It begins before I even cut into my burger at Grease Burger Bar in West Palm Beach: A nervous swelling fills my stomach, the same mixture of fear and anxiousness I get every time I order a hamburger at a restaurant I've never been to before, knowing it's probably going to come out two shades darker than it should. It feels something like that scene in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen is freaking out in his hotel room while the Doors' "The End" plays in the background. Only I'm not going off to find Col. Kurtz. I simply want a burger cooked medium rare.
I move my knife through the toasty bun and into the burger, cutting it in half. It's barely pink inside, a far cry from the warm, red center I was after.
I'm a firm believer that cooking a piece of beef past medium should be a punishable offense. I also figure a joint that so unabashedly names itself Grease and specializes in nothing but burgers ought to put out the juiciest, most perfectly cooked, most true-to-form version of the dish around. And Grease has a ways to go before it can claim to have even a passable burger.
Since it opened it January, Grease has enjoyed a steady stream of clients looking to escape the economic downturn with the comforting embrace of cheap, fatty food. It's a concept that's worked as of late for the owner, Big Time Restaurant Group, whose Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar across Clematis Street buzzes like a juiced-up bug zapper.
On a recent Saturday night, the 6-month-old eatery bursts with families pounding burgers in unison, young couples on informal dates, and businessmen with Grease's cutesy, dish-towel napkins tucked into their starched collars. The restaurant space — which formerly belonged to the bar Nobles — is abnormally long, with a 50-foot-plus bar that marches down the entire length of one wall, past dozens of glossy high-tops and a spattering of flat-screen TVs. Along the brick wall opposite the bar are hundreds of photos of old-timey hamburger joints, nostalgic propaganda pieces decrying vegetarianism, and even a picture of President Obama gazing longingly into a beer. Another poster extols the salutatory qualities of the hamburger (one of the dish's lesser-known traits). I think to myself, I'm in good company after all.
We sit down at a high-top in the middle of the long room and take a look at the menu. Grease keeps things decidedly simple: There are a half-dozen salads, from standard caesar to one chock-full of veggies; some burger alternatives, including hot dogs and a chicken sandwich; and six or so specialty burgers, all of which are customizable by adding or subtracting toppings like sautéed onions, applewood-smoked bacon, and a standard selection of cheeses for about a dollar each. Fries and onion rings too are à la carte. When our server comes around, he's eager to answer our questions. I ask him for a medium-rare cheeseburger with mushrooms and Swiss ($8.95). My companions order onion-studded sliders on potato rolls done medium ($10.95); a medium-rare black and blue burger with gobs of blue cheese, bacon, and blackened seasoning ($9.95); and an organic burger with cheddar cheese done medium well ($11.95). On the side, we get a basket of "OMG" cheese fries ($3.75) and some house-made onions rings ($2.50).
While we wait, we take a stab at Grease's sizable list of craft beers, proudly displayed on a wall-spanning chalkboard along the back end of the restaurant. It's an impressive collection, with more than 50 entries from American breweries like Allagash, Dogfish Head, Stone, and Rogue, including a few from Native Brewery, the in-house label of Fort Lauderdale-based craft beer distributor Fresh Beer. Most bottles are reasonably priced: A bottle of smooth-drinking Brooklyn Lager sells for $5, while harder-to-find selections like Sprecher Brewing Co.'s Special Amber go for $6. For those who don't crave beer with their burger, there are just over two dozen bottles of wine to choose from — though many are supermarket labels such as Kendall Jackson, Beringer, or Fat Bastard. I choose Midas Touch ($7), a Turkish-style brew infused with honey, saffron, and muscat grapes. The golden brew is tangy and crisp with a wine-like fruitiness, and, at 9 percent alcohol by volume, it leaves a throaty hum in its wake. It's just one of the great selections in a beer list that's by far the best thing about the place.
