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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Philly’s Best Burger? Part 3: SquareBurger

Shake Shack is a burger institution in New York City. From their original location in Madison Square Park, they expanded rapidly throughout the city and are slowly taking over the globe with outposts recently opened in Westport, CT, Miami and even the Middle East. So piggybacking on the outdoor burger, shakes and fries trend, Stephen Starr (who pretty much monopolizes Philadelphia with his various themed dining establishments) opened a little burger hut in Franklin Square a few years ago known simply as “Square Burger”. Notorious for milkshakes containing TastyKakes butterscotch krimpets that can only be consumed through wide straws, Square Burger is the closest Philadelphians can come to enjoying a burger outdoors short of grilling in their own backyard.

I’d heard plenty of good things about Square Burger, so I set out July 4th weekend poised to dive into one of the most talked about burgers in town. Sure enough, when I arrived in Franklin Square the line was long; but that meant it had to be worth it then, right? When I finally got to the front of the line, I ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a drink and waited patiently for my meal to be ready. Despite the long lines Square Burger endures, every burger is cooked to order so you don’t have to worry about food sitting out – and that’s how a good burger should be made.

I took my sack of food and sat at a nearby picnic table, enjoying the warm and sunny day. As I snacked on their fresh cut shoestring fries, I removed the burger from the bag and was kind of surprised by its miniscule size. Then I unwrapped the paper to reveal a tiny, squished mess. This was it?? I had just paid $4.75 for something the size of a 99 cent McDonald’s hamburger. Well, then it better be the best damn burger I’ve ever tasted, I thought to myself.

Yep. This is what it looked like. They should change the name to Sad Burger.

Upon the first bite, I knew that this was a major burger fail.
This is what every one has been raving about? It seriously tasted like a generic, fast food restaurant burger at 5 times the price. Overwhelmed by the pickles and fried onions, I could barely even taste the meat. I guess it was a good thing I got fries too because I wasn’t about to pay $4.75 for another burger after that one had left me empty both in my stomach and in my wallet. My guess is most people probably come for the fancy shakes and then just shell out for the burger while they’re there as an afterthought. (And the shakes probably fill in the rest of whatever remains from the four whole bites of burger you’ve just eaten.)

Anyway, about a month or so later, I actually went to Shake Shack for the first time and was blown away. Square Burger couldn’t even hold a candle to a Shake Shack burger. Shake Shack’s burgers have tomato and lettuce, options you’re not given at Square Burger, which help to compliment it perfectly. Not to mention a nice, thick delicious juicy patty on a soft bun, which doesn’t look like someone sat on it when you get your order – plus crinkle cut fries! It just goes to show that you can try and imitate something but you can never duplicate it.

Ahh! Much better!!

Square Burger rating: “F”
Shake Shack rating: “A”

Banh Mi – Oh My!

In case you’re not familiar with Banh Mi, it’s a Vietnamese sandwich typically served with grilled pork or tofu on a crusty, french baguette. It can be topped with a variety of things: most notably cilantro, which gets used a lot in Vietnamese cuisine, as well as cucumbers, carrots, jalapeno peppers, spicy chili sauce, sometimes a Sriracha & mayo-like concoction – it really depends on where you’re going. Bahn Mi has really gained popularity recently and many restaurants and sandwich shops offer all kinds of variations (and bastardizations) of this sandwich.

Here in Philly, everything that is on a roll is referred to as a “hoagie”. I hate the word hoagie; it just sounds so vulgar. Growing up in New York, I’m more familiar with terminology like “sub” or “hero”, or even from my short time living in New England, “grinder”. So hearing a Banh Mi called a “Vietnamese Hoagie” here kind of made me cringe a little bit.

The first place I ever tried a Banh Mi was at Cafe 900, located at the corner of 9th & Arch in Chinatown. Oh sure, QT is the famous place in these parts, but I was intrigued to see what else the area had to offer. This place offers one of the cheapest “hoagies” around; $3.50 compared to QT’s $5.50. It was flavorful and delicious. Good amount of toppings. Definitely didn’t disappoint for the price of breaking my “Banh Mi virginity”.

The second sandwich I had was at this little place inside of an Asian grocery mart in Houston – somewhere near Minute Maid park and I can’t recall the name right now. A friend and I split a vegetarian banh mi which contained lemongrass tofu. O.M.G. If I thought my first time was good, the second time was amazing. There’s a lot to be said for tofu. It can either be really bland or really delicious and in this case, definitely delicious. The moisture of the tofu mixed perfectly with the crustiness of the bread and had just the right amount of toppings and sauce. I wish I could remember the name of it, but maybe it’s best that I keep that place my little secret.

