The burger: The phrase “Miracle on Main Street” is being applied to the sleek, energetic rebirth of the Leader, the generations-old department store in downtown Cambridge, Minn. But it could also apply to the burger being served at Willards, the store’s highly appealing restaurant.
That’s because said burger is the resurrection of the Perfect Burger, the aptly named bacon cheeseburger that, for several years, drew legions of devoted fans to chef Erick Harcey’s now-defunct Victory 44 in north Minneapolis.
And perfect, it was. And is, an impeccable blend of simplicity and complexity, in a bun.
That bun, for starters, is a treat, the soft, rich “milk bun” from the Salty Tart. Toasted in butter and swiped in a decadent Dijonnaise, its scale is precisely tailored to the patty, a thick-ish five-ouncer that’s grilled – in plenty of butter – on a hot flat top stove.
Harcey uses a fat-enriched blend of chuck, short rib and rib eye. All of that butter, combined with the stove’s intense heat, invests a slightly crisped-up crust on the patty's exterior, but doesn’t diminish the beef’s inherent juiciness. The patty’s outer edges don’t form a clean perimeter; instead, there are lots of nooks and crannies that create opportunities to develop all kinds of flavor-packed charred bits.
Garnishes are kept to a minimum, but piled on with an almost maniacal glee. Two strips of smoky bacon intensify the beef’s richness, and a pair of American cheese slices contribute a notable level of gooiness. The pickles definitely make a statement. They're teased with mustard seed and celery seed, and stacked at least as high as the patty itself.
“In most of my food, I like to include what appears to be a fresh component,” said Harcey. “Here, it’s the crunch of the cucumbers, with the balance of acid and sweet.” Again, perfect.
There’s an occasional slice of raw jalapeno, mixed in with the pickles, for a bright but not overpowering flash of heat. That’s it for the vegetables.
“You get lettuce and tomato in there, and the burger just slips and slides,” said Harcey. “I like to think about the best burgers that I’ve ever had, and it usually comes down to the difference between a gourmet burger – you know, aged Cheddar, and truffle, and an heirloom tomato – which is a different beast from the burger that you crave. This is a burger that you crave.”
It sure is. I can’t wait to return, and not just for the Perfect Burger. At dinner, Harcey (assisted by Bradley Day, formerly of Tullibee) has also revived the dreamy Swedish meatballs that he served at his former Upton 43. That’s reason enough to make the journey, which is roughly a 50-mile straight shot north of downtown Minneapolis, and a half-hour out of Blaine. But there are so many others: the gravy-drenched braised beef sandwich that’s a loving homage to Harcey’s grandfather (the restaurant’s namesake), the pretty open-face shrimp sandwich with pops of lemon and dill, the nutty wild rice ice cream and the beyond-tender pastry (the secret ingredient: duck fat) wrapped around tart apples. Go. It's more than worth the drive.
Price: $14 (single), $17 (double).
Fries: Included, and terrific. They’re a thick wedge cut, and a departure from the fries that Harcey served with the Perfect Burger during its Victory 44 incarnation. “They’re something different,” he said. In this case, different equals delicious; the potatoes, which are baked, cooled and then fried, have a pronounced crispiness on the outside, and a fluffy, slightly starchy, mashed potato-like interior. They’re topped with a seasoning blend that’s similar to the old Victory 44 days: flaky sea salt, chives, Parmesan and a dash of truffle oil. “Everyone wants the bacon powder back, but I’m fine with letting that go,” said Harcey with a laugh, referring to a well-loved finish touch. Honestly? I didn’t miss it.
Where he burgers: “I do love a good burger,” said Harcey, pictured, above. “I think Parlour’s burger is pretty tasty, they do a good job. If I’m around locally, I go to the Cambridge Bar & Grill. All they do is burgers. They do one where they put on just an absurd mound of jalapenos, and Swiss cheese. It’s delicious, but then you regret it, because you have heartburn for the rest of the day. But they really do it right.”
Address book: 133-135 Main St. S., Cambridge, Minn., 763-689-5600. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations accepted.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.