Saturday, November 10, 2012

Winnipeg Free Press Article

One thing I learned from the Winnipeg Free Press article by David Sanderson is that Winnipeggers are passionate about their burgers! The piece on Burger Club – Winnipeg received 200 comments and was trending as the most viewed article on the WFP for several days. It didn't hurt that the mugshot of Scott and me was on the WFP’s landing page for over a week, and our picture took up half of page one in the printed Detour section.  Apparently writing about burgers is an industry in Winnipeg and there have already been a couple of spin-off articles in the Sou’Wester and about the article about the blog.

Burger bliss, burger blahs: finding Winnipeg's holy, beefy grail

The blog received over 26,000 hits as a result - 13,000 in the first 24 hours of the article coming out. I can now say I've had my 15 minutes of fame. People I don't know pointed at me and shouted “Burger guy!” My real moment came at the Kings Head though. I arrived to a packed lunch hour crowd and there wasn't a seat to be had except … for the reservation I’d apparently made and forgotten about. The always entertaining wait staff were serving a lot of burgers and Jay Khanuja was at the bar chatting to some people that had come because of the article. Jay tells me he plans on adding more stuffed burgers to the summer menu so I’m looking forward to that!

David and I exchanged information via e-mail and I knew right away we shared a love for burgers and I quite enjoyed his wit and wordsmithing. We needed to get together for the official picture by the Free Press photographer and that’s when the comedy really started. We met at Original Georges, and when I arrived David and photographer-Joe were already waiting in a booth in an empty section in the back of the restaurant. There were two Fat Boy platters on the table but I wasn't allowed to devour mine until Joe took his picture. Apparently Joe had some sort of a vision that involved Scott and I linking arms and feeding each other our burgers. Neither one of us are gymnasts and while we were busy trying to get entangled for the shot the waitress came around the corner and barely raised an eyebrow before saying “Excuse me for interrupting, but …” We were laughing, and Scott’s burger was dripping on my arm and running onto my knee where a large puddle of chili sauce and grease was forming while Joe took about a hundred pictures.

Anyone who reads online news media articles knows about all the wacky comments anonymous readers leave. I've never been called an idiot by so many people. “How could you possibly say Sonya’s is #1? Everyone knows Super Boy's makes the best burger!” repeated about a 100 times with it being obvious to anyone but a moron that burger-X is Winnipeg’s best burger. Of course they're all right – the only person who can tell you what your favourite burger is, is you! The article singled me out as the author of the blog, but I'm just one of about sixty different voices in Burger Club. Everyone who comes contributes to Burger Club by rating the burger and providing comments that I try and use in the blog. I had my own ideas about who made a good burger and received plenty of recommendations from other burger clubbers and blog readers. We didn't visit every burger joint in Winnipeg and I'm sure there are still a few award winning burgers out there we haven't tried yet.  Any of the 4 and 5 star burgers are someone's favourite and Winnipeg is a great place to live if you love burgers!

Nobody paid any of us to review burgers, and we've certainly never received a free burger from a restaurant (although Dennis Schwartz from Burgerbend bought us all an ice-cream, but I think that’s just because he's a stand-up guy). The blog is free from sponsorship and I have not (nor will I) monetize it.  So many burger reviews are sponsored by a BIZ, tourism agency or with some sort of agenda – I really hoped to provide as unbiased a rating as possible when it comes to something as subjective as opinions about food. Really, we're just a bunch of friends getting together once a week to enjoy each other's company and a burger. None of us have any "credentials" to review a restaurant (although a couple of burger clubbers are quite good cooks in their own right and know their ingredients). Like any other diner, we just know what we like and what we don't. I try and remove some of the subjectively by averaging the reviews over a number of diners. Also by rating individual burger attributes (like flavour, presentation and quality of ingredients) which tends to make the reviewer more analytical. I was trying to compare burgers, not restaurants and prices.

