The burger: Wouldn’t you know it? One of the most remarkable burgers that I’ve encountered in ages is located just a short walk from my house. Paraphrasing George Orwell, sometimes you don’t realize what’s sitting right in front of your own nose.
Find it at Stewart’s, chef Max Thompson’s role model of a neighborhood restaurant. St. Paul diners with long memories will recall when the restaurant – which is located across the street from University of St. Thomas in the garden level of a century-old apartment building – was the 128 Cafe. Thompson bought the place almost five years ago, and rebranded it as the more casual Stewart's in 2016.
“Fine dining is not a growth industry,” he said.
Thompson and chef Jason Hansen have always had a few burgers – good ones, too – on the menu. About six months ago, they narrowed it to a single offering, a decision driven by expediency.
“I got tired of making two different grinds, and two different patties,” said Thompson. “And I decided that I wanted to make a double cheeseburger. I grew up with grilled burgers that were sort of overcooked. I just wanted to do something that was a little over the top.”
That, dear Burger Friday readers, is a prime contender for the understatement of the year.
This burger is so over the top – in a really fabulous, gotta-eat way -- that the menu should include a warning label.
It starts with the patties. Weighing in at 3 ounces, they’re remarkably thin – and wide -- yet somehow don’t fall apart. Hansen follows an unusual cooking process, smashing the patty on the hot, unseasoned grill and searing that one side until the patty is about 95 percent cooked through, and the cooked surface has taken on a crisp texture that’s tantalizingly pocked with crunchy bits of char.
At precisely the right moment, Hansen somehow jimmies a spatula under that seared beef, flips it, quickly adds the cheese – lots and lots of already slightly warmed and soft American cheese – and then keeps the patty on the grill just long enough for the cheese to melt on that super-hot beef. Then the patty – one at lunch and brunch, a double at dinner – is whisked into a warmed bun, a few garnishes (see below) are added and it’s hustled out to the dining room.
Part of the allure is the beef, which is sourced from top-quality Peterson Craftsman Meats in Osceola, Wis.Some chefs use butter to insert fat content into patties. Not here.
“That makes it hard to do the next one,” said Thompson. “You end up with so much butter on the griddle, and you don’t want that. You want the patty to stick.”
Instead, they rely upon beef fat. The grind – a mix of brisket and chuck – is roughly 70 percent muscle, 30 percent fat.
“I said that it was over the top,” said Thompson with a laugh.
Aside from all of that cheese (enough to make this a knife-and-fork burger, at least when dining in polite company), the garnishes are uncomplictated and spot-on. Onions are cooked on the griddle, nurtured into soft sweetness with heat, oil and a splash of maple syrup. A swipe of a pungent, mustard-infused aioli adds a welcome touch of moisture to those crisped-up patties.
The snappy pickles are of the basic refrigerator variety: simple, with a vinegary, palate-cleansing bite. They’re fantastic, and essential to the burger’s overall success.
“I could eat a million pickles on that burger,” said Thompson. Same here.
The milk-fortified bun is from PJ Murphy’s (“They’re another small St. Paul business,” said Thompson), and before they’re toasted, they get a prodigious coating of butter on their interior surfaces.
“The key is to toast the cut side as slowly as you can,” said Thompson. “That way, as the bun warms, the buttered layer gets thicker, and a little bit crunchy. That’s the goal, anyway.”
(A side note: Thompson and Hansen tried using beef fat instead of butter, but ultimately preferred the latter. “It’s nice, because we’re not putting butter in the grind,” said Thompson. “And when you cook butter, it gives off that nice nutty flavor.”)
Clearly, Stewart's has a winner of a burger on its hands. Even better, it’s a 10-minute walk from my house. I think our property values have just increased, substantially.
Price: $13 at dinner (served a la carte), $15 at lunch (with fries), $13 at brunch (a single patty, with bacon and egg, and served with fries).
Fries: At dinner, they’re an additional $7, for a gigantic portion. They’re hand-cut, skin-on potatoes, twice-blanched so that they’re crispy and a dark golden brown on the outside, fluffy on the inside. Thompson dusts them with a seasoning mixture that includes Korean chile flakes, and serves them with a pair of Korean dipping sauces: an aioli laced with fermented miso, and, instead of ketchup, a feisty ssamjang sauce.
“If I could open a Korean restaurant right now, I would,” said Thompson. “It’s probably my favorite kind of food.”
On the other side of town: Thompson has been running the show at Nighthawks for the past six months, and he’s got an awesome-sounding burger on that menu. It’s on my list; if you’ve tried it, share your thoughts in the comments section.
Where he burgers: “I love burgers,” he said. “There’s no more American food than a burger. One that I’ve been eating recently is at Hamburguesas El Gordo. It’s a leaner burger, and I think my favorite part is that it’s not super-smashed. It’s a little fresher, and lighter. But I have to say that I still think that my favorite burger is a Joe Rolle-cooked Parlour burger, from about 2013.”
Address book: 128 Cleveland Av. N., St. Paul, 651-645-4128. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Metro Transit: Routes 87 and 21A. Both Cleveland Avenue and Marshall Avenue (which is two blocks north of the restaurant) have dedicated bike lanes.
Good to know: Parking is tight in the neighborhood (thanks, University of St. Thomas!), but it's not impossible. There are a number of (free) one-hour parking spots along Cleveland and Laurel avenues. Better still, the restaurant has a small (free) parking lot, located on the building's east side; enter/exit from the alley.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.