Lackluster Burgers from 96th Street Steakburgers in Indianapolis

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[Photographs: Nick Solares]

96th Street Steakburgers

4715 East 96th Street, Indianapolis IN 46240; map); 317-844-6351; 96thstreetsteakburgers.com
Cooking Method: Smashed
Short Order: Combining themes from two of the nation's finest fast food chains, 96th Street has all the trapping to produce a great burger but suffers from poor management, and consequently poor execution
Price: Single, $2.59; double with cheese, $3.99

96th Street Steakburgers combines themes from two of the world's finest fast food chains: Steak 'N Shake and In-N-Out Burger. The burgers they serve are the smashed type—wafer thin patties mostly made of crust—as served by Steak 'N Shake. But they also adopted the West Coast topping model by offering "special sauce," otherwise known as Thousand Island dressing. Further, they even offer their burger cooked in mustard and onions, an obvious homage to In-N-Out's "animal style" burgers. 96th Street also fulfills the fresh, never frozen ethos embraced by the two chains.

Indeed, the ingredients of the two burgers I sampled were beyond reproach—the vegetables were vibrant and fresh, the bun spongy and plump, and the beef had a clean flavor. Unfortunately, despite all these advantages the burgers I tried were lackluster. Why? I blame bad management.

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If you've ever sat at the counter at a Steak 'N Shake you have doubtless witnessed the proactive roll played by the store manager. They seem to cover every base—rather than sitting aloofly in a back office they are invariably on the floor making sure that everything is running correctly. Thus griddle cooks don't dither over your order and burgers don't hang about at the pass. There is always a manager present.

That was not my experience at 96th Street Steakburgers. While the place was certainly clean and well maintained, I noticed only two employees working when I rolled in for a midafternoon burger in an empty restaurant. I placed a simple order—a plain single and a double with the works. An order that had I placed at Steak 'N Shake would have taken two or three minutes.

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Not so at 96th Street Steakburgers, where my food seemed to take 10 minutes to arrive although it actually only took a little under 4 minutes (NOTE: The preceding sentence was amended in light of comments below by the owner). And when it did, despite the outward appearance of everything looking just fine, the burgers were a let down. The plain single was totally arid—there was no hint of moisture in the patty—and consequently it was rather mealy. It had a decent enough beef flavor, but without any juiciness it was about as satisfying to eat as a scratch and sniff card.

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A loaded double with cheese was less arid—by virtue of the other toppings and gobs of "special" sauce—but the beef itself as equally displeasing. It seemed as if the burgers had been cooked for far too long and had then been allowed to rest.

There's a potentially great burger lurking at 96th Street Steakburgers. The combination of Midwestern smashed burgers and California-style toppings could produce a unique and pleasurable burger experience, but the execution on my visit left a lot to be desired. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If there had only been a manager there to oversee things this review could have been a rave.

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