(You can read more about the Burger 21 brand here. My original Tumblr post is here.)
If you’re from the US, or at least the part of the US where I live (the upstate, East Coast part), then you’ve probably seen them around. They’re often called “[Something] Burger.” They’re either modern or painstakingly retro inside, though that retro aesthetic usually won’t extend to technology like automatic menu screens or mounted flat-screen TVs. They may have a liquor license and full bar. Sometimes they use terms like “crafted” to describe food, even if it’s the same general type of food (albeit from ostensibly better ingredients) that you can also get for a dollar at McDonalds.
I think I’ll call them “Hipster Fast Food.” Actually, someone probably already has.
I just realized I might sound dismissive, and that’s partly my fault for choosing a word like “hipster,” and all the connotations that come with it. In this case, though, I don’t begrudge hipster fast food its hipster-ness. After all, this is capitalism – you survive by pandering, one way or another, and it’s ingenious to acknowledge Americans’ love of fast food, then temper it with a general suggestion of sustainability, mindfulness, and wholesomeness – all the guilt-free charm we wish the big dogs like McDonalds, Burger King, and even pre-revamp Wendy’s had. The idea is that we can eat better and do better by our communities and planet without giving up the food we love, and while that idea is probably fallacious in the extreme, it’s also tantalizing as hell.
Besides, for all my snobbery, I like fast food. Unironically. Even though, despite accounts like this, I don’t eat much of it. I like fast food. True, I’ve never cared for McDonalds, except their fish filets and fries (and even their fries have lost some luster, since they got allegedly revamped to be more “natural” and less sodium-filled), but I still remember my first Whopper with fondness. That was probably the first time I tried mayonnaise on a burger, and I’ve never regretted that decision. My favorite fast food chain is and probably will always be White Castle, a traditional part of any visit to my maternal grandparents in Chicago (unfortunately, my hometown has no White Castle franchises). Those sliders, with their peculiarly onion-y steamed lack of crisp (this is not a bad thing to me; depending on the food, I don’t necessarily care for crispiness as a texture), were heaven to me as a kid, and though it’s been awhile since I’ve had one, I think I’d probably still like them.
One thing you might have noticed from this list is that this is exclusively burger restaurants; no Taco Bell or KFC.
This is because I also like burgers. A lot. With cheese, specifically, as well as other optional add-ons.
I’ve learned to love other fast food, of course. McDonalds’ fish filets, as previously stated, as well as other forms of heavily-breaded fish that I can cover in enough ketchup and tartar sauce to make them bearable. Fried chicken, especially chicken tenders – again, the more breaded, the better (I am neither a chicken- nor a fish fan). And I do actually love Chipotle (after the South Park episode about Michael Jackson and Billy Mays’ deaths, my family started calling it “Chipotle-way” and never really stopped), although I think Chipotle itself probably falls into the hipster fast food category.
A good rule of thumb when deciding what is and isn’t hipster fast food is: is this restaurant encouraging me to think about what I’m putting into my body? Are they hyping the freshness and sourcing of the ingredients, or letting me watch them make the food? Are they trying for “authenticity”? If the answer is “yes,” then you’re probably dealing with hipster fast food.
And that’s not a bad thing. All the paragraphs leading up to this one are my roundabout way of saying that since I love burgers – beef and dairy together in general (I’m a terrible Jew), but especially burgers – I’m perfectly happy with the hipster fast food trend. Thanks to this trend, I can always find a burger around (although I realize as I write this that, since this is America, finding a burger will never really be a problem). Some people question why I’m always ordering the same meals from different places, but honestly, this is an example of why: because every place does it differently, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast. And with the hipster fast food trend, if you can afford the price of a jumped-up burger and fries, you can get a lot of comparing done.
My favorite hipster fast food has to be Five Guys. I’ve been told Five Guys is the East Coast version of In-N-Out Burger (I can’t say for sure since we never did go to one on our family vacation to California). What I know is the one in our town goes for a retro look, with red and white tiles, except for the optional machine that lets you mix your own shakes, and the random bags of unshelled peanuts that line the outside wall. These peanuts are free for customers to sample as they wait for their orders; little paper shells are provided to hold them. The burger patties are a bit thin, but allegedly unfrozen, and they taste good; tender, flavorful, and rarely burnt. Besides, to compensate for the patties’ thinness, Five Guys burgers come as doubles; you must specifically request a single patty to your burger, making it a “small” instead of a “regular.” The fries are thickly cut and well-seasoned, even if it’s with nothing more adventurous than salt and pepper. Five Guys deservedly has a great reputation as a burger place and (relatively) local chain, with food critic reviews framed and hung on the walls of our local franchise. It’s the standard, at this moment, to which I compare my hipster fast food experiences.
When I went to Burger 21 tonight, I was thinking of Five Guys automatically, and I was also thinking of my other recent hipster fast food experience at Smashburger. The latter was almost perfectly mediocre, with just the hint of interesting menu and reasonably well-cooked food that makes you think “maybe I should go back one more time and give it another try.” The patties were wide and tender, but thin, and my burger was soggy, the condiments it came with overwhelming it. The fries were fine, but thinly-sliced; apparently, a troublesome trend. It wasn’t the sort of experience that drives you off, it just makes very little impression either way.
