Burger Monger letdown: This burger specialist needs to step up 

Making a burger is easy. Ground beef, vaguely puck-like, cooked — no problem. Making a great burger, however, takes a little more thought.

The beef comes first, good quality and ground with enough fat to keep the final product moist and rich. Then you have to think about shaping the patty. Cram the meat together nice and tight — or stuff it into one of those infomercial burger presses — and you'll end up with a burger that's dense and tough. Use a lighter touch, keep just this side of falling apart and you'll be blessed with a lighter, more tender burger. Finally, seasoning. You can wrap that beef around aged gouda, mix in a handful of herbs and feta, or coat the outside in blackening seasoning if you want, but simple perfection comes strictly from a salt shaker. More than you think you'll need. Maybe pepper, too, if that's your thing.

Almost done, so bear with me a little longer — you still have to cook the thing. Griddle or grill, doesn't matter. You just want the heat high enough to caramelize the outside of the patty before the inside finishes cooking. We're not talking blowtorch hot, unless you like your burger bloody rare, but hot enough. Weight, squeeze or push the patty at your own risk — that hiss may be satisfying, but it signals the loss of precious, delicious moisture. Slap it on a bun, your choice, and top to your personal preferences. I like cheddar and pickles, and ketchup or mayo. Sometimes both.

There are a few steps in there, but it should be easy for any chef to put together a great burger at will, right? Somehow, though, I rarely expect a great burger from your average restaurant — enough salt and cooked right is all I usually plan on. When it comes to a burger specialist, however, I expect all those juicy ducks to be lined up and served to me on a plate with a side of fries. I expect a great burger.

Which is how I entered Burger Monger — a newish fast-casual restaurant in Carrollwood. I expected a great burger, with a few extras that would either make it an excellent full-service stop, or make me more likely to order two burgers and stay away from the sides.

What I found, though, is a burger that missed a range of key points on my checklist of great burger characteristics.

Let's bury that at the end, however, and dwell on Burger Monger's positive side. Fries — the only side dish of note — are hand cut in the restaurant and cooked right, each one a study in contrasts between limp and crunchy, potato and oil. The restaurant sells spuds by the half and full pound, which either entertains people with their ability to consume scalable quantities of fries, or makes them disgusted with themselves. Don't be scared — the half-pound of fries isn't nearly as massive as it sounds.

Hot dogs here are massive, meaty, all-beef logs, big enough that one can satisfy a serious appetite. Burger Monger also sells chicken breast sandwiches, but the chicken is meant more for their salads — after all, burgers and salads don't mix well. Chopped into bits on a plate of fresh greens and veggies, with a balsamic vinaigrette made in-house, the chicken works. On a bun, no matter the other fixin's, the meat is dense, salty and reminiscent of fast food.

Can't put it off any longer, I guess. Burger Monger's burgers are drab, unexciting and fundamentally flawed. The restaurant makes big bones out of their use of a "Kobe" beef called Akaushi. It's not Kobe, really, since it is raised in Texas, but that's a common enough marketing term these days that you can almost overlook the fact that Burger Monger broadcasts the word in big letters on the hat of its bizarre, maniacal, logo-creature. Akaushi's main claim to fame is that it is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than most beef. It does not claim to be as bland, dry and featureless as the burgers at Burger Monger.

I'm not eating a burger for my health. Even the most deluded diners recognize that two six-ounce beef patties topped with bacon and special sauce and accompanied by a plate of fries measured by the pound should not be considered heart-healthy, regardless of the special cows involved in the beginning of the process. Burger Monger would have been better off with a mass of grocery store ground chuck than this pseudo-Kobe.

It's not all the beef's fault. Burger Monger packs their patties super tight, then uses cast iron presses on them while they cook on the griddle. The griddle isn't hot enough to give the meat a good sear, especially with all those juices leaching out of the meat and turning the flattop into an ad hoc steam oven.

The buns are fine, the toppings are — across the board — tasty and well-prepared. There's gooey brie and homemade chipotle ketchup, neon green relish and roasted peppers, the usual semi-fancy toppings of the concerned burger joint. Sadly, you'll need them to make this burger into something interesting and tasty.

If you are a burger fan, the kind of person who scans the message boards for the mention of a new restaurant that puts ground meat on a bun, the first bite of a Burger Monger burger will be when you mentally sign out from the experience. You'll eat it — after all, a mediocre burger is still a burger — but all the while you'll be ranking the place in the spectrum of Bay area burger bests. It won't make the list, and at $7 each (for a single, mind you, with fries extra) it likely won't even make the cut as a standby, when there are places like Five Guys and Ruby Tuesday's scattered across the area.

 

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