Gourmet burgers aren't the only specialties at BRGR in East Liberty
The kobe beef burger at BRGR in East Liberty.
Brgr, a restaurant located at 5997 Penn Circle South in East Liberty.
Anson Mills Polenta Cake at Brgr.
Fried Onion Rings at Brgr.
Seasonal Cole Slaw at Brgr.
The Cupajoe spiked milkshake at Brgr.
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Gourmet burgers are not a new idea. They've been popping up across the country for almost a decade now.
In Pittsburgh, upscale restaurants frequently have a specialty burger on the menu (or at least the bar menu). But BRGR, in East Liberty, a joint project of chef Brian Pekarcik and Rick Stern, takes the trend to a new level locally, building an entire restaurant around the concept of creative burgers, shakes and classic sides.
5997 Penn Circle South
- Hours: Monday-Thursday, noon-midnight (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.); Friday-Saturday, noon-1 a.m. (kitchen closes at midnight); Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
- Basics: A chef's take on beer, burgers and all accoutrements.
- Recommended Dishes: Salty Caramel milkshake, bourbon cherry float, Tree Hugger, Locavore, Bada Bing-Bada Boom, cole slaw, fried onion rings, B.L.T. salad.
- Prices: Shakes and floats, $5-$8; burgers, $7-$13; salads, snacks and sides, $3-$9; desserts, $5-$6.
- Drink: Over a dozen draft beers and more than two dozen bottles, including many craft and local selections, $4-$18; a small selection of burger-friendly wines; full bar.
- Summary: Wheelchair-accessible; credit cards accepted; no reservations; no corkage fee for wine.
- Noise level: Loud to very loud.
Mr. Pekarcik doesn't embrace the trend halfheartedly. He packs his menu with every noteworthy burger concept from alcohol-spiked milkshakes to a house-made secret sauce. The result could be tiresome, kitschy, over-the-top. There are moments worthy of an eye roll (do we need generic burger images projected on the wall to set the scene?) but ultimately, it's delicious fun and extremely well-executed to boot.
The concept isn't totally without compromise. BRGR shares kitchen space with its upscale sister restaurant, Spoon, which meant in-house meat grinding was not an option.
"I don't have the capacity," Mr. Pekarcik said.
But he's happy with the specialty blend of chuck, sirloin, New York strip and ribeye from Curtze Meats in Erie. The ground meat is delivered daily, and patties are hand-shaped in-house.
The burger is tasty, full of beefy flavor, with an exceptionally moist mouthfeel thanks to a slightly higher percentage of fat than the typical 80/20 ratio. The Mediterra buns are tender and light, yet sturdy enough to soak up the juices from a pretty messy burger without collapsing. That said, I doubt I'd ever go to BRGR and order the Average Joe (their plain burger), even topped with cheese and bacon ($7-$8).
Gourmet burger bars are about taking the classic burger and having a little fun with it. Chefs love burgers like poets love sonnets. All that structure requires even more precision and creativity to produce something special.
Take the Bada Bing-Bada Boom ($10), a burger topped with fried salami, ham, provolone cheese, pickled banana peppers, a fried egg and Italian dressing ($10). It screams messy, greasy and over-the-top. Instead, it was tangy, smoky and meaty, the egg yolk mixing with the dressing and gently coating the burger, whose flavor was still impressively distinct.
The Fire in the Hole burger will cure anyone of the impression that burgers are boring ($9). Sliced jalapenos, chipotle mayo and pepperjack cheese build to a warm but not overwhelming heat, tamed just a touch by a thick smear of guacamole.
The kobe beef burger topped with arugula, oven-roasted tomato, pickled onions and blue cheese most closely resembles the celebrity chef burgers that started the whole craze, and it's certainly a tasty option, but adding the slice of optional foie gras felt more like a gimmick than an indulgence ($13, $25 with foie gras).
The flavors sing, but the names could use some work. Everyone wants to order a burger topped with tender braised short ribs, white cheddar cheese, herb-inflected bearnaise aioli and threads of crispy onions, but some would rather not have to call it the "Button Buster" ($10). Besides, it's no more decadent than a half-dozen other options.
