Table Talk
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Esker Grove: Yes, there’s a cheeseburger on the lunch menu at the Walker Art Center’s beyond gorgeous new Esker Grove, and it's a must-try for burger purists. It starts with a doozy of a bun, baked on the premises and enriched with milk. The patty? An all-chuck formula (sourced from Peterson Limousin Beef in Osceola, Wis.) that gets an overnight cure before being fortified with butter, formed into thick-ish patties and nurtured in its own juices on the flat top grill to an ideal medium, bordering on medium-well. Cheese is American, two extravagant slices, and the pickles are superb. Finishing touches? A pair of sauces. It’s a classic.

Price: $12, a more-than-suitable amount, one that, given the level of quality, verges into deal territory.

Fries: None. Instead, it’s house-made potato chips.

Address book: 723 Vineland Place, Mpls., 612-375-7542. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Note: Esker Grove's burger is a lunch-only item.

Cafe Alma: Chef Matt Sprague features turkey and lamb burgers on his daytime menu, but once a week, on Thursday evenings, he delves into beef. And, wow. Sprague follows the double-patty formula, but not blindly; the sirloin-heavy patties are noticeably hefty (the meat also hails from Peterson Limousin Beef), and the condiments are restrained: shredded iceberg lettuce, the kitchen’s crunchy bread-and-butter pickles, a few slices of American cheese that gets a smoked Gouda boost, and a rich, umami-laced Russian dressing-like sauce. The house-baked brioche bun is nothing short of perfect. Remember, it’s available Thursdays only, after 7 p.m., in the cafe.

Price: $12. A bargain, especially considering the potato situation.

Fries: None. Instead, the Alma Double is served with a cruelly addictive finger food that the menu formally calls “Crispy Smashed Russet Potatoes."

Address book: 528 University Av. SE., Mpls., 612-379-4909. The Alma Double is served in the cafe on Thursday evenings only, after 7 p.m. The cafe is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Mercy: Another single-patty format that just might turn the tide on the popularity of the double-patty burger. The beef is exceptional, an in-house grind that’s a Neiman Marcus-like mix of Niman Ranch prime chuck and brisket, fortified by a few secret weapons: trims from the menu’s tenderloin, New York strip and sirloin steaks. Simple and effective garnishes (including a ketchup-free sauce that adds zing but doesn’t overwhelm) ring true to its “Old School Cheeseburger” name, and the buttery, challah-style bun is first-rate.

Price: $14, and justified (see Niman Ranch, above). Bargain hunters, drop in during happy hour(s) – that’s 3 to 6 p.m. daily, and anytime after 9 p.m. – when Rakun cuts the price to 10 bucks. No chips.

Fries: None. Instead, a generous handful of house-made potato chips.

Address book: 901 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-252-7000. Open 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Burger served during brunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends), lunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays) and dinner (3 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 3 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday).

Zelo: There’s really no reason why a person would expect to encounter a burger – several, actually – amid the pastas, risottos and bruschettas at this popular (and recently renovated, beautifully) Italian-esque restaurant. Better to set the skepticism aside, and enjoy. Because, what a burger. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated: a bruiser of a half-pound patty (the premium beef hails from Revier Cattle Co. in Olivia, Minn.), one that’s nearly as tall as it is wide. The picture-perfect bun is baked on the premises. Toppings? A buttery slab of fontina is draped over soft, teasingly sweet caramelized onions. As for the requisite “special sauce,” it’s a formulaic blend of mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup and Worcestershire, and it performs exactly as expected. Yes, fifteen bucks isn't exactly cheap. But consider this: it’s a half-pound of burger. Split it with a fellow burger-lover.

Price: $14.95.

Fries: Included, and well-executed.

Address book: 831 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-333-7000. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Burger Time: Three cheers for this fast-food chain out of Fargo, which landed in West St. Paul last year and cranks out big, delightfully sloppy monsters. The patty – thicker than fast-food expectations might otherwise suggest – weighs in at a third pound, and while it's not brimming with juices, the beef was seemingly hand-formed and freshly cooked, with faint streaks of pink in its center. The bun? It’s a basic food-service number, but giving it a hearty toast certainly adds welcome flavor and texture dimensions. Toppings don’t stray from the classic fast-food vocabulary. But who cares? For the price, the formula works, big time.

Price: $3.99 for basic “Bigger” burger, $4.49 with cheese.

Fries: Not included (a jumbo serving costs $1.79; worth it), but order them, they’re reminiscent of the old-school McDonald’s fries.

Address book: Open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. 1011 S. Robert St., West St. Paul. 651-450-4557.