The debate began as we got our first plate at the new Rok:Brgr. Is the burger-joint trend overdone? Have too many one-plate restaurants opened lately?
My friend Jamie offered a quick answer. "I think it's a trend," she said. "It can't last."
The four of us each grabbed a lobster corn dog ($12 for four) by the stick and dipped it into sweet mustard. It wasn't anything like what we expected — we had pictured a lobster tail dropped in batter and then fried. Instead, chopped lobster meat was combined with a sweet batter more like that of an apple fritter. The outside texture of the lobster corn dogs was similar to the crisp edge of a funnel cake, while inside, the batter and meat melded together like a crab cake.
"Wow, that is amazing," Jamie offered. She was right. "And it would be even better drunk food at 2 a.m."
That one bite answered any questions we had about the concept of Rok:Brgr. The new restaurant and bar in downtown Fort Lauderdale's Himmarshee Village may be part of a too-frequent trend, but this is a place that knows how to make a damned fine plate of food.
Here, the concept was to re-create the feel of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, featuring comfort food plus a pint of something cold. The look is all exposed brick and leather, with a bar that spans half the space on the west side. Windows open up to Himmarshee Street, with stools outside facing inward.
Co-owners Marc Falsetto and Mark Mughabghab both bring experience in the business — Falsetto as owner of Primo's in Miami and Mughabghab with Blue Martini. Falsetto is also the chef and created a burgercentric menu that offers a fair share of steaks, mom's meat loaf, and other comfort foods.
Like all burger joints, the place will live or die on its meat, and Falsetto has certainly thought out his "secret blend." He orders certified Black Angus from a supplier in Nebraska, and his American Kobe comes from Mishima Ranch in California. He grinds it daily. "We have no freezer here," Falsetto says proudly. "The meat and everything comes in fresh every day."
The speakeasy concept is followed through even to the drink menu, as we discovered when we took four seats at the bar at the beginning of our night. Martinis, which cost about $10 each, come with a blue-cheese-stuffed olive wrapped in bacon. Two cocktails feature a house-made bacon-infused bourbon.
"We age it with bacon fat overnight," cheery bartender Chevy explained. Three ounces of bacon fat to 25 ounces of bourbon. Strained, shaken, and mixed. The old fashioned comes with the bacon bourbon, orange bitters, and maple syrup — some of my favorite ingredients.
"It's subtle," Chevy explained of the bacon-flavored bourbon.
A slight smoky flavor was all the four of us could discern. We were hoping for something more like a bacon sandwich.
We were also hoping for simply more. The drinks, poured by Chevy's bartending partner, all came about a half inch from the top of the water glass. We finished them off shortly after taking our table and all switched to beer. The beer menu is extensive too and includes the excellent Brooklyn Lager on tap.
After the corn dogs, we shared a plate of mini Kobe hot dogs ($9). They came covered in a rich chili and melted Vermont cheddar.
"Nothing special," my wife, Jill, decided. "But Jamie's right: It would be great at 2 a.m."
What was special came in the center of a fry trio plate ($10). The sweet-potato fries were mashed potato-tender in the center and crispy enough on the outside to crunch with a bite. They came with truffle fries and standard hand-cut numbers all well salted, well fried, and well presented in three containers that resembled cocktail shakers, displayed on a wooden tray. With the fries came a trio of ketchups: a traditional, a sweet pineapple number, and a chipotle that lacked the kick it promised.
By now, our debate over the trend had gone on to the name. "Why not just call it a gastropub?" Jill wondered. Putting the word burger — even as an acronym — in the name could turn off those not in the mood for a burger for dinner, she argued.
George, a commercial banker, offered a fine analysis of the business model. "If there are five of these, the better one will survive."
The burgers arrived next, and here was the true test. The burgers were two-handers with grapefruit-shaped buns — puffy and sweet brioche buns on some and slightly chewy and fresh sesame seed buns on others. A metal basket of fries came on the side. Each plate, with just the burger and fries and no pretty bull crap to fancy them up, looked like a testament to a burger. Put a photo of this on your kitchen wall.
We agreed to cut up our burgers into four parts. Jill had ordered the Australian ($12), which included the oddest toppings at the table: a marinated pineapple slice, beets, arugula, and a fried egg.
"The pineapple slice was great. It would've been good enough with just that," Jill concluded.
Jamie ordered the Mediterranean burger ($13.50), a patty made of beautifully gamey, grassy lamb. The tzatziki sauce on the side gave it a gyro-like flavor that, again, would be pretty perfect street food after the bars close.
George had ordered a short-rib grilled cheese ($10). There's always a fear ordering the nonburger from the burger place, but this was spectacular. The fat, buttery, toasted bread, the fontina cheese, the caramelized onions, and the tender short ribs melted together in a bite comforting enough to cure the common cold.
I had hit up Rok:Brgr for lunch the day before and had already tried its quintessential item — the Las Olas burger ($15). It came slathered in garlic mayo, aged Gruyère cheese, fat caramelized onions, and a patty of that wonderfully meaty Kobe. So tonight, I ordered the tuna burger ($14). It came with Asian slaw and a slightly spicy wasabi mayo that pulled it all together. A fine substitute for anyone not in a burger mood.
In between bites, we went back to our debate about burger joints. Not surprisingly, conversation turned to Le Tub, the waterfront eatery in Hollywood that's renowned for its massive burgers, Old Florida setting, and notoriously cranky service. It did make GQ's list of the best burgers in America, I offered up.
"There was one time I had a good experience there. Every other time, I left mad," said George. "How do they think they can treat you so terribly?" he wondered about Le Tub.
I had an answer for that. I told George about the first time I had gone there. The burger came out perfect, all charred on the outside from the charcoal grill yet pink in the middle. It was served simply, with just onions, lettuce, tomato, and a poppy seed bun. That beautifully charred patty will keep bringing me back to Le Tub, even when I'm faced with cockroaches approaching the tables and waitresses who point angrily at the Igloo cooler when anyone asks for water.
Here at Rok:Brgr, things couldn't have been more different. Chevy the bartender remembered me by name when I came back. The beers were cold. The fries were crispy. And the burgers? Yeah, Rok:Brgr is good enough to survive the trend.