Philadelphia: A Simple and Beautiful Burger at Race Street Café

AHT: Philadelphia

Burger reviews in the Philadelphia area.

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[Photograph: Nicholas Chen]

Race Street Café

208 Race Street, Philadelphia PA 19106 (map); 215-627-6181, racestreetcafe.net
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A beautifully simple 8-ounce burger that does just about everything right
Want Fries with That? The fries are there, but only because the garlic mayo is out of this world
Price: Race Street Burger, $9; add cheese, $.50

What do you do when you have friends that find it morally reprehensible to drink before noon? Find new friends—that's what you should do.

In the odd case that you don't want to go to that extreme, one compromise is to find a bar that serves fantastic food so while your companions are happily eating away you can stealthily mask your drinking habits to your heart's content. Like at Race Street Café.

Hidden away in the confines of Old City, Race Street Café is so much more than a café. It's a neighborhood brunch joint (which doubles as a bar at night) that takes its beers very seriously. It's the kind of place you go to for a coffee at 10 a.m. and a beer at 2 p.m., then leaves you wondering where the time went. It's the Sunday establishment where you forget about the crap that pervades through the workweek.

Their menu is mostly standard brunch fare—eggs served every which way you can think of—combined with an equally extensive list of American-style entrées, sandwiches, desserts, and seasonal specials. It's a menu that's extremely traditional and familiar, almost comforting. Those superlatives extend perfectly to their burger as well. "Fantastic" is probably an inadequate descriptor.

While the sandwich menu features an infinitely more seductive sounding burger named the Spanish Burger—complete with ground chorizo sausage and manchego cheese—don't be tempted by that harlot.

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The real winner on the menu is the Race Street Burger. It's old faithful, a half-pound burger topped with lettuce, onions, tomato, and your choice of cheese served on a kaiser roll. Is it anything you haven't had before? Not really, but it's a very well executed version.

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The patty, comprised of 8-ounces of black Angus beef, was marvelously flavorful, appropriately coarse in texture, and deceptively juicy. Sparsely seasoned with only a hint of salt, the flavor profile was nicely balanced, neither overwhelmingly beefy and boring nor laden with salt. Cooked to what I consider a perfect medium rare, the innards are a series of interconnected pores laden with juices, just awaiting compression before spilling out in their full glory. Combined with a rather deeply flavored cheddar and fresh produce, this burger is a heart-stopper.

At first, the kaiser roll bun with its crispy outer shell seems to be a questionable pair to the succulent innards, but due to the burger's juiciness, it ceases to be a problem halfway through the sandwich. Considering how well proportioned the final bites are, the bun choice seems to be by design rather than an afterthought.

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Admittedly their fries are pretty average. Although they're good enough to complement the burger, they feel insignificant next to the beauty that is the Race Street Burger. One thing that deserves extra mention is the garlic mayo that came with the fries. If condiments can be described as sensual, this definitely is. I completely neglected the ketchup and happily smeared the oily sauce everywhere with every bite. Like a madman possessed, I was entirely enthralled by this garlic-laced ecstasy. In summary, eat the fries. Drink the mayo.

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I don't know else there is to say about Race Street Café that the food doesn't already. The atmosphere is suitable for everyone, from the alcohol abstinent to the serious drinkers, and the food is phenomenal—especially that mayo. I swear there are drugs in there because I'm addicted.

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