Deconstructing Burgers

BuiltBurger and Dope Burger go their own ways.

Dope Burger is a terrible name for a restaurant. Unless said restaurant is actually selling dope and burgers (which Dope Burger is not), or making burgers out of weed (which Dope Burger also is not), or actually making the dopest, flyest, most bangin' burgers this side of a 2004 slang dictionary, I can't quite understand why anyone would choose this name for their business. It's just awful. All of which would be cute and kind of funny if Dope Burger were making fantastic burgers despite the goofy name. It would be a great way to start a story about the place: "Oh, sure, the name might be totally stupid, but you'll get past it when you taste the burgers . . . " At midnight on Friday the crowd at Dope Burger—which opened in the former Noodle Ranch space on Second Avenue in Belltown a little over a month ago under the same ownership, but with a vastly different concept—is sluggish. The takeout window in the back is clotted with party casualties looking confused by the simple menu or just staring, mesmerized by the giant TV hacked into the wall and the bright colors of the graffiti-style Dope Burger mural that bleeds out across one entire side of the room. A few tables are scattered around the narrow dining area, which, with its slick bar and thatched sacking on the ceiling, still retains a touch of its former occupant's decor. And in the kitchen, I can see the cooks dancing. These are all good signs. The cooks still feel a bit of that opening-night juice and energy. Owner Una Kim only had the address dark for a week between closing Noodle Ranch and opening Dope Burger, in an attempt at capturing a piece of the burger zeitgeist in Belltown. And I like the energy of a concept that can colonize, slap up a little paint, open fast, and make good use of whatever recyclable material was left in the wake of the exit. It makes the new operation seem resourceful and quick. I'm comforted by the aura of cheap beer and party liquor that hangs on the night like a caul. A few beers in, and suddenly a fat burger and some greasy fries can seem like the greatest idea ever thought. This is the notional space in which Dope Burger exists. It keeps long hours on the weekends ('til 1:30 in the morning) and exists for the simple purpose of providing ground beef and fried foods to those badly in need. That the restaurant has only been open a month doesn't bother me at all because, after all, they're only making burgers. If a burger restaurant can't perfect its method for making the one thing that anchors and centers its menu within 30 minutes of opening, there are going to be problems. At 30 days, the crew should be experts. The burgers here are double-ground and hand-packed, made to order alongside a brief array of sides. There are three salads, milkshakes in three varieties, and some things from the fryers. Nothing more. As I sit, waiting for my "dope delux" and order of fries, it slowly dawns on me that a few things are wrong. First, of the people eating around me, no one seems excited about their burger. Say what you will about places like Beth's or Dick's (or even Denny's, after last call on a Saturday), but there will always come a point, shortly after the food arrives, when those who've been expecting it dig in with a singular focus that is the willful absence of any and all outside stimuli. For a minute or two, all that exists is that burger, those fries, that giant omelet, whatever. At Dope Burger, that's just not happening. Second, I am not drunk. If I were, I might not have noticed the distinct lack of enthusiasm among those who've already been served. I certainly wouldn't have cared. But when my burger and fries do arrive, I get why no one else seems altogether invested in the systematic devouring of what's in front of them; why they're talking and laughing and watching the TV, but not just eating. The burger just isn't that good. The dope delux is two patties, glommed together with gooey melted American cheese and dressed with the classic burger-flipper's mirepoix: tomato, onions, iceberg lettuce, and pickles. The lettuce is shredded, which is nice, and stuck to the burger via the convenient expedient of "dope sauce" (just ketchup, mayonnaise, and a little kick of spice). The tomato is thin and limp, the onions chopped, allegedly, but basically nonexistent. But the big problem is the burger itself. It tastes like meatloaf. Or, more accurately, it has the texture of inexpertly made leftover meatloaf, and tastes like nothing much at all. Like a vaguely burger-flavored simulacrum, maybe. Like a memory on the tongue of a burger eaten hours before. The hand-formed patties are irregularly shaped and irregularly thick, making for some interesting gradations between mid-rare and well-as-fuck. What's more, they have the telltale lacing around their edges of a hurried cook smashing them down on a flat-top to make them cook faster—a technique called bricking. The crunchy bits of meat candy around the edges of the patty are actually where all the burger's juice (read: blood) was squished out and caramelized on the hot steel. If done correctly, this technique can make for a burger with some crispness around the edges and a certain sweetness. When done poorly (or simply to rush a burger to doneness, without any concern for the burger itself), it squeezes all the blood and liquefying fat from the meat and leaves behind a dull and flavorless lump. Guess which way they were playing it at Dope Burger. I went back on a slow Sunday, hoping for better than the bland, meatloafy burger of Friday night and the limp, ugly fries that'd been single-dunked into oil too cold to crisp them. Ordering the "surfer on avocado," I got a slightly better burger, not quite so abused, topped this time with three slices of fresh avocado and