Thursday, June 23, 2011

BGR The Burger Joint - Coral Gables

Some people ask me why there aren't more negative reviews here at Food For Thought. Or, to put it another way, they give me grief because I like most of the places I write about. I think most of my commentary is balanced: I'm not a cheerleader, and even most positive write-ups will offer some criticism too. But it's true that I don't often outright pan restaurants here, even though those kind of rants can be the most fun to write (and read).

Why is that? There are a few reasons. First, I see it as my primary mission to help people find good things to eat. The easiest way to do that is to write about good restaurants. Yes, I could also write about bad restaurants and warn people away from them, but that kind of process of elimination seems rather inefficient.

Equally, if not more important: I like to eat good things. I really hate having a lousy meal. And as a rather dedicated eater, one of the things I've learned to do pretty well is to figure out how to avoid them. Here, there definitely is a process of elimination at work. If I look at a menu online, I can pretty quickly tell if there's nothing that's going to interest me (for instance, yet another generic Italian menu or another uninspired steakhouse will not be a draw). Another tell: if a restaurant just opened their first location and are already trying to market franchise opportunities on their website, that's a good sign that they're more about business than food.

So I've gotten pretty good at "advance scouting," and while some restaurants may not live up to expectations, I'm generally pretty successful at avoiding outright bad meals (unless, as inevitably happens sometimes, I don't get to choose the place).

And finally, I am not a professional critic. Nobody's paying me to do this. I won't typically write up a restaurant unless I've visited multiple times, and if I've had a bad experience, there's usually not much reason for me to go back and repeat it.

All of which is a very long preface for this: I did not like "BGR The Burger Joint."

(continued ...)

Miami has seen multiple waves of gourmet and semi-gourmet burger joint openings over the past couple years, the chronology and etiology of which may be the subject of another post. Suffice to say for present purposes that we seem to be in the midst of another wave, with maybe a half dozen or more burger-focused restaurants opening or in the pipeline the past several months.

BGR comes to Miami by way of Washington DC, with eight locations in the DC/MD/VA area already opened, and a couple more in Alabama and South Carolina. For their initial foray into South Florida, they took over the recently closed Fatburger location on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Is it not some kind of sign that a fast-casual burger chain in that very location already closed after about a year?

They didn't do much with the space, which already had been built out with the customary fast-food layout: aisle along one wall leading to the counter to place your order, tables and booths alongside, open kitchen behind the counter in back. The revamped "decoration" consists primarily of enlarged 1980's album covers on the walls, for those who enjoy Phil Collins' gigantic mug gazing at them while they dine. The soundtrack follows suit. In case you were wondering if A-Ha's "Take on Me" has gotten better with time - no.

The menu, unsurprisingly, consists primarily of burgers, but in a nod to omnivorism, takes an expansive approach. The basic burger offering is described as "a blend of prime, dry-aged, all natural, hormone free, grain-fed beef," served on a toasted brioche bun, with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles and "mojo sauce."[1] But they offer several variations on the theme: there's the "Cuban," topped with roasted pork, ham, pickles, dijon mustard and swiss cheese; the "Wellington," with roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions, garlic, mustard and blue cheese; and the "Southwestern," with chiles, pepper jack cheese and black bean salsa. There's also a turkey burger, ahi tuna burger, veggie burger, the "Greek" with ground leg of lamb, even a lobster roll. For Mr. Creosote and his ilk, there's the "9 Pounder," free for anyone who consumes it one sitting (bottle of Maalox included).

My initial foray into BGR-ville was the "Cuban." Before getting to the toppings, let's focus on the burger itself. On the plus side, it's cooked to order and to requested degree of doneness - and my requested medium was in fact delivered. But texturally, this burger was unusually dense and monolithic, despite being cooked only to medium temperature. It felt like a solid block of meat, more meatloaf than burger, with no tenderness to it.[2] And while I liked the idea of a Cuban burger, the toppings turned the thing into a salt lick. I usually have a pretty high threshold for aggressive seasoning, but between the salty pork, the salty ham, and the salty cheese, I was in the market for hypertension medication before I finished it. A light, fluffy brioche bun was rendered irrelevant by being pressed, Cuban sandwich style. The fries I had alongside were unmemorable.

I made a return trip to explore some of the rest of the menu. If you're asking "Why?" then you're beginning to understand the reason you don't see many negative reviews here. To answer: I was curious if some of their other options were better. It's very close to my office. I wanted to give them a second chance.

According to BGR's menu, the lobster roll was pronounced "The Best Lobster Roll in Washington" by Washingtonian magazine.[3] So that's what I tried. Let's start with the fact that it's not actually a roll, but rather three Martin's style slider buns, still attached at the edges. Then they lay big lettuce leaves (nicely fresh and crisp, I will note) across the entire gauntlet of rolls, which then get covered with a fairly generous amount of picked claw and knuckle meat, not dressed with any mayo or other additions.[4] It is basically impossible to eat in any sensible fashion. The small buns don't hold together, so you can't pick it up and eat it as one sandwich. Yet there's gigantic lettuce leaves laid across the whole package, so you can't eat it as three separate sliders without doing fairly substantial surgery on the thing.

