By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Big City: the burger Napster
Napster began changing the world a decade ago by allowing users to download songs they liked as opposed to buying entire albums of songs someone else thought they ought to like. That Internet service was so popular then that it accounted for 80 percent of computer use in college dormitories. Business strategists predicted this new generation of consumers would change the way everything was marketed, from “push” (you buy what someone else decides you want) to “pull” (manufacturers build exactly what you order) models. Alas, business revolutions are rarely as quick as political revolutions. Rather than buying Napster technology to sell downloads, the music industry tried to preserve their old model by suing Napster out of existence. Anyone who knows what iTunes, Insound and Rhapsody are also knows that didn’t work.
Although Burger King began advertising to, “Have it your way” in 1975, the restaurant industry has maintained a push model mindset. Customers at big chains are still given novella-sized menus that might include more than 200 specific items. At Cheesecake Factory, one is supposed to choose from 13 burgers, each of which includes six to 10 specific ingredients. Try asking for substitutions and you get the same attitude that provoked Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupree to go nuts on a waitress in “Five Easy Pieces.” Finally, one new downtown restaurant appears to support consumer-driven choice more than its precedents. Big City Burgers and Greens is innovative in many ways. First, it shares its address and kitchen with a handsome, well-placed catering company. Secondly, it’s making a green effort with 100 percent composting and an unusual number of local, organic and sustainable vendors on its books.
Big City has uncovered hidden assets. I’d been in the previous business many times without even noticing the marvelous windows to Fifth and Walnut — the best street level views downtown. Outdoor patio space is the largest downtown, and indoor patio space has been realized via the business being named official caterer of the Capitol Center. Brad Hartman smartly decorated the café with lime green acoustic panels and Plexiglas, accentuating the white furniture and stainless steel. Lunch menus fold away to make the place look like a Caribbean bar room for evening functions.
The menu is Napsterian. If one orders a burger ($3.75), one chooses amongst nine free additions and 17 extras that cost $.75 each. Among the former are roasted tomatoes. Extra choices include fried eggs, jardinière and fried prosciutto. Cheese choices include Feta, queso fresco and chevre. Fresh baked potato buns were grilled and buttered. Quarter pound patties were made from a brisket and shoulder mix at 80-20 (lean-trim) ratio. The results were consistently as good as burgers get, perfectly seared. A tuna burger delivered ahi cooked rare and cooled, with sesame seeds, red and green chilies and jicama slaw in a ginger orange vinaigrette. Hot dogs were split and served with jardinière, pickles cucumber and celery salt.
Salads ($6.50) included choices amongst five kinds of fresh greens, 20 kinds of freshly-made dressings and 64 toppings; five toppings were included in the price of my salad, as were rolls and cheese. Eight other premium ingredients could be added ($3 - $5) including seared tuna, Moroccan chicken, sautéed shrimp or skirt steak.
Side dishes were also inventive. Well-seasoned fries had been freshly cut with skins on, fried crisply and tossed with Asiago and truffle oil. Cheesy potatoes included cubed potatoes covered with melted Swiss cheese, Italian herbs and fried prosciutto. Thin onion strings were golden fried in beer batter. Sweet, lightly-spiced house sauce (remoulade) worked well with fries, strings and burgers.
East Village’s newest food shop, All Spice, offers more rare individual spices, particularly North African ones, and fewer premixed blends than other spice stores in town. All Spice also has numerous olive oils. CV
Burger and fries at Big City Burger and Greens, 400 Locust St., 537-8433. Hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.