Trippy Interiors Aside, Southtown Should Ask for More From Burger Culture

click to enlarge RON BECHTOL
Ron Bechtol
First the good news.

Burger Culture does bang-up fries — specifically the sweet potato version. They play creamy interiors against crisp exteriors, both married to robust flavors. With their crisp and crackling, seasoned crust, the hand-dipped onion rings, thick version, are winners, too; there’s barely a whisper of grease. We will attempt to forget that a small portion was ordered but a large was delivered. And charged.

Now the rest of the news.

Burger Culture’s owners are a couple that combine ranching and food science creds. As proprietors of Southtown Pizzeria across Presa Street, they’ve also had some time to get a feel for the pulse of the neighborhood. There being little local competition, the notion of opening a quality burger joint no doubt initially seemed like a good one. It may still be good. But if Burger Culture is to fill that void, there is some work to be done. Let’s start with the burger itself, a patty based on chuck ground for them by the venerable Bolner’s Meat Company.

My 1/3 pound burger, “grilled with a touch of mesquite smoke,” was ordered medium rare, a request duly noted on the ticket; I also asked for creole remoulade. What arrived was medium-plus, not medium-rare, there was hardly even a tickle of mesquite smoke, let alone a touch, and the patty was unremarkable, despite its provenance. There was no creole remoulade to be found. But there was a huge haystack of shredded lettuce in addition already in the burger, along with onion and a slice of tomato. A floppy, sesame-studded bun did its part dutifully.

A side of coleslaw composed of cabbage and carrots was also dutifully crisp, but needed more vinegar and salt. As churlish as it may be to look gift pintos in the mouth, they, too, needed more seasoning. If inspiration to ratchet up flavors were needed, it might be taken from murals of gutsy ’60s icons, the likes of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, that adorn the walls of this way-back enterprise.

Burger Culture is to be commended for tailoring its buns and breads to the main meat in question. The Bombay lamb burger sports a sturdy brioche bun; the blackened ahi tuna sandwich (more on that later) is offered on a small ciabatta roll. Lettuce, onion, tomato and krinkle pickle are the default accessories, appropriate or not. Apparently slow to learn, I also ordered the lamb medium rare — again noted on the order ticket. But instead of being overcooked, this one emerged nearly raw on the interior. The automatic Bombay avocado curry sauce that might have added wanted flavor to the lamb was oddly neutral but for a kind of curry powder stridency. Maybe blackened tuna would save the day.

Tuna is a sandwich that really doesn’t want tomato or pickle. Lettuce, maybe. Onion, fine. It comes with the creole remoulade, and that’s perfect; this is a sauce with some spunk. But the blackened coating, itself a kind of way-back technique invented and popularized by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme in the early ’80s, was oddly uneventful. And the degree of doneness? (Yup, ordered medium-rare again.) The steak was served rare, as per the menu description — a decision that would normally be just fine with top-quality tuna (think sushi). Just not with this tuna; it was almost chewy. So I took it home, added some high-smoke-point grape oil to a skillet, and seared it some more. Better but still not great. Loved the remoulade, though.

Other burger options include grass-fed organic beef, a pizza burger, and a bison patty with rye whiskey sauce. Fried chicken, grilled salmon, a sloppy Joe and a Southtown BLT on a toasted, jalapeño cornbread loaf (I’m intrigued) are among other sandwich offerings. There are add-ons such as chili, fried egg, sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions. There may be some hidden gems lurking in all this; feel free to explore. But I’m concerned with them getting the basics right first.

Beer with burgers is another basic, but at this writing, the beer and wine license had been freshly added. Before then, Lone Star and on one evening Schlitz (it was the only choice one day) were to be had on the house. Along with the burgers, this beer “breaks another little bit of my heart now, darlin’.” Tell it like it is, Janis girl.

The skinny: Burger Culture serves several burger variations from straight and simple to buffalo, pizzafied and Sloppy-Joe’d. Sandwiches include fried chicken, seared tuna and catfish poboy. Fries and rings stand out. Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Thu 11am-11pm Fri-Sat; 5-10pm Sun. Burgers and sandwiches: $6.15-$12.25 Best bets: onion rings, sweet potato fries.

Burger Culture, 801 S. Presa Street, (210) 592-1064.
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