salad, on the other hand, was pedestrian and lacking the same interesting flavor combinations of the sandwiches. We will definitely return for more. I’m eying the drunken chicken sandwich and the eggplant and feta. (Baguette Box, 1203 Pine Street, 206.332.0220)

Last week I went with Susanne to Blue Moon Burgers, over near our place, just off of Fairmont Avenue. If we were going to have burgers again, we wanted it to be in a place that made them their core business. Friendly atmosphere, boasting of meat from Walla Walla’s own Thundering Hooves ranch—more sustainable and organic goods. I don’t quite bristle at the thought that I had to drive 230 miles for these burgers but hey, I shop direct at their store on East Isaacs when I’m living in Wallyworld, so it’s okay. And I’m glad to see other folks in the Northwest seek them out. It’s one thing to read about it in the Thundering Hooves newsletter, but another thing entirely to watch it in action. Exciting stuff! Burgers is a broader category here than just ground beef; Blue Moon Burgers also features vegetarian and vegan patties, turkey, and the very Seattle salmon burger. Also, they have gluten-free buns, and since I know no fewer than five people with gluten allergies, I’m glad to see this little accommodation for them.

Problem was, it took us 50 minutes to get our food. Blue Moon has a order-at-the-counter-we’ll-bring-it-to-you business model, in which patrons pick up a number to set on their table while they wait. Drinks are self-serve. This means that we were on our 2.5th serving of root beer by the time the staff came by with our meal. I am not fond of this serving method to begin with, as the wait staff don’t know in advance where on has ventured, and so must spend some amount of time, bordering on copious, assessing one’s location. It seems wildly inefficient to me, and yet I encounter the practice more and more often.

So, for the burgers. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and Susanne got a burger with blue cheese. We got a combo order of onion rings and fries to share. By the time our food reached us (other patrons were complaining at their tables, too) the fries were entering tepid stage, but these were made warm by the two onion rings placed lovingly on top. Seriously? Two onion rings? That’s a combo? Our gluten-riddled buns had been over heated on the bottom so that they were semi-stale, and they were way bigger than the burgers inside. Picture a lone toddler in a kid’s public pool. Neither burger had been cooked to order, but otherwise they were tasty, but to risk sounding like an ass, I chalk that up more to Thundering Hooves than anything that occurred in the kitchen. Truth be told the burger needed to be amazing to justify the near-hour wait, and it wasn’t anywhere near amazing. Susanne says she plans to go back because it was clear they were understaffed, but money is tight for us, so when I go out I want to feel like it was worth parting with the bills in my wallet. One solution: they have online ordering, so burgers are ready for a later pick up. (Blue Moon Burgers, 2 locations, 206.652.0400)

Walla Walla, fortunately for them, has a mom and pop doughnut shop, called Popular Donuts, which is one street over from Poplar Street. Hence, everyone calls it Poplar Donuts and as people who know me can imagine, this drives me nuts. Nobody gets “public” and “pubic” wrong, do they? As it happens, they’re really good doughnuts, and they’re old school. No gimmicks, no fancy flavors, no branding, just good confections and seriously tasty, cheap coffee. There are always a couple of older people on the six seats inside talking about Very Important Matters, and I’ve realized over the years that their presence indicates good, affordable food.

Out here in the Emerald City are several different doughnut-creating operations, one of them being Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts. They seem to be venturing into ubiquitous territory, with locations at Qwest Field, and other stadiums, designated official doughnut of the Seahawks and Sooners (take that, Redskins!), and having signed some new agreement with Starbucks. Starbucks, people. That’s pretty big time, I suppose, in the hole-in cake world.

We walked over to the location by the monorail (still ferrying 30 people a day since the 1964 World’s Fare, folks, get your ticket today) and sampled four doughnuts: glazed chocolate cake, double chocolate, chocolate glazed cruller, and my all-time, number-one favorite doughnut, the Boston cream. I held off on the cream until last, like hoping for a big climax to a fireworks show. I should say here that all of the service staff at these places are ridiculously friendly, even as they’re serving hour-late burgers. The doughnuts were delightful. Hot damn, they were very good. The old fashioned, cakey doughnuts had a bit of nutmeg in them and even a hint of lemon extract, a detail that we appreciated. But the Boston cream stole the whole show. Yeasted unbelievably well, it defied descriptions of its texture. It was buttery, light, but dense next to the Bavarian cream, moist, vanilla-infused, it was amazing. The chocolate sauce wasn’t a careless artifact from a Hershey’s bottle, but also nuanced and almost a little nutty. And the cream was thick, mouth-coating, and really fresh, a great friend to the other parts of the doughnut. I was also happy, at least initially, to see how much was inside the cake; no skimping going on at Top Pot.

