Thursday, October 29, 2009

Number Nine Burgers: I really wanted to like it

For days, I've been putting off writing this post because it pains me to say bad things about people who try really hard, and the guys at Number Nine Burgers are trying really hard.

As far as I can tell, it's one lone guy, with help from his sons, slinging burgers outside Michigan Stadium on game days. He sets up his stand, complete with griddle, condiment table, and chalkboard menu, and the peeps line up. They do. I did.

He has his social media all lined up. Twitter page, blog with catchy slogan ("flippin' good burgers"), a personal story. He's even savvy enough to post on some of the Michigan football blogs, thanking people for their patronage and telling the story about how he and his son made it into Michigan Stadium for the first time on Saturday but were almost kicked out of the student section (presumably because his tickets were in another section). Two selfless students gave him their tickets, and they were able to stay. That kind of heartfelt sucking up drives business.

What we're looking at is a potential burger goldmine. A captive audience of 100,000 hungry fans. A cool logo. A college town where a good third of all retail space is vacant, and probably deeply discounted, thanks to the economy.

But then there's the burgers. I had my first one on Saturday.

Dude. Mr. Nineburger, reach out to me. We need to talk. First, using frozen, pre-formed patties does not the best burger make. The patty was thin and had fillers. The cheese was not melted. The bun was really average. You can do better.

I love your idea, but the execution just isn't there. You know the picture of the burger on your website, the one where the cheese is dripping down the side of the patty, and the bacon looks like it's on steroids? That's what each and every burger should look like. I am losing saliva over the thought of that burger. I would stand in line over and over again for that burger, but not for the one I had on Saturday.

So get your burgers in order. Add fries to the menu, preferably the skin-on kind. Get a soda fountain featuring Coke products. Find some investors (and not by asking for donations on your website - you need some deep pockets) and a good location. And then I think you got yourself a business.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Join the club

I was perusing Facebook yesterday when I noticed a friend of mine had joined the group "Cilantro Sucks." A lot of people feel this way about cilantro. Another friend of mine had this to say about the greenery several years ago.

"It tastes like ass."

He would know better than I, given his sexual proclivities. I happen to love cilantro in a big, wet, sloppy kiss kind of way, ass or no ass.

I voiced my opposition to the "Cilantro Sucks" group in the comment box, hoping that my moral outrage (and love of skirt steak wrapped in a corn tortilla, slathered with cilantro pesto) would sway public opinion. It did not. Several other people then commented on how they couldn't wait to join the group.

I've joined a lot of Facebook food groups during my short tenure there. To name a few: the I Love Chicken Potpie! club, the Put Potatoes On My Breakfast Taco and I'll Stab You In The Fucking Eye group (this will undoubtedly come back to haunt me when some guy gets stabbed in the eye over potatoes in a breakfast taco and I become a person of interest in the case because of my affiliation with the group), Del Taco, and Cape Cod Potato Chips.

I even started a group, Whatever Happened to Shanghai Minnie's?, which was a Chinese fast food restaurant in Chicago that mysteriously closed sometime in the 90's. The group now has 8 members.

So why do we join these groups? Connectivity? Camaraderie? Narcissism? Exhibitionism? And then it came to me.

We have an inherent, regressive need to define ourselves to the world - to be known - although if we're honest, it's probably more for ourselves than it is for anyone else. Remember when you were a kid and some other kid blurted out, "My favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate!" You weren't just going to sit there and let his favorite be known, but not yours. You and every other kid in the room would start yelling out your own favorite flavor. "Mine's chocolate chip!" "Mine's blue moon!" And then there was the one kid who would go off on a tangent: "My aunt made an ice cream cake at my cousin, Max's, birthday party but it had grape jelly in it, so I didn't eat it!"

So just to let you know, my favorite soup is tomato. My favorite oil is olive. My favoite cheese is pepper jack. My favorite cookie is almond biscotti. My favorite dessert is tiramisu. And I would not eat an ice cream cake with grape jelly in it, either.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The queen of tartar sauce

When I was a sophomore in high school, I lived in a Howard Johnson's for three months. It was a hugely weird existence, but ultimately fortuitous for me since we ate out every night, mostly at the HoJo's in the lobby. And if you know anything about HoJo's, you know that they have arguably the best fried clams on the planet (even at the one on Central Expressway in Dallas, Texas).

