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Meats, Buns, Bliss

Tasty, cooked-to-order eats rule at Monkey Burger

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When Burger City opened downtown as part of the nonprofit ArtFare in late 2008, the restaurant received a lot of love from both local foodies and the press.

It was a great story: A joint serving fantastic burgers filled a niche downtown, with the profits going to a more-than-worthy arts organization. And the place had a pickle bar, hallelujah!

It appeared the story was going to get even better when the Burger City folks announced plans to open a second (but this time, for-profit) location in the Williams Center spot formerly occupied by Intermezzo.

But alas, many stories have unhappy endings, and such was the case with Burger City. The original Burger City closed last summer, supposedly temporarily, with promises of renovations and a reworked menu. Then came the announcement that the new Burger City location would not be a new Burger City after all; it would be called Monkey Burger, even though most of the Burger City management was behind the new venture. Then the opening of Monkey Burger was delayed; so, too, was the re-opening of the original Burger City.

Monkey Burger—tragically, without a pickle bar!—finally opened in November. Sadly, Burger City would never re-open, and even sadder, ArtFare itself closed, probably for good, after being evicted from its downtown spaces last month.

However, this dark cloud does indeed have a silver lining: Monkey Burger is alive and well, and serving up some very good eats.

The burgers range from $7 for a "bare bones" (meat and a bun) to $9.50 for Chef Mattie's monkey, which comes with cheddar, Swiss, roasted poblanos, sautéed mushrooms and onions, lettuce, tomato and bacon. An all-veggie option (with a grilled portabella mushroom, roasted red peppers, grilled onions and a basil boursin cheese spread, $6.50) and a turkey burger (with smoked mozzarella, lettuce, sundried tomato and avocado pesto, $7.50) are also offered; you can also swap out the beef in exchange for the portabella or turkey on any burger. Salads ($6.50 to $8.50) and sides ($2.75 each; you get fries or homemade potato chips with the burger) round out the offerings.

Those sides are led by the delectable, waffle-cut sweet-potato fries. They're savory, slightly sweet and oh-so-good. The thin-cut, lightly seasoned fries are also tasty, though the salt level can vary; on one visit, they were barely salted, while on the next, they were almost too salty. The housemade chips are golden-brown and splendid, and the fried pickles are ... well, odd. If you think you'd like lightly breaded and fried dill-pickle slices, have at it. Other sides include roasted corn on the cob and a house salad.

When you order, you're asked how you want your burger prepared; you pay, and get your own fountain drinks (beer and wine are also available) and condiments; the burgers are delivered to your table when ready. On my first visit, for dinner, John and I had the place to ourselves, save a couple of Cactus Moon employees who came over to pick up a takeout order. The décor is, well, whimsical: A huge mural takes up the entire western wall, depicting monkeys (of course); a banana wearing sunglasses and tennis shoes; bottles of ketchup and mustard locked in a kiss; and other odd things. A small bar with a TV overhead sits to the left of the ordering counter, and all of the chairs are primarily made of bungee cord and are surprisingly comfortable.

Fun fact: The employees, who were uniformly helpful and friendly, wear Monkey Burger T-shirts with a dot on the bottom part of the back (i.e., over the lower back or butt) that says "attach tail here." Make of that what you will.

I ordered the aforementioned Mattie's monkey; while the meat was perfectly cooked, the poblano flavor got lost completely, and the bacon didn't taste quite right, probably because it was overly fatty. Thankfully, it was all uphill from there; John loved his smoked cheddar and bacon burger ($8.50), especially the accompanying garlic herb mayo. His only complaint was that he, too, felt the bacon didn't taste quite right.

On visit No. 2, for lunch, Robin and Beckey joined me; I was happy to see the restaurant busier, about two-thirds full. I was also happy because everything we ordered was excellent. Beckey picked the true blue burger ($8.50), which was packed with blue cheese; her only quibble was that the tomatoes were a bit mushy. Robin loved the south shore burger ($8.50); while the promised "five spice patty" didn't taste all that different from our normal patties, the jack cheese, shredded lettuce and pineapple relish all made it a delicious treat. (The burger also comes with a ginger barbecue glaze on the side; Robin forgot to put it on the burger, but it served as a nice fry dip.) My Sonora burger ($8, with Chihuahua cheese, shredded cabbage, "avocado salsa" and diced bacon—which tasted just fine this time) was devoured quickly; how can you go wrong when you put guacamole on a hamburger?

We also ordered the mixed greens salad ($6.50), but we were charged for and received a house side salad instead. The greens, tomatoes, buttered croutons and carrots came with a lovely zinfandel vinaigrette. However, it was missing the goat cheese crumbles; the server explained they were out of them, because that day's food delivery had not yet arrived. (By the end of our lunch, Monkey Burger was out of hamburger; the poor manager was greeting customers at the door, giving them $5 gift cards, apologizing and asking them to return. He said their shipment was supposed to arrive any moment. Ouch.)

While the ArtFare saga is indeed very sad, we can at least rejoice in the moderately priced, delicious food at Monkey Burger.

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