Summer Sundays during my childhood, we would pile in the car and Dad would drive us out to Long Island or Orchard Beach for burgers and shakes. We could get the same food back in Brooklyn, sure, but it was the whole package — wood picnic tables so worn they were shiny, the hint of salt air in the breeze, the seagulls stealing the last French fry from the checkered paper boat — that made the memories.
I know it sounds schmaltzy, but every once in a while, the smell of a burger on the grill or the exquisite brain freeze of a frozen custard instantly brings me back. I swear it happened at BurgerFi.
That might be unexpected, because the guy behind this venture is better-known for his upscale and fine-casual eateries. Restaurateur David Manero's hits include Vic & Angelo (fine Italian with locations in Delray Beach and Palm Beach Gardens), the Office (a modern gastropub in Delray), and DeVito South Beach (an "Italian chop house" with a touch of Hollywood glam and actor Danny DeVito as its namesake) . BurgerFi is his first foray into the category of "fast casual" dining. Though Manero has plans to take over the country with his hormone-free meat and "concretes" (frozen custard with toppings mixed in), this first concept restaurant is located in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, itself a little seaside town steeped in nostalgia. It's actually a perfect setting for this indoor/outdoor "burger meets beach" bistro. A second, Delray Beach location is scheduled to open the first week of August.
Manero gutted a shuttered Burger King on beachfront drag A1A until the only possible remnant that could be recognized with a good eye is the sloped and shingled roof. Other than that, the space, which was designed by his wife, Lynn Manero, was turned into a fast-food fantasy where beachy classic meets ultramodern. LCD menu boards flash the options in black, white, and neon green. Light fixtures made from chromed meat hooks are lit by old-fashioned Edison-style bulbs. A long communal bar-height table invites large parties, and picnic tables made of recycled materials lend a pop of color.
Though the menu is relatively simple (burgers, dogs, craft beer, wine, concretes, and cupcakes), customers linger at the counter because they are dazed and confused by those LCD screens, which flash back and forth as they recycle. The varieties of fixings and burger toppings are vast and typed in a cursive-like font that seems too small for the screen.
Our order taker, sensing my distress, offered me a print version of the menu, which includes the BurgerFi "secret" menu options on the back (a play on the secret menu items that have become urban myths and legends, like the Fatburger hypocrite — a veggie burger topped with bacon). After being able to finally see what my options were, I ordered. Our server then read back every single add-on and quirk to the order, which was a relief. We were given the kind of buzzer you get at mall restaurants and chose a table under the giant industrial ceiling fan on the patio.
It was a Saturday evening about 9:30 p.m., and the restaurant sound system was blaring some mindless song whose chorus consists of some guy saying "Barbra Streisand" over and over. It was too loud for people wanting to connect over their evening meal. Maybe dance music is de rigueur in South Beach, but this is Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, home of Elvis impersonators and Bob Marley tribute bands. Thankfully, our buzzer notified us rather quickly that our food was ready.
My half and half stack ($7.97) — BurgerFi's quinoa burger topped with an Angus burger and topped with American cheese, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and secret sauce — came with a sunny-side-up egg and cherry peppers as additional toppings ($1 each) and arrived on a potato bun, which wasn't quite sturdy enough to support the thick sandwich. Messy as it was, I forged ahead to bite down on a greasy but soul-soothing bite of vegetarian goodness interspersed with the taste of Angus beef. I did the unthinkable and used a fork to deconstruct the sandwich for the sake of science. The quinoa patty was moist and flavorful. Many times, a veggie burger resembles a hockey puck, but this burger stood out on its own.
On a carnivorous note, the Angus meat was brown on the outside and pink on the inside. The beef used at BurgerFi has a better pedigree than I do. While I have my driver's license to verify my identity, these burgers come from cows that are humane certified, source verified, age verified, and vegetarian fed and have been given no antibiotics or hormones. All that good meat is formed into a smallish, oval-like patty and cooked on a flat-top griddle, which allows for the cooking of meat with a higher fat content. Though I couldn't verify the fat ratio with the manager on duty, the burger was substantially juicy.
Low-carb dieters can also rejoice, because all burger and quinoa patty options are available wrapped in iceburg lettuce instead of the bun at no additional charge. Although that sounds messy, I was pleasantly surprised that the lettuce wrap held up until the last bite of burger without falling all over my lap.
The Chicken Apple Dog ($4.27), alas, didn't fare as well. Though it had the proper "snap" that all good dogs should have, the flavor simply wasn't there. Granted, I ordered the dog free of trappings, but any good dog should be able to shine without the aid of kraut or mustard.
Fries ($4.44), however, were a different story. Ordered "well done" from the secret menu, our Texas Fries (topped with chili and cheese) were a delight. The extra crispiness ensured that the spicy all-beef chili and American cheese sauce didn't turn these natural-cut fries to mush. The entire meal was washed down with a few Cavit Chardonnays ($4.97) served in clever stemless plastic glasses with handy ridges for your thumb (so the glass doesn't slip from your fingers on hot or clumsy days).
We returned a few days later. It was late afternoon, and the skies were purple . Thunderheads loomed. Scores of teenaged girls and families were at the restaurant, seeking food and shelter. The air was thick, and it was time for dogs, rings, and concretes .
I had really been anticipating my Chicago Dog ($4.27). Maybe it was my preconceived notion, but as I bit into my dog, I was expecting that always-pleasing "snap" of a good kosher all-beef dog. Instead, I got a limp eraser of a wiener in my mouth. Though the Chicago Dog came with the right trappings (pickle slice, celery salt, tomatoes, peppers, relish, and onions), BurgerFi had failed on both tries when it came to satisfying my sausage cravings.
Next up: the onion rings ($3.77). Lord, I have no idea how they can find onions almost a foot in circumference, but I'm glad they did. The giant rings loomed ominously when I went to take my first bite, wondering whether I would get only a mouthful of oily breading. Instead, the rings were a marvel, with a light and airy batter, serving to provide a nongreasy crisp and nothing more.
The concrete proved no less delicious. I chose the "Fort Lauderdale Surfer," a blend of vanilla custard with caramel and fresh mango. BurgerFi's concretes are made fresh with their "real deal" custard, using only cream, sugar cane, eggs, and all natural flavors. I left my concrete to melt a little so it was sufficiently creamy. Exploration with a spoon provided me with treasures of fresh shredded coconut and mango chunks. My only regret was not taking it down to the beach, even with the threat of rain.
All in all, though I'm not a kid anymore (and probably wouldn't go back in time to do it all again like in some Tom Hanks movie, even if I could), I was teleported back in time, if only for a mere moment.
My body was at BurgerFi in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, home to questionable disco music, LCD screens, and antibiotic-free, humanely raised beef. But somehow, I was simultaneously back in Long Island, at a burger and custard shack with my grandfather, long passed. He's just challenged me to a custard-eating contest — first one who eats all theirs without brain freeze wins a round of minigolf.