There are two main reasons to eat downtown at Burger City. First, the joint funnels its profits to ArtFare, a worthy nonprofit arts incubator that's managing to keep the buildings on the backside of Hydra humming.
Second, and foremost: Burger City serves excellent burgers.
They aren't especially large, maybe about a third of a pound before cooking. The toppings may at first seem strange. (Apples? Refried beans?) There's not much on the menu other than burgers. But I repeat: Those burgers are excellent.
Burger City sizzles on Sixth Avenue, right across from the Ronstadt Transit Center. A few tables are spread along the sidewalk, in case you're interested in watching the city buses do their square dance in the brick corral across the street. The interior is far more interesting: Corrugated steel lines one wall, with art for sale on the wall opposite. A paint-smeared wood-plank floor supports sturdy wooden tables that have been decorated by artsy graffitists, under ceiling fans that evoke 1930s airplane propellers. Perhaps because people on jury duty wander over from the courthouse for lunch, a criminal-code chart detailing sentencing options has been posted opposite the restrooms.
More relevant to the business at hand—eating—is another of Burger City's unusual features: a pickle bar. It offers not only what people usually think of as pickles (brined or vinegared cucumbers), but also pickled cauliflower, beets, peppers and radishes, all covering the gamut from sweet to tart. They're free with any burger order, but once you slop them onto the little plate that's provided, you'll have to eat them with your fingers. The staff provides nothing but knives unless you specifically ask for a fork.
Now, about those burgers: The menu lists a dozen variations on the grilled-meat-patty sandwich (a chicken breast may be substituted for the beef upon request); there's also a sandwich of grilled vegetables, and a chalkboard in the back announces that the place also now offers a vegan patty.
The burgers begin with good-quality beef, although there are no gourmet claims made, and ends with neutral-flavored but fresh buns provided by Viro's Bakery. Between meat and bread lies any number of things. All burgers cost $6.75, except for the build-your-own Naked City for $5 plus $1 per topping, and the $9.50 Sin City, which is two patties and lots and lots of melted Monterey jack, cheddar and American cheese. Here and in every other case, the patties are good and moist, even when cooked to medium doneness.
The Ring of Fire is tamer than I'd expected; it involves a single beer-battered onion ring, white cheddar and a house-made hot buffalo sauce. The sauce isn't all that hot by my standards, and the lone little onion ring seems pretty skimpy. As long as you don't want to feel the burn, it's still a decent thing to put into your mouth.
When I tried the MX Border City, I began to realize that Burger City isn't necessarily going after a flavor explosion; if subtle blends of flavor are possible on a hamburger, that seems to be the goal. MX Border City involves mild Southwestern seasonings, lettuce, tomato, queso fresco and a smear of refried beans—not enough beans to overwhelm the sandwich, but enough to give it an interesting texture and taste.
The Hanalei is one of those burgers whose description might frighten or repulse timid eaters, but it's actually worth taking a chance on. It's sort of a sweet-and-sour burger, including juicy meat topped with teriyaki sauce, candied bacon and pineapple jerky.
The grilled medley sandwich is no afterthought; it's a real winner, with lots of flavorful roasted red and yellow peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant and tomato, plus spinach and Gruyère.
Only a few items are offered on the side, for $2 each. If you don't buy a burger, that's what you have to pay for the pickle bar; the other options are hand-cut fries, sweet-potato fries and roasted corn on the cob with cilantro butter. The latter is superb—crisp and sweet, with the cilantro adding a little green kick to the butter. The potato fries are just right: crisp on the outside, tender on the inside and well-drained, but perhaps a bit too salty for some tastes. The sweet-potato fries are rather limp in comparison, but still tasty.
On a recent visit, the only disappointment came in the beverage department. Burger City was out of coffee, and what was billed as a fountain soda was as flat as if it had come from a two-liter bottle left open all day.
The place can be crowded at weekday lunchtime, but it's almost deserted at dinnertime and on the weekend. Two other restaurant endeavors have failed in this space in recent years; however, Burger City deserves to thrive, for its philanthropic nature and for its offbeat and always tasty fare.