We don’t tell restaurants we're reviewing them (they figure it out when we get there) but I do usually give smaller establishments a heads up that there's a large group of us coming so they can be prepared. I didn't at Sandi’s and there was a moment’s panic until they cleared out some space (and patrons) from the VLT lounge so we could all sit together. Sometimes our burger experience might have been better because we were a group, but there were definitely times when it went the other way. Restaurant owners and cooks change too, and as our quest has been going on for over 18 months, we decided to revisit the Top 5 to see if they still were as good as we remembered – but that’s the subject of another blog!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Rudy's: 3.9/5

Bacon Burger (Max Cheese)
Platter: $13.95
Score: 4.0

Mushroom Burger
Platter: $11.90
Score: 4.6

Cheese Burger
Platter: $11.90
Score: 2.8

The service was great. We were greeted and seated comfortably. Our orders taken quickly and the drinks - including water which came without having to be asked - were brought out fast. It didn't feel too long to me before our burgers started coming out, but others pointed out it was about 45 minutes. Multiple wait staff came by several times during our meal, topping up waters, taking away dishes and making sure everyone was happy.

The very pleasant patio at Rudy's has a small park between it and the street so you're not overwhelmed with noise and smells, and at a distance from some of the characters walking by. It's overshadowed by a 40' high canopy that kept us out of the direct sun, but was still open and breezy. The patio furniture is new and quite comfortable. I should mention I’m a little tardy on posting this blog - we visited Rudy’s on a hot, sunny day in August.

Rudy's told us that all the ingredients they can make fresh, are made fresh, including smoking their own bacon and curing their own beef. Rudy's even prepares their own beverages - including the water that they're so proud of and - soda! I had a cherry soda which was the perfect accompaniment to my burger on the patio while listening to beach tunes over the speakers. The soda's were served over ice in tall glasses and made colourful displays on our two tables.

I went for the "Max Cheese" burger - how could I not? The patty was a ball of beef in between two regulation sized grilled cheeses. It came nowhere near to the edges - which in some ways was good because it was easy to leave half the bread on the plate. There was a beautiful bone handled knife stuck through the burger - the effect being a top heavy grilled cheese platform balanced on top of a round ball of beef. I had a bobble burger! The top of my burger actually bobbled lazily back and forth just like the Ozzie Osborne action figure I have at home. There was a long cocktail stick - with a little Rudy's flag - keeping the tall assembly in check. I opted to use the knife to cut my burger in half and that made handling it a lot easier. As I looked around at the rest of the burger crew during lunch there was a lot of serviette action going on.

April lamented “It was tasty for a heart attack on a plate. I could not eat the whole thing.” Sandy also had the Max Cheese and said “Wow. I didn't know what to expect … this was, well, oddly delicious. The patty was juicy and well flavoured. The egg bursting when I cut the sandwich was the perfect binding agent. The bacon was crisp and the grilled cheese was not over grilled.” Tazz mused “The sandwich I had was obviously created by a death row inmate asked what he wanted for his last meal.”I want a hamburger, some grilled cheese sandwiches and, oh yeah, an egg & bacon."”

The grilled cheeses were two full sized sandwiches. Very fun. They were lightly buttered and lightly grilled with a thin slice of very light motza cheese. I thought I might get a very rich, heavy burger with the grilled cheeses, but it wasn't. There was a *lot* of bread - but not a lot of flavour from the grilled cheeses. I modified the design though by asking for the egg to be left off - others said the runny egg worked well with the grilled cheese. Mike wrote “The egg blends well with the crisp of the GCS, the patty & mayo.”

The meat was a nice grind - not too fine and not too coarse. The patty hadn't been overworked and was quite tender (not soft and fall-aparty) and juicy (not fatty). It was very mildly seasoned though. Not much flavour to the patty at all - except authentic beef taste. The flavour in this burger came from the zingy special sauce, the generous coarsely chopped grilled onions and the leathery bacon. There were even fresh refrigerator pickles on the burger.

The "Forest Mushroom Soup" was absolutely delicious. It was dark and full of fresh mushrooms in a rich creamy broth. I loved it.

I tried Stephanie's French fries. They were shoestring dimensions but tasted like little curly fries that had been straightened. There was lots of seasoning and they were a nice accompaniment to the burger.