A few months later, I decided to take a trip to the reknowned QT Vietnamese sandwich shop, located at 10th and Arch st. Some people love it, others hate it. Which side of the fence would I fall on? I decided to go with the lemongrass tofu banh mi since I enjoyed it so much in Houston and I was extremely disappointed. This proved to be one of those instances of tofu being extremely bland. I could barely even taste the lemongrass and it was overwhelmed by an excessive amount of toppings and hardly any condiments that would lubricate the dry bread to help it go down easier. Luckily I had order a Thai tea (amazing!) to wash it down, but even still it was difficult to swallow.

My sandwich from QT: Lemongrass Banh Mi

Next, I decided to go the traditional route, classic pork banh mi, on a trip to the now defunct Tyson Bee’s food truck (Formerly located in University City across from the Penn museum.
This summer they parted ways with business partners and I never got to return. It was rumored that the truck would remain in it’s spot but I haven’t heard anything about it since.) This time, I was not disappointed. The bread had the right amount of crunch, right amount of sauce & toppings, flavorful meat; so delicious & juicy, I even got a stain on a brand new shirt and wasn’t even pissed about it. The sandwich was that good. Plus, their Thai tea was the perfect compliment and not just a remedy for jamming an overly dry sandwich down my throat.

Lastly, I went the bastardization route. I read over on Midtown Lunch that a rotisserie place had just opened on 21st and Chestnut that was offering Chicken Banh Mi – and that it was actually good! So I decided to go on over and check it out for myself. Skeptical at first because it was already pre-packed in a cardbox container, once I opened it and tried it for myself, I was pleasantly surprised. Even though the overall look of it wasn’t much different then a cold chicken sandwich, the chicken was flavorful, as was the cabbage and pickles with a delicious sriracha mayo sauce on top. Paired with a side of their homemade mac & cheese, I definitely came back the following week for round 2.

Chicken Banh Mi & Mac & Cheese from Rotisseur
(Pic from Midtown Lunch since I forgot to take my own)

Since this type of sandwich has increased in popularity (I’ve seen it offered on several menus around town), I’m sure I’ll get around to trying it at a few other spots and give you guys my feedback!

Philly’s Best Burger? Part 2: Good Dog

Much fanfare had been given on the Internet about the burgers at Good Dog, a bar located on 15th street between Walnut and Locust, especially in regards to their Good Dog burger which comes stuffed with Roquefort cheese.

I opted for their traditional burger, prepared medium – which is how I ask for all my burgers. Medium gives you just the right amount of pink for it to be juicy, but not still mooing. I came during the lunch hour on a Friday, so it was full but not packed and I sat at the bar. And waited. And waited. When I was at the point of gnawing my arm off I was so hungry, my burger finally arrived on – SURPRISE! – a brioche bun! (But that was on the menu so I guess I already expected that. Plus, I could tell by everyone else getting served their food before me.) Their fries came with a side of their housemade aioli for dipping. It was kind of like a watery version of the onion ring sauce at Burger King.

I prepared to dive into this delicious burger, my palate poised to receive the succulent, juicy meat. But, lo and behold after first bite, I realized not only was my burger not even the slightest bit of pink in the middle (it was hard to tell at first in the dim lighting of the bar), but it was dry, overcooked and charred – lettuce, tomato and ketchup used as an attempt to cover up the grill marks. I was starving so there was no way I was sending it back at this point and so, I trudged on and chewed through the meat like a dog chewing on rawhide. I was extremely disappointed. No flavor, just the taste of burnt beef in my mouth. And let’s not even get into the brioche bun being used yet again in a completely unoriginal attempt to fancy-ify this overpriced bar burger. ($11?? Seriously??)

Regardless of how busy your kitchen is, the least you can do is try to prepare food to your customer’s request. I can only imagine what would have happened if I ordered a steak there (if they even serve steak; I have no clue.) Or if I had some kind of food allergy. (I actually think I did have some allergic reaction to whatever was in their aioli after I left. I’ve never known myself to have food allergies before, but my throat felt like it was closing up and made it hard to swallow.) I guess they just figured it was better to overcook my burger then undercook it, and that does not a good burger make. Bad dog, very bad dog. My rating: “D”.