Beef may be classic, but some of the most exciting options on the menu look to other animals (and vegetables) for their base. The locavore ($11) was fantastic, the spice-rich patty of Jamison Farms lamb enhanced by feta cheese from Hidden Hills Dairy in Everett, Bedford County, a curry aioli and a tangy-sweet pile of red onion compote.
Wild king salmon made for a fish burger with exquisite flavor and a luscious mouthfeel. A cucumber and tomato relish mingling indiscriminately with the caper aioli ($9) and a couple of slices of bacon added crunch and a robust, smoky flavor.
The Tree Hugger also was a surprise hit ($8). The lentil and falafel burger had a great crunchy texture and its mild, earthy flavor was a nice background to slices of hot and sour cucumber and a generous drizzle of tangy goat's milk yogurt.
The only real miss on the menu was the Shroomz burger, a beef patty topped with mushrooms, caramelized onions and a double whammy of brie and mustard aioli, whose intense flavors buried the taste of the actual burger ($9).
BRGR shares some other traits with its burger-bar forebears: No reservations or substitutions. It might seem bossy, but it's also fair. A restaurant this casual shouldn't take reservations, and the streamlined menu helps guarantee that once you are seated, you'll get your food quickly and correctly.
But no substitutions doesn't translate to no accommodations. Servers are happy to work within diners' dietary restrictions and preferences to ensure a great experience.
Service was impressively enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable, no matter how crowded the restaurant got, providing samples of draft beers, answering questions and even offering to split burgers in the kitchen (a burger split three ways is a pretty impressive sight, by the way). These burgers had good structural integrity, making sharing easier.
Sharing was a good idea, because there were just too many tempting additions to a meal, all of which quickly added up to an unapologetically over-the-top experience.
Shake or float may be the hardest decision you've made in a while. Spiked milkshakes, possibly the best trend of 2010, come in flavors like Salty Caramel with a bourbon kick, and the Cupajoe, a triple threat of Jameson whiskey, espresso and dark chocolate ice cream. The floats, however, were powerful competition ($8). The Bourbon cherry was a gorgeous, frothy red, mixing Red Ribbon cherry soda from Natrona Bottling Co., dark chocolate ice cream and Maker's Mark. The Adult Root reminded me of an adult cream soda, and managed to be impressively refreshing for an ice cream float.
There are a few actual desserts as well, a cake-like, dense brownie topped with vanilla bean ice cream ($6) and a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich ($5). They were tasty, and extremely large, but seemed somewhat superfluous in light of the other options.
Fries, onions rings and fried pickles cost extra, but, like almost everything on this menu, they are sized to share. Thin, crisp fries were garnished with parmesan cheese and parsley, so tasty that ketchup was almost unnecessary ($4). Golden-brown buttermilk flavored shells clung beautifully to the soft strips of onion, the platonic ideal of onion rings ($5). Even the fried pickles were impressively crunchy ($3).
Don't let pickles be your only vegetable either. Salads were tasty enough to compete with burgers (or at least supplement them). The seasonal cole slaw of cabbage, carrot, dried cranberries and sliced almonds should be an automatic addition to any order ($3). Crunchy, refreshing and genuinely light, it's the perfect balance to each juicy, decadent bite of burger.
Even the B.L.T. salad got a refreshing update. Iceberg lettuce was garnished with the usual crisp bacon, oven-roasted tomatoes and blue cheese crumbles, but bright, herbal green goddess dressing was a brilliant swap for the usual blue cheese overdose ($7). For a lighter entree, try the Greek salad ($9), which can be topped with grilled chicken ($6) or shrimp ($9).
All these good things do come at a price -- other than the actual check, which is fairly painless. BRGR is one of the hottest tables in town and there's often a wait, sometimes a long one.
Waiting in line for a burger in Pittsburgh isn't new -- Tessaro's has been around since 1980. But while Tessaro's reminds us that we've had it good in Pittsburgh for a long time, BRGR embodies the spirit of change that has swept over Pittsburgh's restaurant scene in recent years.
And if you don't think people in Pittsburgh know how to embrace change, just stop by BRGR on a Friday night.
First Published December 2, 2010 12:00 am