Clubby beats contrast with an ocean breeze at BurgerFi, an open-air shop on Commercial Boulevard in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Though it's a fast-food joint, a more interesting menu and a welcoming vibe are marked improvements from McWendyKing, even with music that doesn't match the place.
For one, BurgerFi locations here and in Delray are beachy and cheerful. Communal tables in bright green and natural wood host a family of multicolored chairs. Naked bulbs offer warm light in rhythm from a planked ceiling. It's like a dining hall at summer camp but more stylish. And the digs are what will ensure the staying power of BurgerFi after the decline of burgermania.
"Can I help you?" the server asks my friend Harmony and me. The server is blond, cute, and wide-eyed. She's wearing a BurgerFi baseball hat and a button, not far off from a T.G.I. Friday's employee uniform.
Rather than ordering from the overhead list behind her, I ask for the secret menu I had heard about from friends. "The secret menu items are listed on our takeout menu," she says. "And we're all out of them."
"Aren't the secret menu items absurdly decadent?" I ask.
She begins her recitation. "We've got... the burger all the way, with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and special sauce. We have Texas fries, with chili and cheese. Urban fries come with Parmesan and garlic aioli."
There's more, but I'm done listening and want to order the most ridiculous item I can tolerate for the sheer entertainment value, saturated with toppings and condiments. "I'll get that last one," I say. "Urban" fries.
Click here for a Charm City Burger Company slideshow by Candace West.
Though I appreciate a patty with an egg on top every once in a while, I'm not a burger-and-fries person. And I'm growing bored by the fuss. In this era of burgermania, in which burger joints can't seem to open fast enough, restaurants have anticipated burger fatigue by offering circus meals: hamburgers oversized and overdressed, the equivalent of Bozo with a red honkin' nose and floppy shoes. Hell, if I can put a hot dog as a condiment on a burger tonight, I may just do it.
Perhaps I'm no longer intrigued by burgers because we're reaching maximum density of burger joints in South Florida — places that offer little patties double-stacked; or brawny, dripping hunks of meat with unending combinations of toppings, served on a baker's variety of buns. Fistfuls of fries play as sides, with dozens of condiments. For dessert, there's the shortlist of milk-shake selections. Oh, and beer.
Whether it's the number of restaurants to choose from or the combinations of toppings, it's exhausting to think about all these choices. When is enough enough?
Since 2010, scores of fast-casual and sit-down burger places have opened in South Florida, including Rok:Brgr, BurgerFi, Smashburger, and more than a dozen Five Guys outposts. These are in addition to what we've enjoyed for years, like Jack's Hamburgers and Le Tub.
Despite the glut, more burger joints are on the way. Shula Burger outposts are slated for Lauderdale, Kendall, and Delray this summer. From the legendary Dolphins coach who conceived Shula's on the Beach, it's a burger-and-beer concept that we've likely seen already.
Even locals like Dennis Max are opening places this fall featuring burgers, such as his standalone with Burt Rapoport called Burt & Max's. Chef Allen Susser has also rolled out his Burger Bar by Chef Allen, which features an indoor and outdoor bar as well as boozy milk shakes.
Yet signs point to a slowdown for the rise of the burger. Boca Burger closed after being open for four months. And the price of beef is expected to rise, says Brendan Flanagan of Grand Western Meats, a meat supplier that distributes to high-end restaurants and shops such as Smitty's Old Fashioned Butcher Shop. Cattle-ranching tapered at the peak of the recession, he says. And since it takes three years to raise a calf, we're seeing the effects now: Herd numbers are lower than they've been since the '50s. The result will be an increase in the price of beef, an estimated 12 percent this year and 7 percent next. So much for the cheap burger.
Back at BurgerFi, high school kids mull between tables or work the register. Families and couples hang around too, eating mounds of fat-cut onion rings or sipping bottled beer.
"Look! Grandmas!" My friend Harmony points to a couple of little coifed ladies shuffling away from the shop, wearing cute, retro floral housedresses. BurgerFi is housed in a mixed-use area of rentals and homes, businesses, and the beach. These ladies are out for their after-dinner walk and a milk shake.
I lift layers of fries smothered in mayonnaise. It's garlicky for sure. Though the fries are good — crispy, skin-on russets, fried twice — all this stuff on them is near obscene, like after-hours drunkenness in a dorm room, mixing together from 7-Eleven — although here it's with better ingredients.
Harmony's milk shake was exactly as it's named: a concrete, a near-solid dessert with all the Heath Bar and Oreos in the mix. "As much as I like it, my ass is getting fatter as I down this," she says.
While McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's get the hairy eyeball for not being health-conscious, these little burger joints are given a pass. They're perhaps as unhealthy as traditional fast-food joints. A Smashburger All-American cheeseburger "big smash" is an eight-ounce Angus patty dolled up with condiments that clocks in at 768 calories. A McDonald's double Quarter Pounder features seven ounces of burger from who-knows-where, layered American cheese, pickles, ketchup, mustard, and onions for 740 calories. It eases my conscience that places like Smashburger and BurgerFi use higher-quality ingredients, but the burgers are no less artery-clogging.
It's also the lack of healthy options that will hurt these places as the trend fades. BurgerFi, however, is not likely to feel the pinch as much as others. Not just because the décor is a draw but because the chain can afford to park itself in the right places.
For fast-casual, though, BurgerFi's not cheap: A beer, a burger, fries, and a shake is $26.
Up the road at Charm City in Deerfield, my friend Tricia gets a veggie burger and a salted caramel milk shake. I settle for the good ole cheeseburger and a beer — all for 20 bucks. Here, we get to drink at a bar, like adults.
"This is pretty good for a veggie burger," Tricia says of her double stack that's coated in what looks like bird seed and tastes slightly sweet and nutty, layered with the usual accouterments of a traditional burger.
I enjoy mine, made with fresh-ground meat from local distributor K&G Brothers. The double patties are layered with American cheese, tomato, lettuce, and red onion. Though it's not drippy with juice as I like it, the burger is "under" — a little red — and delicious. Did I mention this burger is only $5.25?
Click here for a behind-the-scenes BurgerFi slideshow by Christina Mendenhall.
And about that patty from BurgerFi? It's a gaping double with cheese, a finger-painting slurry of sauces, pickles, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce. Though the burger itself is dry and the bun is too charred, this assemblage cures a craving. I'm entertained by the absurdity of my burger. Despite that I like BurgerFi and many of the new burger joints that dot the South Florida landscape, it'll be awhile before I'll go back.
"You had enough?" asks Harmony as we rise to leave. For now, haven't we all?