We suffered a tremendous sugar-crash after our walk home. So I recommend not eating two in one sitting. But we’ll be back for more nibbles, I’m sure. (Top Pot Doughnuts, several locations, downtown phone 206.728.1966)

Need I say how grateful we are to be in Seattle? There are a lot more places to check out and people to meet. And even so, we’re definitely missing our friends in DC and Walla Walla.

For when the snow melts

Maybe it’s cheating a little bit, but here’s a re-post of a restaurant review I wrote a couple of years back (well, 18 months anyway) of a hamburger joint on Capitol Hill in DC. Once people can make it outside their homes and restaurants begin receiving supplies again, feel free to avoid this place.

So we went to check out Spike’s new burger restaurant in Capitol Hill, the Good Stuff Eatery, and the vague name should tell patrons something before they even cross the threshold. For those of you who don’t know who Spike is, I’m not talking about Spike Lee, I’m talking about the former Top Chef contestant from a couple seasons ago who always wore a hat and made it pretty far to the end. He was kind of a card, as portrayed in the show. We were curious to see how his new venture was going, and a little dumbfounded as to why he’d open up a burger joint in a town already replete with them (thinking of the fabulous local 5 Guys chain, Booeymonger, Tonic locations, etc.).

I crutched up to the street with Susanne at about 7 p.m. on a Monday evening. There was a line of about oh, 8-10 people snaking down the sidewalk. Really? I don’t think I’ve seen that in DC except for one truly amazing Mexican place in Adams Morgan, but okay. Come to find out, as we cross the street and head over, there’s actually an Ombudsman standing outside guarding the door. You can see inside the place that there’s plenty of space for us to stand inside (where we will later freeze our asses off), but he’s got us out here. Where everyone can see how “jumping” the place is, we presume. Well, clearly Spike’s got the skill of spinning his reality down pat already, giving evidence that anyone can acclimate to DC standards.

I found a chair at an unused outside table (if it’s so busy, how is it that there are free tables), and sat down, letting the others hold my place in line. About 8 minutes later (oh, counting the minutes, I later realized, would get me nowhere), we were let in to Studio 54 — I mean, to the Good Stuff Eatery. We’d had time to peruse the menu so we knew what we wanted to order. A somewhat eclectic mix of burgers, wedge salads (how strangely out of place for a burger joint), three different styles of fries (featuring the Spike™ name), some milkshake options that looked interesting, and assorted beverages. Yuengling and Blue Moon beer were on tap. We should have, however, stored our selections in long term memory, as we saw that there were 30 or so people ahead of us in line. There were a lot of lines in this place. In solidarity, the lines on my forehead decided to join in, furrowing themselves more permanently onto my face.

I realized I wasn’t going to be able to stand for this whole line, so I asked Susanne to order for me and made my way up the inaccessible stairs to get a table. Because surely with these many people here I’d need to also queue up for a table, right?

Nope. Sure there were people upstairs, but there were tables free. It had the same layout as the Cosi next door, which serves people with much more efficiency and much less fanfare from its staff. Susanne remarked that putting the tables over the frying surfaces downstairs caused the eaters upstairs to start to take on the smell and appearance of fried foods, and she had a point. But I’ll add that with the perfectly frigid temperaturs (I mean seriously, the place wasn’t warmer than 63 degrees), the lipids in the air start to harden and condense, giving everyone the appearance of waxed mannequins, as if Madame Tussaud’s had decided to move 20 blocks over to get a little closer to those other waxed celebrities, I mean, our elected members of Congress, excuse me.

So I waited upstairs for the food to arrive. And waited. And waited. And….

WAITED. No sooner than 48 minutes after we entered the place, Susanne came up with the burgers and fries. I was somewhat astounded. They better be slaughtering steer in the back alley. They better be the best burgers I’ve ever eaten, thick as my ass and juicy, layered with truffle shavings, some kind of nearly extinct mushroom, and quail eggs.

Wait for it.

I had ordered a turkey burger, thinking back to the three burgers I’d had earlier in the week. One was an undercooked beef burger from Mr. Henry’s (I mean, I don’t expect much from them, so no biggie), one was from a Wendy’s drivethrough (see above), and one was up in Baltimore for lunch at Pebble’s Diner. Surely this burger, this 48-minutes-in-preparation burger would put all of them to shame.

Mushy bun that had done its best to soak up the bloody juices from the half-cooked, thin-as-a-wafer meat (I mean, it looked a little Jennie-O to me), mushy avocado that probably would have been excellent the day before, limp and mushy lettuce, and a variety of sauces that seemed to act as a pre-stomach-acid food liquification system, which served to make the texture of the experience particularly disgusting. The fries, on the other hand, were terrific until they cooled down, and then I realized they were over-spiced. The shake was great, little hints of caramel and malt that made my tongue decide mutiny after the burger experience wasn’t really necessary.

