Ann Arbor, MI: Great Burgers and Even Better Patty Melts at Zingerman's Roadhouse
2501 Jackson Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48103 (map) and one other location; 334-663-3663; zingermansroadhouse.com
Cooking Method: Grilled (burger) and griddled (patty melt)
Short Order: The Roadhouse might be the pinnacle of the Zingerman's empire and the burgers are part of the greatness
Want Fries With That? If you can, try both the regular and the sweet potato fries
Price: Burger w/fries, $12.95; patty melt, $14
Notes: Patty melt only on the lunch menu
When Zingerman's Deli opened its doors in 1982, it was a bit of a gustatory pioneer in a world where seeking out delicious food was not remotely close to the national pastime it's become. These days, it takes a place the size of Eataly to turn heads, but 30 years ago, the list of shop owners who spent time traveling the world to find great food was remarkably short. That's not to say that Zingerman's is a relic or even remotely behind the times today. The ownership is as committed as ever to spreading deliciousness across Ann Arbor, Michigan, and—via its mail-order business—all over the country.
The people behind Zingerman's have refused offers to franchise or set up shop in other cities, but that doesn't mean they haven't grown. Over the years, the Zingerman's empire has grown to include several additional businesses, including a bakehouse, a creamery, a candy company, and, most importantly for burger purposes, a restaurant called Zingerman's Roadhouse.
The Roadhouse, which opened in 2003, sells itself short with its motto, "Really Good American Food." See, while the menu has a Cheesecake Factory-esque variety of choices, from the sourcing of the ingredients to the execution in the kitchen, it mirrors the commitment to quality that has been a hallmark of the Deli for three decades. With Managing Partner/James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Young (Best Chef Great Lakes, 2011) focused on Cornman Farms (yet another part of the Zingerman's empire), the kitchen is now in the able hands of chef Kieron Hales.
Oddly enough, the burgers at the Roadhouse are still a work in progress. For years, they had their choice of beef from Niman Ranch, but when Cornman Farms started raising cattle (sustainably, of course), the restaurant had a new beef source at their disposal. Given economic reality and the socially responsible ethos of Zingerman's, that meant the days of unlimited chuck were a thing of the past. Today, the beef mix changes based on what's available—though it's primarily a blend of leg and shoulder—but Hales and his team are working on coming up with a mix that they can use consistently.
That I can't be certain about what specific cuts went in my burger is immaterial. What matters is that the grass-fed beef, ground daily in the restaurant and put together in a not-too-dense patty, is one very good hunk of beef. The grilled burger came a shade more cooked than the medium rare requested but had a great crust around a warm pink center. Although I would have liked a little more fat, if this is the blend the kitchen settles on, you won't hear any complaints from me.
Burger eaters have the option of adding one of an ever-changing short list of American-made cheese. I opted for a seven-year Hook's cheddar for the princely sum of $3.50 an ounce. This was the most I've ever paid for cheese on a burger, but this beautifully melted layer of dairy was one pristine example of cheddar. A second add-on was the bacon from Nueske's, which upped the price another $2.50. Nueske's makes an awesome product, but I often find it to be a bit much for a burger. That was not the case here, where the thick patty and flavorful cheese kept the salty and smoky bacon in check. The final pieces, pickles from Ann Arbor's The Brinery and the soft onion roll from Zingerman's Bakehouse, were more than worthy of the burger.
As good as the burger was, the gut-busting patty melt was better. The beef itself is identical to the regular burger's, which is only notable because, well, who's ever heard of a patty melt with a half-pound patty? It works wonderfully here because the kitchen compensates for the large patty by upping the ante with every other part of the sandwich.
The thick slices of rye bread, which naturally comes from Zingerman's Bakehouse, is simply the best I've ever had the pleasure of eating. It's loaded with flavor, has a particularly thick and chewy crust around a soft interior, and will make virtually any sandwich ever invented taste better. The mountain of grilled onions and wild mushrooms add a sweet and juicy umami bomb to the patty melt, and the baby Swiss from Deppeler Cheese Factory in Monroe, Wisconsin, brings a nice coating of creaminess.
I ordered this one rare and the kitchen delivered. Not only was it a bit juicier than the medium/medium rare burger, but the reduced time on the griddle allowed for me to really appreciate how coarse the grind was. The beef had a nice chewiness that almost made it come across as hand-chopped. Oh, remember the lack of fat I mentioned in the burger? Thanks to a truly impressive amount of butter, that was not remotely an issue with this wonderfully overpowering beast of a sandwich.
The Roadhouse gets a lot of meat and produce from Cornman Farm, but for potatoes they have to look elsewhere. The sweet potatoes, available for a $1 upcharge, are from the wonderfully named Frog Holler Organic Farm. These extremely thick roasted potatoes were more than solid, but there's no sense in eating that much starch when the rest of the menu is so good. The white potatoes, which come from a variety of sources and are not always made from the same type of potato, were really flavorful but were a bit soft for my tastes.
I got there at about 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, a time where I expected to have my choice of seats. That was foolish of me. The Zingerman's name alone is enough to bring people in, but when the place gets accolades like Alton Brown declaring the mac & cheese to be the country's best comfort food, that doesn't help matters. Fortunately, some spots at the first-come, first-served counter opened up, giving me a great view of the bustling kitchen while I enjoyed a couple of great burgers, some excellent sides, and possibly the finest fried chicken that has ever crossed my lips.