I think I ate fried clams every day for those three months, along with fries and their perky tartar sauce. Tartar sauce is always perky, and always white trashy, and usually delicious in that puckery kind of way. You either like it or you don't, kind of like mayonnaise. I once worked with a woman who hated mayonnaise so much, she turned down a sandwich when she was pregnant - and starving and about to faint - because there was mayo on it. I also know people who eat it out of the jar with a spoon and spread it on their ham sandwiches inches thick.

But tartar sauce holds a special place in the wide world of condiments because of what usually comes with it: fried seafood. Along with spreadable cheese and Cantonese egg rolls, fried seafood is perhaps the greatest invention of the culinary world. I include in this illustrious list clams, shrimp, fish filets (which would include fish sticks, fish fingers, fish bites and any other cute bite-size names, like nibblers, fish and chips, and fish sandwiches), and crabcakes, but definitely not whitebait (young herring fried and eaten whole, head, guts and all) or smelts.

Tartar sauce is good with other fried items, too, like onion rings and fried cauliflower, presumably because the tartness of the capers and lemon juice cuts the richness of the fried parts, but it is best with fried seafood. To have one without the other would be like having Newman without Redford. Lemmon without Matthau. Richie Cunningham without the Fonz. If there is a more inspired pairing, I, for one, would like to know about it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Stickin' it to the man

I haven't committed any crimes in my life, if you don't count the shoplifting incident in 9th grade when I lifted a deliciously slutty shade of frosty teal eyeshadow from a Korvette's in the Bronx. I paid my debt to society by getting caught, and then getting grounded for two weeks. No social life in 9th grade = solitary confinement.

So when I went to Xoco the other day - Rick Bayless' new quick service restaurant that I swore I wouldn't patron until the lines died down - I certainly wasn't expecting to be felonious or misdemeanorious or anything except law-abiding. That was before I had to find parking.

I drove around the block six times, looking for a Paybox spot. Good luck with that at high noon, so I decided to park in one of those lots where parking costs more than lunch itself. I cursed the city of Chicago and pulled in.

Normally, there's an attendant who gives you a ticket, takes your keys, and then laughs his ass off at your gullibility, since you just promised him $25 for an hour's worth of parking. But I didn't see any attendant. I waited the requisite 45 seconds, and even added 15 seconds to the 45, and still no attendant. So I pulled into a space, locked my car and went to lunch, figuring I would just pay him when I returned.

I met my friend, Bob, there. Bob and I only go to places where you have to stand in line for interminable amounts of time. We've spent more time standing in line, waiting, than we have sitting down, eating.

My thoughts on Xoco: lunch was a 15 - 20 minute wait. No diet coke. Diet pepsi. And the seating made me want to call up the architect who designed the place and say, Are you spatially retarded? The table we landed at was a communal table for six. There were two people on one end, so we sat at the other end, but before our food came, the hostess asked us to move to the middle, leaving an open space on the end for some annoying party of two to sandwich us in, which never happened, so we cozied up to our neighbors for nothing.

At that point, anything less than the best food in the world would have been disappointing. And so it went. I had a woodland mushroom torta. The bread was too crusty, the filling was a tad too salty, and the act of having to deconstruct it because the bread was too crusty was too much to ask. Bob had soup (winter squash - it was fine) and a salad, which I would imagine was also fine. But still - no diet coke and a communal table designed to completely ignore my need for just a scoche of personal space? The only reason I'll go back is for the churros, which looked twisty and delicious.

So, disappointed with lunch, I decided that maybe I shouldn't have to pay for parking. Maybe I shouldn't have to give the man $25 after a lunch that was no better than middling. Rick Bayless just stuck it to me with a long wait and a disappointing finish. I was going to stick it to System Parking, Inc.

