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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Bucu Burger Bar and Bakery

65 Rt 4 West (inside 35 Plaza), Paramus NJ 07652 (map); 347-470-2828; eatbucu.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Great fast food-style burgers, sides, cupcakes, and shakes under one roof
Want Fries with That? Yes; the sweet potato fries and kettle chips are great
Price: Bucu Burger, $4.99; Classic cheeseburger, $4.29; hand cut fries, $2.79; sweet potato fries, $2.99; salt and pepper kettle chips, $2.49; cupcake, $2.49

Update (12/13/13): This restaurant is now closed.

Bucu Burger Bar and Bakery is in a strip mall off Route 4 that I had probably driven past over a thousand times while growing up in Northern New Jersey, but never went into—because it didn't have any enticing food. But a major renovation of the mall in 2005 made way for new businesses, one that includes the fast casual burger-and-cupcake joint Bucu (burger + cupcake), opened in January by Rick Ross.

Aside from burgers and cupcakes, Bucu also features a modest menu of wings, sandwiches, hot dogs, salads, frozen yogurt, and cookies, along with a kid's menu. Of course, burgers are the star; when I first visited their website a few months ago, I was reeled in by a photo of a pristine fast food-style, Shake Shack-esque burger* (it looks like the photo has been rolled off the homepage for now; you can see it in this Dear AHT post). Not that that's a bad thing. I love Shake Shack, and if someone is bringing that type of burger to Bergen County, I'm all for it.

* I know Shake Shack didn't invent burgers with lettuce, tomato, and cheese on potato rolls, but it's my point of burger reference.

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Their burgers feature four-ounce Pat LaFrieda patties made from an 80/20, secret three-cut beef blend, seasoned simply with salt and pepper. Their namesake Bucu Burger comes with lettuce, tomato, thinly sliced onion, pickles, Thousand Island-esque Bucu burger sauce, and cheddar and Swiss cheeses. (Note: I didn't notice until now that my burger either came sans tomato or I left it off.)

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They cook burgers medium well by default, but you can request your doneness, as I did when I asked for medium rare. The result: medium rare! Good sign, although as I ate it I realized that I never order medium rare at Shake Shack because this kind of burger doesn't need to be medium rare to taste good; the patty ended up being a bit mushier than I would've preferred. My bad.

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I'd say the most awkward thing about the burger was the too-large lettuce leaf that hung out when I closed the hinged toasted and buttered Martin's potato roll. It was a crisp, fresh leaf, just...huge. The patty could've used more salt, but it otherwise had a good beefy flavor. As much as I like cheese with my beef, in this case two slices of cheese felt like one too many—a single slice would've been fine. The sauce could've been taken down a notch, too; it went well with the burger, but it dripped messily out the back.

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Overall, I thought the burger was good, but suffered from having too many toppings on it. No problem; on my second visit to Bucu in July I went super minimal with a cheeseburger: beef, cheese, and nothing else. I let them take it to medium well this time—better than medium rare, but next time I'd ask for medium.

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The lack of moisture was helped by the cheese oozing all over the patty and, due to the beef's coarse grind, into the patty's meaty crevices, with some cheese poking through to the other side.

Considering that for just 50¢ more you can get three toppings and a sauce on top of your cheeseburger, getting a plain cheeseburger for $4.29 doesn't seem that cost-effective. Next time I go to Bucu I'll go for the "Design-A-Burger" option, which give you the choice between three buns, six cheese, eight standard toppings (you choose three), a few premium toppings for an extra charge, and 12 sauces.

For those who want their burgers pre-composed with more intense toppings, their burger menu includes the Jersey Burger, topped with applewood smoked bacon, blue and cheddar cheese, and grilled onions; the SB 48 Burger topped with fries and chili; and the "Pig Out" Burger topped with pulled pork, jalapeño jack cheese, and horseradish cole slaw. There's also a veggie burger for the non-meat eaters. Any burger can be made with two patties (or more if you really want; Ross says the most he's seen someone eat is a triple), although I think one patty makes for the best meat-to-bun ratio—and it gives you more stomach room for sides and desserts.

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And you should at least get a side. The salted, skin-on hand cut fries had a thin, crisp crust—not super crunchy, but not limp either. They're worth getting if you want fries. Even better may be the lightly crisp waffle-cut sweet potato fries—with more surface area than the regular fries, they also provide more crisp tuber action.

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But for really crisp potatoes, go for their homemade, super thick and crunchy kettle chips. Regular bagged potato chips never get that good. I wish more burger joints would offer homemade potato chips.

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If you want a cupcake (although you'll probably be full after the burger and fries), they've got lots to choose from, with a rotating menu of about 30 flavors baked in-house from original recipes by Ross's wife, Cathy. They offer about eight cupcake flavors and four cookie flavors (also baked in-house) each day. My cookies and cream cupcake had a moist, light-enough cake topped with fluffy frosting that wasn't overly sweet. I was too full to finish the whole thing, but it conveniently came in a plastic take-away container to prevent smushing.

20110809-bucu-milkshake.jpgMy vanilla milkshake made with Queens-based Max and Mina's ice cream was very good; thick, but not too thick, worth getting if you want a milkshake. They also use the ice cream in their ice cream sandwiches, which you can customize with any two of Bucu's cookies.

Not far from Bucu are other "better burger" chains Bobby's Burger Palace and Smashburger. I like both of them, but since Bucu's burger is my favorite style and I love kettle chips, I'd choose it over the others. Another advantage: I found out from Off the Broiler that they make cupcake milkshakes. For $5.99 you can combine any cupcake and ice cream flavor to your liking (chocolate cupcake with chocolate ice cream, pumpkin cinnamon cupcake with vanilla ice cream, etc!). With fond two-year-old memories of Squareburger's Cake Shake still in my mind, I could definitely go for another cup of blended cake and ice cream.

About the author: Robyn Lee is the editor of A Hamburger Today and takes many of the photos for Serious Eats. She also doodles cute stuff when necessary. Read more from Robyn at her personal food blog, The Girl Who Ate Everything.

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