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By Jim Duncan

‘Gourmet’ burgers deconstructed

Morbid curiosity enticed me into Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. Since the word “gourmet” is a noun, and only a noun, a literalist can assume that Red Robin makes their burgers with the flesh of gourmets. I was served by four different waiters on a single visit, but none could answer questions about what kind of “gourmet” flesh they were cooking. No server could even tell me if the restaurant ground their own meat, though one assured me that “they put it through a machine that makes sure there’s no pink” and another told me that the “burgers are gourmets because they’re smiling.”
A mediocre burger, by even franchise food standards, cost more than $8 at Red Robin. The hook that makes that price work, well enough for Red Robin to be a publicly traded stock, is that burgers come with all-you-can-eat fries. Judging from my observations, the store is popular for children’s birthday parties. It’s loud and garishly decorated with kids in mind. But I could have found a better burger for about a third as much money at Culver’s, which served the best burger I found on a fast food safari last summer. So, accepting that the word gourmet had fallen into a grammarian hole and come out an adjective, I wondered if I couldn’t find better definitions of “gourmet burgers.”

I moved next to Outback Steakhouse, the best of all the large international chain restaurants in my experience. I wanted to test their drive-by service, something relatively new to their genre. A phone operator told me Outback has a butcher shop on the premises and they grind their own patties fresh daily from tenderloins. My burger was ready and hot on schedule and a big upgrade from those at Red Robin. It was well seasoned and had some sear on both sides. Things got better, though.

At the Market at Jordan Creek (MJC), a grill chef made me a “wagyu burger.” MJC’s wagyu was ground from shoulders of cross bred cattle who have wagyu fathers — meaning they are 50 percent wagyu, which is a Japanese breed of cattle prized for its beef. (All Kobe beef is from 100 percent wagyu cattle raised in Kobe prefecture in Japan.) This burger meat was almost transcendent, the sear was perfect and the flavor was an epiphany. It was served on a bun fresh baked from a starter mix and came with a bag of potato chips, an uninspired accompaniment. It was slightly less expensive than my burger at Red Robin, which wasn’t made with even 50 percent real gourmets.

At Gateway Market Café, two kinds of burger were offered. “George’s Special” was a blend of freshly ground brisket and shoulder, an inspiration I never encountered before. It was served on a toasted South Union bun with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, onion and superb pickle. At $6.45 it was the best burger for the price that I found. A Gateway special one day offered a “wagyu burger” that was made with freshly ground beef from third generation wagyu breeding, meaning that the meat was 75 percent pure wagyu. It was served with truffle sea salt, foie gras, heirloom tomatoes and Vidalia onions on a fresh baked challah bun, for $11. Despite the pedigree, the “George’s Special” burger performed better in my mouth.

On the patio at 801 Steak & Chop House, burgers are being served Wednesday through Friday this summer with live music. These burgers are made from the trimmings of USDA prime loin and ribs. Mine was served with perfect sear, smoked bacon and julienne French fries for $10. Discounting the live music, Bistro Montage topped even that. They now serve an all Iowa, all sustainable “burger duo.” Freshly ground beef shoulder from Sheeder Farms was mixed with Niman Ranch pork belly, pan-fried and served on scratch-made poppy seed brioches, with white truffle mayonnaise, real pommes frites and homemade ketchup for $18.

Side dishes
Cityview’s food issues discussion group will hold our second monthly event Monday at Gateway Market at 6:30 p.m. The topic will be “The Bounty of Iowa August.” Come and trade copies of your favorite, appropriate recipes. CV

Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)
Planet Sub (2-15-07) Trostel’s Greenbriar (2-22-07)
Acapulco (3-1-07) Aryana (3-8-07)
AJ's (3-15-07) Ban Thai (3-22-07)
Two Crop Palace(3-29-07) Mo Q x 2 (4-5-07)
What's In A Name?(4-12-07) Lemongrass (4-19-07)
Chef Joe's Place (5-3-07) Suburban Restaurant (5-10-07)
Gateway Market Café (5-17-07) Irina’s Restaurant Bar (5-24-07)
Trailer Tripe (5-31-07) Azalea (6-07-07)
Pho All Seasons (6-14-07) Farmers Market (6-21-07)
El Sabor Latino (6-28-07) Crouse Café (7-5-07)
Bistro Montage (7-12-07) Jaliscolita rebounds (7-19-07)
New Saigon (7-26-07) Smokey D's BBQ (8-2-07)

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