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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Bi-Coastal Burgers to Feed the Bourgeoisie

The culinary aspiration of the moment for the liberal elite of urban America seems to be finding ways to keep themselves (or should I say ourselves?) from feeling guilty about the ethical and environmental impact of eating hamburgers. My visit a few weeks ago to BareBurger, the new organic, grass-fed burger joint up the Slope from my house, lent weight to this theory. It was further confirmed just a few days ago in Portland when Flava Flav and her boyfriend Hot Dog took me to Little Big Burger, a minimalist spot boasting high-quality, local ingredients (including ketchup) and truffled-oiled fries. Are either of these new gourmet guilt-free burger joints worth the price or hype? These are the kinds of questions the Mango Lassie was born to answer.

Empanada Boy and I went to BareBurger with my good friend Red Pepper and her fiancé, McIntosh Apple to bid them goodbye before their move to Evanston, Illinois. The restaurant is a chain in the making with a location in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, two locations in Manhattan and another three opening in Astoria, Chelsea and the Upper East Side, respectively. The Park Slope location has only been open for about a month, and it has had lines out the door since day one. This company has obviously done its market research. We were told it would be a 45-minute wait to sit down, but it ended up only being about 25 minutes. The four of us sat at a high wooden table under a chandelier fashioned out of old spoons. We ordered a pitcher of the Belgian-style Hennepin Ale from Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, one of the many local beers the restaurant offers on tap. We also got an order of the assorted pickles, which include spicy sriracha-habanero pickle chips, bread and butter pickle chips and garlic-dill pickle chips from Rick’s Picks, along with a zingy housemade coleslaw. In addition to being local, Rick’s Picks are tasty, though perhaps not as good as the ones I make myself. Still, I never say no to a pickle.

BareBurger offers 14 different six-ounce burgers ranging from the Classic with dill pickle relish and grilled onions ($8.45) to the Big Blue Bacon Burger ($11.95), topped with Danish blue cheese, sauteed mushrooms, grilled onions, applewood smoked bacon, lettuce and peppercorn steak sauce. The BareBurger Supreme ($10.95), pictured above, comes crowned with two onion rings. Each of these burgers can be ordered with patties made from beef, turkey, vegetables or portabella mushrooms. For an extra $1, the adventurous can order patties made from lamb, elk or bison. (EB, of course, had the bison.) Ostrich meat is available for market price. I have long held that the only good way to determine the quality of a burger joint is to try the basic burger without any fancy toppings—no cheese, meat or wild game. I ordered the Classic cooked medium-rare and served on a brioche bun. The grass-fed beef was tender and delicious (as it should be for that price), making this the best burger I’ve had in the neighborhood. The combo basket of French fries and onion rings we ordered to share were nicely crisped and came with a veritable refrigerator’s worth of condiments: curry ketchup, peppercorn steak sauce, spicy chipotle mayo and BareBurger special sauce. BareBurger was good, not because of the fancy toppings and menagerie of meat choices, but because the meat was of a high quality and properly cooked.

Little Big Burger is channeling a retro minimalist aesthetic popularized by California’s In-n-Out. The burgers are small (1/4 lb.) and simple. In fact, the menu consists of a mere six items: a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a veggie burger, fries, soda and floats. Now, it must be said that these burgers are not just any burgers. They are made with Cascade Natural Beef—pasture-raised, grain-finished beef, grown by local ranchers. And while the fries may look simple and basic, they are also not just any fries. They are laced with truffle oil!!! The question was whether any of these extra flourishes would result in notably better food.

Flava Flav and I got hamburgers, and Hot Dog got a cheeseburger with Swiss. The burgers are only $3.25, but they are closer in size to a slider than to BareBurger’s massive offerings. The bun was tasty, but I found the meat a little dry and overcooked. It crumbled in my mouth as I took a bite. Flav said she thought the patties had been better prepared on her previous visits. The fries were well made, although I only tasted the truffle oil during a few illusory bites. Truffle oil isn’t really made with truffles anyway, which makes it something of a gimmick to begin with.

One thing I definitely liked about Little Big Burger was the locally made condiments. There was a bright and tangy ketchup (“catsup” as the bottle calls it) and a “fry sauce,” a blend of mayonnaise and ketchup. Both are made by Camden’s, a line started by Portland chef Micah Camden, exclusively for the restaurant. I still pined for mustard, my favorite condiment, but these were distinctive and worthwhile. I originally thought Little Big Burger was a stand-alone spot. Upon further research, I learned that, like BareBurger, it is also a burgeoning chain. The restaurant has two locations in Portland, one opening in Eugene and another opening in Los Altos, California. Personally, I prefer the Vancouver, Washington-based regional chain Burgerville, which also uses Cascade Natural Beef and makes excellent milkshakes and sweet potato fries. But perhaps Little Big Burger will start to grow on me as it adopts the quality control necessary for a chain. Either way, I know I will again be shelling out the big bucks for BareBurger the next time I want to eat a lot of meat and maintain a relatively clear conscience.