a fried egg that could've been used as a Frisbee by dwarves. As a side, I took a chance on the fried avocado slices, which came breaded like Costco mozzarella sticks, and found, again, the same thing to be true about these fried avocados that I have about every other fried avocado ever: that breading, battering, and frying avocado sounds like a great idea (what isn't made better by frying?), but does absolutely nothing good for the avocado itself. Avocado left alone is delicious—cool and green and yellow and fatty. An avocado fried just tastes like a warm, gushy, over-the-hill avocado with a crunch—making something uniquely excellent less so just by messing with it too much. In other words, despite the promise of its name, Dope Burger doesn't offer the dopest burger in town. And one of these days I'll learn my lesson about fried avocado, too. BuiltBurger is another new burger joint, operated by another gang of renegade burger-flippers trying to carve a place for themselves by improving on that which should be unimprovable: the classic American cheeseburger. As in a bad teen movie from the '80s, imagine Dope and Built as two rival gangs of quarrelsome break-dancers fighting over the same turf of appetite. Both come to the floor wearing their raddest parachute pants and headbands, but only one can win the climactic dance-off at the film's conclusion. BuiltBurger is going to take it, hands down. They're the freshest, most daring, pop-and-locking-est crew around, coming straight out of Pioneer Square with a location that looks like the inside of an empty shoebox and a menu that breaks every single common law of burger-making, yet still comes off looking like revolutionary brilliance rather than avocado-breading fuck-uppery. The thing that Built does differently than every other burger place around is to bravely mess with that inalterable core of American taste known as the hamburger. In the kitchen at Built, they warp and twist the burger. They add and they take away. The burger here is no longer just a simple puck of meat, but a blank canvas on which can be written any number of stories told in food. The best thing on the Built menu (and I'm only saying "best" because, even now, I'm craving another hit of it like it'd been crammed with heroin) is the Magnificent Chorizo, a beef patty cut with smoky-hot Mexican chorizo, studded with chunks of roasted poblano, threaded with melted cotija, and topped with a cilantro-lime coleslaw which itself would easily be my favorite side at a different restaurant in a different place. All this is then mounted on a toasted sesame-seed roll as buttery and soft as brioche, and served on a plain white plate like the work of art it is. The flavor is spicy, smoky, savory, and beefy all at the same time, the texture a complicated play of soft roll, perfectly mid-rare meat, and crisp, crunching slaw. On the side there's an order of potato beignets, fried to a bare, delicate sweetness, then spiced with a hint of salt, maybe some cayenne, a little paprika. Naked, they are delicious. But they're even better dipped in the smear of garlic aioli that decorates the end of my rectangular plate. The Magnificent Chorizo was the first burger I had at Built—standing alone in the empty dining room during an off hour in the middle of the day, looking around at the bare white walls, bare ceiling, bare everything. BuiltBurger looks right now as though it hasn't actually opened yet. To eat there is to feel slightly dislocated, as though you're spending time as a rat in a burger laboratory, not a customer in a restaurant. But it's worth it for the Pinnacle Bacon Bleu, its patty made of beef and roasted bacon, caramelized onion, and Danish bleu cheese; or the Thrill BBQ Pork, with its barbecued pork and ground pork, roasted red peppers and onions, all dressed in Old Bay-spiked slaw and dill pickles. The Thrill tastes like eating a pulled-pork sandwich that has been deconstructed atom by atom, rendered into a gas, infused into a great burger, and then served. Like the Magnificent Chorizo, it is unlike anything I've had before, and something I feel I need more of. Like now. Oddly, my only complaint is with Built's most basic burger, the Superb Trio. Three different cuts of beef ground together, seasoned, and mounted with a fat slice of beautiful tomato, leaf lettuce, and slivered red onion, it should've been the simplest, most recognizable burger-analog on the menu. And it was, but therein lay the problem. In coming dangerously close to the classic burger that inspired it, it stood, counterintuitively, as too much of a departure just because it was not different enough. The Thrill, the Chorizo—these were barely recognizable as traditional burgers, so far beyond the standard deviation as to become something completely different. But the Trio came off like an overworked, overseasoned, overly complicated adaptation, and so suffered from the curse of expectation. I expected it to be like a burger, and when it strayed too far—or not far enough—from the norm, I was disappointed. Still, as problems go, this one was easily solved. The answer was just to go back—to stand again like a lab rat in the white blankness of Built's space and never again be so traditional. A man can get a normal burger anywhere, done well or poorly. But for another hit of chorizo burger sweetened with lime slaw, for another order of puffy potato beignets straight out of the oil burning my fingers, BuiltBurger wins this dance-off without even breaking a sweat. Price Guide Dope Burger: Dope Delux $6.75 Surfer on avocado $6.75 Fries $3.25 Fried avocado $4.50  BuiltBurger: Superb Trio $7.50 Pinnacle Bacon Bleu $8.50 Magnificent Chorizo $7.95 Thrill BBQ Pork $7.95 Potato beignets $2.95 jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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