Burger 21 was a similar experience. In fairness, I had just left my shift at 8:30 pm, and was also slightly grumpy because by deciding that we would eat our burgers at the restaurant, my mother and ride was Deviating from the Plan, so I may not have been at my most receptive. After a brief disagreement over whether we should enter at the main double doors, or the single door farther down the wall that opened up toward the bathrooms, we entered Burger 21 and immediately became confused about whether we should order at the counter that had the bar behind it (that was the one), or the counter lined with stools labeled “take-out pickup” (that was not it). A helpful employee corrected us, and we got in line, trying to figure out if the menus he had given us and the brief mention of “bringing the food out to [you]” meant we should order at the counter or wait for someone to come to us. Eventually, we ordered, then I changed my drink order, and then finally things were nailed down and I began to relax.
I was pleased to find the handwashing station, located outside the bathrooms, meaning I could wash the “office” off my hands without having to touch a potentially urine-covered door handle, or grapple with the perpetual “which restroom do I use (the dysphoria one or the one full of cis people who may beat me up)” question of anyone being trans in public. (Being assigned-female transmasculine, I should say. If I were transfeminine and assigned male, both restrooms would be full of cis people potentially ready to beat me up). If their plan really is to pander to The Millennials ™, I would advise Burger 21 to invest in gender neutral restrooms, or at least a third, family- and wheelchair-sized gender neutral one-staller. It shouldn’t be too hard to add some plumbing to a large closet so the rest of us can pee in safety.
Another thing about Burger 21 that I liked was the condiment bar. Where other places had a sidebar of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and sometimes relish, Burger 21 has a long bar of various sauces, located next to its utensils and drinks. I remember a Cajun sauce, and one based on Korean barbecue, as well as my personal favorite, chipotle mayonnaise. I only tried the chipotle mayonnaise on my burger and fries (we got the Half-and-Half fry order, which included both white and sweet potato fries, and I think it went slightly better with the sweet potato), but for me, one reason to go back to Burger 21 is pure curiosity whether the other more unusual condiments are any good. It may be a gimmick, but it’s the kind of gimmick that works on me. For the record, though, the chipotle mayonnaise was a little bland. However, at least this was preferable to other throat-scalding attempts I’ve witnessed to make “spicy food” for white people, where the “spice” came from too much pepper in the dish and nothing else.
If I were a trained chef or professional food critic, I could talk about the burger and fries themselves for pages, but I am not and so I can’t. However, I’m not sure I need to. The interesting twist to the burger was that it was a real beef patty that seemed hand-formed, like good bar food or maybe a burger from Applebee’s or some other higher class of sit-down restaurant chain. It was thick and juicy and didn’t seem to have been stamped out of a sheet of beef, the texture that the thinner Five Guys and White Castle patties do sometimes have. I ordered my burger medium, and although it was more charred and crispy than I prefer on the outside, I was pleased to see just a hint of pink on the inside. That said, the taste of the meat, and the burger overall, was just a little bland, not flavorful enough to make me forget the charred texture. I did think the Burger 21 touch of putting the tomatoes under the patty, rather than on top of it, was a smart idea, since burgers that have been lifted, bitten, or cut in half tend to lose their tomato slices easily, especially when the patty is thicker. On the topic of the burger’s fixings, though, I did think it needed pickles (the restaurant included lettuce and tomato, and sometimes onion depending on the order, but no automatic inclusion of pickles as far as we could tell, and we didn’t think to grab relish from the condiment bar).
The fries were very, very thin, much less than an inch across, and less than an inch thick. They reminded me in shape of the shredded lettuce on my burger, because they had a shredded look to them; they seemed too short and thin to be sliced by a human hand. This was a trend I also noticed at Smashburger, and my mother and I debated whether this was an attempt to make less potato look like more, or to make people believe they were eating less French fry per bite than they actually were. My mother also said the sweet potato fries looked thinner and less filled than the white potato fries, but I wasn’t so sure about this. In any case, the tiny fries made for messy and inconvenient dipping into condiments, so I hope this particular fast food trend dies soon.
Smashburger and Burger 21 are both poster children of the hipster fast food craze. The same modern look, the same half-ordering, half-being-waited-on system of food acquisition, and even the same thin-cut fries. Burger joints like this are as common as Chinese takeout restaurants and pizzerias in our neck of the woods, and they survive either through quality, or through uniqueness, if not both – whatever can inspire enough name recognition that customers 1. remember their brand, and 2. want more of it. Burger 21 was a pleasant experience, but if it wants to become the next Five Guys or In-N-Out, it probably needs to punch up its flavors, build its “sustainability” reputation, and maybe clean up its restaurant layout. Hipster fast food is a dime a dozen right now, and while I’m just fine with that, I don’t have a vested interest in seeing any of these places succeed. If I stayed that disinterested after becoming a customer, that may be a bad sign.