A Burger Beyond

Is Tucson ready for an upscale hamburger joint? Zinburger provides the answer: a resounding yes

A year ago this month, Sam Fox shut down his highly regarded Bistro Zin and announced that he was turning the location into a burger joint--yes, a burger joint--at River Road and Campbell Avenue, on the cusp of the foothills.

Speculation ran rampant about what, exactly, Fox had been smoking when he made that decision.

I later asked one of my friends in the restaurant business whether he thought Fox could succeed with what would become Zinburger, and he said yes, even if the concept seemed somewhat unusual for Tucson. "He has the magic touch," he said.

Zinburger opened in December, and after giving the place the requisite three months to work out the kinks, we decided to check it out. On a Sunday-night visit, Zinburger was about 80 percent full; on a Friday-night visit, we had a 15-minute wait for a table. The crowd--diverse in age, but skewing slightly younger--was buzzing with enjoyment as people munched on burgers and fries while sipping wine.

Fox Restaurant Concepts has pulled it off: Zinburger is a definite success.

The place is elegant but unpretentious. The bar--above which are TVs and a chalkboard listing specials--takes up part of the east side, where the kitchen and bathrooms also sit; the west side of the relatively small room is dominated by windows, covered by custom blinds that--along with the wall--feature a depiction of cows hanging out in a field with a stone fence. Upbeat music plays as young, enthusiastic servers buzz around, all wearing brown button-up shirts and white pants or skirts. Patio seating is available at the front or back, offering people the opportunity to dine as they watch frustrated motorists attempt to find a parking space in the hellish nightmare that is the Joesler Village parking lot. (Seriously: The people who designed and approved the Joesler Village parking lot should be punished, starting off with forced sterilization, lest they breed.)

While Zinburger has a great look and vibe, it does suffer from one serious design flaw: It's extremely loud inside, making it one of the noisiest restaurants in town. Consider yourself warned.

The menu is stunningly simple: It includes a handful of burgers (including a Kobe burger, $14; an ahi sandwich, $13; and a veggie burger, $9), three salads ($5-$13), four "sides"--fries ($4), zucchini fries ($5), double truffle fries ($5) and sweet potato chips ($3)--and, for dessert, a selection of shakes and floats (all $6), with banana cream pie thrown in for good measure ($5). And that's all, folks. You want an appetizer that's not a fry, a chip or a salad? Then you're out of luck, unless you sneak over to P.F. Chang's.

What food there is, however, is almost universally good, though the sides do suffer from a few missteps. The most thoroughly successful side was the sweet potato chips with the yogurt dipping sauce; the subtle sweetness, the coolness of the yogurt sauce and the warmth from the chips made it a top-to-bottom winner. The zucchini fries--coated with parmesan cheese and served with ranch dressing--tasted amazing, but were irreparably droopy and unworthy of being called "fries." And as for the truffle fries--prepared with truffle oil and served with truffle aioli--I have two words to describe them: 1) yum, as these fries are an earthy delight with a flavor that you'll remember for days, causing your mouth to water at the thought; and 2) ick, as the fries--at least the servings we received--were quite oily, which is forgivable, except for the fact that too many of the fries were short and stubby, as if we got the smaller pieces that remained toward the bottom of a basket. Where were the full-length fries?

While the one salad we tried (the small portion of the B.L.T. salad, $5) was fine--nothing was wrong with it, but it was nothing to write home about, either--the burgers had us mentally composing letters to Mom and Dad as we ate them. I had the pleasure of eating the Samburger (with maple bacon, American cheese and Thousand Island dressing, $10) and the turkey burger (with Swiss cheese, avocado and mayonnaise, $10); both were delicious and perfectly prepared, from the moist roll (made by Viro's Italian Bakery) through the condiments and into the expertly seasoned meats. Garrett felt similarly about the two burgers he enjoyed: the Kobe burger ($14, plus an extra $1 for the additional topping of a fried egg) and the special at the time, a burger with cheddar cheese, tobacco onions and barbecue sauce ($10).

All of the desserts we tried were enjoyable. The bars of Zin milkshake (with chocolate ice cream, praline flakes and melted chocolate) tasted merely like a really good chocolate milkshake, and the banana cream pie was above average. The best dessert was hands-down the date and honey shake; it was the most nuanced shake I have ever tasted, with the date and honey flavors distinct and delightful.

I've heard complaints about Zinburger's prices, and it's true that the bill can add up fast. A burger, fries, a shake and a moderate glass of wine will run you around $30 or more; add on tax and tip, and you're looking at a $90 bill for two. On the flip side, I can think of very few $90 meals for two in this town that are as satisfying. This isn't a Burger King meal; it's exponentially better.

Indeed, Sam Fox has the magic touch--and local foodies should be thankful for that.