Friday, May 20, 2016

A&B Burgers: Sweet & Salty For The Win

The Burger. A quintessential American food which seems to be growing in popularity, in the U.S. and internationally as well. For example, in 2014, U.S. restaurants served about 9 Billion hamburgers, a growth of 3% from the prior year. New burger joints pop up all the time and it doesn't seem like it will be ending anytime soon. However, where do you find the best burgers? Which restaurants are offering the juiciest, most savory burgers? What factors help differentiate all these burgers from each other?

Let me provide you one recommendation with an analysis of the reasons for my choice.

Last summer, at the Boston Magazine's 4th Annual Battle of the Burger, one of my favorite burgers was the Sweet & Salty Cow from A&B Burgers. The burger consisted of a grilled Black Angus burger topped with Buratta, bacon, fig jam and arugula on a Martin's Potato Roll. As I said before, "The juicy and flavorful burger was enhanced by the balanced sweetness and saltiness of the other ingredients. The burrata also added an additional creaminess which was a nice alternative to other types of cheese." I'd never been to A&B Burgers before but was impressed enough with their burger that I planned to check it out.

At the time, A&B Burgers was located in Salem and readying a move to Beverly, so I decided to wait to check them out after their move. They were closed for a few months and reopened on January 8, 2016. Since then, I've visited the restaurant three times, twice for lunch and once for dinner. They are more than just a burger joint, offering plenty of other delicious dishes, as well as a large beer, cocktail and tequila menu. Their burgers are some of the best in the area, based on a number of factors from their beef sourcing to their method of cooking.

A&B Burgers is owned by Thomas Holland and Amy Constant. Holland, with over 20 years experience in the restaurant industry, has been involved in a number of local restaurants, from Sonsie to Tico, and others outside Massachusetts, such as Alta Strada at MGM Foxwoods and Oritalia in San Francisco. I've spoken with him on multiple occasions and he is clearly personable, passionate, and sincere. It is also obvious that he loves what he does, and you can detect his excitement when he talks about their new oven or discusses their tequila collection.

Constant also has plenty of experience in the restaurant industry, especially as her family operated three restaurants in Connecticut, and she worked with Holland at Alta Strada. She also has significant experience in non-restaurant related sales but eventually returned to the restaurant industry, helping to open and operate A&B Burgers with Holland. I've met Constant too, though have only talked with her briefly.

The new Beverly location, on Cabot Street, is a casual location but still with a certain flair of elegance. Seating more than 120 people at tables and booths, it also possesses a large U-shaped bar. At the front of the restaurant, there are large garage-like doors which can be raised during warm weather providing a patio-like experience. On two of my visits, the garage doors were open. During my dinner visit on a Tuesday night, the restaurant was quite busy and I suspect you should make reservations for the weekends if you hope to get a table.

The Executive Chef is Keith Seeber, who left a corporate job to enter the food industry. The restaurant is open seven days a week, for lunch and dinner. The Lunch menu includes Small Plates (6 choices at $9-$14), Salads (3 choices at $8-$11), Sandwiches (5 at $10-$12), & Burgers (11 choices at $9-$14). For Dinner, the menu expands a bit, adding an additional Small Plate and Entrees (5 choices at $15-$28). You'll find Small Plates like Pan Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Pot Pie, as well as Sandwiches such as the Cubano and Fried Eggplant. Entrees range from Grilled Salmon to Grilled Rack of Lamb. This is more than just a simple burger joint, more a gastropub.

The restaurant has a full bar, specializing in Tequila, and they have approximately 110 tequilas available, with a couple ultra-high end tequilas including the Clase Azul Tequila ($195 per shot) and the Jose Cuervo 250 Aniversario ($225 per shot). Though you might think that such pricey tequilas would sit unopened, they've actually already sold at least two bottles of the Clase Azul since their opening in January. You'll find plenty of other spirits too, including four Mezcals, and a nice list of cocktails, priced $10-$13, such as the Blood Orange Margarita and the Grand Manhattan.

The Ghost ($10) is made with Ghost chili-infused El Jimador tequila, triple sec, housemade sour, simple syrup, & pomegranate juice. As expected, it is spicy hot though not overwhelmingly so, and the cocktail is nicely balanced with some pleasing fruit notes and a mild sweetness that helps to reduce some of the fire. A tasty treat for those who like some heat.

The Seeber ($10) is made with Matusalem, lemon, cilantro, bitters and simple syrup. It too was a nicely balanced cocktail with pleasing herbal accents and citrus notes.

You'll also find about 25 Beers, bottles, cans and on draft, including a number of local choices. There are about 16 Wines available by the glass, and plenty more by the bottle, primarily well known labels. You can even order a Milkshake, either as is or as a special Adult Milkshake with some added alcohol, such as a Mexican Mudslide (with Patron XO Cafe & Bailey's) or a Daddy's Rooter Float (with Myers Rum, Titos Vodka, & Root Liquor). The restaurants is also working on some new milkshake flavors for the near future.

