Hey, this is Officer Steve [rumble] from the Minneapolis Police Department. There's a place you have to check out, it's the best [something]...best burgers and best gyros in the city, just incredible, right at [rumble] and Chicago [Beep!].
This message has been deleted,
Dear Officer Steve;
Damn answering machines! Or rather, automated voice-mail systems. Damn voice systems in the mist!
Me, I wish I had listened to my grandmother, who often said, as she cracked eggs against the fire hydrant, "Dearie, when you are a grown-up fancy lady, make sure you don't have three separate push-button voice-mail systems on your cell, work, and home phones, so that sometimes when you push three you repeat the message, sometimes you delete it, and other times you spin your whole life into chaos, searching for the best burger in the Twin Cities."
Because my grandmother was right about that, as she was about so many things, and especially about the best ways to fit a live giraffe securely in the overhead compartment.
I mean, if you want to find out where the best burgers are in the Twin Cities, don't bloody well erase the message right in the middle of trying to listen to it, or--where on Chicago?
I mean, Chicago's a long avenue. From downtown to the airport, there's all kinds of Chicago Avenue and...
Did you say gyros?
You know, I did a roundup of gyros a few years back, during which I ate nearly 20 of the lamby, lamby sandwiches in a week.
Frankly, I have yet to recover.
Because you know what? Youth may be wasted on the young, but bad ideas? Bad ideas are not.
You know how people in graduation speeches are always telling you it's better to regret the things you have done, than the things you haven't done? That's because they never ate 20 gyros.
I have to tell you, I feel about the words 20 gyros the way most people do about statements such as, "When I woke up, the car was on Mrs. Gilchrist's deck, and I realized my friends weren't lying, my date really did look like Baba Yaga."
The mind wobbles.
And yet, as it wobbles, the idea of the best burger bites down, fiercely, strongly, irresistibly, like a wolverine that's been lifting weights all winter and arrives in a Lily Pulitizer sundress. Exactly like that.
And so I went on a mad burger hunt! The best burger, the best burger--who has the best burger? First, I hit the usual suspects. The Convention Grill is always a good candidate for the short list: cute, genuine, Norman Rockwell Americana in the realest sense; with real burgers, real fries, and real milkshakes presented by ladies who always seem on the very precipice of sliding you over in your booth to help you finish your homework. I ordered a burger, a half-order of fries, and a banana milkshake. The milkshake came first: creamy, made with real ice cream, rich as a Minnetonka afternoon Pilates class, and a thousand times sunnier. It was full of chunks of real, fresh banana, and tasted like comfort and purity incarnate. This is the taste of childhood. The burgers were fine, thick and meaty, presented in sweet, rich buns, but they weren't as tender inside, as crisp outside, or, generally, as unique as I remember. The fries, too, were off--they weren't the half-inch thick, long, floppy planks I used to adore. They were good, but plain old everyday fry-sized cuts. And for some daft reason I also ordered a Caesar salad, which tasted like it came out of a bag; the dressing was chemical-tasting and sharp, the cheese had that plastic texture I associate with anti-caking agents. I felt like the best-milkshake-seeking part of my soul had been satisfied, but I had to persevere. (The Convention Grill, 3912 Sunnyside Ave., Edina; 952.920.6881.)
I revisited Ike's, the retro-but-not-too-themey burger restaurant that I wrote a rave review of when it opened. Again, I wasn't too thrilled: The burger was good enough, the meat tender, the bun seared lovingly by the grill, but lousy service and a tiny, measly portion of fries overshadowed the experience. Not only did the hostess roll her eyes and run for the back when my party of two walked in the door on a Saturday afternoon. We were then escorted to a dirty table, told to wait in a nearby walkway for it, scolded by another server for standing where we were, and when we finally sat, our server took another 10 minutes to show up, whereupon he informed us that we had chosen a terrible time to show up, and that practically the only thing we would be permitted to order was the burger. And even though the burger was the whole reason we were there, it suddenly seemed like the second-class citizen's meal. We persevered, and after the server ignored our burger-doneness preferences and abandoned us, I couldn't tell if the burger was really as oversweet and flabby as it tasted, or whether the unpleasantness of the rest of the experience was coloring the taste of the burger. This, this was certainly not the perfect burger. (Ike's Food & Cocktails, 50 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis; 612.746.4537)
And so, I went insane.
Whenever I found myself looking at any menu with a burger on it, I had to order it.
