One is a bar, the other is a burger shack. Both make decidedly upscale burgers with value in mind. Certified Angus beef, fresh-cut fries – magic words for burger and fries lovers. They sucked me in, and I left impressed. Dirty Oscar’s Annex on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue and the Gourmet Burger Shop in Gig Harbor both opened in recent months. Both should be on your burger radar.
DIRTY OSCAR’S ANNEX
Call it a bar, a hipster hangout, a live music venue, whatever. Dirty Oscar’s Annex grills great burgers.
The toque behind the burgers is Kyle Wnuk, who is opening a new restaurant with Jaime Kay and Jason Jones, owners of popular lounge Top of Tacoma (on McKinley Hill and home to well-crafted cocktails and elevated bar eats). Their new restaurant, Marrow, will be on Sixth Avenue in the space formerly occupied by Beyond the Bridge Café and Il Fiasco before that. Look for a late July opening for Marrow and read this column next week for more details.
Dirty Oscar’s Annex is in the space formerly occupied by Sax. While the concept of Sax – a live music and piano bar venue – is toast, Dirty Oscar’s Annex carries on with live music. Wnuk retooled the menu in January. The later the night gets, the younger the crowd becomes. If you’re not exactly in tune with that, you should check out the menu sometime around dinner, but leave the kids at home. This bar is for ages 21 and older only.
The environs might not be much – low-budget paneling and a scattering of comfortable but non-descript high-top seating – but the menu is interesting for the price point. This is gastro pub-style eating at lowbrow bar prices of $8-$10. The menu is full of foodie twists like fried soft-shell blue crab on a baguette ($9), air-cured beef bresaola ($6), pulled elk sliders ($8) and weekend breakfasts with braised elk hash ($11). Burgers make up most of the menu – three made with certified Angus beef, two made with chicken. I sampled three of the beef burgers, plus the outstanding elk sliders ($8) during two anonymous visits.
The Dirty burger ($10) is the house signature and is built like the other beef burgers on a sturdy but soft, glossy-top, pretzel-shaped bun (made by a company in Texas). The Dirty is spread liberally with house-made tomato jam that Wnuk makes by cooking down Roma tomatoes with fresh ginger, cinnamon and cumin. The earthy-sweet jam teased the sweet notes of honey-cured, hickory-smoked bacon and grilled onions. A half-pound of Angus beef provided plenty of moisture to make this an ultra-messy burger.
You can smell the Greek ($10) before it hits your table, thanks to a waft of the garlic-punched sun-dried tomato hummus made in house by Wnuk and crew. Like the Dirty burger, the Greek was a study in textural contrasts – bite through the sharp and creamy feta and soft hummus, then you’ll hit the crispy onion straws before sinking into the thick-cut chewy bacon and hand-formed Angus patty.
The blue cheese mushroom burger ($10) tasted mellow from understated blue cheese flavor, but big on sautéed mushrooms.
All burgers come with a choice of regular Russet or sweet potato fries, or a mix of the two. Opt for the mix and you’ll be rewarded with hand-cut fries that have been poached in oil, then deep-fried until crispy around the edges. Eat them fast to take advantage of their brief crispy shelf life.
GOURMET BURGER SHOP
It’s a loooooong drive from Tacoma to the Gourmet Burger Shop on the Key Peninsula. When you get there, don’t expect a full-service restaurant. This is a tiny joint of the hole-in-the-wall variety. A few tables offer seating for fewer than a dozen guests, but when the weather warms – as it did for one of my two anonymous visits in April and May – the seating more than doubles with covered picnic benches outside.
It’s clear the bustling restaurant could double its size and still have a line out the door. But in that location, the limited septic tank capacity prohibits chef/owner Travis Hightower from growing the business. Hightower is the most surprised that the restaurant that opened in late February resonated with Key Peninsula diners. He counted on serving 50 burgers a day, but multiply that by four to get a more accurate number.
Hightower is an alumni of golf course kitchens – high-end and private establishments where he served hundreds of finicky diners every day. He’s a man who knows his way around flavor and that shows in his food.
His burgers were built on shiny buns sprinkled with black sesame seeds, made fresh daily by the 3 Clouds Bakery across the street. The buns were puffy and soft, but sturdy enough to contain the 6-ounce grilled Angus patty with burger juice that made each meal a big, fat mess.
All burgers are $8.50 and come with a choice of thinly sliced crispy beet chips – deep ruby red and full of sweet crunch – or shoestring fries – ethereally light and crunchy wisps of potatoes fried with fresh sprigs of rosemary and whole cloves of garlic that reminded me of those served at Tacoma’s Pacific Grill, minus the fried sage leaves.
The house special is the bacon cheddar, made with aged Tillamook white cheddar cheese and thick-cut smoked bacon. A tangy Russian dressing added a touch of sweet, along with grilled onions. Crunch came in the form of tomatoes and lettuce.
The pastrami burger is full of meaty yum – slices of real pastrami made from brisket paired with nutty Swiss and a crisp-cool helping of cole slaw.
The gorgonzola avocado burger married a heavy helping of avocados and a pungent dose of gorgonzola against a thick tangle of wild greens. The braised onion burger was punched with flavor from the Pabst Blue Ribbon-braised onions and delivered a nasally sting of heat from a heavy helping of horseradish havarti cheese.
Sue Kidd: 253-597-8270, firstname.lastname@example.org