Hangover Food

After a night of excessive drinking in the Kabuki-cho district of Shinjuku while in Tokyo last year, some friends and I ventured back to the area the next day for lunch. In the basement of Alta shopping center lies Silver Octopus (築地 銀だこ ) which serves up Takoyaki – a fried batter ball filled with octopus.
Now you may be asking yourself, why would you subject yourself to something with octopus when you are in a state of hangover half-death and everything you smell makes you nauseous? Well, my friends, Takoyaki turned out to be the most amazing hangover cure ever. Obviously, anything fried will always do the trick, but for some reason, this was extra delicious. Maybe it was the mayonnaise on the side, or the sprinkling of bonito flakes on top – who knows? Whatever it was, it definitely was the cure for what ailed me.

Philly’s Best Burger? Part 1: 500 Degrees

Since moving to Philadelphia a little over two years ago, I’ve done the cheesesteak thing and am decidedly over it. Every place in Philadelphia claims to make “Philly’s Best Cheesesteak”. Quite frankly, I’m partial to some Steak-Ums and a nice Italian roll made in the comfort of my own home and without all the waiting on lines, excessive grease and hours spent in the bathroom later on that evening. But what I really wanted to know was, where can I find the best BURGER in Philadelphia?

I’d read some local blogs and started doing a little research. It seems the ‘best’ burgers are all somewhere in the $14-$18 range and served at fancy, upscale restaurants. Is that what we’ve come to – backyard BBQ fare being served a ridiculous markups and touted as being ‘the best’? Eventually, I will probably make my way to some of these places. (Village Whiskey, Butcher and Singer and Pub & Kitchen, just to name a few.) But in the meantime, I’ve been checking out the low to mid-range offerings Philly has to offer and am coming up short handed. Maybe those blogs weren’t kidding after all.

One of the first places I checked out was 500 degrees, a little burger joint on Sansom St (between 16th & 17th) that touts truffle fries and thick milkshakes, as well as being owned by one of the restaurants in town with a high-end burger, Rouge. I ordered their classic burger, medium with cheddar and a side of their ‘famous’ truffle fries. I was definitely impressed. The cheddar was oozing and delicious, the burger itself succulent and with all the trimmings (lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mayo), all encompassed by a glazed brioche bun. The truffle fries definitely helped make the meal – slender and crispy and I could barely finish them all. I passed on the milkshake as I knew I’d already be full without it. I left there satisfied and confident that this burger was already ahead of the pack. However, on a follow up trip a few months later, I was disappointed. Where was the juiciness of the burger I had previously had? The brioche bun tasted stale, dry and falling apart as I ate, my meat was slightly overcooked and too much truffle oil was tossed on my fries. Overall, I would give their burgers a “B”.

I would soon come to learn that the brioche bun was not just a special treat; almost every burger place I visited after that offered a burger on a brioche bun – sometimes to compliment a juicy delicious patty but mostly just to trick you into thinking you were getting a beefy masterpiece while masking a truly terrible burger.

As if there aren’t enough food blogs!

Yes, yes. I’m well aware that anyone who loves to stuff their face and has internet access probably has created (or has thought about creating) some type of food blog while enjoying the “best they’ve ever had”. Today, that time has come for me.

Long ago, I had a short lived blog rating local Mexican restaurants. (To the best, I gave Five Sombreros.) Today, my food fancies range from the quest for Philadelphia’s Best Burger to scoping out the latest Food Trucks to hit the city streets. Do I consider myself a “foodie”? Not by any means. I like to eat. I like things that are tasty and interesting. I like sharing those tasty, interesting edibles with other people. I’m not a snob about it and I’m not trying to be. That’s why I created this blog.

I’ve called it ‘A Side of Ketchup‘ because growing up, I was a very picky eater. My go-to food was chicken nuggets and french fries, and I would put ketchup on literally everything. (Including filet mignon – leading to many a dinnertime cringe fest.) Since my teen years I’ve eaten lots of different things that I never would have imagined eating, broadening my limited ethnic cuisine range from “Fried” and “Italian” to Vietnamese, Sushi, Indian and beyond. Now, I will try anything once. My mother used to tell me, “You don’t know if you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it”. And I have a feeling that’s the case for most people who have never tried foods and simply ‘don’t like them.’ I’m here to try and alleviate some of your food fears – and hopefully make some friends in the process. So enjoy reading and feel free to eat along!

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