Thursday, June 19, 2008

Burger Bar: Budget Burgerlesque in Sin City

Yes, it's true. I abandoned my poor hobbling sis and her Gimpmobile and headed south for some SUN. I was cold. I miss you Sis! But you should see my tan!!

First stop: Las Vegas, of course, where I met up with a few other members of the family for a mini summer family reunion. I promised to drink for Sis wherever we went, and if I won anything, to buy her a bell and a light for her Gimpmobile.

I have always believed, perhaps erroneously, that everyone in Las Vegas is either a tourist or a stripper. But on my latest trip, I discovered that Sin City also has its fair share of comedians. When my flight landed, our wisecracking Southwest pilot told us that just as his parents told him 20 years ago, to “Get your stuff and get out.” The landing had been a little rough, so we all chortled dutifully, just happy to have safely acquainted ourselves with the arid desert turf. Then, on his way down the Strip, my shuttle driver ran through his entire stand-up comedy routine thinly veiled as spontaneous shuttle banter, concluding with “I came here for a weekend and vowed I wouldn’t leave ‘til I broke even…” I could practically mouth the rest with him, “And that was 28 years ago!” Bada bam, ching! Even Mom, who I met at the hotel, was in on the act, saying she thought we could just forgo lunch since she and Dad needed to get down on the casino floor and start feeding our inheritance to the slot machines ASAP.

Since I don’t think skipping meals is funny AT ALL, a few minutes later we were settling into a booth at Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar in the Mandalay Bay. My last four-star meal in my beloved San Francisco was in fact at Hubert Keller’s famous Fleur de Lys, so I was expecting great things from Burger Bar. I was intrigued by the menu, which allows you to Build a Better Burger by choosing your meat and adorning it with everything from grilled pineapple to cinnamon bacon (yup, cinnamon bacon) to pan-seared foie gras, depending I guess, on how lucky you have been at the blackjack table.

At first glance, Burger Bar seemed to be a restaurant slightly unsure of its own identity. The long narrow restaurant stretched as far as a $20 bill in a nickel slot, and was lined on one side with dark-wood paneled booths, each glowing with their own television, in case anyone was experiencing separation anxiety from their in-room flat screen.

The lovely dark wood and the pressed-tin ceilings said Bistro!, while the license plates tacked to the wall cried Dive Bar! The bar itself featured an uncomfortable-looking neon Corona sign that looked like it wanted to detach itself and run to the nearest sports bar, a limited selection of liquor, and a few framed pictures of Hubert himself, who sort of has a Euro-mullet but is nonetheless a handsome fellow.
Hubert Keller and his Euro-mullet, which obviously, is way cooler than an American mullet.

The thick plastic-encased menus were more Ruby Tuesdays than haute cuisine, but this is after all, Chef Keller's burger joint, so I rolled with it. The menu offered a few house burgers, salads, and sandwiches but the star of the show was the build your own burger page. Choose your meat first—buffalo, Ridgefield Farms corn-fed Yakima Valley beef, grain-fed Black Angus beef, American Kobe, turkey, or the Chef’s veggie burger—then slap on your own customized combination of toppings, which stretched from plain old cheddar cheese and onions to a grilled half lobster and black truffles, and if you were feeling particularly decadent, a black perigord truffle sauce. The decision making wasn't done yet--pick from a plain, whole wheat, sesame, or onion bun, or, a fresh-baked ciabatta roll. Got fries? Choose from skinny fries, fat fries, sweet potato fries, buttermilk zucchini fries, or buffalo shoestring fries. Hate fries? How about some buttermilk onion rings? Hate fries and onion rings? How about a baseball bat to the knee caps?!! Oh sorry, I just get so carried away when I’m in Las Vegas.

It was an agonizing array of choices, one that led to the waiter coming back three times and on the third, loudly announcing “Time’s Up.” We think he was joking. Dad ordered a basic Black-Angus burger with pepperjack and peppered bacon on a sesame bun, which was, predictably, nice and peppery, the meaty patty completely embraced by a thick slab of pepperjack.

Brother Michael graciously let me pick his toppings, so I opted for grilled asparagus, jalapeno bacon, blue cheese, portabella mushroom, and pesto, and chose to bundle it all in a ciabatta roll.

The meat was deliciously tender, with just the right amount of pink in the center, and the savory combination of the just-crisp asparagus, spicy bacon, creamy blue cheese, and tangy fresh basil pesto was incredibly satisfying. This burger might be fancy, but it was no sissy, all the flavors held their own far better than I held the burger, which was bursting at its ciabatta seams.

For good measure we tried out the Sliders trio too ($9.95), three tiny burgers you weren’t allowed to monkey around with the fixin’s on, sez the menu, that’s who, which was kind of a relief after all the laborious decision making that went into Michael's super burger. The sliders were Sorta Fancy Burgers 101--buffalo with carmelized onions, Black Angus with plain bacon, and Ridgefield Farms with American cheese. The buffalo meat was delicious, but I have to admit in a blind taste test I probably would have thought it was plain old hamburger. The soft sweet carmelized onions were a delicious complement.

Dessert was more thrilling than those sexy Zumanity ads splashed all up and down the Strip—we ordered a frothy root beer float ($5.50) and the Sweet Burger ($3.95)—a ¾ inch dark chocolate ganache patty topped with a squiggly slice of bright orange passionfruit gelee “cheese”, fresh sliced strawberries, and a mint sprig sandwiched in between a glazed donut and plated with a squiggle of raspberry sauce. The Sweet Burger donut was on the dry side, but I forgot about it as I took a bite of creamy dark chocolate "burger" melded with a slice of sweet red strawberry and an exotic burst of passionfruit gelee, followed by a touch of cool mint. It was not only a unique dessert, but delicious as well. They should really start making this at Voodoo Donuts, I think.

Already fat and happy, I really felt like a winner when the bill came, just slightly over $60 for four people. In a city full of flashy cashy food acts, this was budget burgerlesque at its finest, and I’ll tell Hubert myself just as soon as I roll lucky 7’s and win enough money to fly to San Francisco and visit him at Fleur de Lys again and complement his lovely curly Euro-mullet and his Better Burger vision and let him know that it's true, judging from the line to get in, that it is just as Ralph Waldo Emerson sort of said, "Build a Better Burger and the world will beat a path to your door."


Burger Bar * The Hotel at Mandalay Bay * * (702) 632-9364 * yes, sweet burgers, yes, tacky license plates on the wall (?), yes, get the Sweet Burger cause it's cool


  1. why do you kill cows?

  2. Hey, is that Flight of the Conchords on your TV screen? Sounds like a crazy restaurant - I could never take my mom there, as there's too many choices. She has a hard enough time with regular menus.