I tried the Chocolate Salted Bourbon, made with bourbon, chocolate syrup, sea salt, & chocolate ice cream. There is a small chunk of thick, housemade whipped cream atop the shake too. It was thick and chocolatey, with the definite taste of bourbon and a salty edge which was a nice contrast to the sweetness. I ordered this shake with dessert, a pleasing ending to my dinner. They are also working on some new milkshake flavors.

I also note that water is served in mason jars and they also carry fresh-brewed, unsweetened iced tea (which makes me happy).

One of the new innovations introduced at their Beverly location has been the installation of a CVap oven, an expensive piece of equipment but which Holland believes has been more than worth the expense. Created by Winston Shelton in the early 1980s, CVap, or Controlled Vapor Technology, was invented to solve the problem of conventional ovens, which tend to dry out food as they heat it. The CVap though creates an environment that surrounds the food with moist vapor which prevents the heated food from losing moisture. The ovens are quite versatile, being able to bake, braise, confit, dehydrate, ferment, poach, roast, sous vide, steam and more.

At A&B Burgers, their CVap oven is large enough that it could cook 650 burgers at once. That is more than sufficient to meet their needs and also allows them the capability to handle large burger events. In this oven, their burgers are slow cooked for nearly two hours and then placed onto the grill for a few minutes for finishing. While in the CVap, the moisture levels in the air and within the burger are maintained so the burger doesn't dry out, despite the lengthy amount of cooking time. That means that your burger should be tender and juicy when it arrives at your table. There is plenty of science behind this entire process, but the proof is always in the results, and the A&B Burgers are all the evidence you will need to understand the great results from the CVap.

Few other local restaurants use the CVap oven, giving A&B an advantage to their burger preparation and cooking. It is one of the significant factors which contributes to them having some of the best burgers in the area. A dry burger is a major turn off and the CVap helps to ensure that your burger arrives moist and juicy.

I've tried several of their Small Plates, generally comfort food which I found quite pleasing. For example, one of the compelling Small Plates is the Louisiana Fried Wings ($10), six crispy fried chicken wings with a side of honey and a house-made BBQ sauce. The outer skin is quite crunchy and crisp, a clean, tasty coating that conceals the moist and meaty chicken. Damn good wings. The BBQ sauce is mildly sweet and a nice addition to the wings, though a touch of honey works well too.  On the Dinner menu, one of the Entrees is Chicken & Waffles, with this same Louisiana Fried Chicken.

Another Small Plate is the Smoked Gouda & Chorizo Mac n' Cheese ($12), with creamy smoked gouda, aged chorizo seco & a Grana Padano crisp. Coming in a cast iron pan, this is an ample portion of creamy and smoky little elbows, which were cooked just right. Though this is an excellent tasting dish, the crisp is addictive all by itself. If you love mac n' cheese, as most people do, this dish will impress.

Still another Small Plate is the New England Charcuterie & Cheese Board ($13), with a number of the products from Moody's Delicatessen in Waltham. Beside the cured meats and cheeses, there is a date and raisin relish, house pickled vegetables, crostini, and whole grain mustard. This is a great way to start a meal, with silky, well-spiced meats, tasty cheeses (including burrata), and pickled veggies.

On the dinner menu, they add a Small Plate, the Seared Veal Meatballs ($9), with grilled fennel, pomodoro fresca, and shaved Grana Padano. The meatballs were crisp and firm, with a meaty taste and were tasty atop the little crostini. The sauce enhanced the dish, with a rich tomato taste.

As for salads, the Classic Caesar ($8) is made with chopped romaine, house caesar, ciabatta croutons and anchovies. A standard caesar, with fresh romaine, though nothing special.

And what about those Burgers? On my first visit, I needed to try The Sweet & Salty Burger ($13), the same burger which impressed me so much at the prior Battle of the Burger. The 7 ounce burger, which is made from locally sourced and sustainably farmed beef, is usually topped with Burrata cheese, fig jam, bacon, & arugula (though I had them omit the arugula). One bite into this burger and I was hooked, savoring the juicy, meaty burger with the compelling blend of salty and sweet flavors as well as the creaminess of the burrata. The bun was soft and fresh, and wasn't too large for the burger. It was a damn good burger. Frankly, one of the best burgers in the area and reasonably priced as well.

Each burger is accompanied by sea salt fries though for a small extra charge you can substitute them for items like bacon truffle fries or fried pickles. Above, I have the Bacon Truffle Fries, which were crisp with a fluffy interior, and plenty of smoky and truffle accents.