170 7th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Little Big Burger
122 NW 10th Ave.
Portland, OR 97209

Bare Burger on Urbanspoon

Little Big Burger on Urbanspoon

Citi Field: Come For The Food, Stay For The Baseball (Maybe)

Take me out to the ball game! Take me out to the crowd! Buy me some tacos and Shake Shack. I don’t care if I never get back. For it’s root, root, root for the Mets. If they don’t win, it’s no shock. But there’s tas-ty food to be had at their new ballpark!

If you didn’t just sing that to yourself while reading this, please go back to the top and begin again! Just kidding (and sorry for the cheesy introduction). But the high quality of the food available at Citi Field, the very attractive home of the New York Mets, is no joke. I went to my first game there last week as the guest of my friend Fry Girl, a diehard Mets fan, who bought a pack of tickets at the beginning of the season. When I saw Fry Girl on the morning before the game as we walked our dogs in Prospect Park, she told me that the Mets had won the previous two games against the San Diego Padres. “So just don’t expect much,” she said. Spoken like a true Mets fan. Indeed, one reason it’s so important for Citi Field to have better food than Yankee Stadium (and the word on the street is it does) is that, unlike the Yankees, the Mets don’t win very often. Fans must be kept full, if not in good spirits. That’s fine with me. As a very casual observer of baseball, I might not know all the rules of the game, but I do know the rules of ballpark eating.

We started with some French fries from Box Frites ($8 for a large), one of the stadium’s numerous offerings from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Despite not generally liking French fries, Fry Girl is a huge fan of these and insisted that I give them a try. The smell of them being cooked, just behind our seats, was so intoxicating that I might have had to order them anyway. They were perfect rectangular potato sections, not thin, but also not too thick. The exterior of each was well-crisped, and the interior was soft and warm. In addition to ketchup, the fries came with a dipping sauce made of mayonnaise inflected with mustard. Fry Girl also paid a bit extra for the smoked bacon aioli. We both found the latter to be too thick and chunky for our taste, but the mayonnaise was pretty addictive. Having already eaten at Shake Shack a number of times, I wasn’t interested in waiting in that line. So while Fry Girl was standing in the Box Frites line, I went to the counter for USHG’s Blue Smoke and ordered a pulled-pork sandwich ($8.75). I brought the box back to our seats and inserted the accompanying pickle slices on top of the meat. The meat was tender, and the sauce had a nice balance of sweetness, spiciness and saltiness. My chief complaint was that there wasn’t enough sauce, and what was there wasn’t evenly dispersed throughout the sandwich. This left the pork a little bland in some spots. The plus side was that the bun remained structurally sound (as opposed to soggy with sauce) to the very last bite.

I washed this course down with a Goose Island 312 wheat beer ($8). Brooklyn Brewery used to offer four unique beers for fans, but the Mets were apparently asking too much money from them and Citi has now switched to Anheuser-Busch selections. It goes without saying how I feel about that decision. Apparently, Blue Point Toasted Lager is still available at Catch of the Day, one of the other restaurants, but that wasn’t on the same level as our seats, and I didn’t know where to find it at the time. After eating and drinking all of this, we weren’t very hungry anymore. Still, I was determined to sample more of the offerings. The Mets were trailing the Padres in the fifth or sixth inning, so we took a walk down to the promenade level. In addition to passing the gluten-free food stand and the stadium wine bar, we happened upon one of the more traditional (less-gourmet) ballpark stands: the IttiBitz cart. This is a competitor product to the somewhat-better-known Dippin’ Dotsbeads of ice cream, flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen. The New York Times recently ran an article calling these a “staple of childhood summers,” but they certainly never appeared during any season of my childhood. Fry Girl had tried them and remembered them being good, so we ordered a cup of cookies and cream flavor ($6). It didn’t take us more than a few bites to realize that we wouldn’t be finishing our cup of dots. They were too sweet and tasted artificial, without a true chocolate or vanilla flavor. We dumped the half-eaten cup in the trash, wishing we hadn’t paid so much for it.

