The hamburger, when skillfully prepared, is one of the great all-American foods. Yet every time a new fancy burger joint opens, I can't help thinking, "What, good sir (or madam), are you going to do to reinvent the wheel?" That sentiment weighed on my mind as I visited two new and (on the surface) very different entrants into the Bay Area's crowded burger field.
Victory Burger is the new project from Sal Bednarz, owner of North Oakland's Actual Cafe, which is right next door. The tiny restaurant has a hipster-friendly, vintage-industrial-shipyard aesthetic and a short mix-and-match menu that name-checks about a half-dozen farms and artisan suppliers.
Less than a mile away, in Emeryville, is Bureau 510, opened by the proprietors of Summer Summer Thai, the Thai restaurant down the street. Here, the vibe is "arty sports bar" (minus the sports). The place caters more to the business-lunch and after-work crowd, and the food is a little bit more "cheffy" — the owners brought on a fairly big-name New York transplant, Edward Higgins, as a consultant to create the menu.
But, ultimately, these are thoroughly of-the-moment restaurants — the kinds of places that serve high-end reinterpretations of Vietnamese banh mi, have decent-to-great vegetarian and gluten-free options, and offer Sriracha as the condiment of choice. In short: They're both exciting additions to a dining scene that's littered with mediocre burger joints.
At the most basic level, what Victory Burger and Bureau 510 have in common is this: For less than ten dollars, you can get a high-quality beef patty that's cooked to your preferred doneness, reliably, every time.
Victory Burger uses a Five Dot Ranch mix of ground chuck and trim — a little fattier than your standard supermarket chuck. The thick, compact patties are flame-grilled, the technique not so different from what a skilled backyard grill-master would do. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. But the results are beautifully consistent: Ask for your burger medium-rare, and out it'll come, pink all the way through, full-flavored, and as juicy as the soupiest soup dumpling.
My quibbles were textural: The burgers lacked the deep char and crunchy exterior I prize. And here's a rare case where I'd recommend ordering your burger a little bit more cooked: The medium-rare patty had a slight mushiness that was off-putting; when it was cooked medium, those meaty juices were still plentiful, but the texture was much improved.
Meanwhile, at Bureau 510, co-owner and head cook Chalit Sangsana takes a modernist approach, pre-cooking his beef patties sous-vide before firing them to order on the grill — assuring a burger that's evenly pink inside. The meat is a Niman Ranch custom chuck-and-sirloin blend that boasts a whopping 25 percent fat, yielding a final product that wasn't as juicy as Victory Burger's but earned high marks for its flavor, coarse texture, and hard sear.
While Bureau's "Nostalgia" (a standard cheeseburger) is well worth eating in its own right, much of the menu comprises Higgins' more experimental burger creations. Curiosity couldn't compel me to try, say, the "Chips N' Salsa" (which incorporates tortilla chips, nacho cheese, and roasted-tomato salsa). But the B-B-B (topped with bacon, blue cheese, and caramelized-onion butter, plus toasted-garlic mayo for good measure) was a greasy, over-the-top gut-buster in the best possible sense.
Both establishments boast hand-cut fries — Bureau's are thin, herb-dusted specimens; Victory Burger's are a little thicker. They're both solid-enough, if unmemorable, versions, but Victory Burger gets the edge for its added element of customization. An extra buck buys your choice of idiosyncratic dipping sauces: jalapeño pepper jam, bacon gravy, avocado mayo, or — best of all — chicken-skin mayo: an aioli supercharged with chicken fat and bits of crispy skin. At Bureau, the thing to get is the beer-battered onion rings, which are surprisingly light — they're a contender for best in the East Bay. Make sure you ask for the mildly spicy, shallot-studded yellow-curry dipping sauce, which, to my surprise, had much of the complexity of an actual Thai curry.
But the best side dish of all — and arguably the most delicious thing I ate at either restaurant — was Victory Burger's braised greens: escarole and mustard greens that had been charred on the grill, then braised along with sweet caramelized onions. The end product was tender and smoky, umami-rich, and vaguely Asian-tasting.
Bednarz said that when Victory Burger was in its planning stages, he got many emails from people requesting vegan and gluten-free options. Instead of falling back on some subpar, hippie-style substitution, he drew inspiration from South America — namely the grilled corn cakes known as arepas, which Bednarz imagined would make a lovely vehicle for a beef patty.
They do. There were occasional consistency issues (one time the arepa "buns" had a slightly plasticky texture), but on a good day the arepas are wonderful: piping-hot with a crunchy, golden-brown exterior and a light, delicate crumb.
Even better, though, is the toasted rice bun for Bureau's Tempura sandwich, an Asian-inspired burger alternative featuring a fried rock-shrimp patty topped with wasabi-spiked mayo and a springy seaweed slaw. For the bun, cooked sushi rice is formed into patties, toasted under the salamander, and then deep-fried. The result — toasty, crunchy, nutty — is delicious.
Sangsana told me you can request other burgers on the rice buns as well: A B-B-B on toasted rice? That would be a glorious, messy, grease-soaked wonder.
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