When I made the reservation I was told they would add the gratuity to our bills. I requested they not do that, and when it came time to pay our bills, we were allowed to decide what tip to give. I never understand the automatic gratuity - but I probably don’t appreciate the restaurant business in Winnipeg. If it's added onto your bill automatically then it's not a tip, it's just a surcharge. The intent of a tip is to reward good service. I would think that servers would come away with a bigger tip if left up to the diners than the automatic 15% added to the bill.

April observed “The bathrooms were very fancy, so fancy in fact that they are hard to find and blend into the wall. State of the art, but I had trouble making things work.” Christie backed her up: “I do admit that the washroom set-up both puzzled and delighted me.”

Rudy's Eat and Drink on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Burgerbend (Scoops): 3.9/5

Fat Boy
Score: 4.0

Bacon Burger
Score: 3.8

Cheese Burger
Score: 3.5

After retiring, Dennis Schwartz built Scoops for his boys to run, and not too long after that, added on the Burgerbend. They're clearly big sports supporters with Bombers and Jets memorabilia on the walls and both Dennis and his son Matthew were wearing their Blue Bombers t-shirts. Dennis just recently opened a second Scoops-Burger Bar on Main at Jefferson and now each of his sons has a restaurant. Dennis is a great entertainer and had lots of stories for us. April exclaimed “Dennis keeps popping out from behind counters in both the burger and ice cream shop!

Burgerbend (and Burger Bar) use the "original" Fat Boy secret recipe developed by Dennis's good friend "Jimmy". Jimmy created the Fat Boy 40 years ago, and according to Dennis, Greek restaurants tried to copy it, but now he has the original recipe taught to him and his boys by Jimmy.  Dennis told us how the patties are made from fresh ground and the potatoes cut daily.

The Burgerbend has a little vestibule across the front where you go in one door, order and pay for your burger, then exit out the other end and wait for your number to be called. A couple of other patrons came in while we were there and they were treated like old friends. It was a beautiful day and eleven of us sat comfortably outside at the nice clean picnic tables under than shade of umbrellas.

The burgers came wrapped in checked paper and served on a tray with Ketchup on the side. The burger patty was steaming hot, had a real grill crust, and was cooked thoroughly - quite a firm texture. That may in part have been because we were chatting up Matthew and distracting him from flipping burgers at the grill. Several people said their burgers were moist so there was likely just some variable time on the heat trying to cook a dozen patties at once on an eight patty grill. My bacon-cheeseburger didn't have a lot of juicy toppings on it (it's all about the bacon and beef) but people who had the Fat Boy said it was quite moist. The meat had no filler and was nicely seasoned - I thought a flavourful seasoning salt mixed in with the beef. My double was delicious and quite filling. A single would've probably done.  The bacon was cooked very crispy. I'll definitely take that over soft, soggy bacon any day; it's a real trick to be able to get perfect "leathery" bacon especially when cooking for a crowd at lunch and sharing the hot grill with the burgers. The processed jalapeno cheese is unique – it comes from Mexico - via Dennis's place in Arizona. I enjoyed the taste and there was a good flavour balance with the rest of the ingredients. I asked for my onions fried and they were able to accommodate. Nothing kills a burger for me like a pile of hot, white onion and the fried onions tasted great!

Brett summarized the burger nicely “Great chili. Great crust on the patty, well seasoned burgers + chili, bun stood up.

Karen commented “The patty was very nicely seasoned. Crispy fried on the outside and still moist on the inside. Toppings complemented the burger - not too many and not sliding apart. The bun was a bit dry but perfect size.” Karen had the Bullseye Bacon Burger and it was all about the BBQ sauce!

The buns are baked especially for Burgerbend by Kub Bakery. They were nice and big - easily encapsulating my double burger. There was a good burger-to-bun ratio but the buns were perhaps a little dry and crumbly. They were warmed on the grill though which is always a good thing. The perfect bun seems to be elusive among Winnipeg burger restaurants, but Burger Club recommends a Kaiser.

