By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
The beer was fine, or at least as fine as a PBR ever gets. But the burger? Not so good. The patty itself seemed insubstantially thin and disturbingly dry. True, I'd forgotten to ask for it medium-rare (and, when given no guidance, this kitchen claims to cook all of its never-frozen Harris Ranch beef burgers to a fence-sitting medium), but I hadn't asked for it well-done and desiccated, either. The brie was a nice touch, and the ham was laid on thick enough that it fell in folds, squished down by the bun. But the heart of a cheeseburger remains the burger, and this one was simply not impressive. And since the burger had no juice, no life, left in it, the rest of the ingredients just sort of went dull in the mix — grace notes to a composition with no solid musical line.
Still, I am nothing if not persistent, so when my urge for a burger became overpowering, Laura and I headed back to Park Burger. It was a quiet Saturday, too late for the lunch rush, too early for the dinner crowds to start descending. And yet the place was almost full — the half-booths along the wall mostly occupied by people lazing against the odd upholstery (like a throw pillow on someone's grandma's couch), the patio busy, the cooks moving along at a relaxed half-speed in their half-open kitchen. There was a TV tuned to the Food Network, an eclectic mix of music playing from hidden speakers, and the smell of sautéeing onions in the air. We ordered quickly, getting a ParkBurger (again too thin and too dry — and overcooked, to boot), two orders of fries (one regular that came limp and undersalted, one the excellent sweet potato, crunchy hot, soft and sweet on the inside, and touched with just a hint of salt), and a chocolate milkshake that was almost sickeningly sweet, but thick and creamy and delicious nonetheless. And then, of all things, we got a veggie burger — handmade in-house and, unbelievably, one of the best vegetarian anythings I've ever had. It was a loose mix of black beans and brown rice, corn kernels and God only knows what else, cooked quickly on the grill and served hot, smelling like warm bread and mysterious spices. Even in a house full of meat, I enjoyed the veggie burger more than anything else on the table. And what made it even better? I ate mine with bacon.
Still, a veggie burger (like a slice of pizza or a filet of halibut) is not a real burger, so I returned to Park Burger two days later, this time for the ParkBurger Royal and the Chilango off the specialty menu, another milkshake, another order of fries. This time, both burgers were fantastic. The Royal arrived the requested, ideal mid-rare, topped with an X of bacon, a mound of perfectly caramelized onions and a smear of blue cheese, the Chilango a masterpiece of ground beef, melted cheddar, handmade guacamole and chunks of jalapeño pepper. The fries, too, were cooked just right, hot and greasy inside their little paper-and-tin container, and the chocolate milkshake finished everything off with style.
This, then, was the perfect expression of what Park Burger can be when all the elements of the experience (desire and reward, concept and execution) line up right — a true neighborhood burger joint, but one with a fine, sharp edge of upscale sensibility.
Now Park Burger just needs to be this place consistently, to keep careful track of all the niggling little details that separate the great from the merely mediocre, to make sure that all the important elements come together not just some of the time, or even most of the time, but every time. True, a less-than-great burger didn't keep me from returning to Park Burger. But then, I was a man who really wanted a burger and would stop at nothing until I got the one that I'd been hoping for.
The guy in line behind me, though? He might not be so forgiving.