Susanne reported that they were charging a 25-cent fee on every order for “environmental processing.” She asked the cashier what this was for. He reported that it was because you know, like, they pay someone to go through their trash to make sure nothing recyclable is being thrown out, and that’s expensive. My god THAT job has to suck nails! She found this an interesting rationale, given that practically everything they handed to us was unrecyclable plastic, and that they didn’t have a “is it for here or take out” option so that folks eating in the restaurant could get reusable utensils or napkins. And at the end of the meal, which was like a blessing from God (that it was over, I mean), a busboy took out trays and dumped everything — including two glass bottles — into the trash can. Good thing someone’s going to comb through it later looking for those bottles! That’s like letting your cat catch the fake mouse every so often so he stays motivated to keep trying. If they’re so into the environment, couldn’t they have at least a couple containers for recycling?

So, all that said, I can’t really recommend the place. If you want an $8 burger, go to a steakhouse and get one. If you want a thinner burger for a better price, stick to the places in town that know how to make them that I mentioned earlier.

Thank God he didn’t win Top Chef.

City block of books

Because we’re frugal people, Susanne and I booked our Thanksgiving flights in and out of Portland. Okay, so “frugal” might be a bit of an exaggeration. Flights in and out of Walla Walla’s regional airport, after all, run about $500 more than in and out of Portland. So throw in gas and a one-night hotel stay, and we’re still netting a savings. It’s a no-brainer, really.

But Portland holds other interest for us as well. The first two recommendations we had were to go to Powell’s City Block of Books, and Burgerville. Not necessarily in that order. Although as it turns out, that is the order in which we drove. If I’d gotten $5 for each trip over the Morrison Street bridge — I guess I’d have $10. Okay, chalk that up to another money-making idea that won’t work.

 

Burgerville in SE

Burgerville in SE

Powell’s was pretty amazing. Books were arranged in that special way that only book nerds can manage — color-coded rooms housed major categories like social science, science fiction, etc. I think usability specialists would have a critique along the lines that the colors don’t actually have any intuitive connection to the organization, but maybe only Edward Tufte would care. If you know who Ed Tufte is, you can pay me $5. Hey, I’m looking for income wherever I can get it, and why should I have to send you money just because you can google the guy?

I limped through the orange section’s five aisles of cookbooks. Cookbooks by region. I discovered that fully a third of the Spanish cookbooks are unusable because there are so many fish and shellfish recipes, which Susanne can’t eat. I know it’s got a long coastline, but heck, does Spain think it’s the new Japan? Cookbooks for weddings. Okay, that’s the last thing anyone needs — you’re getting married and you think you should cook your own food? Don’t professional caterers have their own menus? Who’s buying these cookbooks, exactly? Celebrity cookbooks. “Celebrity” here means Food TV celebrities. Who cares? I can watch their shows for free and make what they make. Give me a real celebrity cookbook. Publish Kenny Roger’s cookbook. I want to see blackened, vodka chicken with jackass hangover sauce. I would make that chicken.

Susanne went upstairs to the politics section, looking for books to purchase so she can review them for future classes. So productive, that one. She bought nearly $300 worth, gleeful to be spending from her college allotment. She chatted up the cashier on how nice it is to spend someone else’s money. And of course the cashier quite agreed, growing dollar signs in her pupils that I found disturbing. I looked up at the chalkboard behind her head and saw that Powell’s takes a number of currencies — yen, euros, pounds — and has an updated exchange rate posted (hence the chalk). Let me get this straight — you happen to be in Portland, Oregon, and you see the sign and say hey, let me just pull out these 13,000 yen so I can get a copy of Toni Morrison’s latest! Thank goodness I walk around all day with foreign currency!

After taking our five sagging bags back to the car, we motored on over to Burgerville. There are multiple locations in the city, which I thought was something akin to there being multiple Lebanese Tavernas in the Washington, DC metro region. So I was thinking nice burger place. And then we drove up to the place in a section of town that looked a lot like west Baltimore. Let’s just say that there are a lot of air conditioner repairmen in SE Portland.

We were not expecting Burgerville to be a fast-food chain. It had the basic McDonald’s layout of front door, back door, drive through, and order counter. We sat down to a cheeseburger, a cheesebaconburger, a medium pile of sweet potato fries, and a Black Forest shake.