We figured we were better off with another savory snack than trying our hands at dessert again. So we walked over to El Verano Taqueria, another USHG stand. Despite having already eaten pork in course no. 1, the carnitas tacos looked the best to us. We ordered a plate of two. Apart from the $7.50 price tag, these were surprisingly authentic. Served in fresh corn tortillas, the soft, shredded pork came topped with chopped onions and cilantro. A container of a bright, somewhat spicy, salsa verde came alongside them. These were nowhere near as good as the tacos I ate in Sunset Park back in April, but I would be happy to find them in pretty much any mass-dining environment.

In the end, the Mets lost to the Padres 5 to 9. Like a good Mets fan, Fry Girl was serene. I was merely full. As we left the stadium and walked back to the 7 train, I planned my meal for next time. Perhaps a fish sandwich from Catch of the Day and a Shake Shack milkshake? Or maybe Mama’s Special and a cannoli from Mama’s of Corona? The possibilities are many, and the quality is generally high. With all that eating to do, who cares if the Mets win or lose?

Citi Field
12001 Roosevelt Ave.
Queens, NY 11368

Blue Smoke on Urbanspoon

Fried Chicken’s Mean at the General Greene

The General Greene was always one of those places I read about in the New York Times and somehow assumed was too popular, or too trendy, to even bother trying to get in. So when I finally went there a few weeks ago, I was surprised at the lack of a line for a table and the mellow vibe of the restaurant. Granted, this place has been open for a number of years now, but at its core, it’s really nothing more than a good, neighborhood restaurant. I went there with my friend Corned Beef Hashette to bid her farewell before her move to Gettysburg, PA where her fiancée is taking a tenure-track teaching position at Gettysburg College. I don’t know a lot about Gettysburg, but from what CBH told me, it seems safe to say there aren’t many consciously-sourced, locavore restaurants like The General Greene there. To me, this is a good thing and a bad thing, depending on how overloaded I feel with the Brooklynness of things at any particular point in time.

CBH and I took a table outside and were the only ones there as it was hot enough for most people to choose air conditioning. We scanned the menu and decided to order an assortment of dishes to share. CBH is allergic to seafood, so that ruled out options like the chicken-fried oysters and the Prince Edward Island mussels and toasts. (I took note to order these during a future visit.) First came the deviled eggs, which were silky and smoky, infused with Spanish paprika. Next we tried roasted cauliflower with raisins and pinenuts. The cauliflower was coated in a basic, but tasty, pesto, which added interesting color and melded nicely with the pinenuts, while setting off the sweetness of the raisins. The dish was one I could easily make at home but would probably never have thought up.

For our next dish, we knew we couldn’t not order the thick-cut candied bacon. I mean, who could resist? This shot of the profile of one of the three pieces delivered to our table should be enough to demonstrate that this was no ordinary bacon. Indeed, it was exceptional—smoky and sweet and perfectly cooked so that the edges were slightly crisp and the fat melted in our mouths. Eating these was like eating slices of heaven, especially for a couple of nice Jewish girls. After the bacon came a green salad with spritely, local-seeming greens, candied pecans and fried shallots. It was a perfectly tasty and refreshing dish, but I did feel a tad bit sorry for the salad for having to follow the bacon.

At this point in the meal, CBH and I realized we were being eaten alive by mosquitoes. (So this was why no one else had opted to eat outside!) We grabbed our plates and glasses and headed into the restaurant, apologizing to our youthful waiter on the way. He kindly found an empty table for us, just in time for our final course to arrive. For the pièce de résistance, we ordered the General Greene fried chicken with sweet potato-andouille hash and braised collard greens. We had asked our young server what he thought of the dish, and he seemed to hesitate a bit too long before saying it was good. While this didn’t give us a ton of confidence, we ordered it anyway, and boy were we glad we did. The chicken was well seasoned and perfectly crispy on the outside, while still remaining succulent and tender on the inside. The greens and hash were only OK, but they were entirely ancillary; plate-fillers playing courtiers to the kingly chicken.

CBH and I ate as much as we could, but we couldn’t even finish off every bite of the dishes we ordered. Dessert was simply not in the cards, but perhaps I should have found room: I learned when I got home that Nicholas Morgenstern, one of General Greene’s owners, was a pastry chef at a number of top New York restaurants, including Daniel and Gilt. At the time, though, it seemed impossible to consume anything more. As I look at it, not eating dessert leaves room for another set of tasty surprises to unfold the next time I visit.

