The burger: Our too-brief warm-weather months open up a rare opportunity for Twin Cities diners. For three hours a day (4 to 7 p.m.), five days a week, through the end of August, the University of Minnesota’s Campus Club opens its otherwise members-only doors to the public. This is a big deal for a big reason: the club’s fourth-floor patio terrace, which stretches across the front of Coffman Memorial Union, sports thrilling, Instagram-the-heck-out-it views of both Northrop Mall and the downtown Minneapolis skyline.
The happy hour welcome mat also includes access to the club’s dinner menu, and yes, there’s a burger. A good one.
It follows a restrained, no-frills format, which can be problematic if the kitchen cuts corners. That doesn’t happen here. The patty -- it’s thick, well-charred and reaches out to the bun’s edges -- is fashioned from deeply flavorful grass-fed beef that's raised on a small southeastern Minnesota family-owned farm. “I’m a convert to grass-fed beef,” said chef Beth Jones. “Not only for the health benefits, but for the mineral-ey flavor.”
It’s a lean beef. “But they add some fat back in for us,” said Jones, which explains the patty’s hot-off-the-flat-top sizzle. “And we don’t smash the hell out of it,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t understand the Smashburger concept. It goes against everything my dad taught me about burgers. For me, a burger is just beef, salt, pepper and patience.”
A chief draw is the house-baked bun, which gets a light, warming toast. Its whole wheat flour foundation is both delicious and virtuous, a rare combination in Burgerland. Like so much of this locavore operation, the flour hails from a nearby source: Swany White Flour Mills in Freeport, Minn.
The whole wheat bun is demand-driven. “When I started working here, our members made a push for whole grains,” said Jones, an 11-year Campus Club vet. “We have a core group of people who eat here two or three times a week -- many of them are doctors and scientists -- and nutrition is a big concern. We have a great pastry chef. Her name is Gladys Campoverde, and she came up with the bun recipe on her own. We’d been buying whole wheat hamburger buns from a local bakery, and Gladys said, ‘I think we can do better,’ and I think she did.”
For the burger’s well-chosen but nothing-out-of-the-ordinary garnishes, Jones and her crew take full advantage of their longstanging relationship with Cornercopia, the university’s student-run organic farm. Just not yet. Right now the St. Paul farm is supplying the club's kitchen with radishes and asparagus, “and a ton of greens should be coming my way next week,” said Jones. “I’m on the phone with them a lot, plotting things.”
But until the growing season progresses, the burger’s surprisingly juicy, flavorful and ruby-red tomatoes aren’t coming from Cornercopia.
Even the burger’s cheese has an academic background. “The dairy lab on the St. Paul campus is amazing," said Jones. “The blue cheese is really good, and so is the aged Cheddar. And they have a really good raclette. Have you been to their store? The ice creams are really good, too.”
Duly noted. The shop is located at the U’s St. Paul campus, and is open from 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday.
It’s a frequently told Burger Friday story, but, once again, it bears repeating: the path to a great burger is often paved with a modest selection of carefully selected and handled ingredients. And, yes, the view helps.
Price: $9.50. Cheese is an additional 50 cents.
Fries: An extra $3.25, and worth it, a generous handful of long, skinny, lightly golden and barely salted tastiness.
That view: It’s spectacular. If the club's terrace isn't a stop on the new-student recruitment tour, it should be. Every seat has a full-on view of the great outdoor room that is architect Cass Gilbert’s Northrop Mall, and many have a postcard-worthy vista of the downtown Minneapolis skyline. A word of advice: don’t forget sunglasses, and load up on the sunscreen; there’s plenty of sunshine, and few umbrellas.
Special events: “Once a month, we partner with a brewery or a distillery, and we make a custom, small-plate menu,” said Jones. Nice, right? Coming up: Newcomer BlackStack Brewing (and live music from the Lisa Carney Anderson Trio), on June 21, during, yes, happy hour.
Where she burgers: “I’m really not into burgers, but once in a while I’ll get a mad craving for one,” said Jones. “When I was pregnant, it was the Helicopter Burger at Anchor Fish & Chips. When I was a very little kid, my dad owned a restaurant called Sandy’s, it was in the Dinkydome [in nearby Dinkytown]. He bought it in 1966 and sold it in 1979. He would make those burgers at home, and they were so good, it’s hard to compare them to anything else. Mom would make these super-thin onion rings, and Dad still had one of those mint green Hamilton Beach malt machines, and he would make malts. That’s what’s embedded in my memory as a favorite.”
Address book: 300 Washington Av. SE., Mpls., 612-626-7788. Summer non-member happy hour runs 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays, through August. Parking is available is available in two nearby parking ramps: at the Weisman Art Museum and at the East River Road Garage, and it's a two-block walk to the East Bank Station of Metro Transit's Green Line light rail. Coffman has plentiful bike parking, too.
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