I went over to my car, unlocked it and got in. The attendant was standing there, half-awake. I expected him to flag me down, demand $25 plus some penalty for not following protocol. But he didn't. With my friend, Bob, watching in stupefied awe, I drove away, with $25 in my pocket to buy something worthwhile, like 25 Bee Gees songs.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Three moms and a heavy metal burger bar

When the tattooed waitress at Kuma's Corner asks if you want fries with your burger, don't say, "Yes, please." Shout, "Hell, yeah, motherfucker!" like you're some kind of biker chick with a pierced nipple and a graveyard tattooed on your back. Rock your head up and down - maybe even bang it on the table - and tell her this is the best fucking tune you've ever heard in your entire life. Then finish placing your order.

I went to Kuma's today with two other moms. We did not refer to anyone as motherfucker. We entered quietly, ate quietly, and then left quietly, although our normally sedate mom jeans made quite possibly the loudest statement in the room (not counting the ambient thrashing death metal that was destroying the speakers).

Kuma's is a heavy metal burger bar, where just about every burger is named after a metal band. I did pretty well ID'ing most of them until I got to YOB, which is either a doom metal band from Eugene, Oregon or the opposite of what a good boy should be: crude, obnoxious, and violent. Needless to say, this mom did not order that burger.

The burgers here are fairly spectacular in a hard core kind of way. They're massive and meaty, and the toppings are grossly excessive: layer upon layer of different forms of saturated fat, all heaped on a pretzel roll, an interesting choice that tells me someone in the kitchen gives a rat's ass about the food. The cooks may be scary - they may be shooting heroin after their shifts. But they know how to make a burger.

I had a tough time making my final selection, with choices like the Goblin Cock (essentially a 1/4 lb. all-beef hot dog and all the Chicago fixin's on top of a 10 ounce burger), but I ended up getting the 1990's Texas metal band, Pantera (poblano peppers, jack cheese, tortilla strips). Mom #2 got a Neurosis (cheddar, swiss, caramelized onions, mushrooms and horseradish mayo), and mom #3 got a Mayhem (sliced jalapenos, pancetta, pepper jack and giardinera mayo). Every burger begins with 10 ounces of beef and from what I can tell, there's very little shrinkage. It's a massive piece of meat, and it comes with massive toppings. The namesake Kuma's burger sports bacon, cheddar and a fried egg, while the absurd Bongzilla carries a 1/4 lb. Sheboygan bratwurst, smoked gouda, caramelized onion, dusseldorf mustard, and jalapeno apple chutney, all on top of the standard 10 ounces of meat. Crazy.

As for the service, I'd call it knowledgeable, attentive, and not overly solicitous. Just how I like it. But if you had a heart attack here and dropped to the floor, I'm pretty sure the waitress would stand over you and say, "Too fucking bad," and tell the next patron to come on down and grab your chair. That's just the kind of place it is. As you might expect, it's very popular. Expect a wait.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Kangaroo burgers, anyone?

I heart Hop Haus. I went there last night for the first time, and realized that it and I were meant to be together. First, let's talk about the TV's. There's one in every booth. If you're not lucky enough to get a booth, there are 15 others scattered around the room. They're all flat screens. I thought my kids were going to wet their pants. I almost wet my pants. I also heart TV.

Although this is called a "sports pub," the food is far beyond that. All the burgers are "hand-crafted," which is kind of a silly, made-up advertising word, so let's just say this: they're the kind of burgers that are 1 1/2" thick, cooked as requested, and meaty as all get out (My 6th grade teacher, Mr. Finney, used to use that phrase - "as all get out" - so here's to you, Mr. Finney). There are 24 different permutations, including a "build your own" option, so here's your chance to put grilled pineapple and spinach and artichoke dip on your burger at the same time.

They also have wild mini burgers, which are game burgers - ostrich, kangaroo, buffalo, beefalo (??), and lamb. The burgers are dressed appropriately - the lamb burger had just the right amount of feta, cucumber salad, and slivers of red onion. They come in three's (pick your mix), or you can order them a la carte, which is what I did. The lamb burger was so delightfully juicy, it left a pool of juice on the plate, and it was a perfect example of why less is more when it comes to strongly flavored toppings.

They also have salads and sandwiches and veggie burgers and a really delicious, ambitiously garnished bowl of chicken soup. Just make sure you have at least one mini burger. You can have any of the 24 permutations as minis, too. Variety the spice of life.

