My eyebrows raised recently when a friend of mine, a former vegan, positively swooned over a burger night.
“You must go!” she said. “They have burgers with funny names, and they are incredible! The happy hour specials are cheap!”
Uh-huh. Tasty sandwiches, creative menu, reasonable prices… there has to be a catch. “IT’S IN ST. PAUL!”
Fuck. St. Paul. Like many of my fellow Minneapolis loyalists, I’m hesitant to cross a river and roam those vacant city streets on a weeknight.
On the other hand… I love a good burger. Dammit, I’m in.
Just/Us opened at Wabasha and Seventh Street in March, in the old Fuji Ya space near the Palace Theater (and that creepy Church of Scientology building). It’s a collective of five chefs, and together, they all invent the menus/flame up the kitchen/take your order/run plates/pour beer/post to Instagram.
The focus is fixed-price dinners on Wednesday through Saturday nights, which are built around a theme—and to be honest, their recent “junk food” menu had my mouth all wet. But I wanted to start off with something more casual before plunking down $45. (That’s super reasonable for a fancy multi-course dinner, but it doesn’t make me any less frugal.) During weekday lunch, they sell more casual burgers ’n fries to the office crowd—a menu that's also available on Tuesdays from 2 to 8 p.m., when they sling burgers and break out the board games.
I show up at 5 with a belly empty and wanting after a small handful of gummi bears, slide into a deep wooden booth next to the window, and crack a book. The place has a stripped-down, industrial feel, and they’ve kept the sushi bar from the previous occupants, which is a nice touch. It's comforting and has a faint, familiar punk establishment smell: a specific mix of old furniture, worn denim, and the paper sleeve tucked inside a used vinyl record.
A chef-slash-server bounds over with a menu, and I practically shout “FRIES!” while pointing to a beer on the booze list. He asks me if I want them with pork belly, and I furiously nod. I’m not one of those people who gets hot and bothered over all things bacon, but my hunger leapt over my chill and I fangirled over the prospect of pork.
The Tin Whiskers pint appears, perfectly poured and frosty, in about a minute, and by the time I've taken two sips a heaping plate of french fries arrives. These are perfectly cut potatoes with a bit of skin on the end (my preference), dusted with a pile of fluffy cheese reminiscent of a funnel cake. The fries were lightly coated in bacon grease and not a touch soggy, just slightly smoked and rich. And they came with a harissa aioli for dunking, which was added a warm spice to their richness.
Have you ever eaten food so good that time stops and your hearing is muted and all else fades away? It felt like thick earmuffs had been gently placed onto my head. I felt a certain stillness. When I came to, I looked down to see cheese dust on the front of my pants and all over my favorite cat T-shirt. Worth it.
When the chef/server/person came back to scoop up the empty plate, I started asking about the fancy tasting menu I read online—something about a chorizo churro, or…?
“Oh, the house-made Doritos!” And from there, it spun into a tale of roasted pork skin, smoking turnip scraps to turn them into crisps, and all around culinary nerdery.
After, I scan the list of burgers with Bob's Burgers-esque pun names: the Gouda Morning Sunshine (which features malt coffee aioli?), and the Revenge of the Curds. I settle on the Fresco Prince of Bel-Air, mostly because I have swoony feelings for the wholesome, handsome Will Smith. My dining companion (boyfriend who has lost his beloved to a cheese trance) has ordered the veggie burger—the Denzel Quinoa-shington—and an order of herb fries for himself, since, thankfully, he missed the earlier pork fry orgy. We sit and drink our beers. Math rock plays overhead; some staffers are starting up a card game at one of the tables.
I do want to tip my hat to the Just/Us crew for having one of the best-designed menus in the Twin Cities: easy to read, with sexy black and white drawings of each burger next to the description, and not too many options. I’m overwhelmed by choices at every waking moment as it is, and it’s nice to just have five sandwiches and fries—herb, or pork belly if you want to be fancy—so you can choose dinner and get on with your life.
Soon, the burgers arrive, and I’m face-to-face with the Fresco Prince, a moderately sized burger packed with arugula, red onions, and pickled jalapeños. There are some nice slabs of queso fresco pressed on top of the burger patty, and the bun is slathered with a sweet corn aioli.
I eat this entire burger in five incredible bites, like I’m Ms. Pacman—hair bow on, mouth first. The pickled jalapeños are generously piled but not too spicy. The sweet corn aioli is the flavor that haunts me, because its slight sweetness makes everything else on the burger seem incredibly savory.
I grab a bite of my companion’s veggie burger (CHOMP CHOMP), a smoked beet/quinoa/parsnip patty with arugula and feta cheese, dripping with the same harissa aioli that came with the fries. The flavor of the patty was deeply smoky and intriguing and didn’t feature any of the mush or slop that generic veggie burgers are sometimes known for. The flavor actually reminded me of a premium hot dog, but the patty had that perfect, pink-beet blush all vegetable freaks know and love.
Both burgers may have lasted just a few happy minutes, but as we linger at our table, sipping beers and gazing out the window, we watch a man in gas station sunglasses and strapped sport sandals with a KEEP SAINT PAUL BORING T-shirt above khaki shorts. I’d seen this slogan occasionally on Twitter, and now I’ve spotted it in the wild, on a very un-ironic Dad bod. It was fitting—a small blessing.
Just/Us is really putting it all out there, breaking with the traditional front of house/back of house split and doing everything their damn selves. Each member contributes to the menu, their name located next to the title of the plate that they created. Their Instagram shows a new burger rotating in almost weekly, and the fancy tasting menu changes every few months. This crew is working their collective tail off at coming up with eats that are both creative and accessible to the general public.
If this place was in Minneapolis, it would be packed with odd sorts in jean vests, shaggy mullets, and homemade earrings. It would be like Seward Cafe’s classy cousin who used to subscribe to Lucky Peach and likes to watch Chef’s Table while high. It would be the go-to place for when your band released a new cassette or for a promising fifth date.
Maybe the fact that Just/Us is located in St. Paul gives it a risk-taker vibe, which is appealing in its own way. Either way, it is absolutely worth pilling into the van, gathering a group of bike hooligans, or thumbing down the light rail to St. Paul on a Tuesday night for a round of burgers and few beers.
Bring Your Own Yahtzee.
465 Wabasha St. N., St. Paul