The burger: After a few weeks away – frankly, I hadn’t encountered a burger that was worth writing about – I’m happy to report that Burger Friday is back in business, and all fired up.
That’s because I lucked into a booth at Bull’s Horn Food & Drink last night, and got a crack at chef Doug Flicker’s crazy-good Bull’s Horn Burger, an uncomplicated, old-school version that’s bound to generate some serious chatter up and down Burger Nation.
To me, it recalls the most winning attributes of the fast-food burgers of my 1970s childhood: a buttered-up bun, a thin but rather enormous patty, crunchy iceberg lettuce, salty and gooey American cheese and a rich, flavor-boosted mayonnaise. Oh, and plenty of vinegary pickles.
The patty is the center of this burger’s universe. It’s as basic as basic can be – and grilled to a uniform medium/medium-well, with absolutely no traces of pink remaining -- and it’s terrific.
“I just got sick of all the chef-ey burgers out there,” said Flicker. “You know, where you’ve got to buy four different muscles, and cure it, and whip butter into it.”
Flicker went in the opposite direction, but he didn’t stint on quality. The grass-fed beef hails from Peterson Craftsman Meats. “It’s their least expensive blend,” said Flicker. “But for us the flavor is absolutely perfect. It’s not like the Parlour burger, where it’s so beefy, which of course is really delicious, but it can be overwhelming, too. I was shooting for a balance. It all kind of comes down to proportions. A good hamburger is a combination of everything, it’s not just the meat. The patty shouldn’t be too thick, so when you take a bite it all blends together: the beef, the bun, the cheese, the lettuce and the sauce. It’s about harmony.”
Of course it helps that this is an exceptionally wide patty, meaning that a maximum amount of beef comes into contact with the grill’s heat, unlocking all kinds of tantalizing flavor molecules.
The bun is spectacular, a milk-enriched formula from Saint Agnes Baking Co. “The texture is perfect,” said Flicker, an observation with which I wholeheartedly concur. “It’s soft, and it collapses perfectly around the patty.” It helps that both the insides and outsides get a swipe of butter and a toast on the grill, warming and browning and adding another texture component.
The remaining elements are chosen with that previously mentioned harmony in mind. Cheese is appropriately plentiful, as is the chopped iceberg that’s slipped under the patty. The sauce is straight out of the bar burger’s manifesto, a mix of mayo, ketchup, pickle juice and paprika.
Bull’s Horn has only been open for a month, and this burger has already emerged as the menu’s top-seller. “By far,” said Flicker. From a burger lover’s standpoint, this much is clear: more top-flight chefs need to be buying dive bars.
Price: $8, a deal that that lands squarely in Black Friday territory. Cheese is an extra 50 cents, bacon is an additional $1.
Fries: Extra ($2), and not to be missed, in part because, once again, they skirt close to my memory of the ideal McDonald’s French fry of long-ago adolescence: slim, golden, crispy and piping hot, with just the right amount of salt. They’re a frozen product that gets a flash in the fryer, and that shortcut is A-OK with Flicker. “I hate to dog myself, but chefs spend so much time perfecting things that don’t need to be perfected,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than a bad homemade French fry. A frozen shoestring French fry that’s fried properly is a perfect French fry.” A basket version is $6.50.
Happy holidays: Be sure to drop in before Christmas, because Flicker and his wife and business partner Amy Greeley have decorated the place for the season. “It’s our Dollar Store Christmas,” said Greeley with a laugh. I was particularly taken with the large plastic versions of the Holy Family, which are dead ringers for the large nativity scene that our neighbors pulled out of storage every December when I was trying to survive junior high school. “Our assistant manager loves Christmas,” said Flicker. “She found it on Craigslist. It was five bucks, although she had to drive to Buffalo to get it.”
Meanwhile, running a dipped-in-nostalgia corner bar (yes, there’s a pulltabs counter) is proving to be light years away from Flicker’s last gig at Piccolo. After devoting eight brilliant years to redefining fine dining, he’s reveling in the deeply casual aspect of Bull’s Horn. “I can’t explain how great it is,” he said. “It’s amazing to be in the neighborhood and seeing people coming back for casual fun times. It’s not as intense as worrying about people’s birthdays and anniversaries. That pressure is off. I stand behind the bar on Tuesdays, and it’s sort of a love/hate thing. Being in the dining room has always kind of freaked me out, I’ve never really spent any time serving. But this is so much more casual and laid back. Being out in front of people, and meeting people, and talking to people, it’s all been really great. It reminds me of my childhood, hanging out in my uncle’s bar, and that’s a really nice feeling.”
Where he burgers: “I love Parlour, and Revival, those burgers are addictive and absolutely delicious. And I’m a big fan of Flameburger, the one on Central, for a whole slew of reasons. It’s the whole stepping-back-in-time thing, the simple American diner. It’s unpretentious, it’s great people-watching, it’s great T-shirts. It’s also great to go there from a cook’s perspective and look at their equipment, and watch how they put out burgers, or breakfast. It’s pretty awesome.”
Address book: 4563 34th Av. S., Mpls., 612-208-1378. Open 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.