I *loved* the fries! The potatoes are freshly cut each day, deep fried soft and brown and seasoned. Cary tried the Taco Fries, and wow, they looked good. He wouldn't share with the rest of us though, so we'll have to take his word for it. Dennis told us the Taco Fries are the big seller. Cary said “The Taco fries are a meal in themselves”.

What's the best way to finish off a burger and fries? With ice-cream of course and Dennis invited us to sample the wares at Scoops next door - his treat! Best ice-cream ever! Thanks Dennis - you're a great host and a stand up guy :) People of Riverbend - you are lucky to have Burgerbend in your neighbourhood!

Burger Bend Home made burgers n fries on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

CBC Information Radio Interview

Burger Club has hit the big time! Marcy Markusa from CBC joined us for a burger and an interview at Sonya’s.

Listen: % Information Radio broadcast %

Download: % CBC Interview %

When Marcy first contacted me, Burger Club was in the midst of revisiting our Top 5 burgers and of course I thought she should come for Winnipeg’s Best Burger at Sonya’s!

Sonya’s is truly a mom-and-pop shop, so the first thing I did was check with Steve that they could handle 16 of us coming for a burger at once – and the additional promotion that would come from CBC. Steve was all for it! He even made sure I spelled their names correctly: Steve and Vera Vodrazka. I learned from Marcy’s interview that Steve is a spry 71 and they’ve owned the restaurant for 25 years. It’s amazing how many people drive right by this “undiscovered gem” without seeing the restaurant at the corner of Henderson Hwy and Hart Ave. Marcy even went into the kitchen and met the hard working Vera at the grill.

Steve asked that people order as they arrived so Vera could get started cooking and they’d bring out the food as it was ready. That’s what we did and it worked out well – we didn’t have to wait too long for our burgers. At Sonya’s the burgers are freshly made and served steaming hot but don’t be in too big a hurry because it’s only Vera at the grill!

When Marcy made her entrance she burst into the restaurant, microphone first, with a big “Hello Everyone! Where’s Burger Club?” We’d saved her a seat and she was full of energy and questions. It was mayhem! Steve was bringing out some of the first orders, others were ordering and Marcy was making radio! On a geeky note, Marcy’s sound rig consisted of an iPhone and a big CBC mike. How cool is that!

Marcy took the time to talk to everyone in Burger Club, Steve and Vera as well, and quite a few of us made it onto the air. We’d only just met, but it seemed to me that Marcy *really* enjoyed her burger: “Holy life changing. Lived near Henderson Highway many years. Never had a burger at Sonya's until now. Worth every drip of meat sweat. Good times. Thank you Winnipeg Burger Club!” Marcy is now one of us – you’re welcome at Burger Club any time!

Marcy said some kind words about the blog and here’s what happens when CBC comes to Burger Club.

Sonya's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Five Guys - Regent: 4/5

Bacon Burger
Score: 4.0

Cheese Burger
Score: 4.0

After a long wait, Five Guys has come to Winnipeg! Burger Club came out of retirement to see how the new kid in town compared to the best burgers in Winnipeg.

The restaurant only opened a week ago so we knew it was going to be busy. As I pulled into the parking lot shortly before 11:30 am there was a steady stream of hungry people heading into Five Guys. I was also pleased to see there was a nice patio loaded with tables and big red umbrellas.

It’s well signed, well organized, and once through the doors, you immediately find yourself in line to order. There’s only one line so there’s no jostling for position and you’re corralled by a wall of potatoes. I like the idea of food managing the patrons. I’m just glad that Five Guys chose potatoes and not cows to keep us in line.

The menu’s pretty straightforward. They serve burgers and fries. They also have hot dogs, for the kind of people that eat hot dogs, and a couple of veggie items if you’re a vegetarian but all your cool friends are meat eaters. The standard Five Guys burger is a double. If you just want a single you have to order a “Little” burger which feels like you’re ordering off the kiddie menu. The burger foundations are the various combinations of bacon and cheese. The “free” toppings are the things you normally get for free anyways, but you have the pleasure of specifying exactly what you want. If you can’t decide, asking for your burger “All the Way” gets you a good selection of the standard toppings and condiments.

