My Burger, Turkey To Go, and Which Wich reviewed
Considering the current economic climate and the changing tastes of today's average diner, the rapid rise of the fast-casual restaurant model is really no big surprise. Our collective pace of living hasn't slowed at all, but that doesn't mean we want to be eating room-temperature fries out of a paper bag while we try to drive with our knees. Popular chains like Potbelly, Noodles and Company, and Chipotle that follow the fast-casual model all offer an attractive alternative to standard drive-thru fast food, but it's still delivered quickly and at a very reasonable price. The main difference? It doesn't feel like fast food. Though a lot of the ingredients come par-cooked or flash frozen, the fact that Noodles and Company's Penne Rosa, for example, comes freshly garnished and is presented at your table by a server creates the feeling that you're getting more of an experience and eating something relatively healthy, despite what the calorie count may be. Three new fast-casual options have recently set up shop in the Twin Cities, and though they aren't perfectly matched contenders for direct comparison, we threw them all in the ring, pulled out our scorecards, and set out to see how they would fare against one another.
My Burger (Lake Calhoun)
Following the success of its original location in the Minneapolis skyway, My Burger has opened a second store near the west side of Lake Calhoun, conveniently close to the newly established self-service frozen yogurt shop Yogurt Lab, which is sure to be a popular after-burger spot in the summer months. But even in this colder season, and with big-time sit-down competitor Burger Jones nearby, My Burger is consistently busy and seems to fill a void for a quick bite in this busy retail area. My Burger is nostalgically branded yet unmistakably new, at least in appearance. Food-wise, however, it's hard to figure out what its twist is on the standard burger place, beyond its use of sweet pickles rather than dill.
The sandwiches all come in a very basic form that you can "spiff up," as the menu says, with a few out-of-the-ordinary flavors like teriyaki sauce, jerk or Cajun spice mix, and some fancier toppings for a little extra, including sautéed mushrooms or a fried egg, which, no matter how gross it sounds to the uninitiated, is guaranteed to elevate any standard cheeseburger to something memorable. The Original My Burger comes with ketchup, mustard, fried onions, and sweet pickles on a buttered bun and was far and away the best thing we sampled. The non-beef options mostly called to mind "Chicken Patty on a Bun day" in the school cafeteria: unidentifiable, a bit greasy, strangely soft, all topped with iceberg lettuce (and—credit where credit is due—a decently juicy tomato). The turkey burger looked and tasted like the preformed frozen kind you can buy in bulk at Costco, but at least it wasn't bland. Just in time for Lent, My Burger's fish sandwich is a passable nonmeat option and was cooked to lightly golden on the outside while still retaining moisture and flake on the inside. Though there wasn't a huge difference in taste or consistency between the malt and the shake, they were both creamy and just thin enough to suck through a straw without having to make embarrassing faces.
Scorecard: 3 points. 1 point for the Original My Burger as a very beefy, satisfying alternative to a fast-food burger. 1 point for efficient and smiley service in a fun, family environment. 1 point for my dining companion's happy discovery that it serves Hamm's in a can.
Verdict: Go for the classic beef burgers. We predict this place will see a ton of business when everyone comes out of winter hibernation.
Turkey to Go (Minneapolis skyway)
After more than 50 years of Turkey to Go operating as a popular State Fair booth, Drew Levin and Dan Perkins took over as co-owners and decided that the slow-roasted pulled turkey sandwiches would sell just as well outside the fairgrounds. They started by making the booth mobile and trying their luck as a food truck, serving their signature sandwiches and giant turkey legs on Nicollet Mall. After that idea went over well, Levin and Perkins expanded to baseball fans at Target Field before making the natural progression to storefronts in downtown St. Paul and, most recently, the Minneapolis skyway. For the less experienced or more indecisive diner, the point-and-shoot method of ordering (as in, they point at you and you better be ready to shoot your order back) may be a little too fast-paced, especially with the myriad sauce, cheese, and veggie options for finishing off the moist, slightly smoky pulled turkey.
Turkey to Go offers a few time-tested combinations on either a soft white bun or in a folded warm pita, including the Buffalo Blue, which features a slightly vinegary, perfectly tangy buffalo sauce that's made in-house, nicely crisped crumbles of super-salty bacon, and even saltier blue cheese, the combination of which, unfortunately, eclipses the flavor of the turkey. The same was true in the Cheddar Bacon Sweet Glaze sandwich, but it did benefit from the added textural interest of a pile of shoestring potatoes. Aside from the purists' favorite, meat-and-bun only, another winning combination was the cranberry sauce and chunks of smooth, mildly nutty brie. All too often cranberry sauce at delis is of the thinned-out, canned variety. Turkey to Go's version seemed much less processed and was even a titch tart, which made it the perfect foil for the intensely savory meat. The messy sandwiches do have the problem of size, though: The standard sandwich adds up to just a few bites, while the giant size is too big to finish.
Scorecard: 4 points. 2 points for the quality and flavor of the meat. 1 point for making well-honed homemade sauces. 1 point for offering something totally new in the skyway, which is no easy feat. 0 points for not having the giant turkey legs in the storefront locations. We'd love to see Target people hustling through the skyway gnawing on one of those bad boys.
Verdict: Though technically a fast-casual business model, Turkey to Go's skyway location doesn't offer much room or time to relax and enjoy. But hey, it says right in the name that the food is meant to eat on the go.
Which Wich, a growing franchise with a new store in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul (and plans to build one in the skyway—notice a theme here?), is built around a somewhat complicated, but efficient, ordering system. Slender brown paper sandwich bags are prestamped and organized into categories, mostly by protein type (chicken, beef, pork, and ham), but also by sandwich "family" (breakfast, comforts, classics). Customers mark a bag with Sharpies to identify all the extras they want on their sandwich. With more than 50 sandwiches in three sizes, and endless spreads, sauces, dressings, and other accoutrement (all of which are free—get as many as you want with any sandwich), it's a bit daunting, but we found that the more you pile on, the better, because without them the sandwiches are pretty bland. The Thank You Turkey was the worst of the lot, with pieces of processed turkey, overly sweet cranberry sauce, and a bizarre bread stuffing that had none of the homey sage flavor that makes stuffing taste like Thanksgiving, and was so pasty it was practically a spread. We may have been slightly biased since we had tried Turkey to Go's version just one day earlier, but this was the only sandwich we ending up tossing. The others, especially the toasted ones, were more interesting. The Cuban had a solid amount of mustard and plenty of pickles but doesn't come close to anything you would get at say, Cheeky Monkey, let alone Victor's. The fully loaded "Wicked," with every imaginable type of meat and cheese, and the sufficiently spicy buffalo chicken were stronger examples, and Which Wich's technique of chopping up all the ingredients means you get a little of everything in each bite. The big shocker? The shakes are better here than at My Burger.
Scorecard: 3 points. 1 point for all the free add-ons, rather than the pay-per-topping system the competitors apply. 1 point for sandwich order accuracy. Clearly marking what you want means you don't have to answer a thousand questions at the register and you'll end up with the exact sandwich you created. 1 point for giant 22-ounce shakes. 0 points for bread. Bread really makes or breaks a sandwich, and Which Wich's was unremarkable.
Verdict: With a handful of other fast-casual options on this corner of Cleveland and Ford Parkway, and Cecil's deli just a few blocks away, competition may be too stiff for it to develop its own following.
In summation, Turkey to Go won because of overall quality and for bringing something new to the fast-casual scene, but all three put up a decent fight and a good, quick bite.
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