Another advantageous factor for the success of their burger is their sourcing. It is great to see that they source locally, using only sustainably farmed beef. That beats beef that is sourced from the huge factory farms. And at only $13 for a burger and fries, the dish is reasonably priced considering the quality of the ingredients which are used. You can pay $13 for a burger and fries at plenty of other restaurants which don't offer similar sourcing and which don't taste anywhere near as good. Finally, the proportion of ingredients in the burger work well, from the ratio of the meat to bun, to the toppings.

The Black & Blue Burger ($13) is topped with a Bleu cheese spread,  fried onion strings, bacon, arugula, and a spicy A&B rub. It is accompanied by the regular sea salt fries. Another excellent choice.

Another recent addition to the restaurant is their use of 7X Beef from Colorado, both ground beef for burgers as well as a 7X Hotdog. Only a handful of Boston area restaurants are currently using 7X Beef but you'll likely see this number grow when people realize its advantages, even if it isn't local. First, 7X is "...committed to sustainable ranching practices, including rotational pasture systems, efficient water management, and quality fencing operations to ensure a high quality of life for each member of our herd." Second, their cattle graze on "grasses and herbs like brome, timothy, orchard, alfalfa, clover, and annual legumes..." Third, and importantly, their cattle are an ancient Japanese breed with a 100% bloodline. They have not been mixed with any American breeds.

Allegedly, due to legal reasons, the 7X website does not identify the specific breed of Japanese cattle they raise. However, a couple news articles seem to identify the breed as Kumamoto Red, also known as Akaushi or Red Waygu. Their meat has intense marbling, is extremely tender, and possesses lots of flavor. Most of the American "Waygu" that is found in the U.S. is from mixed breed cattle, which only has maybe 25% of Japanese breed within them. 7X though is a 100% Japanese breed so it possesses all of the benefits, undiluted by any other breed.

For an upcharge of $5, you can order almost any of the A&B Burgers with 7X Beef rather than the usual Angus burger. I tried the Hangover Burger with 7X beef, which is usually topped with bacon, a fried egg and American cheese. The 7X Burger is only cooked for about 20 minutes in the CVap oven to protect its extra fat from collapsing due to over-cooking. I found this burger to be even better than their Angus, with a compelling meaty, tender and savory taste, enhanced by the gooey yolk of the egg. I will say that the differences between the 7X and Angus burgers tends to be more subtle and not everyone may taste a difference.

As for Sides, the Onion Rings ($3) are thin and crispy, with a nice clean taste, and I was impressed. I'm very picky with my onion rings and these were addictive with a nice sweetness to them.

On the other hand, I wasn't impressed with the Side of Fried Pickles, which I found to be a bit soggy and not crisp enough. They were thin enough and the pickles were crisp and flavorful, but the coating didn't do them justice.

One of the dinner entrees is Chicken & Waffles ($15), with three pieces of Louisiana fried chicken, a Belgian waffle, anejo tequila maple syrup, and house made pickles. Like the Small Plate, the fried chicken is compelling, with an excellent crunchy and crisp coating and plenty of moist, meaty chicken. Delicious chicken which will satisfy your fried chicken cravings. The waffles were very good too and though I'm not usually a syrup person, the tequila syrup was actually tasty and not overly sweet, and I dipped the waffles in the syrup. This is pure comfort food, a dish that will make you smile and your belly will be happy.

Currently, A&B Burgers has only a few Dessert options, though they are working on a larger menu for the near future. They want to offer some different items, which are not commonly found in their area. For example, you wouldn't expect to find Churros ($5.95) at a usual burger joint. These Churros were a perfect ending to dinner, like a fresh, hot donut. Covered with cinnamon and sugar, the thick and light churros had a crisp exterior with a light and fluffy interior. Highly recommended. Two of the other Dessert options that were available included a Tres Leches Cake and a Gluten-free Brownie Sundae.

On two of my visits, service was excellent, but on the third visit there were a couple service issues. Our server though had only been at the restaurant for a week so was still very new and needs more experience at the restaurant. The food is generally delicious, reasonably priced, and includes plenty of comfort cuisine. Their burgers are top notch, some of the best in the Boston area, enhanced by the quality (and sustainability) of their beef and the use of their CVap oven. If you love Tequila, this is a destination spot for you, though you'll also be pleased with their cocktails, milkshakes and beer list. And you have to check out those Churros! 

A&B Burgers earns a hearty recommendation.

The next Battle of the Burger won't take place until August but voting has already begun to choose 25 restaurants which will compete at this event. I'm sure A&B Burgers will receive sufficient votes to enter the competition and I think then they will have a very good chance of winning the competition this year. You should check out the restaurant now and experience their burgers before the competition.

(Note: I paid for two of my visits to A&B Burgers and was comped by the owner for one of my lunches.)

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