Here's the Beef

Hamburgers Galore in Palm Beach

A craving for a good hamburger can be satisfied only by a good hamburger.

Window dressing -- or garnishes, condiments, and buns -- aside, it's a truth that should be self-evident. In much the same way a dirty pane of chipped glass can hardly provide a picturesque view, a tough burned burger simply doesn't deliver the same textural and flavor components of a fresh, quality, juicy piece of meat.

Over the years, I've developed certain ground rules that have helped me assuage a burger craving the first time around -- for instance, the meat absolutely mustbe accompanied by a bloody mary (which also has to be a good version, as in not made from a powdered mix and tasting like Hi-C). After all, when you eat for a living, you don't have the luxury of tending to personal beefs. I can usually justify one such culinary lark every couple of weeks. So if I'm going to pay attention to what I actually want to consume as opposed to what I ought to digest, I really need to get it right on the first (preferably Grey Goose or Ketel One) shot.

At Brasero's, a Latin steak house in Weston, I've wasted some valuable gastronomic time.

Several years ago, I exhaustively researched nearly every type of burger possibility in South Florida, from the prefab sandwiches put out by well-known fast-food chains to the exclusive foie gras-topped specimens in upscale markets. My general conclusion was that steak houses often have the best -- and most underappreciated -- burgers in the business. There are two reasons: One, the über-patties are frequently composed of the prime beef that has been trimmed in-house from premium cuts. And two, hamburgers are usually offered only at lunch, in order not to tempt people away from ordering large expensive steaks during dinner.

It stands to reason, then, that when faced with the choice in Weston Town Center of a lunchtime hamburger at quick-service Cheeburger, Cheeburger or one at full-bar Brasero's, I'd decide upon the latter. I know Cheeburger, Cheeburger has a predictably good product. But the higher-end Brasero's might both have a better one and serve it in a more -- shall we say? -- lubricated ambience.

Wrong on both counts. Brasero's is a pleasant-enough restaurant, with familiar men's club steak house décor, booths framing a cluster of tables, and a large bar dominating the foyer. But the fare has that came-from-a-can/jar/bottle/package feel -- the "house" salad dressing tastes like sweetened vinaigrette à la the supermarket; the so-called spicy aioli that was supposed to accompany a shrimp-avocado cocktail was nothing more inspiring than ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together; and the bloody mary was an insipid version that owed its anemic taste to something resembling watered-down V-8. All of which might have been forgiven had the burger been anything to chat about. But quite frankly I'm still trying to chew through it.

Given the quality of the rubbery sirloin I also sampled, sans steak knife but with plenty of texture to challenge my recently replaced fillings, my kindest guess would be that this stuff is choice or select grade. No wonder, then, that the hamburger was also of lesser quality. As was the service, which was bungled so frequently that the staff felt compelled to offer us dessert on the house. But the melting flan and tres leches on the display tray, which looked like it had been left too close to the heat lamp, were seriously unappealing. We later found out that it was our waiter's first day, a circumstance that I would take into account if (1) he was visibly being trained (he wasn't) and (2) he had any prior service experience -- and judging from the way he removed a plate without clearing a glass of wine, thus spilling the contents, I doubt he has ever been in the biz.

It doesn't really matter whether a server is experienced when hired by the Steak 'n Shake chain, because the training is both rigorous and obvious; while waiting for a takeout order at the Sunrise location, we actually witnessed a manager publicly correcting a night-shift employee. I can't recall the exact infraction, but it was mild, as was the reprimand. Still, the possibility of redress obviously keeps the staff up to snuff.

That's remarkable in a number of ways, because while Steak 'n Shake is a notch above fast food, it is a 400-unit quick-service restaurant. As such, it hadn't really grabbed my attention until July 4, when its modern-day owner, E.W. "Ed" Kelly, who instituted the restaurant's always-open status and is considered responsible for the chain's expansive success, died (yup, big news in the trade). Add to it that, with my craving for a good burger still intact, we happened to pass the Sunrise Steak 'n Shake on the same day as the Brasero's disappointment -- in the interim, we'd gone to the Grateful Dead concert -- and it was almost a foregone conclusion that we would stop in for what was billed as the "original steakburger."

It stands to reason that just about anything would taste pretty good after a Dead show. But discounting outside appetite influences, I have to admit that these quickly seared patties, cooked on a griddle in full view of the customer, were immensely satisfying. The meat, as per the custom started by founder Gus Belt, who used to grind up T-bones right in front of the customer to form his burgers, does indeed have aficionado appeal. With pure beef flavor and no annoying little nubbies (tendons, bone, and all the other things we don't like to think about), the steakburgers justify their name. And while bloody marys aren't on the menu, the "shake" part of Steak 'n Shake translates to a hand-dipped custom-blended treat.

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