Gourmet trophy burgers with premium beef, heirloom tomatoes, house-made pickles, custom-baked buns and a whole bunch of chef-driven touches are a thing right now. Nearly every top restaurant except Kru and Magpie has one on the menu.
They tend to range from really good to amazing. And they tend to cost $12 to $15 each.
That’s not what we were after when we made the short road trip on Interstate 5 to Woodland to visit the Burger Saloon, a large, casual and family-friendly restaurant where the food is solid and the burgers – 19 of them on the menu – are mostly $6.99 to $7.99. Even “The Heartstopper” (more on this later) is only $13.99, and it features three full-size patties, two fried eggs, three kinds of cheese, thick strips of bacon, pastrami – and a free consultation with a cardiologist (kidding).
It’s up to you. Would you rather pig out on this behemoth or eat a grass-fed, gourmet burger on the grid that’s one-quarter the size for about the same price?
The concept at the Burger Saloon is a savvy and simple one. The menu lays out 19 burgers – a classic cheeseburger, a Tex Mex, a hot-and-spicy one, a Hawaiian-version with pineapple, even an option with peanut butter and jelly.
You pick the patty (Angus beef, ground turkey, a chicken breast or, for the vegetarians, a jumbo portobello mushroom; there’s also crab cake option). Then you pick your bread (brioche bun, whole wheat, sourdough bread or, for the gluten-free set, a lettuce wrap). You also have a choice of fries (sweet potato or traditional) for an additional charge.
During three recent visits, we tasted about half of the available burgers and, with minor concerns about over-cooking, came away impressed with the quality-to-price-point ratio. What’s more, the Burger Saloon is a well-run operation from top to bottom. The building itself is a charmer, a 19th-century hotel on Main Street with a large and lively dining area and a full bar.
The restaurant has been open for a couple years, brought to you by the two brothers, James and Chris Lombardi, who owned and operated the the popular midtown eatery Hangar 17, which closed in 2011. (It’s the current site of Hook & Ladder.)
To size up Burger Saloon properly, I brought along some additional expertise. I’ve eaten burgers at most of the best spots around, including Juno’s, Bacon & Butter, Waterboy, Formoli’s, Grange, Mulvaney’s, Mother (meatless), Sunflower (also meatless), Broderick and new contender Pangaea. But I don’t live and breathe burgers to the extent Rodney Blackwell does.
Blackwell, a computer programmer who designs and builds websites for small businesses, is better known for his engaging, if not obsessive, online alter ego, Burger Junkies, and for his annual Burger Battle.
Blackwell has eaten and reviewed (on his website) hundreds of burgers, traveled far and wide to try burgers and, at this point in his burger evolution, knows a thing or two about what a good burger has to have. He registered the website burgerjunkies.com in 2000 but didn’t write his first burger review (McDonald’s, his boyhood benchmark) until 2011.
I invited Blackwell to join me to eat, talk burgers and help appraise Burger Saloon. Blackwell said he was game, adding that he scrutinizes restaurants even more critically when “burger” or “hamburger” is in the name because it suggests that this classic American staple is the focal point of the food program.
Burger success depends on a few fundamentals. The meat must be fresh and appropriately seasoned, cooked properly, and feature a bun that is both visually appealing and holds up to the rigors of what we might sum up as chowing down. Then there are the extras – the condiments, the toppings, the conventional, quirky or outright wacky combinations. The rules for those? There are none. They can shock. They can soothe. They can elicit a chuckle. They simply have to work – for some of the people all of the time.
Blackwell went old-school/classic, ordering the “Saloon burger,” which includes aged cheddar and caramelized onion relish. He picked the certified Angus beef on a brioche bun. I went for the “Four-alarm Fire,” which comes with jalapeños, habanero sauce, spicy aioli and pepper jack cheese. I, too, got beef but selected a whole wheat bun, thinking its nuttiness might have an interesting effect on that spicy heat.
Blackwell was concerned about a statement on the menu that all burgers are cooked medium-well. In fact, Blackwell prefers medium-rare. For most burgers, I go medium because it’s still juicy after being cooked to a reasonably safe temperature. For grass-fed, I order medium-rare because even modest overcooking turns the patty into shoe leather. Despite the kitchen standard, Burger Saloon will cook it however you like.
When his burger arrived, Blackwell sized up its appearance and aroma before taking a bite. Looking impressed, he tucked into it. “To find that quality of a locally sourced bun, caramelized onions and aged cheddar on a well-prepared burger for under $9 is a welcome rarity,” he said.
I felt the same way about mine. Ever since I had jalapeños on my burger at Scott’s Burger Shack on Franklin Boulevard, I’ve been a fan of how well this hot pepper goes with beef. My “Four-alarm” took that to the next level, with the bun and beef balancing out the fiery flavor.
During a different visit with two friends, we showed up at peak dinner hour and the place was hopping. Our greeting was friendly and, for the second time, we had the terrific Elixia as our server. She’s personable, knowledgeable and believes in the mission of the restaurant, so much so that we wondered if she was one of the owners.
On this occasion, we went for a touch of crazy – or maybe a whole lot of crazy. I ordered the “PB&J” and was advised by Elixia that beef worked best with this combination. One friend went with the “Sophisticate,” which is Elixia’s favorite (with chicken breast and sourdough); and, for a little bit of shock value, his 5-foot-3, 120-pound wife ordered The Heartstopper on brioche. We all went with the house call of medium-well.
I have never outgrown eating peanut butter and jelly, so I was eager to see how it works on a burger. The serving of peanut butter was thick and creamy, and the nutty note enhanced the taste of the beef. The jelly gives it a touch of sweetness and mimics a relish. My only issue was the burger was on the dry side. I washed it down with a terrific peanut butter milk shake, topped with whipped cream.
The Heartstopper is a tour de force of glee and gluttony, a shocking sight adjacent to my petite pal. Order it if you have a death wish, your jeans are too big or you want to post something shocking on Instagram.
The first thing she did was slice it in half. Unlike my burger, her three patties were juicy. I remember eating the Heartstopper at Hangar 17 and this one is even better. The pastrami adds saltiness, and the three cheeses and two eggs bring richness and texture. No, she didn’t finish it – but my pit bull did an hour later at home. Her take on it? Awesome.
In the end, the Burger Saloon simply accomplishes what it sets out to be. No, it’s not a place for show-off, gourmet burgers priced like steak dinners. It’s fast. It’s affordable. It’s friendly. And it’s plenty good.
The Burger Saloon
601 Main St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Beverage options: Full bar
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Lively to loud
Ambiance A historic hotel re-imagined as a restaurant and bar.
Overall * * *
A budget-friendly restaurant with excellent service, good food and great prices. The Burger Saloon knows its audience and nails its concept.
Food * * 1/2
The variety of burger options is impressive, with classics and plenty of creative combinations. For the price, the quality is solid. The only issue is occasional over-cooking.
Service * * * 1/2
On two occasions, our server was first-rate. The other servers are also very good.
Value * * *
With most of the burgers priced at $6.99 to $7.99, this is a budget-friendly restaurant that will appeal to families.