The General Greene
229 DeKalb Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11205

The General Greene on Urbanspoon

Madison Summer Needs Michael’s Frozen Custard

The first time I went to Michael’s Frozen Custard in Madison, Wisconsin was before I started writing this blog. At the time, I thought frozen custard was the same as soft-serve. I was soon set straight. While it bears some textural resemblance to this more-common cousin, frozen custard is made with egg yolks. So is it ice cream? Not exactly. According to the FDA, something marketed as frozen custard must contain at least 10% milkfat and 1.4% egg yolk solids. Anything less, and it’s ice cream. The result is a thick, rich, sweet substance, softer than ice cream and denser than soft serve. While it apparently started in Coney Island, frozen custard is a big deal in Wisconsin, where it is also the specialty at the legendary Kopp’s in Milwaukee. Open since 1986, Michael’s is a Madison institution. It seemed wrong that it wasn’t in the annals of The Mango Lassie, so I managed to convince a large group of my in-laws to go there while I was in Madison last weekend. (Not exactly a herculean effort.)

Our 21-person group (Empanada Boy has a lot of siblings, and they have a lot of kids) had spent the hot afternoon paddling rented kayaks, canoes and paddle boards on Wingra Lake. The 13 of us who didn’t need to return home for a nap, tromped across the sun-soaked field and went through the fence toward the red-and-white-striped umbrellas of Michael’s. Seating here is only outside, and all ordering is done at the window. Custard is the specialty, but Michael’s also serves savory food, which many of us decided to eat beforehand. EB and I both got Chicago dogs, which were topped with the requisite onions, tomato slices, pickle wedges and relish. (Spicy sport peppers were provided on request.) These were decent, but as should be expected by anyone ordering a Chicago dog outside of the Windy City, they weren’t quite up to the standards of the real thing. This was mostly because the dogs themselves were made by Red Hot Chicago, a Chicago company, but one whose seasoning is slightly inferior to the gold-standard Vienna Beef. EB also got some pretty tasty fried onions.

After we finished our dogs, burgers and very salty fries, we filed back up to the window to order our second course. Some ordered what they always do. My sister-in-law, Cerealla ordered her longtime favorite Mississippi Mud: vanilla custard topped with pecans, Oreos and coffee and drizzled with chocolate syrup. My niece, Linguine ordered the classic Turtle Sundae: vanilla custard with pecans, chocolate syrup and caramel syrup. Her sister Vegetable Queen ordered a simpler option, which was basically the Turtle sans pecans. (All sundaes come with a maraschino cherry.) My nephew Lobster Bisque ordered a cookie dough sundae, which came doused in chocolate sauce and smattered with perfect pebbles of dough. Peanut Butter Fudge Cake, one of the flavors of the day, swayed EB from his usual order. (My niece, the Reading Corndog also ordered it.) It was a truly decadent affair: vanilla custard, topped with a mouth-coating peanut butter sauce and chunks of chocolate cake. I took one bite and wondered whether I could even finish one. EB ordered a medium because it was a special (only $4.99!) and didn’t remember that a medium at Michael’s is positively enormous.

Even a small is huge, as I found out while eating my selection, the Muddy Banana: vanilla custard with chocolate syrup, Oreos and banana slices. Maraschino discarded, I dug into the rich, creamy sundae and quickly began to take note of the speed with which custard fills the stomach. It was like a banana split on steroids. By the time I had finished, I felt ready to roll away. EB, his sister Sous Chef and I decided to walk home, unable to face the thought of even bending our bodies enough to sit down in the car.

I thought I would never feel hungry again, but, of course, I did. Later that night, we went out for dinner at the Caribbean restaurant Jolly Bob’s (good drinks and atmosphere, unremarkable food). After dinner, Drumstix, Popcorn Princess, Cerealla, Croque Monsieur, EB and I went out for a drink at Vintage Brewing Company, a relatively new spot, focusing on European-style beers. We sat at a cozy booth with a view of the steel beer-making tanks over the back and a view of the eleventh-hour debt ceiling negotiations on the television monitors above the bar in front of us. We each ordered a different one, except for EB who couldn’t decide and ordered a flight. The Summer Sahti, my selection, was a delicious brew made in the Finnish style. It had a foundation of rye with hints of juniper berry in the finish and was quite refreshing.

Having eaten a hot dog (admittedly not a brat) and frozen custard and tried a delicious new beer, I felt like my long weekend in Madison had largely fulfilled my culinary aspirations for it. I could head back to New York with enough signature Midwestern flavors in my taste memory to tied me over until next time.

Michael’s Frozen Custard
2531 Monroe St.
Madison, WI 53711

Vintage Brewing Company
674 S. Whitney Way
Madison, WI 53711