David Makuen, a marketing executive with Eddie Bauer, loves hamburgers, but when he moved to Seattle from New York five years ago, he couldn't find any burgers he liked. "They were all about the toppings, trying to 'out-topping' each other, overpowering the meat."
He's talking about burger joints like Lunchbox Laboratory, The Counter, and Burger Madness as well as traditional stores like Red Mill and Zippy's. Tried them all, didn't find love.
But Makuen did have the good fortune, a couple of years ago, to cross paths with Robert "Chico" Joice, a cook who had trained on the East Coast and had worked in the kitchens of Tom Douglas's restaurants. Together they began developing recipes that would return the patty to a starring role at the center of the burger.
Beef, chicken, lamb, turkey, with the burger's seasonings going directly into the meat. Like the Pinnacle Bacon Bleu (bacon, caramelized onions, and Danish bleu cheese), The Magnificent Chorizo (Mexican chorizo, roasted poblano peppers, and cotija), and the Thrill BBQ Pork (barbecued pork, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers).
A year ago, with a USDA certified commissary in Ballard cranking out a dozen or so flavors, they launched their website, BuiltBurger.com, and started shipping frozen patties across the country. Expensive, but they developed a nice following. This summer, they found a hole in the wall half a block from the King County Courthouse and last month opened a brick & mortar lunch spot, the first of an eventual mini-chain.
Simple and straightforward quick-serve, order at the register, seven or eight bucks a burger, eat in or to-go. The buns come from Boulangerie Nantaise in Belltown, but everything else is made in-house, notably the potato beignets.
Now, you might think of beignets as French doughnuts. True. Cafe du Monde in New Orleans is famous for its sugar-dusted beignets and chicoree-laced coffee. At the county fair, they're called funnel cakes. In Lyon, they're called bugnes, filled with jam and deep fried. In the Midwest (and, on occasion, in West Seattle) they're known as paczki. In Austria they're often called krapfen, in Italy, zeppole.
But BuiltBurger does something else with the basic pâte à choux, the flour-and-egg yolk pastry that's the foundation for all doughnuts: They add boiled potatoes.
The result is a golf-ball size lump of potato that gets fried twice. It's fried first at 350 degrees, then drained, cooled, and held at the ready until an order (at $2.95) comes in. At that point the batch is immersed again for three minutes at 375 degrees, then tossed with kosher salt and black pepper, and served with a ramekin of dipping sauce (sriracha, curry ketchup or sweet chili aioli). They're not crunchy like a traditional French fry (and outsell them two to one), but break open to reveal a steaming center, smooth as silk and hot as Hades. Tater Tots do not deserve to live in the same universe.
Eating a BuiltBurger requires a bit of getting used to, because there's very little of that lettuce-pickle-tomato-mustard-mayo goo to assault your tastebuds before you get to the meat (which can then be dry or juicy, depending). There's a big hit of flavor, to be sure, but it comes from the meat.
And, for me, the breadiness of the perfectly good bun actually detracted from that experience. Were it up to me, I'd ditch the bun and eat the flavorful patties accompanied only by the beignets, a riff on the traditional Blue Plate Special of meat loaf and mashed potatoes. A bit of tomato flavor from one of the dips, a glass of wine, maybe a side order of cilantro-lime slaw, with that bacon-bleu patty and a few of those potato puffs — Boy, I'm in.
If you go: BuiltBurger, 217 James St., Seattle, 206-724-0599. Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday-Friday.