Burgers and sandwiches come with fries (last night, it was the waffle variety, but on the menu, they're described as crinkle cut potato wedges with the skin on) or confetti slaw, which includes the entire produce section from Jewel, shredded and julienned. I brought home a tub of the stuff.

The desserts are the weak link. We ordered the mini cheesecake, and it came scooped like ice cream, which frankly looked like they had scraped an old piece of cheesecake out of the garbage and needed to come up with some creative way to disguise it's destruction. The brownie sundae was disappointingly average, too. But honestly, after a meal like this, do you really need dessert?

Hop Haus Rogers Park - 7545 N. Clark. Love it!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The end

I just found out that Gourmet magazine is closing. The publisher, Conde Nast, is apparently responding to the lousy economy by closing several of its lifestyle magazines, including Modern Bride and Elegant Bride. I would have to agree with those two - how many magazines dedicated to seating charts and bridal shower do's and don'ts do we really need?

But Gourmet? I immediately thought of Ruth Reichl, whom I vilified here back in July. She was the bon vivant editor who twittered incessantly about her envious, never-to-be-attained-by-anyone-else life. Maybe she should have taken Albert Brooks' advice from the scene in Broadcast News, when Holly Hunter asked, "What do you do when your life exceeds your wildest dreams?" Brooks replied, "You keep it to yourself."

Her last tweet was Saturday:

Foggy fall afternoon. Cup of lemon tea. Outside the window a deer is munching on the lawn. About to start the Saturday puzzle. Happy.

Even the mundaneness of her everyday life is magical. Here's my Saturday tweet:

Seven loads of laundry. Cat box needs to be cleaned. Sloppy Joe's for dinner. Again. My ass is flabby.

I'm sure Ruth will be just fine - I think she has a TV show in the works. Of course.

But the rest of us will miss a venue for great food writing, interesting recipes and beautiful food photography. I, for one, am really sad to see this one go.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


I'm just now coming out of the coma brought on by the cheeseburger I had at Five Guys today. Cheeseburgers do that to me - propel me into a state of profound happiness, sickening fullness, and lingering guilt that usually lasts for 36 - 48 hours.

Five Guys is like our In-and-Out Burger, and what Wendy's aspired to be 30 years ago: the fresh fast food burger chain. The meat isn't frozen, there are no fillers, and real people cook them. The patties aren't pre-formed, which reminds me of one of my favorite burger places of all time, Krazy Jim's Blimpyburgers, in Ann Arbor. There, they take golf ball shaped nuggets of meat and flatten them on the grill with a giant offset spatula (and then they yell at you, but that's another story). The edges of the meat are irregular, and they're never evenly cooked - moist here, crisp there. If you're lucky, little rogue pieces of meat break off and fall onto your deli paper, like a little gift. If you're into anal retentive patty making, this ain't your place.

In my burger world, burgers are lumped into two piles: those where the meat is seasoned and those that aren't. Fortunately, Five Guys is the former. I think the test of a great burger is the taste of the meat, plain. Too many places rely on the toppings to give the burger flavor. These are places that don't understand the soul of the burger eater.

Five Guys has good meat. It's juicy and crumbly and carnivorously meaty. My burger had cheese, lettuce, ketchup, sauteed mushrooms, and grilled onions. The topping options are plentiful, and claim to be free, even though we all know there is no such thing, except for what you pull out of a dumpster after a night of binge drinking. My husband got a plain double with a bunch of stuff on it. I didn't pay attention to his toppings because I was fixated on the fact that he didn't order cheese. Who orders a burger without cheese? Whatever.

We shared a small fries, and that was plenty. They were the skin on kind, another head nod to freshness that I appreciated, and nicely salted. And, for the crowning touch, I had a perfectly calibrated diet coke, half caf, half decaf. When a place has both caffeinated and decaffeinated diet coke in the self-serve, I'm pretty much in coca heaven. I mix and match depending on my state of wakefulness. Today was half and half.

Next time, I'll say hello to the jalapenos, and try the Cajun fries. But for now, since this meal should be with me for another 12 hours, I can think of nothing else but my cheeseburger with mushrooms.