After reassembly into a consumable package, how did it taste? Now a traditionalist, starkly naked lobster roll is fine; particularly if the lobster is impeccably fresh, there's a perfectly valid school of thought that you don't want anything else messing with it. But BGR's lobster, while not actively bad, is not exactly straight off the docks on the coast of Maine either. That's to be expected, I suppose. But then, to make matters much worse, they squirt the sandwich with their "special dressing" - some infernal, sticky-sweet honey-mustard concoction which has no business being anywhere near a lobster roll. It was noxious.

But the lobster roll wasn't the worst thing I ate. That honor would go to the "Green Standard" side order of grilled asparagus spears, a healthy option to the typical fried side dishes. I like grilled asparagus, and it's hard to imagine how you could screw them up too badly. But these were inedibly woody and fibrous at the stalk end, and inedibly blackened and charred on the spear end. Maybe somewhere in the middle there was something edible, but it wasn't easy to find. A sprinkling of dusty parmesan cheese didn't provide any redemption. These tasted like punishment for some mortal sin commited against vegetables.

In the interest of fairness, I gave BGR one more shot. This time I tried the turkey burger. Advertised as "impossibly flavorful," it is cooked sous vide "low and slow," not a bad idea in itself. There's some portobello mushroom and blue cheese in the mix to provide extra moisture. But it suffered from the same hockey-puck like density as the hamburger, to an even greater degree, a solid mass of meat broken up only (and unfortunately) by a hard bit of gristle. "Grilled" onions had barely softened, much less achieved any caramelization on the grill. The lettuce, while undeniably perky and fresh, was nearly twice the size as the rest of the sandwich, making for some tricky eating. And the brioche bun (the same one that was crushed in the "Cuban") was - wet? Why? And with the receipt stuck on top, fixed by a skewer? For variety I tried the sweet potato fries, which were better than the grilled asparagus (not to set the bar too high), and not as flaccid as most, perhaps from double-frying.

Maybe the food at BGR can be better than what I experienced. But even if that's the case, I'm not sure I understand where it fits into the market, particularly in Coral Gables. The space itself has no real atmosphere, unless you're an aficionado of bland 80's rock and roll. The service style and layout offer the utilitarian feel of a fast-food joint but without the convenience (you'll order at the counter, but you'll still wait 5-10 minutes for your order to be prepared, and then get it served to you on a paper-lined metal tray). And it's still not exactly cheap: a cheeseburger and an order of fries will set you back $11.

For a few bucks more, I can walk across the street to Houston's - sorry, "Hillstone" - and get a damn good burger,[5] served to me at a real table by someone who will come and take my order, serve it on a real plate, eat it with a real napkin in my lap, and not have to clean up after myself when I'm done. Or walk a couple more blocks to The Local and get a great burger with Florida grass-fed beef, Benton's ham and cheddar cheese that comes with a side of fries for $14. Or for a few bucks less than BGR, I can walk a couple more blocks to OneBurger and get something at least as good, with a menu that's equally broad.

All these new burger joints in Miami can't possibly survive. If BGR is going to be one of the survivors, it's going to have to do better.

BGR The Burger Joint
232 Miracle Mile
Coral Gables, FL

BGR The Burger Joint on Urbanspoon

[1]"Mojo" pronounced Austin Powers style, not Cuban style.

[2]How about a little General Public to match the 80's music-themed decor? Or something a bit more current, say Girl Talk?

[3]I can find no evidence to support that claim. The closest is this piece bestowing the lobster roll the title of "Best creative sliders." Given the number of categories just in this one piece, I suspect these awards are much like New Times' "Best Of Miami" awards or second grade graduation ceremonies, where they manage to come up with some award for everyone.

[4]Where'd the tails go? Presumably BGR isn't processing their own lobsters but ordering pre-picked, pre-packaged meat.

[5]I am not entirely chain-averse. Houston's/Hillstone makes a great burger. There, I said it.


  1. Nice post. Pretty funny as I was just talking (texting) today with someone about how I'd like to do a post on all the shitty burgers in Miami. Your post now is making me think of yet another post idea, one I really need to develop more. Regardless, "pickled" lobster? WTF is that besides a great shame? Funny that the new 5 Napkin Burger on SoBe put out an equally shitty excuse for a lobster "slider" where the top bun was warm and the bottom was ice cold. Also used lettuce that overpowered the whole damn thing. Sounds eerily similar to the lobster "roll" you described here.

  2. That was "picked" not "pickled." Sounds to me like maybe burger joints shouldn't try to do lobster rolls.

  3. I mentioned this before on your blog but I need to mention it again; you are such an AMAZING writer (seriously). I wish I could write this way. When I read your posts is like having the juiciest burger ever =) I can not put it down.
    So true many things you mention on this post...
    Grace Della

  4. Guess I read that wrong. The only lobster roll worth eating in South Florida is Linda Bean's up in Delray.

  5. I wish I had read your blog before going ... I just got back and had the worst burger I ever had in Miami over the past 35 years. The fries were disgusting and the onion rings had way too much grease.

  6. Ordering a lobster roll at a place called BGR just seems like a bad idea generally.

  7. The people were polite, but the food horrible, from the fries to the hamburgers, the worst veggie ever, the fries burnt,they make you miss Mcdonalds

  8. BGR must be way better in Virginia and D.C. Their burgers here are flavorful and juicy, and the fries and rings aren't greasy. I guess the concept just doesn't translate to Miami. At the very least BGR probably should have left the "Cuban" burger off their Miami menu. What were they thinking?

    - A burger fan from Arlington, Virginia