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