Bethlehem, PA: Emeril's Burgers and More Will Leave You Wanting More

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[Photographs: Nick Solares]

BAM: Burgers and More by Emeril

77 Sands Boulevard, Bethlehem PA 18015; map); 877-SANDS77; pasands.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Burger looks good on paper and in person, but it lacks flavor, and more importantly soul.
Want Fries with That? Sure.
Price: $14, comes with one side.

There is no conversion of an edifice more indicative of the transformation of the American economy than that of the Bethlehem Steel building into a casino. Founded in 1857, Bethlehem Steel was once the virtual epicenter of steel manufacturing (only US Steel in nearby Pittsburgh was larger). For the next century it produced the steel that allowed skyscrapers to thrust further and further heavenwards, the hulls that floated the ships for America's navy and freight lines, and the armor that protected our veterans through two world wars.

But by the 1970s, the company's fortunes declined in concert with the decline of American manufacturing in general, unable to compete with cheaper foreign imports. The company staggered on until 2003, losing billions of dollars along the way before declaring bankruptcy. When the Sands casino company purchased the land with the intention of building a casino, they faced an ironic problem: They had trouble finding enough steel due to a global shortage.

But the casino was eventually built, and now stands as a testament to what American industry has become. Once we built ships and skyscrapers—now we produce bread and circuses.

Hamburgers have changed a lot as well. Back in the days of Bethlehem Steel's prosperity, hamburgers were produced by line cooks in diners and teenagers in dedicated burger shacks; these days they seem to be increasingly the purview of chefs, especially celebrity chefs. Finding a celebrity chef burger in a casino may be the logical conclusion to the decline of manufacturing and the ascension of an entertainment and service-based economy. Thus, it is not surprising that Emeril Lagasse opened BAM (Burgers and More) late last year in the newly minted Sands casino.

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I bet Lagasse was at BAM for a ribbon cutting ceremony when it opened, but he was nowhere to be found when I dined there. The somewhat predictable and not so clever name is based on Lagasse's tiresome catchphrase, "BAM!" which has been devalued by sheer overuse—it even found its way into a toothpaste commercial a while back. It used to connote the amping up of flavor, the act of adding something special to the mix. But is there any "BAM!" at BAM?

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Things look good on paper. The menu offers three beef blends—prime chuck, grass fed, and brisket—along with some composed burgers such as the Herbert (short rib blend, chili, and onions) and the Creole (grass fed beef, andouille sausage, and pepper jack), as well as the option to build your own. Burgers come standard with the rabbit food trinity of lettuce, tomato, and onion, and one side item, but I kept things simple when I ordered a brisket blend topped with raw onions and American cheese.

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Things look good when the burger arrives. The plump bun bulges with a buxom patty that glistens in the light, and the cheese looks positively liquefied. It's a hefty burger at eight ounces, and the bun does a good job of containing it. Biting into it is a juicy experience: The blend gushes torrents, and the bun—an eggy, yellow affair—does a good job of soaking most of it up. The bread is sort of a cross between a brioche and a potato roll—fortunately, it veers more towards the latter. Although the cheese is perfectly melted, an additional slice may be required—it has trouble asserting itself due to the thick patty and bun. The patty had a decent crust and the inside was delivered rare as ordered. The grind was on the chunky side, but the flesh was tender.

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Unfortunately, the patty, its admirable textural qualities aside, lacked flavor. It was missing more than salt: The beef was dull and lacking minerality. It seems to be as much a vehicle for other ingredients as much as the bun is supposed to be a vehicle for the beef. Loaded with toppings and larded with pork—Andouille sausage and pancetta live up to Lagasse's refrain of pork fat ruling—this burger might achieve a pleasing level of synergy. But a $14 burger using a custom prime beef blend should be able to go it alone; otherwise you may as well spend half the amount.

I found it curious that Lagasse was recently quoted as saying "We have to be a little bit price sensitive. That's why I don't have a restaurant in New York City." Not only can you get far cheaper burgers in New York City and elsewhere, but they have far more "bam" than the burgers at BAM.

But what do you expect? This is casino food, designed to do what the casino itself does: separate you from your money. BAM has all the trappings of a burger joint, but it ultimately leaves you feeling hollow. The burger doesn't only lack flavor; it lacks a soul.

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