When our burgers arrive, they look picture-perfect. The ten-ounce patties are made from grass-fed beef ground daily, loosely packed and griddle-cooked to a caramelized char. Each comes with quality lettuce, tomato, and onion and a few slices of dill pickles on the side. The cakey, yellow buns are served open face so you can see the nicely toasted interior, which crunches slightly when you bite into it. But the outside is wet with a layer of grease, making it somewhat messy to handle.
Sadly, the illusion of perfection dissipates from there. Grease's meat itself is seasoned well and tastes deep and earthy, with the slick mouth-feel demonstrative of a good fat-to-meat ratio. But my burger is way overcooked, with only a thin, eighth-inch strip of pink running down the middle. And oddly, the slice of Swiss cheese on top is not even melted, like it came straight from the fridge during plating. The same problem plagues our black and blue burger — it's also overdone, and the blue cheese is cold and mealy. And the only evidence of the blackened seasoning used on the burger is a slight peppery tingle. For a sandwich that combines such roaring flavors — strong cheese, hearty meat, bacon, pepper — it tastes like it has been dialed down to a dull moan.
Although the grass-fed beef had a rich, beefy flavor, the organic burger was completely arid and densely packed — like biting through a piece of day-old meat loaf. I could forgive the sliders for being drier than the regular-sized burgers but not for being exceptionally boring: There's nothing to them, other than doughy buns, which are too thick for such small patties. Both of the sides we got were just average: Grease serves some fairly unexceptional, shoestring-cut French fries, but the "OMG" cheese sauce livened up with flecks of fresh cheddar and scallions was creamy and intensely cheesy. The onion rings, on the other hand, were wispy and thin, with a flaky crust reminiscent of a bloomin' onion but far greasier.
I wanted to see if the cooks were more up to scratch during a busy lunch, so I returned on a Tuesday to find the joint packed with Clematis denizens on their midday breaks. My vegetarian girlfriend joined me this time; she got a Palm Beach Island "A List" burger with a house-made, vegan patty in place of the beef. It's topped with red and yellow tomato, fresh mozzarella, balsamic reduction, and pesto sauce, the whole thing nestled over a few tears of radicchio ($9.95). I ordered a Sergeant Pepper burger, which comes with sautéed onions, peppers, and pepperjack cheese ($9.95).
We were already committing a cardinal sin by ordering a veggie burger, so we opted to further the insult with a Greek salad ($10.50). I wish we hadn't. The tepid mixture was filled with slightly wilted romaine lettuce and doused with fairly bland lemon vinaigrette. The few strips of red onion, mushy kalamata olives, diced tomato, feta, and fleshy-white, unseasoned strips of cold chicken could not save it.
We'd barely suffered through a few bites of the stuff before our burgers arrived. I could tell right away that the Sergeant Pepper burger was hastily cooked: The sides of the patty were still purple, and the bun was less toasted than run under a salamander for the briefest of moments. Combined with the wet slurry of onions, peppers, and tomatoes, the undercooked burger devolved into a sloppy, mushy mess.
My girlfriend soldiered through her veggie burger — even it was underdone, squeezing out of the bun in a soppy paste when she bit into it. I don't know if they par-cook these things ahead of time, but the loose mixture of edamame, carrots, onion, and soy goop was more of an argument against vegetarianism than any nostalgic poster on the wall.
So what's up, Grease? As an avid burger lover, I can appreciate the unapologetic ode to saturated fats and meaty hunks of steer. But there's not a whole lot here to back that position. Consistency is a problem, yes, but it's not the only one: The burgers are $9 or more, and everything else, from the toppings to the fries, are extra. The toppings are yawn-inducing and the specialty burgers woefully uninspired — you can get applewood-smoked bacon, sautéed onions, or barbecue sauce on a burger just about anywhere, and the cheese selection couldn't hang with the stuff from your average deli case. The joint has an enviable selection of beers and a nifty layout and is packed daily, at least for now. But if all you're going to do is make burgers, the least you could do is inject some creativity into them. Sadly, Grease's burgers — and concept — are well-done. And not in a good way.