 

our Burgerville lunch

our Burgerville lunch

And it was very tasty. Indeed. It was just a bit empty, which made it depressing, especially in the midst of the closed-down auto parts shops and pockmarked street just outside. But still, a nearly perfect shake, even if I had to struggle to suck it up a bit, due to the chopped cherries in it. Bigger straw, please. It’s not like a bigger straw is going to make people think you’re trying to be Wendy’s, after all.

Next time we go to Portland we’ll have to find some other treasures. It looked like a fun city. Feel free to leave your recommendations here, and we’ll take them under advisement.

 

Hunting the burger

 

Ice Burg take out

Ice Burg take out

So we figured, when we first set foot out in the prairie, that good meat would be easy to find. We must have, after all, driven past a couple hundred ranches, cattle auction houses, loading bays, and I know we went past a slaughterhouse because the smell sticks with you for at least half a mile. Meat, I presumed, would be tasty, well marbled, and as fresh as possible in this version of the universe. And although I made these presumptions, I didn’t come out here thinking, “hey, let’s compare burgers!” I discovered that in a town of 26,000, things like having “the best burger in town” take on a level of import not possible in larger towns of say, 500,000, where people have so many options it would be pointless to try to compare them all. Unless you were an editor for DCist, that is.

 

Thus without further ado, I relay the following:

1. Fast Eddie’s Drive-In — as noted in an earlier post, there are a lot of drive-ins and drive-throughs here. Eddie’s is 50s drive-in all the way except that the waitresses don’t roll out on skates. Eddie’s has a lot of items on its menu, which is posted conveniently on a white board that our intrepid reviewer attempted to read at the wrong time of day, as the sun was beaming mercilessly into his eyes. Said reviewer, however, did think to presume that cheeseburgers would be available as an option for patrons, and just went ahead and ordered that. The burger was a little on the small side, but the price point was in league with this, so not a big deal. It was piping hot, almost too hot to eat, and the lettuce wasn’t as crispy as it should have been, because it would take titanium lettuce to stand up to those Mercurian temperatures. Seriously I — I mean, the reviewer — could have probably worked a little nuclear fusion on the surface of the meat it was hot enough. The chocolate malt shake, on the other hand, was oh so refreshingly chilled, just thin enough to get through the straw without sucking up a lung in the process, and had just the right amount of Whopper. They should, in the reviewer’s opinion, be reminiscent of Whoppers without overpowering the user.

2. Ice Burg Drive-In — this is more a leisurely paced drive-through than a drive-in per se, as they will tell you to pull up to the window once you’ve ordered and they’re ready for you. So you can’t do your best Fred Flintstone impersonation with the food hanging off your window. The cheese on this burger was the best cheese all around, but honestly people, most Americans order cheeseburgers because we want extra lipids and flavor, and we figure, if you’re going to eat something as bad for you as a burger, you might as well throw those last shreds of caution to the wind and slap some cheese on it. We don’t order cheeseburgers thinking we’re going to get the best gruyere this side of the Atlantic (or Pacific, or wherever). The bun was way too big for the meat patty, making this reviewer chip away at the outer ring of bread, throwing it to the birds who had lined up for just such an opportunity. (This reviewer does not pretend to be original, see.) The vanilla shake was very, very thick, almost impossible to suck up the straw. In fact, after running into a grocery store and coming back into the car after 20 minutes, the shake was still too thick to drink. The taste was spot-on, but hello, one needs to be able to physically ingest the thing in order to ascertain its flavor.

3. Coffee Connection Cafe — There’s nothing here that even remotely suggests burgers, not in the name, anyway. This is a diner with three separate areas — a coffeehouse room, a room with computers one can rent, and a line of diner booths with a counter and stools. Free WiFi all throughout. And they have a much-touted bison burger. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “bison burger?!? But aren’t buffalo extinct?” Well, bison and buffalo are not the same, in fact. There are no buffalo in the North American continent. Actual buffalo, like water buffalo, are in Asia. According to Wikipedia, anyway. Bison are going strong in the West here. And bison meat is sweeter, leaner, and faster-cooking than cattle meat. Thus it is that we tried the bison burger here, and it is a good find/good eat. Thick on the bun, with a nice choice of cheeses (see earlier paragraph for instant contradiction), its only drawback is the automatic relish they secretly tuck under the meat. Relish? Relish is for middle-aged New Yorker men to get on their hotdogs so they can tell their wives that they had vegetables that day. Relish is not something for a nuanced meat like bison to have to contend with. So tell them to please, hold the relish. The shakes are fine for a diner that obviously doesn’t make many of them. Eddie’s shakes win this three-way contest hands down. But the Cafe Connection has the best burger so far.

Next up, MRI results, construction on the recycling center next door, and Everett Gets a Tooth.

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