Some of us thought the burger a little pricey, but in retrospective a single Fat Boy at Five Guys is $4.99 which isn’t out of line with Winnipeg prices. The bacon double cheeseburger is $8.59.

Ordering went quickly and they give you a number and your cup if you ordered a drink. An interesting thing about the drinks is you can have a small or a large but they both come with free refills. So why would you pay for a large? Well, the small cup is a paper, but the large is a nice big plastic “Slurpee” cup and many people opted for the plastic so they could have it in their car afterwards. This was my first clue that Five Guys really knows their clientele - and their business. Oh yeah – and they have Fresca! A strange thing about the number is that I’ve been to Five Guys twice – once in Brandon and now in Winnipeg. Both times I was number 41.

It was mayhem so there was no way 19 of us, ranging from 2 weeks old to happily retired, were going to sit together. There were open tables scattered throughout the restaurant and we all managed to get seated though. The tables were comfortable, if a little cozy, and the restaurant was brightly lit with Five Guys slogans plastering the walls. One of the fun things about Five Guys are the big bins of free peanuts so you can crack peanut shells and suck back your bottomless drink while waiting for your burger to be cooked to your specifications.

Adding to the pandemonium was the very noisy open kitchen. It was packed with food prep people all focused on their tasks and yelling instructions back and forth. The front line staff looked you in the eye and seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. Perhaps it was all the excitement of the opening. It didn’t seem an unreasonably long wait for the burgers, and they mostly came carefully assembled. I’ve been to more than one “burger chain” restaurant where my burger came in box with the top half of the bun hanging out and the tomato missing the burger completely (I’m looking at you Burger King). I doubt many of the restaurants we've been to could handle these kinds of volumes!

They don’t ask you if your burger is for “inside” or “to go”. All the burgers are handed to you wrapped in perforated tin foil and in a large paper sack. The fries are delicious and the serving huge. Don’t be fooled by the small looking cup for the “regular” sized fries. They place your burger and fries in the bottom of the bag then dump in a pile more fries - enough to bury your burger.

Two people in our group had a topping mix up. When they went back to the counter to get them fixed they were told they could keep the old burgers and fresh ones were made up right away. The usual modus operandi of closed kitchen restaurants we’ve been to is to take the erroneous burger back to the kitchen, remove the offending pickle and scrape off the mustard, and bring the same burger back out. Not at Five Guys.

The burger patties were hand formed and made from fresh beef. This was evident by the ragged edges, but also by the variation in patty size. The beef patty was quite tender and juicy and, well, beefy tasting. It was unseasoned – not even salted. Some thought it bland. At Fives Guys the flavour comes from the toppings. The bacon was crispy and the cheese plentiful, but processed. I liked the amount of saucy toppings on mine – there was enough to keep it moist and tasty, but not so much to make it an overly messy burger. That may have just been mine though. Russ took one bite out of his burger and his cheese layer shot out the other side and landed on his the paper bag covering the table. One of the topping options was fried onions and they were delicious. There was some variability in quantity and one hungry diner only got 2 stingy jalapeños on his burger. The grilled mushrooms are from a can. Grilling them improves the flavor, but unless you’re a canned mushroom fan, you might find only disappointment in the shrooms.

The buns were warmed, but depending where yours came from in the stack warming on the grill, they were either seared a bit, or essentially steamed. Some of the buns were a bit soggy and that was exacerbated by being wrapped in foil. The sesame seed bun did its job well; it was squishy and held together to the end, but most of our group though the bun the weak link in the burger assembly.

Overall, it was a tasty burger and most of our group quite enjoyed it. Brett commented “All in all very tasty with grilled onions & mushrooms.” Nelson wrote “Tasty and made to order.” Stan admitted “The burger was kind of sloppy but I'm starting to enjoy that.” If you’re comparing Five Guys to other burger chains, I think it ranks well. If you’re looking for a gourmet burger and some ambience this may not be the place for you. Burger Club rated Five Guys about middle of the pack in our “Counter Service” category.

The quote of the day came from Nelson who couldn’t finish his burger because he "only had Four Guys in me today." Oh MY!

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon