My husband always suggests burgers when we plan a last-minute meal. As the house grill-master, he thinks they're easy. As our family's prep chef, I beg to differ. The shopping alone is formidable -- meat, lettuce, tomato, red onions, cheese (two kinds, at least), bacon and fresh buns, to say nothing of the condiments. At home, the meat needs seasoning, the bacon needs crisping, buns need toasting, lettuce needs shredding and onions need caramelizing. And I haven't even gotten to the potato salad yet. In other words, a so-so burger is easy but a great burger is hard work.
Which brings me to the Long Branch Saloon -- a pleasantly dive-y south-side bar with a good selection of beers, a couple of pool tables and occasional live music. The low ceilings, dim lighting, plastic-coated menus and blaring sports-centric TVs don't seem to offer the promise of food beyond the usual deep-fried fare, but the small kitchen behind the bar has a big reputation for top-notch burgers and fries.
I met a friend for lunch and, when I arrived a few minutes before opening, mine was the only car in the parking lot. By the time the doors opened, however, the lot was filling up, and half the bar tables were occupied within minutes. The crowd is a great mix -- an egalitarian combination of Carhartts, baseball hats, hipster fedoras and dress shirts.
One waitress was handling the whole lunch rush and she was clearly hustling. My friend ordered a Long Branch BLT ($9.75) and I opted for the grilled jalapeno burger (10.25) with bacon (an additional $2.25). The BLT was divine. Served on the same buns as the burgers -- made fresh daily, on the premises -- it was a perfect sandwich, piled high with smoky bacon, a heap of crisp, fresh lettuce and thick slices of tomato. The bun is lightly toasted, so it stood up well to the heft of the ingredients. When I saw my friend later in the week, she said she had been talking about her BLT ever since.
My burger was another winner. At Long Branch, you don't get a choice of meat temperature. The burgers come leaning toward well-done (which, for a burger, is my preference) and the exterior of the patty has a charcoal-y crust. The vinegary bite of the jalapenos balanced and brightened the burger's smoky flavor. On the sides of both sandwiches was a heap of hand-cut fries with the skins still on them. These aren't crispy, frite-style fries. These are thick, mealy, tender and delicious.
I returned the following week for dinner with my husband and a friend. Again, the place was packed and we had to wait awhile before scooping up a table (just enough time for a quick game of pool). Again, there was only one waitress, but she was juggling all of the tables with businesslike efficiency. This time I ordered the black and bleu burger ($10.75, this sandwich got top marks on Urbanspoon). My husband chose the guacamole Swiss bacon burger ($11.25) with onion rings on the side (an additional $2.50), and my friend took a simple route, ordering a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato ($6.25).
My friend's grilled cheese was a nostalgic grade-school preparation -- buttery and crispy with ample mild cheese, it was just begging for a cup of tomato soup to dip it in. The black and bleu burger wasn't my favorite. I found the combination of a strong Cajun seasoning and a liberal topping of bleu cheese overwhelming and I missed the flavor of the meat. I wished I had gone with a more classic choice like my husband's, which I loved. His one small complaint was that there was too much mayonnaise, which, in combination with the avocado, made the whole dish too creamy. I heartily disagree. In my world, "too creamy" is a contradiction in terms.
We all agreed that the onion rings were a worthy upgrade. Onions rings can be a disappointment -- often dumped from freezer to fryer with only the barest hint of onion inside a too-salty coating. These tasted fresh and lovingly made. The light, tempura-like batter has just the right amount of pleasantly greasy crunch, with sweet, tender onions nestled inside.
The Long Branch Saloon is friendly, lively and unpretentious, with a sneakily good little kitchen. The next time my husband suggests burgers for dinner, I'll leave the tomato slicing to the professionals and head out to this south-side burger mecca. Let them toast the buns.
Long Branch Saloon
Kitchen hours (closing time of the kitchen varies depending on how busy they are): 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Sat.-Sun.
Where: 1737 E. Dimond Blvd.