At Lucia's, the experience was revelatory. I stopped in for lunch, and on that lucky week they were offering an organic beef burger with blue cheese, on a semolina bun. Eureka! The meat was sweet, rich, iron-y, pure, a little oceanic in its mineral richness--just marvelous. As a burger it was loosely gathered, which allowed the good blue cheese up top to melt into nooks and crannies of the patty. The semolina bun was silly, too little, too hard, and too...artisanal, really, but hoo-boy, who cares. This was the noblest of steaks, in informal clothing. Too bad for you, though, that burger is long gone, the victim of Lucia's ever-changing menu. Still, I note it here for two reasons: One, because did you hear that Lucia Watson, Lucia's chef and owner, has been nominated for a James Beard Foundation award, for Best Chef in the Midwest? Hooray! No one could deserve it more. Celebrate with lunch, and if there's ever that burger again, get it--and call me. I'll try to listen to the message without hanging up, injuring nearby wildlife, or otherwise disabling the Midwest telecommunications infrastructure. (Lucia's Restaurant, 1432 W. 31st St., Minneapolis; 612.825.1572)
At Zander a week later, the experience was revelatory in a different way. The burger on offer at Zander was a bison burger. Really? Me, I have had some epic blunders when attempting to cook bison, no matter how fresh it is, no matter how I pound, marinate, braise, or pray, it comes out tough as ancient pants, and is about as appealing to spend the night with. How would Alexander Dixon make bison chewable? By wrapping it around a big patty of butter, that's how. Our server was kind enough to warn that once you freed the boiling butter from its bison sheath, it would spurt everywhere. Cutlery was employed. A black-looking oil gushed everywhere. My date sang the Beverly Hillbillies theme: "And up from the ground came a bubblin' crude--oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea!"
I wouldn't recommend that bison burger for people without dry cleaners in the family, but it definitely tasted good, it was rich the way a pork dumpling filling is--finely ground, steamy, and well integrated--and undeniably tender. Rich, though. Very, very rich. I couldn't finish the thing, and, as you can see, I have a pretty big tolerance for richness. (Zander Café, 525 Selby Ave., St Paul; 651.222.5224.)
That's when it hit me.
When I was little, we had a German shepherd, Ben, who liked to swim, liked to catch sticks, and was of singular and methodical focus. This almost killed him. If you threw a stick into the ocean, he would swim to where he thought the stick must be, and then swim in a perfect spiral out from that spot, in ever widening circles, looking for the stick. Until the dog and I were out for a stroll and happened along some jerks throwing rocks in the ocean. Ben went in after a rock, and no amount of hollering could get him to break his ever-widening search for the stick-that-wasn't. Once he was about a quarter-mile out at sea, and my parents had been retrieved from their blanket, my father swam out and almost drowned himself, water-wrestling the dog back to shore.
I mean, one is unlikely to find the best burger on Chicago Avenue in a chef-driven St. Paul bistro. One does, however, increasingly risk death at sea.
I changed tacks.
I started asking everyone I know about possible best burgers in town. They started asking everyone they knew. The strongest candidate to emerge was a place in the corner of the strip mall at the corner of Franklin and Chicago. I headed over, and what to my wondering eyes should appear? A place called, er, um, Best Steak and Gyros. Run by a sweet married couple named Sophal and Tevy Nhep. Sophal cooks the burgers, gyros, and steaks; Tevy rings you up, puts together the salads, brings the hot food to your table. The burgers were good--sturdy, fresh, served on margarine-griddled Texas toast, and satisfying. Not drive-across-the-state-worthy, but good nonetheless.
But darn if they didn't serve some of the best gyros I've ever had: the meat crisped at the edges, but juicy and lush otherwise, a generous portion tucked into a filling of perfectly griddled sweet, thick pita, cuddled in there with lots of fresh leaf lettuce, fresh-cut tomatoes, a light and zingy yogurt sauce--yum! It achieved that perfect gyros harmony of spicy, salty, freshly accented, and profoundly filling, without any of the gruesome gyros danger points that I have come to think of as grimy greasy gyro guts. I mean, Best Steak and Gyros cured me of my gyros trauma! I didn't think it was doable, but they did it. (Best Steak & Gyros House, 1914 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis; 612.879.0882)
More importantly, though, I learned that the quest for the perfect burger, which I have embarked on before, is fun mostly because the answer is ever-changing: The clear winner of two years, or four years, ago is clearly not the winner of today, but might again be the winner of next week! More interestingly, to pose a question to an ever-changeable world, while doggedly swimming in spirals, undeterred and undeterrable, is, despite whatever I thought 20 years ago, actually a very productive strategy.
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